Saturday, December 22, 2012

Until We Meet Again

My first few weeks in Oxford four months ago were spent exploring and acquainting myself with this amazing city. My final weeks were spent much differently. They were filled with lasts.

Last milkshake from Shakespeares's, Caitlin and I's favorite Oxford haunt.
Last spree in Poundland buying Maoams and Tangfastics and Cadbury mallow cookies.
Last meal prepared for the flat per our weekly schedule.
Last chance to hang out with our good friend Beth; tear filled goodbyes.
Last lecture, last seminar, last coursework, last exam.
Last meal at the White Horse, a pub right down the road.
Last chance to experience the simple joy of riding at very front of the bus.
Last trip to Angel and Greyhound, with its cozy atmosphere and winter cider.
Last Primark shopping spree, wishing I could buy everything in the clothing store.
Last chance to walk around the Covered Market and get a Ben's Cookie on the way out.
Last tea time at the adorable Vault and Gardens
Last trek to Mac Simple, though I can't say I'll miss those.
Last ride on my beloved trains, whizzing through the English countryside.
Last time riding the blue double decker U1 through the city centre.
Last trip to Mr. Simm's Sweet Shoppe, now called Hardy's--a change that seemingly happen overnight.
Last opportunity to walk down High Street, in awe of the beautiful, amazing and historical buildings that make up this wonderful city.
And most importantly, last chance to wake up in Oxford, wander the city and call it my home.

I never expected to fall in love with a city the way I have Oxford. But from the moment I got here I knew this was the place to be. Knew Study Abroad was right, knew England was right, knew Oxford was right.

I've gotten used to being in this breathtaking city and I think I'd begun to take it for granted. But at the same time I sometimes find myself questioning whether this is real life. Or is it just an elaborate dream? Because my time in Oxford has exceeded expectations. One day recently I woke up and it hit me. My time here was never umlimited and now it's coming to an end. When you first arrive, four months seems so long. But then you plan trips, meet people and explore the country and all of a sudden it's December and you're saying goodbye and packing up your room. In a reent email from Peter, our OBU faculty liaison, he wrote that soon this will all be in the past, it will just be a memory. I think of these terribly true words every time I take the bus into the city. Soon this will be a memory. And what an amazing memory it shall be.

So, see you later Oxford. I refuse to say goodbye because I know that someway, somehow I'll find my way back here. Some day.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Barcelona Birthday

I didn't know much about Barcelona before we went and although I was excited to go, I wasn't that excited because, well, I didn't know what to be excited about.

Turns out, there was a lot of be excited about. And that's what made it an even more wonderful trip. I didn't have any expectations, so every awesome thing that happened just made the trip better and better.

For starters, it was warm in Barcelona. Well, not that warm, but definitely warmer than the frigid temperatures we've been experiencing in England. I hadn't thought of this when we planned when to go where, although apparently Austy had, but December was the perfect time to go to Barcelona because, let's be real, we all needed a little bit of sunshine and a break from the freezing cold. It was in the high 50s both days we were there, which felt like Spring to us because of the cold weather we'd become accustomed to. So we were walking around in our blazers while the Barcelona natives (who obviously view this weather as cold) were bundled up in winter jackets and hats, gloves and scarves. Perspective, huh?

When we got off the RENFE train we'd taken to the airport, and stepped into the night air, we instincitvely brought our arms close to our bodies and stuck our hands in our pockets. But then we realized that this wasn't really necessary. Barcelona's evening temperature was quite possibly warmer than Oxford's day temperature. Because it was a pleasant night the fact that we had to wander around the area surrounding the Passeig de Gracia metro and RENFE stop looking for our hostel didn't seem as bad as it would've been had it been 20 degrees colder.

Austy had actually written down how to get to the Hipstel from the station, but because there are so many different exits spanning two blocks, we had no idea where we'd come up, and consequently where to go. And it doesn't help that the streets are barely even labeled, save tiny signs high up on buildings, usually blocked by trees. So, we knew that Carrer Valencia was a cross street with Passeig de Gracia near Carrer Arago. But here's the problem, we couldn't really find Carrer Arago and once we did find it we didn't know which way on Passeig de Gracia to go. And to add to that, unlike other cities like London, Oxford and Paris, there aren't any pedestrian maps lurking about the streets of Barcelona. You might know the ones I'm talking about--they tell you what is in the immediate vicinity and in what direction you should go. Nope, none of those in Barcelona. So even if you have a map and you know where you need to go, there is no telling which way you need to go. So, we chose to go left on Passeig de Gracia and went a few blocks until we decided that we would have seen Carrer Valencia by now so we turned around. Turned out that it was just one block past Arago in the direction we didn't go. Oh well, at least it wasn't freezing cold.

We got checked into our hostel--the Hipstel, which is punny and everything but I feel like it makes a little more sense to us Americans that understand what a Hipster is--and headed up to our room. The first night it was a full room, filled with five Canadian girls--three studying in Florence, one American girl studying in Galway, Ireland and a German boy. Libby was supposed to come with us to Barcelona but unfortunately wasn't able to come because she was sick and we're pretty sure the German boy took her bed. I had to resist texting Libby "There's a half naked German boy sleeping in your bed." We spend the evening getting to know Audrey, the American girl and then went to sleep in preparation for a great--and warm--day.

