Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Dutch Charm

So there hasn't been much of an opportunity to blog here in Leiden since the week we arrived. School is piling on the work already. Then again, I guess it IS our last semester, so really what can we expect? To give you a little bit of a sneak preview of what our daily lives in Leiden look like, see below. It's a view from my apartment window.

And yes, unfortunately I have the view with a HUGE Webster flag right outside the window. But I can't complain really :)

- Brandy

Sunday, May 22, 2011

London Alphabetically

There's too much to tell when sitting down to write about London. The easiest thing to do: show you. Check out our adventures in London, from A-Z.

A is for Abbey Road - no explanation needed


B is for Banksy, a fantastic graffiti artist who got his start in London. Most of them are either out of the way of common seekers or well hidden by new buildings, etc. Some have even been painted over. He is said to have visited New York City and the west coast of the US as well...

 C is for Churchill Arms, the name of the pub with the best Thai food in London. It's also filled with random knick-knacks from who knows where hanging from every inch of the ceiling.

D is for the Dickens Museum, where the late Charles Dickens resided while in London. To the left is a copy of the original Great Expectations which was said to have been written in installments in a magazine Dickens published titled All the Year Round.


E is for Eye, the London Eye to be exact. Here is a view of the London landmark from Westminster Bridge. This is one of my favorite views of the city.


F is for Festival of Chocolate, which was obviously a success. What's your chocolate preference? Chocolate cookies? Chocolate ice cream? Chocolate covered fruit? Chocolate mixed into Mexican food? Yes, they had it all.

G is for Globe Theatre. Before the Globe, I had never seen a Shakespearean comedy performed. Of course, All's Well That Ends Well was the perfect introduction :) 

H is for Hyde Park. Although this is not a picture of the park per say, it's a picture of one of the most curious statues to stand just outside the park's boundaries. I have no idea what this is representing; although I have to note the coincidence: this road is lined with dealerships selling the most expensive cars available today - Mercedes, Porsche, Lexus, and of course Ferrari. 

I is for the Imperial War Museum, which is home to some of the most historically destructive weapons and most capable (and intact) military equipment there was during WWI and WWII. They also have a Holocaust exhibit that was really quite impressive, to say the least.

J is for Jazz/Blues Club, and the best happens to be one called Ain't Nothin' But. This awesome bar has murals on the way to the WCs, representing some of the very best.

 K is for Kings Cross, the name of the tube and train station minutes from our London doorstep. It's accompanied by the infamous St. Pancras International Train Station, which can be seen from the picture is quite impressive - it's also used as a hotel. (Oh and it was also made famous by Harry Potter!)

L is for Leadenhall Market, which is a unique market place that dates back to the 1400s. It's been rebuilt several times but has maintained the overall character that has been around for centuries (although the canopy is a new concept). Some of you may recognize it as the inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter... 

M is for Mousetrap, the famous play by the celebrated Agatha Christie, author of many fine whodunnit mysteries.  It is the longest running of its kind, with more than 23,000 performances spanning 58 years. This theatre, St. Martin's Theatre, is its proud owner now. But careful not to spoil the ending for others..the cast and crew ask so politely at the end of each show.

N is for Notting Hill, home to the famous Portobello Market held every Saturday, rain or shine. This quaint and classy part of town is also known for the film Notting Hill with Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. If you're there on a Saturday, walk to the end: best chocolate muffins ever.

O is for Olympic Countdown. Although, personally, I believe this countdown atrocity is one of the tackiest creations in town, you can't help but be excited about 2012! This is also a countdown for the locals: when the construction around town will cease. 

 P is for PIMMS and lemonade, a favorite of the British when the summer months are well underway. It's almost impossible to find back home so we took advantage of having it around while we could :)

Q is for QPR, also known as the Queens Park Rangers. We attended a QPR match, learning quite a lot about British team spirit: sportsmanship is left at the door and profanity is a valuable part of each sentence. 

R is for Royal Wedding, which we were not invited to but celebrated nonetheless. Here we are, at around 10am, relishing in the holy matrimony of the now royals. Congrats Will and Kate! Thanks for giving us a reason to celebrate.

