Tag Archive | Europe

Everything Is Better in Mini, Part One (Brussels, Part 3)

The last day of traveling is always the saddest. And the most anxiety provoking as well! You want to spend as much of the day as possible cramming in the remaining sites and attractions that you missed out on all the rest of the days, but that clock is ever ticking down towards your arrival at the exit location. There is always that looming two hours before your flight or 45 minutes before your train deadline tainting even the shiniest of Atomium protons. Such a shame, but alas one of my favorite parts about a vacation is the coming home and reminiscing over the amazingness that was the past weekend. Being back in my own bed and room is admittedly probably the biggest reason for that, but let’s pretend for a bit that the blogging to all of you about my travels is why I am so anxious to get home (though I do absolutely love blogging!).

I was still recovering from my Friday night lack of sleep, and coupled with being knackered from the easily 25 miles of walking already recorded by our internal pedometers, we allowed ourselves a slightly more leisurely morning to roll out of bed and pack up our things. But because we made such a late start out of the door, we forwent a sit down breakfast for a grab and go continental spread back at EXK(carrot I). Of course, a sit down breakfast probably would have taken the same amount of time, since as soon as I saw that the pain au chocolat were nearly out of the oven, I insisted that we wait for them to be fresh instead of settling for delicious but already cooled cream or butter croissants. If I’ve learned one thing in my few trips into Paris, it’s that there is no breakfast more worth experiencing on a slightly chilly and overcast morning than a pain au chocolat straight from the oven. Ooey, gooey, and oh-so-buttery, not to mention filled with nearly melted chocolate, the pastries were as well worth the extra 8 minutes and vastly improved our Tube ride to the Atomium.

The Atomium was right next to BruParc (the Brussels version of Knotts Berry Farm perhaps?) in the outskirts of the city. As the name implies, the Atomium is a gigantic model of an atom–I think it’s supposed to be iron, but Dan and I had some debates about that factoid–entailing nine twenty-feet-diameter aluminum looking spheres connected with more silvery tubes that house the staircases and escalators connecting the balls. I think the balls are supposed to be the protons of the atom?

The Atomium

Anyways, it is a pretty noticeable structure, as we realized when Dan asked where the Atomium was in relation to the stop we had just passed through, only to have the atom model zip past us barely a half second later. A comedy writer couldn’t have planned that timing better.

On a whim, I decided that we should splurge a little for our last day and tack on a trip to Mini-Europe in addition to the Atomium. I had read that the Atomium will take no more than an hour unless you want to/can afford to eat at the panoramic restaurant, and we had multiple hours before we even needed to consider being at the train station. So Mini-Europe seemed like a novel idea.

Mini-Europe…obviously

It could have easily gone one of two ways: lame, reminiscent of Legoland where all the models are hokey and there is nothing entertaining for anyone over the age of six, or it could have been just a cool diversion probably still not worth the money but at least we could say we went. I never considered that it would become one of the highlights of my trip.

Mini-Europe is a project that spans across the entirety of Europe (obviously). As you walk through the winding paths, you pass 1:25 scale models of some of Europe’s most iconic and treasured buildings. Broken up by countries who are full members of the European Union, the models cover everywhere from the famous Eiffel Tower to the lesser known saunas of Finland.

Standing next to Lithuania, significant only because I’m a quarter Lithuanian

Each country region began with a sign with some basic statistics and a button which when pressed proudly played the country’s national anthem. There was a group of school children who ran around pushing all the buttons solely because they could, which was a little distracting for those of us trying to appreciate the cultural experience. Also it was particularly difficult for me as I was trying to memorize all the national anthems prior to the Olympics! Not really, but it was a funny joke to tell Dan. The chosen locations really tried to evoke the individuality of the country and involved some wonderful cultural elements, like the cheese fair in Brussels or the knocking down of the Berlin Wall in Germany. At the entrance we were given a booklet of information about each model, essentially describing what we were seeing and why it was significant to the history or identity of the country as well as some fun facts about the creation of these insanely detailed and intricate models.

Brussels’ Grand Place

If you hadn’t known that you were looking at a scale model, and you saw a close up picture, you would have no idea that I was taller than the Arc du Triomphe.