So, yeah, our plans for Barcelona revolved around the want to spend some time outside. And we couldn't ask for two more beautiful days to spend walking around Barcelona. The first day we went on a Gaudi walking tour. Antoni Gaudi is a very famous Catalan architect whose style was very groundbreaking during his time--and still is, really. We started at Casa Batllo and a few other modernist houses that are around it.

Dragon Representation
Our tour guide Andrea told us about a common theme in Catalan architecture: the legend of St George and the Dragon. Also the patron saint of England, St George is the patron saint of Barcelona because it is a Catalan legend. Legend says that St. George slayed a dragon to save his love from getting eaten by said dragon and after the dragon had died, a rose sprouted out from the dragon's blood. This legend is frequently incorporated into architecture by including a bas relief of a man fighting a dragon. Gaudi, always an original, incorporated it in in a very modernist way. The top of the house has ridges as if a dragon's spine, and one of the balconies is shaped like a rose. All together, a cool way to incorporate it in, and really cool house. I can imagine just how revolutionary this house was when it was built in 1904. I mean, just look at it.

We also saw Casa Mila, which was interesting looking, but not as radical looking as Casa Batllo. First of all, their aren't any straight walls, which is revolutionary. What I found cool is that there are statues on the rooftop that George Lucas apparently used as inspiration for the Stormtroopers in Star Wars. Our final stop on the Gaudi tour was La Sagrada Familia, his most famous project. It is a catholic church in Barcelona, which actually isn't even complete yet. Unfortunately Gaudi died in the middle of the project, leaving the church uncompleted. Because Spain is secular state, the government won't give any money to the completion of the church, so they are relying on donations and admission to the church to pay for the building of the church. So they raise money for a few years, then build for a few years and subsequently run out of money, raise money for a few more years, build again... and the cycle continues. It is suggested that the church will be complete by 2025 or 2030, 180 years after it was started in 1882. Gaudi made it clear while building that every decision that was made regarding the church should consider its purpose: as a place to worship the Lord. He was insistent that nobody think otherwise of the project's purpose. Because of this, it is a bummer that because it isn't complete and they need to raise money, there are very rarely any church services held in the main nave of the church. They are instead held in the crypt (more on that later) which is beautiful in its own right, but Gaudi designed the stain glass of the actual church to enhance the worship experience, but there unfortuantely isn't any worshipping occurring there. I wasn't a huge fan of the church from the outside (I thought it looked like a dribble sand castle), but I'm told it's amazing on the inside.

Keeping with our Gaudi theme, after our tour was over we went to Parc Guell, a park designed by Antoni Gaudi. It was quite a hike up a hill to get there, but it was worth. The sun was shining, we got a beautiful view of Barcelona and in that moment I was just purely happy. And I have to say, for some reason I wasn't expecting there to be so many palm trees. I'm not sure why, but I was actually quite surprised by them. After the park, we got some lunch and the one thing I really remember about our life is when our waiter asked us where we were from and when we said America, he relied "okie doke." Because I say this all the time, I found it quite hilarious.

Because it was such a beautiful day, we also decided to go up Montjuic, one of the tallest mountains in Barcelona. There is the option to take a hanging cable car to the top, but we were not about to spend money on that, so we decided to walk. I read about a way to walk through a park to get there, so we walked through the park to the top enjoying the sites of Barcelona as we got higher and higher. I was afraid the walk was going to be terrible and everyone would hate me for forcing them to walk all the way to the top because why would they have a cable car if it was an easy walk? But it wasn't too bad and the things we saw on the walk made it well worth it. When we finally got to the top, we looked around the Castell de Montjuic which is much more of a fort than a castle, but still cool to see. And like I said, the views were breathtaking. We were even able to spot Sagrada Familia!
That evening for dinner, we walked around looking for a place to eat and just couldn't seem to decide. We came upon a restaurant called Pomodoro which looked reasonably priced and when we went up and were seated it was essentially deserted. It's a massive restaurant and there was only one other group eating there. We had waited until 8pm so we didn't think it was because people weren't eating yet, but it had to be, because about an hour later people did start showing up (dinner time is between 9pm and 11pm in Spain). It was actually a really delicious meal (we all had Risotto), but the beginning was a bit awkward due to the lack of people in the restaurant.

The next day was a special day (to me at least) because it was my 20th birthday!  I cannot imagine a better way to spend my birthday than in Barcelona with my best friends (though it would have been much better had Libby been there). We started the day with a tour of the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. Unlike Eixamaple, where our hostel is, and its geometrically symmetrical streets, the Gothic Quarter is a mess of streets--some suitable for cars, some just for working) that would be impossible to navigate without a tour guide, so we were glad that we'd decided to explore the Gothic Quarter on a guided tour. We saw typical Barcelona neighborhoods the Barcelona Cathedral (whose cathedral close had palm trees inside it, which I thought was pretty much awesome, and the church Santa Maria del Mar among other things.

On the tour we also learned about some current tension between Catalonia (of which Barcelona is a part) and the rest of Spain. The Spanish government declared that in Catalonia the languages that should be learned by children, ranked in order of importance should be: Spanish, English, Catalan. As you can imagine, the Catalonian people are none too pleased about that. Catalan is one of the official languages of Catalonia, so the idea of cutting it out of schools is obviously upsetting to many. Because of this, and for other reasons,  there are people who want Catalonia to split from Spain. Your opinion on this  topic can be expressed through flags.The plain red and yellow striped flag is the Catalan flag (La Senyera) whereas the red and yellow striped flag with the blue trinagle and white star is the Catalan independence flag. Those flying this flag wish for Catalan to become an independent state. As we walked around Barcelona, we saw a lot of these flags. And it seems like once one person hung up a flag, everyone around them felt the need to chime in their opinion as well. It made much more sense once we understood what the meant.

