Sunday, January 28, 2007

around the world in 2 weeks

I have been holding out on my blog for over a week and a half now, simply because I did not want to write anything else before recapping our amazing trip to Europe and the Middle East. I did begin a post about that subject, in Word so I wouldn’t lose it because I knew it would be long. But I have already written 3 pages, and I’m on day 3. So I left it for a while, realizing what a time-consuming project it was going to be. And in the meantime, specific memories of the trip are already leaking out of my brain and slipping out off of my earlobes.

So here is my solution: write a more concise recap of our travels, and realize that it may not matter to me ten years from now about how I didn’t sleep very well on the plane. I’m sure I’ll remember that anyway.

To begin with, we arrived in London on a cold Friday morning- a day earlier than expected because of the crazy crazy snow in Denver. My body and mind were so confused by the sheer exhaustion of traveling mixed with the overwhelming excitement and curiosity of being in this new place that I had imagined for so long. We went straight to the bus terminal to find the “Oxford Tube”, which got us to Oxford in a little over an hour. The ride itself didn’t hold too many sights, at least nothing more than green trees (green trees! I forgot they existed!) and strange European cars that I had never seen before. I like the Peugeots and the Smart Cars. And although I wish there were Smart Cars in the U.S., I can’t imagine what horrors would ensue when a collision between a Smart Car and an SUV inevitably happened.

When we got to Oxford, we walked about 1/10 of a mile to the guest house where we were staying, St. Michael’s (fitting, I guess). The middle-aged woman who owned it let us pick out which room we wanted, and we ended up in a room with twin beds and a small sink and television. Yup, we were a regular Lucy and Ricky. We spent our first half-day just taking in all of the architecture. Mike showed me several of the colleges and other favorite places of his, as he had spent 3 months there back in college. We went to the huge bookstore Blackwells, and a small café where I got a lunch consisting of a fried-egg and bacon sandwich and my first real English tea. The tea was of course the best ever, but that could have just been psychological. And for dinner we got “donner” meat at a kebab van, and ate it in the cold wind and drizzle, and it was gooood. Later in the evening we went to Mike’s favorite pub, The Lamb and the Flag, to look at a map of London over beer and soda water (the soda water was mine, of course). That night we were back at the guest house getting ready for bed by 7pm, and the shower I took, the first in like 36 hours, was THE BEST OF MY LIFE.

Our second day was pretty difficult for me. My body didn’t enjoy adjusting to the time difference and the crazy sleep schedule, nor did it like the smell of bacon and sausage frying first thing in the morning. But I tried to ignore it and got on a bus for London. Big mistake. Big. Huge. After a horrible bus ride, an hour or so of Mike waiting for me to wretch in a McDonalds bathroom in London, another hour of hiding out in a fancy hotel lounge where I napped on a couch to try and feel better, we were ready to see London!

Mostly we just walked around and saw sights like Hyde Park (hey! I lived near NEW Hyde Park on Long Island!), and Trafalgar Square- a day before the New Year’s Eve festivities, and Big Ben, and the London Eye at night. Then we headed back to Oxford, and I’m sure wandered around there a little bit for the evening, although I already forgot exactly what we did. At some point we ended up at another pub, The Eagle and Child, where C.S. Lewis and Tolkien used to hang out. I loved the atmosphere there- a nice old pub with lots of big wooden tables (like most there). One thing I do remember is watching a little bit of British TV each night, although half the time they’d be showing American movies like Kindergarten Cop or Man in the Iron Mask. At one point we watched a show where a bunch of people competed to see who knew the most TV trivia, or, who is the biggest couch potato. Not so sure I would have wanted that honor.

On Sunday, New Year’s Eve morning, we walked to the Orthodox Church in Oxford (where Bishop Kallistos Ware presides, for anyone who knows who that is). It is a nice, quaint little church, and it reminded me how much I love Orthodoxy for its constancy and feeling of coming home, no matter where you are. I struggled much more than I thought I would for the first few days of our trip, being in a different culture and being so far away from what I’ve always known. But I think the church helped resolve that for me, hearing those familiar liturgical words and being surrounded by icons. I can’t express how great that was.

By then I had given up on finding any British cuisine that I might like, so we went to Pizza Hut for lunch, saw some more of Oxford, and celebrated the ushering of another new year. We decided to go back to church for a New Year’s thanksgiving service, and on our way, stumbled upon an Anglican evensong service. So, although we had just intended to go pub-hopping that night, we ended up also church-hopping a little bit. There were only a few people at the Orthodox Church, and Bishop Kallistos said some very nice words, and it was the best way I can think of to start 2007. At midnight we were back at The Lamb and Flag, and inadvertently sat in the perfect spot to watch some fireworks outside the window.