Arc du Triomphe

We became so absorbed in the “All Hail the EU” experience that we realized we would run out of time for the Atomium if we didn’t pick up the pace and stop lingering over each model for 10 minutes apiece. I can’t wait to peruse the booklet more; it definitely rebit my travel bug before I had even left this new country!

After the incredible Mini-Europe, the Atomium was kind of anticlimactic. It did afford some stunningly expansive views of city snaking out below us (on a clear day it is said that one can see all the way to Antwerp) but the haze did put a tad bit of a damper on what we were seeing. Then it started raining and the damper became a bit more literal. Inside the other “protons” were exhibits explaining Expo 58, less commonly known as the World Fair of 1958, which was the whole reason for the building of the Atomium in the first place, and then something about water but we skipped that one because it didn’t seem very interesting. I think we made the right decision on that.

The Atomium

An exact reverse journey on the metro later and we were heading back to the Grand Place in search of a light lunch and waffles. We refused to leave the country only having experienced one waffle when we must have had about 200 pieces of chocolate. It just would have been a little too unbalanced and unfair to the waffle makers having been such loyal patrons of the chocolatiers. But real food first sounded like a good option, so we found ourselves in Little Greece (the restaurants really seem to clump in the same block here) for pitas yet again. Then we made the decision to seek out a waffle van instead of the touristy windows surrounding Mannekin Pis, so we headed to the PLace du Grand Sablon yet again searching for the waffle van that had been parked out there for the last two days.

Where’s the falafel in this falafel?!

Of course waffle vans seem to be like Starbucks: everywhere until you are looking for one and then they all disappear into thin air. The waffle van was gone! And we had made such a special trip for him! Dan consoled himself with buying macarons (totally got him addicted to these amazing french cookies 🙂 ) and I just pouted. Guess we would have to settle for Grand Place waffles after all, especially since we were rapidly running out of time before we needed to be on our way. We finally found a place that didn’t seem to be as mass produced as the rest –meaning we could actually see them ironing the waffle batter not just reheating previously made and frozen waffles–and found a random curb to sit at since we discovered that walking and attempting to eat these sugar crusted waffles was impossible with the mini knorks that were really just glorified three pronged toothpicks. Chocolate and banana for Dan, white chocolate strawberry for me (I decided to resist the Speculoos addiction) and a whole lot of messy smiles and giggles. And a subsequent sugar high, but we needed the energy for the trek back to our hotel and then through Little Morocco to Gare du Midi.

Sadly this marked the end not only of the incredible trip to Brussels, but also my time in the UK and now my stories all revolve around the sunny skies of California, where I already think I may be getting a sunburn as my skin has totally adjusted to the wintery haze of England.

Oh and recheck back on this post later tonight for a list of all the chocolates we tasted on the trip! I don’t have my notebook with me as I’m writing this so I’ll update it later.

[UPDATE]

As promised, the list of chocolates consumed on this whirlwind weekend!

  1. Earl Grey dark chocolate
  2. Raspberry ganache dark chocolate
  3. Caramel with toffee bits
  4. Peanut praline
  5. Dark chocolate grapefruit
  6. Grand milk chocolate
  7. Chocolate dipped Speculoos cookies
  8. Dark chocolate hazelnut praline
  9. Four spice
  10. Praline nougat
  11. Raspberry nougat
  12. Lime and dark chocolate
  13. Dark chocolate with dark chocolate ganache
  14. Lemon and Basil (my favorite)
  15. Lemon Peppermint
  16. Dill and dark chocolate
  17. Chili and chocolate (I skipped this one)
  18. Cardamom

 

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Beggars at the Chocolate Feast (Brussels, Part 2)

I don’t know if I have ever gotten as good of a night’s sleep as I did that first night in Brussels. What I do know is that it was desperately needed, considering the amount of walking around we did the day before and the amount that would be done today. While by far a  more leisurely day than the one before, we still had a lot we wanted to see, meaning a quick breakfast at this cafeteria/cafe thing called EXK(carrot I) was all we had time for, though it was absolutely perfect to get us through the hunt for Jannekin Pis.

Yeah like I said, the people of Brussels are obsessed with statues of peeing children; Jannekin Pis was the feminists’ response to Mannekin Pis, a statue of a squatting little girl hidden down a side street in the Ilot area we walked around last night.