After the tour, we managed to (amazingly) find our way to our next destination: Museo de Xocolata. After we'd paid our ticket was handed to us, and I couldn't help but smile. Our ticket was a chocolate bar. Gotta love chocolate museums. This chocolate museum was a cross between a culinary lesson on how chocolate is made, a history lesson on how chocolate came to Spain, and a art display of amazing sculptures of chocolate. I already knew how chocolate was made due to many trips to Chocolate World at Hersheypark, so I skipped to the history. This was interesting because we'd just been to Cadbury world where we'd learned about how chocolate came to England (via the Spanish) but we didn't get much in-depth information about how it go to Spain at the exhibition in England. Barcelona was actually the first place in Spain chocolate reached, since it is a coastal city with an important port, which made the Museo de Xocolata a fitting museum for Barcelona. There were a number of fun sculptures made of chocolate including Tintin, Up and important Barcelona landmarks like Parc Guell, Arc de Triomf and La Sagrada Familia.

After the Museo de Xocolata we made our way down to the beach. It was still a beautiful sunny day, so we got takeout and ate on a bench overlooking the beach and ocean. As I sat there eating my lunch, I couldn't help but laugh at the wonderful absurdity of the situation. I was eating Chinese food... in Spain...on a December...outside.  It was then that I knew that this was the weirdest most wonderful birthday ever.We walked in the sand a bit and just enjoyed the ocean breeze and atmosphere. Its amazing the vast amount of beautiful areas that make up Barcelona. Nearly everywhere we went I couldn't believe it could get prettier. And then it did.

One thing I learned on this trip is a pretty important lesson. If you ask someone a question in Spanish, they will answer you in Spanish. I know this sounds pretty much rudamentary and a bit "duh-doy" it didn't entirely click until it happened to me. I mean, picture this: I need to use the toilet and there's a public restroom at Barceloneta Beach. It says it's .50€ and that's okay because I really gotta go. What I don't know is if I need to pay at the desk, or if there will be a turnstile to insert my money into like they have at most train and bus stations.  So I walk in, and using my 10th grade Spanish skills, say to the man "Hola! Necesito usar el bano, por favor." I'm pretty proud of myself, even though this is the easier sentence ever. But then he replies to me. In Spanish. Uh, oh. Just because I can string together some words to speak Spanish does not mean I can understand it when its being spoken to me in rapid tongue. He luckily saw the confusion on my face and explained, in English, that I should pay him at the desk. I mean, I knew that they'd respond to me in Spanish, but my brain hadn't gotten far enough to realize that while I can speak basic Spanish, I can't really hold a conversation.

After walking around the beach and Port Olimpico we headed back to our hostel to rest up before our final stop of the day.

I knew that I wanted to go out for dessert that night, because it is my birthday after all. But because it was Sunday, and we wouldn't be able to have dessert until 9 or so, as I researched places, it didn't seem as though it would be possible. There just didn't seem to be much open. Many restaurants don't even open for dinner on Sundays (which is why we decided to have a large late lunch instead). But I did find a few ice cream places that would be open, and we planned to stop there after mass at La Sagrada Familia.

As I said before, mass at La Sagrada Familia is held in the crypt (consequently also where Antoni Gaudi is buried. We chose to go to the Spanish mass seeing as we know some Spanish (Austy more than Caitlin and I) and none of us know Catalan. When we got there, it was really crowded, which I wasn't expecting at all. We got a seat on a bench that had one other person sitting on it, and it seemed like there would be enough room. That is, until the man's wife joined him. Because of this, we were really cramped and Austy was pretty much falling off. Now, there weren't any programs, and I've already established that I don't know very much Spanish, so most of the mass was a blur of confusing phrases (Austy apparently was having more luck following along). I did pick up on the fact that they call the Lord Senor, which kind of made me giggle. Anyway, what really confused me about the service was that it seemed to be contemporary. I was expecting a service at such an important cathedral to be stiff and traditonal but lo and behold there was a drum kit, and a singer at a microphone and a bass guitar. At one point, a man came up to the pulpit, brought his acoustic guitar and we all sang a little song (I think a prayer, maybe Psalms) together. This was definitely a good decision! (We go to church in every country we visit--somewhere along the way, it became our thing.)This was certainly the best, strangest and most random church service I've ever been to. And it was wonderful.

After mass let out, we got ice cream and I got Coco y Xocolato con Pistachio which consisted of coconut ice cream with a chocolate swirl and pistachios mixed in. It basically tasted like a Samoa. And I love Girl Scout cookies. So it was pretty much awesome.

So yeah, pretty much the most amazing birthday ever. We didn't experience any rain (the first time this has happened on any of our trips) and I can to spend time in one of the most beautiful and interesting places I've ever been. Happy birthday indeed.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Happy Christmas and Other Holiday Traditions

Christmas is absolutely my favorite time of year. I listen to Christmas music 24/7 during the Christmas season and all of the holiday spirit puts me in a perpetual mood of happiness. And so, it has been absolutely amazing to be able to experience my favorite holiday in my new favorite city--Oxford!