S is for Sunday Roast, a must for anyone in the UK at anytime (but on a Sunday). Have your choice of chicken, pork or beef slathered in gravy, and accompanied by veggies and Yorkshire Pudding (the bread-ish stuff in the back). You truly can't go wrong.

T is for Tower Bridge, another famous landmark of good ol' Londontown. Don't be fooled, this is not London Bridge. The original is in Arizona and the replacement is unimpressive.

U is for Underground, a place of busy, fast-walking individuals trying to catch the next train before it leaves them. It's extremely convenient but extremely expensive: breaking the bank with about $3 for each trip. Ugghh! 

V is for Verve, a swanky little bar/club in between Leicester Square and Covent Gardens. Be ready for large crowds and loud music: talking is out of the question.

W is for Westminster Abbey. I have stood in line twice to visit this historical must-see of London. The first time, it closed early. The second, I decided it was too expensive. This was actually my favorite attraction in London: its history dates back to 1066; famous poets have been buried/ remembered here; and every king and queen of Britain has been crowned here (minus two - Edward V and Edward VII, neither of which were actually crowned).


X is for X-ing (or crossing, to be exact). The UK has politely put these reminders of which way to look before walking into the street. I am thankful for the signs...on several occasions.

Y is for Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of the oldest pubs still in existence in London. The original was burned down in the Great London Fire of 1666 but this very pub was rebuilt the following year. It's uneven floors and ceilings, along with numerous rooms to get lost in are just a few aspects of this pub that give it so much character. Oh and they also serve my favorite beer: Samuel Smith! 

And Z is for zoo, the London zoo, which is located in Regents Park. It's quite impressive and takes longer than just a few hours to go through. You might even learn something (like what an Okapi is).

And there you have it, folks. London from A-Z. Don't get me wrong, we saw and did so much more. But I thought I would summarize :)

- Brandy

Friday, May 20, 2011

Color, Culture and Sangria

I’ll be honest, I don’t have the enthusiasm in me to write about Madrid. It’s sad really because Madrid is a beautiful, vibrant city with plenty to do and see. There are three things, however, that I do want to mention about Madrid: the color, the culture and the sangria.

First and foremost, Madrid is the most colorful city I’ve seen in Europe. The food found in markets; the architectural masterpieces lining the busy streets; even the clothes the locals wear – which is much different from the typical drab garb found in Geneva, Paris and even London (at least during the winter months). It is not as much of a sensory overload as say, Bangkok, but it definitely has its eye catching contrasts that many cities I’ve experienced don’t seem to have. While sitting at a little outside restaurant in the center of Plaza Mayor enjoying your mid-afternoon snack, you notice several things. First, the food on your plate has more color in it than a color wheel. Olives, soup, paella. All of it is absolutely radiating color. Second is the outrageous uniforms the street performers are wearing. Not only might you see someone dressed up as a super hero (which one I can now not remember) but also performers in all yellow, gold or red dress, waiting for tourists to pass by and give them a few coins to dance, act or make fun of them. 
Third, the building directly next to a salmon pink building is covered in murals. Although this building might not catch your attention immediately, as the salmon pink building behind you might have distracted you first (this building seems to match numerous other buildings in the city, all strongly devoted to a color not many places in this world can pull off), it is one that will consume several minutes of your time. Why? Because it literally takes your eye that long, if not longer, to move over each painting and wonder why in the hell it’s there. Why is this the third item on the list under the ‘color’ detail when clearly it’s not the most noticeable? Well, this building from afar looks like a pale pinkish yellow building, which would clearly be very muted by the brighter one to its left. Yet, when you move closer, you notice the yellows and blues and purples of the murals that seem to tie-dye the building, as each color seems to move in just about every direction possible. Everything in Madrid seems to be a canvas.

Madrid is also a city of what I’m going to call extreme culture. Spain overall has a very unique culture compared to the rest of the European continent. However, Madrid seems to have perfected it. With an architectural style completely its own (again with the colorful buildings, and add tall, stately designs to that), an afternoon tradition of laziness beyond what I experienced in Barcelona, and a habit of eating after 9pm which consumes most of your evening is truly the Madrid life style. There’s no hurry. There’s no stress. Hang out and have a coffee or two. Maybe enjoy a glass of wine (not me, of course, but normal people) and enjoy the afternoon sun. This is Madrid. Relaxed and completely at ease.