Female Peeing Child Fountain

This area looked so different in the light of day. In fact, if it weren’t for the street names I don’t think I would have even realized we were in the same part of town. The awnings had been pulled back and the bright signs stored inside the restaurants. The maitre d’s were replaced by kitchen boys spraying down the cobblestones with hoses. Not at all the touristy hub of Brussels nightlife that we remembered.

We headed back towards the Place du Grand Sablon for a peruse of the antique market. We had seen the end of the market yesterday, as everyone had been clearing up their stalls, and there seemed to be some interesting things necessitating a trip back when all the sellers were open. A totally worthwhile and fascinating decision as well.

Place du Grand Sablon

As it was an antique market, with some items older than our entire country, most things were out of our price range so no souvenirs were picked up (other than yet another stop at some chocolate shops, but do those really count as souvenirs since they barely lasted a day?

Blackcurrant Cakey Yumminess

), but it was still interesting to look around at what finds people had made. Being from the United States made for some bizarre feeling comparisons: we found a coin that was minted back when our country was still made up of 13 colonies. Even some of the older, more novelty items like an ancient iron were being sold for next to nothing, and here we were completely floored by their age and the amount of history that each iron must have been privy to! But I guess that’s what happens when your country isn’t even 300 years old yet, anything historical is a novelty (ironically). I did buy one thing at the market, though. Instead of a cheap and touristy souvenir from the countries I visit that I am never actually going to use/wear, I instead buy a ring from the first city I visit in the country. So I found my ring for the country of Belgium at this antique market, which felt very fitting and special.

From there we wandered to the Palais du Justice, the Belgian Supreme Court. We couldn’t actually enter the building, partially because it is a working court and also because it was a Sunday and the courts are closed on Sundays, but we could sit there and marvel at the sheer size of the palace. Every building around it was easily dwarfed both in size and in grandeur. On the side of the building was an accordion player and an elevator. Yeah the two are completely unrelated to each other, apart from in proximity. And no, the elevator was not for the Palais du Justice, but to get to Lower Town.

View from the elevator to Lower Town

Seriously. There was an elevator to get from the Upper Town directly to the Lower Town…talk about a unique method of getting around a city? As there were no stairs, we settled for a ride down with about 10 other people crammed into this box. I hate elevators. Especially crowded ones.

Once down and safely out of the claustrophobic torture box, we sat down at a cafe to soak up some sun (for me) and drink some tea (for Dan). We also took advantage of the cafe’s WiFi network to take the opportunity for Dan to Skype home. Did you know that this was on Father’s Day? I’m assuming you all did, and that you all were extra nice to your dads. Well, I believe you should always be nice to your parents and that we shouldn’t need a day to remind us of that, but that rant is irrelevant to our Brussels trip so I’ll shelve it. Dan’s dad was away so we spoke to his mom, politely informing her that instead of Oxford–the place she expected our call from–we were actually in Brussels. That was quite the shock for her! It would be for anyone to find out that their child was in a completely different country and time zone than you were expecting I’m sure! I had told my parents, but I’m only 21 so they are generally more in the loop regarding my whereabouts than Dan’s need to be.

In a departure and contrast to the antique market, we next went to our first ever flea market. I felt like I was in an open air version of The Hob from The Hunger Games. Neither of us have ever been to a flea market so we had fun making a list of the random things we found among the mostly junk.

List of Random Things We Found Among the Mostly Junk

  • A mallet
  • TV remotes
  • 2 1/2 Lira coin
  • 10 key calculators
  • blade with a squirrel sheath
  • refrigerators
  • chandeliers
  • spray painted copper shoe mounted on a block of wood
  • South African masks
  • Wedding dress (just one)
  • neon yellow Top Flite golf ball
  • mini spinning wheel

And that was just a sampling of the treasure trove! I have no idea how all these people accumulated such…stuff. And why would you want to have all this lying around? I’d just get grossed out and feel too crowded. I believe we can safely say that a flea market seller is not in my future career goals.