Happy Christmas. I have to say, I'm a little bit bummed at the lack of Happy Christmases being thrown about here in England. I just love the idea of saying Happy Christmas and I was excited to hear people say it. And people do, but not exclusively which kinda bummed me out. They still say Merry Christmas quite often and it is the primary greeting emblazoned on posters and shop windows. And all I wanted was Christmas cards that say Happy Christmas, but they all say Merry Christmas! What's up with that?

Christmas Crackers. A really exciting Christmas tradition that we've been able to partake in is Christmas Crackers. They are a cardboard tube wrapped in colorful wrapping that, using some sort of friction strip which causes it to make a cracking noise when you and a friend each pull on one end of the cracker. Inside each Christmas Cracker there is always a Christmas hat, which is a film or paper crown and some sort of prize. Really expensive Christmas Crackers could have something as big as dominos inside, but the ones we purchased were 8 for a pound, so ours just had stickers and a joke. But it was still a lot of fun. I wish we were allowed to take them on the plane, because I'd like to take some home to my family, but because some are made with a chemical used in gunpowder, they are a risk and aren't allowed.

 Book Your Party Now! The second day I was here (in September, mind you!) I saw a flier in a pub advertising the pub's Christmas party. Every pub in town has signs that say "Book your Christmas party today!" and it started months before Christmas. I wasn't even thinking about Christmas yet, and that's saying something. Having your office Christmas party or just a gathering of friends at the local pub seems to be a big thing here in England, which isn't all that prevalent in the US. And it seems as though it is much more of a thing to go out for Christmas dinner in the UK.

It's Never Too Early to Start the Christmas Festivities. With no pesky Thanksgiving standing in their way of kicking off the Christmas season, they start real early here. Seriously, I'm pretty sure there were Christmas lights hanging up in Oxford by the first weekend in November. They weren't all turned on yet, but they'd been hung up. Book Your Christmas Party Now had even more prominent spots on the pub counters. And as expected as soon as Halloween had passed every store had Christmas stock and decorations as that was the next logical holiday and Christmas music began being played everywhere. As someone who doesn't subscribe to the No Christmas Before Thanksgiving rule, I was pretty pleased.

Christmas Markets. Though not as common as in Germany, Christmas Markets are a really big deal in Europe. Nearly every major city will have at least a few Christmas Markets (there were 4 when we were in Paris at the beginning of December and there are some in London as well) as do smaller cities as well such as Birmingham and Winchester. These are filled with delicious food, Christmas music and trinkets and nick-nacks. I'm not all that fond of them, but perhaps because I haven't gone to the right ones.

A Catalan Christmas. Please excuse the profanity in this section. It's necessary to explain the strange Catalan traditions as they were explained to me. When we were in Barcelona, which is in the Catalonia section of Spain, we learned about a few of their... stranger Christmas traditions. This adorable little guy is called Tio de Nadal, but is more affectionately and popularly called Cagatio.This, in Catalan, means Shitting Log or Uncle Shit. I really wish I was kidding. Now, why would they call this adorable little guy Shitting Log? Easy, because he poops out your presents on Christmas day. I really really wish I was kidding. Let me explain, although the explanation won't really make anything clearer, I'm afraid. The Cagatio tradition begins on December 8th at the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. Everyday, children feed Cagatio orange peels and other snacks and cover with him a blanket so he won't get cold. At the month progresses, the parents replace him with larger and larger logs in order to give the impression that he is  growing. These children are feeding him and he's growing and they don't want him to get cold. Sweet right? Wrong. On Christmas Day (or Christmas Eve) the children really want their presents (as children do) so traditions goes that you must beat him with a stick in order to get him to poop your presents. Let me say that again. They beat him to get presents. I really really really wish I was kidding. When we were in Barcelona we say a giant Cagatio and there were droves of parents and children standing in line to beat Cagatio with a stick. Who wants to sit on Santa's lap and tell him what you want for Christmas when you can beat it out of an adorable little log you've been taking care of for the past few weeks.
To illustrate this further, here is an adorable little song they sing while beating the log:

"Caga tió,
caga torró,
avellanes i mató,
si no cagues bé
et daré un cop de bastó.
caga tió!"
 which translates to:
Shit log,
shit nougats (turrón),
hazelnuts and cottage cheese,
if you don't shit well,
I'll hit you with a stick,
shit log!

That's a great lesson to teach our children. If at first you don't get what you want, just beat it a little more and it'll all work out. After the Cagatio is finished delivering their Christmas presents, it apparently poops a salted herring or it urinates a little. Do not even ask how that is accomplished.  All in all, this is not a tradition I'll be adopting. This picture sums up my thought of the Cagatio tradition perfectly.

And I wish this was the end of their strange Christmas traditions. It's not. There's also the Caganer. Did you recognize the first root word in that noun. Yep, its caga. A caganer is also called a "shitter" and it goes in the Nativity scene. Yep, you heard that right. It's traditionally hidden somewhere in the back of the Nativity scene and is a bit of a game for children to find. This is just one example of a caganer. You can find them of basically any person or character: footballers, celebrities, Spongebob, the Queen, Barack Obama, the possibilities are virtually endless. I've been  told that sometimes they have the wise men as Caganers, but never the Virgin Mary, because that'd be blasphemous. As if the entire tradition isn't? But I might be a little biased considering how much I hate potty humor. 