On Monday, we left Oxford after breakfast with all of our things and headed back to London. We checked into a Holiday Inn, and I began a fresh onslaught of nagging to Mike to find out what my Christmas present was, a present he had promised me I would get while we were on our trip. But he made me wait until the afternoon to find out. So we walked along the Thames, and stopped by the Globe Theatre, which was probably one of my favorite sites in London. We crossed the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral, and wandered around for the afternoon. At some point we went back to the hotel for a break, and Mike finally gave in to my nagging. He “gave” me my present by handing me a map to Paris. Paris, the city I have dreamed about since I was little. The city with French people, who speak French, and eat delicious French food. I almost cried. Then I REALLY almost cried when I found out that we weren’t just flying in for the day on our way to Rome- we were staying for two…whole…nights. My husband is the most wonderful man alive. Oh yeah, and he had planned a dinner cruise there. On the Seine. Seriously, do you understand how close I came to peeing my pants?

Needless to say, I was a giddy little girl for the rest of our last day in London. We spent some time in Herrod’s, the famously big department store, which reminded me a lot of the Macy’s on 34th Street in New York. All I really remember now is their big counter full of cheese, and their other big counter full of chocolate- the two main food groups, in my humble opinion. It’s probably becoming clear now anyway, but food ranks very high on my list of important categories with which to rate a city, and Herrod’s probably rescued London for me. Final impressions of London: meh. It was nice, and I certainly would like to spend more time there, but I like NYC and (I was soon to find out) Paris more. London didn’t have the “character” that the other two have: it’s almost sterile-feeling. So, apparently I like dirty cities with good food. I’m odd like that.

On Tuesday morning we headed out early to catch our two-and-a-half hour train to Paris. The weariness of traveling was beginning to catch up with me, and I had a hard time keeping my eyes open for that ride. Luckily the view was mostly English and French countryside, albeit a beautiful countryside. When we arrived in Paris, we had some difficulty getting metro passes on the automated machine, and ended up having to ask the information desk for them. The woman we spoke to didn’t speak much English, and I was quickly put into the situation of having to use the leftover French I remember from high school. I managed to spit out the right words, and get us each a two-day pass. I know this is a small feat, but I really was excited to have actually communicated with someone in another language, one of my favorite languages even. There were many more experiences like that in the rest of our visit, and luckily I never embarrassed myself too badly.

So, we headed to the hotel and checked in, and then found a small restaurant for lunch. I ordered the first thing that my eyes caught on the menu, that’s how much faith I had in French food. And I was definitely not disappointed. I got this salad, with a spectacular dressing whose ingredients I don’t think I could ever guess, with pieces of bread that had 3 different chesses melted and crusted all over the top of them. I am not exaggerating when I say it was heaven on lettuce. With as much as I looked forward to French food, I can say that I completely underestimated it. Every single thing that I ate was magnificent.

That afternoon was very cold and dreary, but we walked around to see a few things and to find the dinner cruise that Mike had planned. And when I caught my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower from afar, near the Seine, I actually gasped. That’s how much of a nerd I am, and that’s how wonderful it was to see Paris. We began to realize after walking along the river and trying to ask someone for directions that it was going to be difficult to figure out where to go for the dinner cruise. So we began to give up on that idea and come up with other options. Then we walked over to the Eiffel Tower, took lots and lots of pictures, and walked around other sites from there. We ended up at Notre Dame after a while, and I decided later that it was my favorite church in the whole trip. It is gorgeous, and huge, but not gaudy or overdone. Sitting in there, I couldn’t help but think about Victor Hugo, and his Quasimodo. I joked later that I should have yelled “Sanctuary!!” while we were in there, but I think it would have only been funny to me and maybe two other people who had happened to see the Disney rendition of the classic novel. But seriously, to be in the city that Monsieur Hugo wrote about, where he created Jean Valjean and all of his other amazing characters, was quite the experience.

When we tried to find the metro stop near Notre Dame, we came upon a couple of adorable little streets, completely accidentally. They were cobblestone, and full of restaurant after restaurant, and creperies. Mike decided to stop for a crepe, and after we ordered one we watched a man pour batter onto this big round hot plate thing, and even it out with a little wooden utensil, then flip it over after only a minute or two, then add some nutella and fold it up. My Lord, that was one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted in my life.