Looking for a Mockingjay pin

We next partook in yet another typical Belgian fare: falafel and frites (aka fries). Well, okay, falafel may not be typical Belgian but that’s the only thing I would eat at the Pitta and Frites stand outside of Notre Dame de la Chapelle we stopped at for lunch. I had no idea that frites (again, aka fries) were so popular or quintessentially Belgian, but they are, and they are usually served with mayonnaise which thank goodness Dan also has an aversion too otherwise I’d have been utterly nauseated while we ate lunch. He opted for Brazil Sauce, whatever that was, and it was pretty good. He couldn’t figure out what flavor was so different from the fries one gets in the States, until I tried one and figured it out instantly. It tasted of potatoes! What a novel concept!

After frites, it only seemed fitting to learn more about the true point of going to Belgium, chocolate (duh). There is actually a small and quaint Chocolate and Cocoa Museum down a side street of the Grand Place. It was no more than a retrofitted out residence of three floors about the harvesting and roasting of cocoa beans all the way to processing and packaging of both chocolate bars and drinking chocolate.

Chocolate and Cocoa Museum

There were two really interesting highlights: a demonstration about how they make proper Belgian pralines and the free chocolate covered Speculoos cookies. Did I mention I’m obsessed with those cookies? Dan said my eyes lit up like a Christmas tree. The museum was actually really interesting, if small, and as Dan has been to Belize and seen the whole harvesting process first hand, he confirmed it’s accuracy. I’m big on accuracy. Fun chocolate factoid: There are actually regulations on what can be labeled as each type of chocolate (white, milk, or dark) and these include what percentage of the chocolate is made with cocoa butter. Nowadays, most chocolate is made with up to 30% of the cocoa butter replaced with some form of vegetable fat. In order for it to be labeled as Belgian chocolate, however, it is required to be 100% cocoa butter, no substitutions. This is supposedly why Belgian chocolate is so much better tasting!

Grand Place

We made a pit stop back at the hotel after stopping in a Godiva chocolate shop, just for laughs because it would have been silly to buy Godiva chocolate in Belgium when you can buy it in the States, for a power nap before heading back out to the Ixelles neighborhood for dinner. While we had already found Little Morocco down by Gare du Midi, here we stumbled across Little Thailand. There were two streets where every single front was a carbon copy Thai restaurant, much like the seafood restaurants of Ilot yesterday. Looks like we were limited to Thai food or Thai food, so we went with Thai food at Fanny Thai. We felt super European eating a long, drawn out dinner at 8:30 pm. Of course even after we finished eating the sun was still out, the sky not even beginning to turn darker. It would have been such a shame to waste the sunlight, especially having seen none for the last two weeks in England. Therefore it was the perfect night for a nighttime stroll through a garden.

The chosen garden was La Botanique, though the main gates were all closed so we had to sneak through a bar/concert location to enter the garden. By this point it was getting darker, and the garden had some well manicured hedgings interspersed with overgrown corridors of trees and bushes, making it feel like a labyrinth straight out of Alice in Wonderland. It was beautiful. And there was this adorable cat that was literally begging Dan and me to pet him. I obliged; for some cruel reason Dan didn’t. And I’m the one who is allergic to cats!

We had to sneak back through the bar area to get out of the gardens and to walk back to our hotel. Maybe it was because it was a Sunday night, the night of the penitent, but there was only one unfortunate lady of the night as opposed to the dozen we saw last night, so I felt safer even with the knowledge that our hotel had to put a chain and padlock on the door each night.

Muscles in Brussels (Brussels, Part 1)

First off, yes I am home in the US safe and sound, though already “homesick” for Oxford. I had no idea how attached I was to the place until I stepped off the plane and was immediately having trouble breathing from the thick blanket of exhaust fumes characteristic of Los Angeles. Of course, my parents picked me up at the airport with my handsome puppy, easily making up for any sadness I would have felt from re-entering the world of Southern California. Can you blame me? You’ve probably all seen a billion pictures of my boy so everyone should understand. And thankfully, he remembers me, something I was actually really worried about having been out of his world for 7 long months.

But you all really want to hear about the trip to Brussels, don’t you? I can’t blame you; it was a pretty great trip and was so jam-packed that I had to write down everything in my little moleskin notebook so that I could remember it to blog about now. I’m kind of impressed that I made it through the weekend to be honest. The night before we were leaving I ended up not sleeping at all, choosing instead to join some of the other visiting students in a massive goodbye hangout. And then I had to “wake up” at 4:45 am to meet Dan at the bus stop into London anyway (can you wake up if you don’t fall asleep?), so sleeping somehow just didn’t happen. It’s a good thing that Dan was around to keep me awake when I was fading.