The last mention I must make of this amazing city is how much people seem to like sangria. It’s everywhere. If you know me at all, you know this is not the kind of afternoon delight I would choose. However, Jonathan is a fan so he believes in trying it all. We found an indoor market just outside of Plaza Mayor – 
actually it’s quite an interesting market. All the walls are glass so it’s bright and feels almost like an outdoor market. Anyways, this market has everything you can think of: seafood, meats, four or five cheese stands, fruits, veggies, and of course, sangria. There is a stand in this market (actually across from a wine booth) that sells seasonal Spanish favorites and sangria happens to be at the top of the list. Let’s just say we visited this market more than once during our time in Madrid. And that’s not the only place that specializes in this fruity (un)appetizing refreshment. Every. restaurant. in. town. has it too. If you enjoy sangria and are in Spain, make a stop through Madrid. From what I hear, you won’t regret it.


Thursday, May 19, 2011

Alison, you would have been impressed.

After packing our bags and stuffing them in an office at school in Geneva, where we planned to come back and get them before heading to London, Jonathan and I were ready to explore new cities. He talked about wanting to see a concert in Barcelona, so why not. Madrid was on the list, too. That was my doing, of course. So we caught an afternoon flight to Barcelona and checked in to our hostel with just enough time to go find food and then come back and…pass out. Conveniently, we were in a 12 person room at a hostel centrally located in Barcelona. 
Las Ramblas
The other 10 people in our room we met earlier in the evening and again at 4am when they came in laughing and tripping over things. There were of course apologies but all I could muster at that point was, "umhmm s'ok". Oh the life of hostel living.

 The next morning we woke up early and headed down to the very touristy but symbolic Las Ramblas where we planned to meet Carly. This road is impossible to miss, with its tree-lined streets and almost tacky vendors and street performers trying to steal your money. 
But it's also one of the most lively and energetic areas of the city, too - a must see, actually. Minutes after meeting up with Carly we found ourselves in one of the greatest food markets known to man (at least that’s my opinion). Meats, cheese, olives, peppers, still living sea food, and much more could be found at this grand food palace. I bought a bag of dried banana chips and a few apples and cut myself off. Good thing, too, or I might never have stopped.

Park Güell
After the market perusing and food buying, we headed to the metro where we planned to take a train to see one of Gaudi’s greatest architectural marvels (again, this is my opinion): Park Güell. Antoni Gaudi, Barcelona’s master architect who lived in the city for many years until his death, is my favorite architect, and one that truly brought a new style to Barcelona’s buildings. 

This park is no different. It’s beautifully set at the top of a hill overlooking the city. Gaudi is known for his unique designs, which can be seen all over this park! Truly one of the most amazing places in this city!

After Park Güell, we headed to the other side of town to check out Gaudi’s other masterpiece: Sagrada Familia. It’s unfinished and will be until funds permit it. Gaudi refused to allow government money to build this work of art so the admission into Sagrada Familia is where the funding comes from. No telling how long it will take. Either way, it’s a must for visitors. 

Carly working on her navigational skills.
After Gaudi, we decided a quick nap was in order, followed by food. We wandered around finding a little café looking restaurant that served tapas, ordering everything from mushrooms to potatoes to beef. We then parted ways and Jonathan and I found ourselves at this bar around the corner where we were followed in by a bachelor party. Needless to say they didn’t make a very good impression on the staff. With matching t-shirts, beers in one hand and a blow up doll in the other, heads definitely turned. After being thoroughly entertained by the outgoingly obnoxious party, we left and headed back for the night. Another long day ahead of us to follow.

The next day consisted of shopping, street wandering and a grand tour of the coast. Barcelona has some amazing beaches (not necessarily because the water is crystal clear or that the sand is white; but it’s always crowded with people enjoying the sun). Even with jackets on, people are lining the beaches playing with their dogs, riding bikes or just sitting and enjoying the view. 
We walked down the beach for a while and turned back to make sure we had enough time. We had a concert to go to after all. But before we did, one more stop.