Something tells me that as much as I love Barcelona, it would probably not be the place for me to celebrate Christmas.

I'll Be Home for Christmas. I am quite excited to go home for Christmas and to see all of my family. As interesting as all of these traditions are, I really can't wait to go home and enjoy our Christmas tree, go to evening church with my parents and have a family dinner. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Oxford of Lewis and Hathaway

A few months ago, I was inspired to finally watch the television show Inspector Lewis. Why was I inspired to watch this random mystery show? Because it takes place in Oxford of course! It is a sequel series to the television show Inspector Morse, based on a series of books by Colin Dexter. I'd been hearing about Inspector Morse since before I came to Oxford, but knowing that it was an older tv show, I was especially interesting in watching it. Then I discovered that there was a recent sequel series and I knew I had to watch it. Seeing Laurence Fox (who plays Inspector Lewis's Sergeant Hathaway--who never smiles, by the way) in Our Boys just cemented by need to finally watch it.

And I have to say its been a lot of fun! Not only are the episodes entertaining, well thought out and quite long (an hour and a half each, allowing them to really delve into the mystery) but seeing them casually walking around Oxford is awesome too. When I first started watching Lewis I would get excited every time they went somewhere I'd been or see. I even started to make a list:

  • High Street
  • All Soul's College
  • Magdalen College
  • Radcliffe Camera and Square
  • Turf Tavern
  • Eagle and Child Pub
  • Radisson Hotel
  • Oxford Castle
  • Blenheim Palace
  • Bodleian Library
  • Covered Market
  • Ashmolean Museum
  • Oxford Rail Station
And really, this is just the places that I either wrote down or happen to remember. I'm sure there are more still that I missed or visited after I watched the episode they were featured in. 

If you're interested in seeing the beautiful city that I've spent the last few months living in, and you like a good mystery, I would recommend checking out Inspector Lewis (it's available on Netflix).

Side note: on Halloween they were filming a made for tv movie called Endeavor as a prequel to Inspector Morse and we were able to walk through the set, which was pretty cool. I'll have to check that out as well. 

It's a lot of fun to see a television show shot in areas that you just walk around when buying groceries, and I know that watching Lewis will be a great way to remember all the great times I had in Oxford. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

How to do Paris on a Budget

Months ago, at the beginning of the European adventure, I didn't think I'd end up making it to Paris. Eurostar tickets were so expensive, as were plane tickets, and I knew that everything actually in Paris would be expensive as well. It didn't seem to be in the cards.

But then I thought about how much my parents and co-workers would kill me if I didn't get to Paris. And I knew that it would let myself down as well. As much as I had doubts in Paris (some have called it a European New York City, and I'm not the Big Apple's biggest fan) I knew that it was place you just have to go. You haven't seen Europe until you've seen Paris. So I was determined to find a way.

After a few Google searches, I found that Megabus UK runs buses to Paris. I know what you're thinking: "I bus from England to Paris? You do know there's a body of water in the way, right? Are you crazy?!" For a while there, I thought I was crazy for considering it. But here's the kicker. The bus from London to Paris only costs £5. How can you say no to five pounds? So I told Libby about, and she was in for this crazy little adventure I'd decided we were taking. By the end of the night we were booked for the overnight Megabus on Saturday December 1st, getting in early Sunday morning, and the overnight bus back on Monday night. When you forget that it involves a nine hour bus ride, it really is the perfect situation. We got two full days in Paris, and only had to pay for accommodation  for one night. We sure know how to do Paris on a budget.

So on Saturday night, we boarded a bus to London to catch our Megabus. When we checked in, we received our seat number which wished us a comfortable journey. Right, Megabus. Who are you kidding? We're not in for a comfortable night. While waiting in line, the girl behind me got my attention. "Do you got to High Point University?" she asked. After a moment of confusion I realized I was wearing my HPU yoga pants. When I answered affirmatively, she explained that her best friend went to High Point, and much to my surprise I actually knew our common acquaintance. It's amazing what a small world this is. As we spoken with Erin and Saya, we found that they were studying in Oxford as well (at the Oxford) and actually lived right down the road from our dorm. We couldn't get over how similar our situations were--they were even taking hte same bus back on Monday.

We were soon on the bus and on our way to Paris! We drove for a few hours until we reached Dover where we had to get off the bus to clear Customs since we were the country. We then had to wait over an hour for the ferry we were taking to Calais. Once on the ferry, we all had to get off the bus. At 2 in the morning. Kill me now. It ended up working out because I was able to get to sleep on the ferry (I'm not great at sleeping in automobiles) and once we'd gotten back on the bus I was already half asleep so I was able to prolong it until we got to Paris. That's not to say it was a restful sleep by any means. I woke up more times than I can count, but I did get some sleep, which was a relief  One of my main worries was that I was going to be walking around Paris all day without any sleep.

So we pulled into Paris at 7am and it was still dark. And freezing cold. We walked to the Metro station, only to find that it was closed. We had a five minute panic session in which we didn't know how we were going to get into the center of Paris if the Metro didn't open for another three hours and then we realized that there was a RER station nearby that was open. We boarded the double-decker train and since our car was empty Libby and I changed out of the clothes we'd been wearing all night. It actually worked out quite well, cause I don't know where else we would have changed.