One of the biggest reasons we chose to go to Brussels was because of the direct Eurostar train to Gare-Midi. Dan and I feel like old pros at getting to the Eurostar at St Pancras by this point, and everything went as smooth as could be imagined between getting on the bus to London and arriving in Brussels. Did you know that it takes less time to get to Brussels than it does to get to Paris? Why haven’t I gone to Brussels before?!

The area around the train station in Brussels is not the most savory of locations. It is in the poorer part of the town, and on every block was about 10-15 run down Moroccan restaurants. We actually nicknamed the area Little Morocco, so I guess I don’t need to go to Marrakech?

Little Morocco

Well that’s not true. I’m totally going to Marrakech one day! I don’t think that Little Morocco in Brussels is really the best model for what Morocco would be like. At least I hope not, as Little Morocco felt really dangerous, definitely a place where I clutched my Coach bag a little bit tighter to my side and was grateful that my jacket’s hood covered the Oxford embroidery. We found our way to our hotel on the other end of Anspach from the train station (that walk felt like it took forever!), dropped off our bags, and headed out into the city.

Brussels is the home of the European Union so we made a visit to the EU Quarter the first stop on our three day exploration. Dan had been to Brussels for all of three hours a few years back, but somehow his sense of direction was still impeccable, and he led us around the edge of the city up to the EU without hesitation. We did get a little sidetracked by a statue of a mussel (moules in French, a Belgium specialty) and the subsequent opportunities for pictures of our muscles with a mussel.

Mussel Girl

I love how Dan is so willing to do random stuff that potentially makes complete fools out of us. Makes vacations more fun!

Muscle Man

We were also distracted by some big orange wooden canopy thingy…and yeah that’s about the most accurate way to describe it. I have no idea why it was there, who made it, or what the purpose was, but Dan went a little giddy over the engineering aspects of it. I’d be a little concerned if he didn’t marvel at it considering his DPhil is in Civil Engineering. Otherwise he might want to be considering a career change!

Reddish Orangish Wooden Thingy

The EU buildings themselves were really nothing to write home about: giant testaments to steel and glass and rather nondescript. A cool thing though was to learn from Dan and the guidebook about why certain buildings were designed the way they were, such as how they used glass slats over the windows to make the building’s heating more energy efficient. That kind of info was pretty cool, but also pretty short, and we spent no more than ten minutes in the area before heading out to the Natural Science Museum.

Dinosaurs! Shiny rocks! Animal skeletons! I was really excited and eager to find the museum, so naturally we ended up lost in Parc Leopold, unable to find the entrance to the place. It was a really nice park and we saw the craziest looking ducks I’ve ever seen in my life, but I really wanted to see the Iguanodon exhibit at the museum! If only we could find the entrance! Signage in Brussels doesn’t really seem to be the most user-friendly, but we did finally find the doors and after a quick spot of lunch and a thorough examination of the mineral exhibit on the bottom floor (some incredible pyrites and calcites!), skipped up to the dinosaur room and closer to the ultimate moment of my stupidity.

I was never obsessed with dinosaurs growing up; in our house that was Kevin’s area of expertise so I’m not really the most well-knowledged person about the creatures that walked this earth before we did. I know about the geology and the extinction theories, as well as some of the archaeology techniques, but relatively little about the dinosaurs themselves. But an exhibit of 600 perfectly intact iguanodon fossils was a guaranteed fun for the whole family situation. So there Dan and I were, marveling at these huge dinosaur bones, a whole herd of them preserved behind glass, when I looked down at the placard and read: Iguanodon somethingorother. Confused for about half a minute, something dawned on me and I turned to Dan in shock: “Wait, these are the iguanodons? Uh iguanodons aren’t a type of iguana are they?”

Iguanodon!

Yeah, this is a true story. I was really picturing iguanas every time something said iguanodon.