We took the metro back to the center of town. On the way back up to the hostel, we found an amazing outdoor seating area just near the end of Las Ramblas. It was situated next to a café that had so many choices of food, wine, coffee and beer, it was hard to decide what to have. We took our seats, after waiting a few minutes for a small group to slowly vacate the table, and ordered two beers and sandwiches. 
Afternoon beer anyone
It was just cool enough for jackets but people didn’t seem to mind it. After our afternoon snacks and a bit of time relaxing, we decided to head back towards the hostel. It was time to get ready for the concert.

I feel the need to explain the ticket hunting we did for this concert. Jonathan found out weeks before we left Geneva that My Chemical Romance was playing in Barcelona during our break. So we decided to go for it. He bought tickets and that was that. Getting the tickets, however, was a completely different story. The “simple” instructions given to Jonathan in Spanish told us to go to any ticketing booth strategically placed all over the city and pick them up there. Of course, what we didn’t know was that all of the instructions were in Catalan – a sort of off-shoot of Spanish adopted by those living in the region of Catalonia in Spain. Although Jonathan is fairly well-versed in Spanish, it becomes a bit harder when you add a Catalan twist. Catalan and Spanish are very similar, but not when trying to read instructions on how to print tickets. Overall, we went to about 7 or 8 booths all refusing to take his card, scan his confirmation sheet or give us directions in English. Needless to say it was an exhausting experience. Eventually, he just happened to confuse one machine enough to where it DID give us directions in English and then on to the printing. Now why couldn’t it have been that easy the first 86 tries?

The good news is the concert was amazing. It was at a building near the Olympic stadium, which overlooked the city. After singing and jammin' for about two and a half hours, we went back to the train by which we came only to find out it stopped running about 2 hours before. Hailing a taxi was our only option – conveniently, the ride back towards the center of town was much closer than we thought, which was comforting considering our taxi driver learned how to drive at Talladega (or the Spain equivalent). Back to the hostel. The next morning we were parting ways with Barcelona.

One of the cheapest ways to travel from one city to another is by bus. Therefore, our first thought was to go to the main bus station and catch a bus to Madrid from there. Yet, we didn’t anticipate the nearly 8 hour bus ride, which was only that long because 1) it definitely did not take a direct route to Madrid, and 2) it stopped nearly every 15 minutes. Our second choice? Rent a car of course. We were told the easiest place to rent a car to drive to Madrid was at the main train station. What we didn’t know was that we should have booked a car in advance. We arrived at the main train station only to find out that all three car rental shops had no cars available. Third choice? Take the train. Finally, Madrid here we come!

-          Brandy

Monday, May 16, 2011

Learning the hard way

Ok. I figured I'd bust tail to post several postings in a row to get us all caught goes nothing.

We arrived in Geneva with great intentions of settling in and then seeing our new home. After so much traveling the few weeks before, two months of unpacked bags sounded nice. We got off the train coming back from Cognac (after a bus ride to a French town close to Cognac then a train ride to Paris where we switched trains again to head to Geneva) and dragged our bags to the front of the train station to hail a taxi. We knew we would be staying slightly outside the city. Apparently, that’s where they keep the Globals. But we had no idea we would be in a small Swiss town called Versoix, which included one bar, three grocery stories, about six restaurants and a view of the lake.
View of Lac Leman from Versoix

I feel the need to quit boring the audience. For those of you that know us quite well, you know that our time in Versoix was not exactly what we expected. To sum it up, the town was quite small, EVERYTHING was very expensive, the trains stopped running just after midnight (and only twice an hour all day in the direction of Geneva and back again), it was extremely cold but we saw no snow, and our heaters rarely worked. We made several trips into Geneva to find much of the same thing: a Big Mac meal at McDonalds cost around $15 and a tall café latte from Starbucks around $7. Needless to say, we stayed in more than we would have liked.