Still dark when we got off the train, we walked to Notre Dame for the 8:30am Mass. I couldn't rightly say what the message was about, because I don't speak French and I didn't understand most of the service because I'm not Catholic, but it was really cool to worship in such a beautiful and famous church. When we exited Notre Dame the sun had finally come up which was a welcome sight.

 We then went in search of some breakfast. We got crepes and just killed time until our free walking tour started at 11. We wandered around, freezing our toes off and observed an interesting development at the Place Sant Michel fountain. At first I just thought it was a weird fountain because the water that was coming out of it was red. Once I noticed all of the cops wandering about, I realized that perhaps the water wasn't supposed to be red. Apparently someone dyed it red because it was the anniversary of Napolean's coronation, and there was so much blood during his reign. Well I'll tell you one thing--it worked, the water totally looked like blood and was actually quite creepy.

It was finally time for our free tour (tip for anyway travelling in Europe: always look to see if Sandeman's New Europe Tours have a free tour in the city you're travelling to and they are fantastic) and we saw a lot of the Paris sites and got to hear about both the historical aspects and the cultural intricacies. At one point on the tour our tour guide Lauren was telling us about the different scams gypsies try to pull on you in Paris and she suddenly said "Oh look look. See this woman here, she is what you call a ring dropper. First she's going to walk towards that man and--oops she's dropped her ring..." she then preceded to narrate the entire scam. The woman picks up the ring and says to the man "This is your lucky day. I think this ring is yours. It would look great on you, you should give it to your girlfriend etc... trying to get him to take it. Flustered, the man took the ring and began walking away. Suddenly Lauren called to him "Drop the ring. Seriously, just put it down." He looked at her confused. "It's a scam, she's trying to scam you," Lauren replied. He put it down and hurried off. Apparently the game is that after the person walks away with the ring, the woman starts screaming "Thief, thief  he stole my ring!" and then makes the man pay for it. The woman was really pissed and started flipping off our tour guide and cursing at her in French. It certainly was... interesting. And frankly, pretty entertaining.

It was a great tour. We took pictures of Love Lock's Bridge, learned that in French iPod is a masculine noun, saw the Louvre pyramids and just took in Paris. Although it was absolutely freezing out, it was extremely sunny, so at least we got some beautiful photos. Always look on the bright side of life.
After our walking tour we went to the Musee d'Orsay because admission is free the first Sunday of hte month and we got to see tons and tons of Impressionist paintings. The Art History student in me was hard core geeking out. There's nothing better than some Monet and Renoir. It was absolutely amazing. I mean, to have so many masterpieces on one floor of a museum and to be able to see them all for free... speechless.

Once we left the Orsay, we made our way to our hostel, freezing and exhausted. We got ourselves settled and just decided to have dinner at the hostel since it was so cold outside. Libby and I both had Croque Monsieur which was delicious. And as we ate we saw someone we knew and when we got to our dorm room who did we find but Sam and his Awkward Friend, two guys we met on the bus to Paris. It was just crazy we ended up in the same hostel and the same dormitory no less. Crazy coincidences.

The next morning we had breakfast at our hostel before heading out. At every hostel breakfast we've had, there is always toast and jam. In typical French fashion, instead of toast they had baguettes and instead of jam they had a Nutella-like spread. It was pretty much awesome. And the spread tasted exactly the inside of a Kinder Bueno so I'd say my day was off to a pretty great start.

We started Paris day 2 at the Sacre Couer in the district of Montemarte. It was rainy, but not as cold as the day before so an entirely different type of day in Paris. We climbed up the many steps to get to the top if the hill and go in the Sacre Couer and even though it was really overcast, it was really cool seeing Paris from this vantage point. And the Sacre Couer is really beautiful. I actually like it better than Notre Dame because it is different and original. It certainly doesn't look like any other church we've visited on our European adventure.  While at Sacre Couer we did encounter some gypsies trying to pull the bracelet scam on us. Basically what they do is offer you a bracelet (basically just a string) and then once they've put it on our wrist, refuse to let you go until you pay them money. Luckily Caitlin had warned us before we went, so we knew to just ignore them.

After that we were off to the Tour Eiffel. Because I didn't know if I'd ever be back in Paris, we wanted to go up the Eiffel Tower--all the way to the top. It's just one of those things you just have to do while in Paris. We had blocked about three hours for Tour Eiffel because we've heard about the horrendously long lines. Much to our surprise we only had to wait in line for five minutes to get our tickets, and another five to go up the lift. This was most certainly because it was a low visibility day, but I think it was still worth it to go up. Yeah, we would've gotten better views if it had been sunny, and it probably would have been a lot prettier but its not neccesarily about the views for me, but rather the ability to check Eiffel Tower off my travel bucket list. Would I do it again? No, probably not, 12 euros is a lot of money to a student, but it was definitely worth it to do it once. What I love so much about the Eiffel Tower is that when it was built, Paris just wanted to have the tallest structure in the world so they let Gustave Eiffel do whatever he liked, knowing that it would just be torn down in 10 years. Little did they know that it would become the icon for Paris. If you see the Eiffel Tower, you just know it's Paris. No need for word or description.

We obviously finished the Tour Eiffel way faster than we thought, so we took some pictures of the Eiffel Tower from a little further away and made our way to to the Metro station. We were approached by another type of scammer we'd heard about. Where people have a clipboard (though really just a cereal box) with a sheet of paper on it that is a petition in honor of some noble cause like the blind or deaf. They try to get you to sign it and then the paper actually says that you owe them a certain amount of money. We'd heard about them and had been approached by them once or twice but this situation was different. They approached us and asked us if we spoke English. We replied "non" in our best French accent and were on our way. This happened three or four times and I'm entirely sure what they were playing at.