That night, after discovering that a restaurant that we had found on the river was closed, we decided to go back to the area near Notre Dame, which is called the Left Bank. We walked by one restaurant where the owner was standing outside and talking to people as they walked by, trying to lure them in. He quickly found out that we were American, and convinced us in English to eat there. So we sat on the patio under a heat lamp and ate all kinds of delicious food and drank delicious red wine. I remember that I had a small piece of steak with Roquefort, and prawns with avocados, and mousse au chocolat. Mmmm….my mouth is watering now just thinking about it. This is almost embarrassing to admit, but after that we both got a crepe with nutella. Again. They were just so good, we wanted to have as many as we could while we were there.

The next day we went to breakfast at a little boulangerie. Yes, I am talking about food again. We both got pain au chocolat and a café. And after dumping some milk and a whole bunch of sugar in mine, I loved the café. We spent the day going to the Champs Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe, the Moulin Rouge, and then searching for a bookstore where Mike could get a French book for practicing with French translation. We sort of accidentally ran into the Sorbonne, and spent a few minutes hanging out there. That night we headed back to the Latin Quarter and found an equally delicious restaurant. I had some real French onion soup and loved that, and some roasted chicken. Dang, those Frenchies can cook.

We did stop at the Louvre, but never ended up going inside. I would love to go back at some point and just spend a week going there every day. People had told me it was a huge museum, but seriously, it’s huge.

On Thursday morning we said a sad goodbye to Paris and got on a train for Milan, then Rome. We spent the whole day on one train and then another, with a short stop in Milan. We arrived at our hotel, Villa Benedetta (a hotel for Catholic travelers), late in the evening. Rome was the main reason for the trip, as a friend of ours- Father Christophe, a Vatican diplomat- offered to put us up in this hotel if we wanted to visit. It was nice, and probably the biggest room we had had since starting the trip.

Our first attraction on Friday morning was the Colosseum, which was fairly close to our hotel. It was huge, of course, which is good since it’s called the Colosseum, and you don’t need to be going around advertising falsely. The best part was these “Roman soldiers” standing outside, waiting to take pictures with the tourists. They actually had breastplates with fake muscles on them. It’s good to know that Americans aren’t the only ones who will shamelessly exploit tourist sites to make a buck. Anyway, then we spent several hours in the Roman forum ruins, which were incredible to see. We headed over to the piazza where the Pantheon is, and found a restaurant off of the piazza where we got delicious margherita pizza and red wine for lunch, and also listened to the musical stylings of an adolescent accordion-player. We also went to the Basilica San Paolo, where Saint Paul’s tomb is. It was supposed to be made more available to viewers sometime recently, but we weren’t sure if it had been yet or not. All we could see was a small tunnel that leads to the tomb- I hope that’s not all that they’re doing. In any case, it was a beautiful church, and it was truly amazing to be in an area of the world where biblical history actually took place.

After St. Paul’s church we headed to the Vatican, and after going through security, went inside St. Peter’s Basilica. That place is massive, and overflowing with religious art and artifacts. I can’t say it was a place that I liked all that much. Mike said that some people have described it as a museum in itself, but I say let it be a church, and put the museum stuff in a museum. It just didn’t feel like a very humble place to me.

The next morning we went back to the Vatican because that day (January 6th) happened to be Epiphany, and Epiphany is a huge celebration in Rome. We got to St. Peter’s Square just as Mass was beginning, with the Pope presiding. The service was being broadcasted on jumbo screens outside, but we still got in the long line to go through security again and get inside. It was, of course, packed in there, and Mike stood in a mob with arm held high to get a few shots of the Pope. I couldn’t have seen anything unless I pushed myself to the front, and considering that I was in a church, that didn’t seem conducive to the whole Christian idea. So I stood on the side and did some people-watching, figuring that I could just look at pictures later.

Later that day we went to the Spanish Steps, but I don’t think that I could see any part of the actual steps underneath the throngs of people walking or sitting on them. And considering that we had spent a week already walking for hours and hours each day, I really didn’t care if I didn’t walk up what looked like about 1,000 stairs. So we went on our way, seeing more sites, and having gelato (which, by the way, is good, but it’s no crepe with nutella). That night we found an Epiphany festival, which was full of food, games, families, and even a belligerent drunk guy. They also have this tradition about a witch named Befana, who brings candy to the children on Epiphany if they are good. They had Befana dolls at the festival with glowing red eyes, and I was more than a little mystified by the entire thing.