View of Geneva
I do have to admit, Switzerland could also be charming. There were days we would catch the train and just walk around the city, window shopping and exploring the town. Our university, Webster University, holds a Humanitarian Conference every year and this year we happened to be in town for it. 
Fondue night
After the conference, we were treated to a wine and fondue night at a local brasserie. We also had the opportunity to go skiing at the Swiss’ most famous landmark: the Matterhorn. (That weekend trip is another story in itself. Let’s just say within the first few hours of us being in Zermatt, Jonathan was sick and I lost my wallet. Oh and I suck at skiing. Apparently, there are no bunny slopes to learn the basics at the Matterhorn. 
Zermatt, Switzerland and the famous Matterhorn
Yet, I did learn well to fall down the mountain. I also learned when someone yells “pizza!” that means you have to point your toes inwards to make a pizza slice out of your skis, with the intentions of stopping. Unfortunately, I learned that the hard way. After eating snow for about two hours, I had finally had enough when I ate it so bad both skis came off and one pole flew out of my hand. I threw the other pole down as I trekked to get my skis, which was accompanied by numerous words I will never repeat in this blog, and a promise to never ski again. Jonathan apparently had better luck than I did, although one last good tumble made him say, “I better quit while I’m ahead.” I laugh about it now, but I was convinced I would never ski again. If that chance ever comes, there better be bunny slopes.)

The rest of our time in Geneva consisted of school work. Our classes did not demand much from us until the last few weeks so we did a lot of movie watching and food eating. When the day came, we were not sad to say goodbye to Versoix. Actually, we were quite glad to take the first flight out the day after my Humanitarian Issues class ended to Barcelona for a change of pace. Enough of this tiny Swiss town, on to better things. Au revoir, Geneva!!!


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Relaxing in the Land of Remy Martin

Still WAY behind but here is the next chapter of our journey (following Paris)…

We arrived in Cognac (two days after New Years) a little after 11 and were greeted by the lovely (and feisty) Lauren. She even brought a friend with her that was willing to loan his car services so we didn’t have to lug our suitcases all the way to Lauren’s. We settled in, chatted for a few, and then laid down for an extended nap time.

The view from Lauren's kitchen
I feel the need to mention here the goal of our trip to Cognac. Yes, the top priority was to see Lauren and explore the charming French town she’s run away to. But the other was to rest. We accomplished our mission. I’d say, even a little too well. Our first day in Cognac consisted of N.O.T.H.I.N.G. We didn’t get up until 10am and laid around Lauren’s apartment until lunch time when she came home so we could eat. She DID manage to drag us out for food. But of course, right after lunch, we headed back to Lauren’s to be productive…lies. We did just the opposite: we napped…until she got home from work. Again, the only thing that dragged our sorry tails off the couch was to make food. It’s a running theme throughout our stay in Cognac…

Comatose Jonathan
The next day we got up with intentions to do the exact same thing we did the day before. Naturally, I have to add a bit of a monkey wrench right about here. Jonathan woke up sick. So we played “sick day from school” and I made him sleep while I read and napped and…that’s it. Lauren did manage to join us for lunch again, although I’m sure the thought of leftovers is what brought her home this day, instead of seeing her lazy houseguests. Later that evening, however, Jonathan mustered up the courage to go to dinner. The only thing getting him out of bed was pizza.

Wednesday morning was much like the other days. I picked up sandwiches for us while Jonathan prepared himself to venture out for the afternoon. We had a date with Lauren at the Remy Martin house! Ohhhh Cognac, here we come. So we walked to Remy Martin and met our (once again) little French tour guide. We sampled a variety of what Remy Martin has to offer, along with food choices that matched each one. We also got to play the guessing game of, “what can you smell in this one?” I guessed cinnamon pretty much every time. I was right the last one.

Thursday, again, resembled much of what I’ve already described. Don’t forget, the goal of Cognac was 1) to see Lauren and 2) to rest. (I think we actually rested more than we saw Lauren…) Thursday evening, Lauren took us out to her local hangout where we met a few of her friends. Several. drinks. later. we finally got the native French speakers to speak English because, unfortunately, we don’t speak any French. By the end of the night we had one of them telling us “you’re not so bad for Americans”. Mission accomplished.

Friday was Lauren’s day off. She finally put her foot down and said we had to see Cognac before we left to head to Geneva, which was scheduled for later that evening. So we did. I saw more Cognac symbols that day than I ever have in my life. Remy Martin. Hennessy. Otard. Martell. So many! Not to mention Cognac is a charming town. We finally got to see where Lauren’s been for so long! Again, mission accomplished!

The rest of the afternoon was spent packing and getting ready to go to Geneva. We eventually made our way back to the bus stop to catch the bus that would take us to our train. We said our goodbyes to Lauren with the promise of her visiting us soon. Adios Cognac. It’s been lovely.

-          Brandy