We were off to Champ Elysees to see the Arc de Triomphe. We didn't go up, but we saw it and that's all that matters and while there we actually ran into Erin and Saya from the bus. As we walked up and down Champ Elysees we were on a mission to find the "greatest macaroons in Paris" as deemed by our tour guide Lauren. All we knew is that they were made by Pierre Hermes and that they were through double doors on the left near the end of the street. Real descriptive, Lauren. We had almost given up when I spotted some double doors hiding behind a sign. Victory! And the delicious macaroons were the perfect celebratory dessert.

We then had a big lunch at a restaurant since we didn't know if we'd have time for dinner, and our waiter got a kick out of asking me if I wanted sugar on the pasta. He was referring to the Parmesan cheese and I knew he meant Parmesan cheese but I don't think he knew I knew that he meant Parmesan.  So he kept making the joke and I was caught in this awkward situation in which I just wanted some Parmesan cheese on my pasta but couldn't get him to just give me some. Do I have a face that scream "make fun of me"? Cause things like this seems to happen to me a lot. People must think I'm gullible or something.

After our late lunch, we made our way to Montmarte where our Montmarte District tour began. We hung out in Starbucks until 6pm when the tour was scheduled to start and then we were on our. It was definitly worth the 12 euro we spent on it. At first we were just going to explore Montmarte on our own, but then we realized it would be much more meaningful to do it on a tour and I'm glad we did. We saw and heard stories about the Moulin Rouge and other cabarets, the red light district of Paris, Van Goghs house (cue the geeking out), the place where Pablo Picasso traded his paintings for food (telling the owner "I'll be the most successful artist of my generation"), the last standing windmill of Montmarte, the artists square, Pablo Picasso and Henri Toulouse Lautrec's boarding house and so much more. We also went to the Sacre Couer which was really cool to see at night. The vantage point also allowed us to see the Eiffel Tower all lit up so that was awesome. Seeing the Montmarte District was definitely a highlight of my trip and the tour and what followed was a perfect way to end an amazing two days.
The tour ended at Cafe des Deux Moulins, the cafe where the title character worked in the beautiful French movie Amelie. (I would recommend watching it, it's an amazing movie. It's available on YouTube here.) The writer of Amelie wrote most of the movie there and got it set in his head that the movie needed to be shot there (a lot of the movie takes place in the cafe where Amelie works). He asked the owner, who refused. After all, why should he shut down his business for god knows how long so that a nobody could shoot a movie. Nobody watches French movies anyway (the words of our tour guide, not me). The writer went back every day for 18 months until the owner, sick of seeing him everyday, gave in. And good thing he did. Amelie is the most successful French entertainment export ever created, so it worked in his favor as people come to see the cafe where the ever awkward Amelie worked.

As part of the tour, we got a complimentary glass of wine. (I had white, and it was actually really good. I don't really like wine so I was surprised that I quite enjoyed it.) It was about 8pm when we got the Cafe des Deux Moulins and we got caught up in a conversation with Jager and Angus, two Australian boys travelling around Europe since their year of Uni just ended (it's summer in Australia right now). We talked to them for a good two hours about differences between Australia and American, health care (that was a lively discussion, in which they said jokingly that Americans must be unfeeling since they don't seem to care about their fellow citizens), our time at Uni in England and their travels around Europe. It was a really nice conversation and a lot of fun. They asked us when we were leaving Paris, and when we told them at 11pm that night, they were shocked. "You're leaving in a little over 2 hours and you're just casually drinking a glass of wine with us here?" We laughed and explained that we weren't too concerned about it because we don't have to go through security or anything. We did realize that we should probably get something to eat before hopping on a bus for 9 hours and we all decided to go get crepes at the place that our tour guide called the best place to get crepes in Montmarte. So we got crepes together and they were quite delicious. It;s quite funny- one of the first things we did in Paris was get crepes, and one of the last things we did was get crepes. We sure did come full circle.

At this point it was time to head back to the bus, so we bid Jager and Angus goodbye and got onto the Metro. Me, being me, was afraid that we wouldn't make it back in time and was kinda freaking out, but took us no more than 15 minutes to get to the Port Maillot stop (where the bus was waiting) so we were actually quite early. Well, better safe than sorry. And this meant Libby and I got a seat together. We repeated everything we had to do to get there on the bus, and 9 hours later the sun was rising over London. Saya and Erin had both been pickpocketed in Paris (rotten luck!) and so I loaned them the money needed for the bus back to Oxford, and the four of us rode back to Oxford together.

In the end, it was an absolutely amazing trip that I am so glad I took. I had a great time with Libby and I wouldn't have done Paris with anyone else! And let's be real, we certainly know how to do Paris on a budget.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Photo Essay: Classic English Charm

Below is a photo essay I created for my Creative Non-fiction Travel Writing class that I took this semester. Enjoy!

Friday, December 14, 2012

London, Christmas and Sweet Shoppes

For our final BritRail day we decided to go into London for the day. Austy had been wanting to go to the Victoria and Albert Museum so we structured our trip around that. I had read online that there was a Winter Wonderland even in Hyde Park which is near to Paddington, where our train comes in, so that was added to the list as well. And when we were at Beth's her sister Amelia told us that there was a Rainforest Cafe in London, which really jazzed Libby up so we added that to the list and suddenly had a full day planned.