On Sunday morning we decided to take a commuter train to Lido, an area on the coast of the Mediterranean, about 45 minutes from Rome. We wandered around and realized that the town either doesn’t really exist when it’s not the summer, or they just completely shut down on Sundays. We finally found a little bit of life in one neighborhood, and had lunch at the one and only restaurant that was open, then headed back to Rome. We spent a leisurely last afternoon and evening checking out some more ruins, and a 4th century church, and some souvenir shops. On our way back to the hotel we got ourselves pizza, and ate it while walking back to the Colosseum where our metro stop was, and decided that there was no better way to spend our last night in Rome.

On Monday morning we headed to the airport via commuter train, and flew to Frankfurt, then Dubai, then Abu Dhabi, to see Mike’s parents. This last leg of our trip was an entirely different culture and group of people, and I think was the perfect way to end our trip. We didn’t actually get to the hotel where Mike’s parents live until about 1:30 on Tuesday morning, but we were so glad to set our stuff down in a suite that was bigger than our house in Laramie. We had a king-sized bed, a kitchen with a fridge and microwave and dishwasher and wash machine, and a bathroom that you could probably play basketball in. And a huge TV with lots and lots of channels. So, we got a good night’s sleep, and in the morning had fresh juice (so fresh that it’s almost like a smoothie with no ice added) and Lebanese foods like zahtar and lahm bajine (no idea how to spell that in English letters- but I promise it’s good stuff).

That day Mike’s parents took us to Dubai, a bustling city that was barely anything 30 years ago. We went to a shopping area that models the ancient Arab souks, with all kinds of souvenir-type gifts, and rugs, and clothing, and even a Cinnabon. Then we had lunch at the hotel that is shaped like a sailboat, the Burj Al Arab. Wow, I never ever expected to eat anywhere that fancy in my entire life. Rooms at this hotel go for at least $3,000 a night. Guests can borrow a car from the hotel- and I mean a Bentley or a Maserati, not a Ford Focus. We ate at the seafood restaurant, which is under the water, and houses a massive aquarium. It was absolutely some of the best seafood I have ever tasted. Once we rolled ourselves out of there, stuffed with lobster and prawns and scallops and sea bass, we walked around on the beach a little bit (something Mike and I both missed terribly), and then went to Starbucks to meet up with Mike’s cousin and his cousin’s fiancée.

That night, although none of us had entirely recovered from the huge lunch we had, we went to a Lebanese restaurant in Abu Dhabi. It was quiet at first, and we sat and munched on basic Lebanese foods like, hummus, falafel, sambousik, etc. But, as the night went on (after we had ordered some sheesha), more people began to show up, and a guy got ready to play music in the front of the restaurant. Then a belly dancer came out and danced for like an hour, and Mike’s dad sat and chatted to a man sitting at the table next to us, whom Mike and I later found out was a sheikh, a nephew of the royal family, and the head of the national bank. It was the quintessential Lebanese experience, and the weather was perfect, and the entire evening was perfect.

The next morning we stopped by a smaller Lebanese establishment for fresh juice, then went shopping for souvenirs, and a CD of Arab pop music for me. We met Mike’s dad for lunch, and sat outside in the gorgeous mid-60’s weather (although many people who live there pointed out how it’s never that cold). After that we walked to a nearby mall, which I can only compare to Cherry Creek on steroids. First of all, it was huge, and second, I couldn’t have afforded to buy anything in that place. But we did do a little more shopping in a place that Mike calls the French version of Walmart, Carrefour. And their produce section puts anything I’ve seen in the U.S. to shame. There was an entire area of sacks full of spices and dried fruits, some of which I had never even heard of. If you ever have a chance to try candy chick peas, I know it sounds weird, but eat them. You will definitely like them.

That night we ate at the smaller Lebanese restaurant and had shawarma, which is chicken or beef from a spit, similar to Greek gyro meat. Our flight left Abu Dhabi at 1:10 in the morning, so not too long after dinner we headed to the airport. And although we ran into problems with a flight being cancelled from Frankfurt to London because of wind, our itinerary only improved because we got a direct flight from Frankfurt to Denver. That flight was alright, aside from Coughy McHackerson sitting behind us, who didn’t stop for more than 30 seconds for the entire 10 hour flight. We got two movies, the first being The Illusionist, which was alright. The second was Flicka, and all I can say is that I must have been bored to have watched that whole thing all the way through. Bless Tim McGraw and his attempt at acting. I tried to tell someone here in Laramie about how disappointed I was with having a horse movie on our flight, but when her face lit up at the title, I realized that she wasn’t going to sympathize with me.

All in all, I’d say it was a wonderful way to begin what I hope will be a lifetime of traveling. So much for trying to make this short, but if you’ve made it this far, congratulations.

Now back to our regularly scheduled blogging.

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