Properly marked entrance
We approached Hyde Park from the opposite side of the bark from where the Winter Wonderland festivities were taking place. And we had no idea where we were supposed to go. So we started just walking along the perimeter of the park until Libby spotted a ferris wheel in the distance indicating Winter Wonderland's location. And so we found a path that seemed to lead in that direction. We definitely approached it from the wrong side. Because they had to drive all the booths and rides in, the area around Winter Wonderland was rather...well...disgusting with mud and such. It didn't look like Hyde Park but rather like a park that has been neglected by the city. We basically entered in through the back alley instead of through the glittering gates that decorate the proper entrances.

I have to say, walking around Winter Wonderland at 11AM on a Monday was a little bit... eerie. Because most adults are in work and children are in school on week days, there weren't very many people there at all. And this gimmiky Christmas celebration, with its carnival rides,, overpriced food and animatronic moose singing Christmas carols in German, is designed for crowds of people and small children running about. There was none of this., I kept expecting a tumbleweed to go drifting by. Regardless, it was still fun to wander around, enjoying the Christmas music and the overall holiday atmosphere.

After Hyde Park it was off the V&A, which took us a bit to find. On the way we walked by Harrods (in the wrong direction, no less) but it turned out to be worth it. In the windows of Harrods is their recent Christmas display featuring something very near and dear to my heart: Disney. The display of the Disney Princesses is in support of a recent collection of way-too-expensive jewelry, shoes and clothing. All of the displays really were stunning. It reminded me a little bit of Annie Lebowitz famous Disney photo shoots with celebrities and athletes. To see some pictures of the Harrods Disney display, click here. Seriously, do it. It's worth it.

 The Victoria and Albert Museum is overwhelming. There is just so much to see that you can't even try to see it all or you'll be sorely disappointed. We chose a few things that we really wanted to see, which I think was the right way to tackle it. We started at the fashion exhibit which was really cool because it documented fashion trends from the olden times until the 60s and today. It was a lot of fun to look at the different styles and laugh at some of the especially strange ones. In the area where the fashion exhibit was the ballgowns exhibit which we didn't see because it costs upwards of £20 and we were not about to pay that. As we left the fashion exhibit we found that we didn't even need to, because once we walked upstairs you could see the entire top floor of the ballgowns. So that was an awesome discovery.

We also saw the Raphael Cartoons which are massive tapestries made or supervised by the great Raphael himself , depicted scenes in Christ's life. They really wore magnificent and were designed to be viewed sitting down and soaking in their details and beauty. We looked at some ironwork on our way to another art exhibit and ended our tour of the V&A in the jewelry room which was... wow. The actual room was designed to almost look like a sleek high class club or lounge. It seemed to me that it would be perfect place to hold cocktail parties or other important events. And of course the actual jewelry was beautiful and a perfect way to end our quick tour of the Victoria and Albert Museum.

After the V&A we were off to the Rainforest Cafe where we decided to merely indulge in dessert since its pretty dang expensive. And after all, you don't really go to the Rainforest Cafe for the food, you go for the awesome decorations. And it did not disappoint. We sat right by a moving gorilla and experienced two thunderstorms. And with Libby geeking out next to you its pretty hard not to enjoy it. We got the Volcano sundae, which turned out to be strawberry ice cream, brownie and whipped cream. I'm not the guest fan of strawberry ice cream, but it was still pretty good, and fun to eat since it comes in massive bowl. We also had the Eton Mess Cheesecake which wasn't as good as the actual Eton Mess that Beth made for us, but was still delicious.

Our final stop was a place that is becoming my favorite place in London: Covent Garden. This is the fourth time I've been to this area of London and I always enjoy myself when I go. This time we were there to visit Hope and Greenwood, a candy store Caitlin, Austin and I went to a few weeks before. But we wanted to show Libby (and get more Cherry Bakewell sweets). After Caitlin got Cherry Bakewells last time, we'd all become obsessed with the. Seriously: all four of us got some on this trip. We each chose a different flavor to get as well: Austin got Ginger Beer, I got Lemon Meringue (since I'm in love with meringues) and both Caitlin and Libby got Birthday Cake.

After we had chosen and paid for our confectionery, we had a nice conversation with the man who was working. Upon inquiring what brought us to England and where we were studying, he revealed that he studied at Oxford Brookes when he was a student "a long time ago." Though I would like to point out that this guy didn't look like he could possibly be older than his twenties, so he had to have been exaggerating. After explaining that this was a place Caitlin visits every time she comes to England and talking about various other things like what his favorite candies are, he asked us if we wanted to try any other flavors so we would know what we wanted next time we came in. When Libby said she'd be interested in trying Summer Festival, he began to get one out, and then decided to just give us enough so we could each try one. He then popped into the back to get some of the new stock they just got in: Rose and Lychee. He then proceeded to grab some other candies, enough for each of us, and create a bag of all of his favorites.As we walked out of the shop we couldn't stop smiling. It's moments like these that I have loved about being abroad: the unexpected kindness of others.

After this excellent ending to an amazing day, we hopped back on the Tube and got onto the next train, pleased with everything we've been able to do with our BritRail passes.