Dan must have laughed for a solid ten minutes, and I can’t really blame him. I can sometimes be really intelligent, but more often than not I am dumb as wood and quite the ditz. I don’t think I ever recovered from that moment of stupidity once further into the museum, so I decided to embrace it and completely unleash the inner child and start mimicking dinosaurs, playing with the hands-on exhibits, measuring my height compared to a brachyosaurus’s leg, etc. Dan joined in the fun as well. We went down a level to another iguanodon exhibit that talked about how they found the iguanodons and preserved them on the trip from their site to the museum. That room was quite creepy, dead silent, and full of the reminders that there were 600 of these gigantic creatures found in a single location, layered on top of one another in a mine.

Standing over an iguanadon skeleton

So bizarre! And also a great source of evidence for the asteroid theory of mass extinction in my opinion. We also saw an intact skeleton of a blue whale, the largest animal ever found. And it definitely deserved that distinction; the thing was HUGE!

We then meandered our way, drifting off along numerous side streets and through the Parc de Bruxelles (there are a lot of Parc de’s here), to the Place de Palais. This area, part of the Upper Town, could not be any more different from the comparative slums of the quarter around Gare-Midi. The buildings were all palatial, white, Roman inspired mansions surrounding an open cobblestone square. From gaps in between the intricately designed buildings you could see expansive views of the rest of Brussels emanating into the distance. Lower Town, the outlying suburbs, the grassy fields beyond…in Upper Town you were really on top of the city. We did have a purpose in going to the Place de Palais other than gawking at the architecture that was so different from any of the other cities I’ve been to: the Museum of Musical Instruments. Dan plays the cello so it was only natural that we make a stop into this small museum of the various types of instruments and variations on them. Otherwise it would have been like me refusing tickets to a ballet, just unacceptable. We only had an hour to explore the four floors as the museum was near closing, so we did a pretty cursory tour. Which ended up being perfectly fine. The cool thing about the museum is that they give you headphones and some of the instruments have boxes with jacks next to them where you plug in your headphones and can listen to the music that features the surrounding instruments. That part was pretty awesome and rather a brilliant idea in my opinion. Unfortunately the captions and explanations were not in English at all, so I was stuck looking at the cool and sometimes bizarre instruments while listening to their sounds, and nothing else. We made it through easily in an hour and headed back out into the Place de Palais.

Musee des Instruments Musicales

Our next destination was the Place de Grand Sablon, with detours into the Eglise St. Jacques sur Coudenburg and Notre Dame du Grand Sablon churches to compare the more austere Protestant decor with the opulence of the Catholic/Anglican churches you see in Paris and England. Once we made it to the Grand Sablon, however, the real fun began, with the commencement of our chocolate quest! What would Belgium be without a chocolate quest, after all? Grand Sablon was the perfect place too since it seemed like every shop lining the street was a chocolate shop or patisserie with window displays just beckoning you in to drop a fortune on their confectionary. Dan and I made an agreement to exercise self control, for the sake of our waistlines as well as our wallets.

Chocolate or macarons? Can’t decide! Everything is too yummy!

We would alternate who paid for the chocolates, and were limited to four truffles from any one shop, each picking two. Then of course we would share all four, because that’s what dance partners are for. This way we could try a larger variety of chocolates with really cool flavors. I’ll post a list of them later so that you can all drool in jealousy 😉 Each chocolate place tried to offer a unique spin on things, whether in products or atmosphere. Wittamer was decked out in candy cane bright colors; Patrick Roger had two chocolate hippo sculptures. The Belgians take their national industry very  seriously!

As do I apparently

Continuing our wanderings led us to Easy Tempo for a pizza dinner. The pizza was delicious, but oddly gigantic. I mean, yeah it was an extremely thin crust, but it was easily double the size the pizzas at Fire and Stone! As soon as we ordered a pizza each (we didn’t know the size and that we could have easily shared one), they traded our normal knives for steak knives, eliciting strange looks from the two of us. But we definitely needed those knives! The pizzas were so hard to cut (and you must cut a pizza in order to eat it like a European) that I actually had a projectile piece, which we agreed to ignore its flinging off our table when the waitress walked by. And then as we were leaving we got stuck in this absolutely torrential rainstorm. Buckets were literally dropping from the sky (ok yeah that’s really figuratively, but still) and we cowered under random awning and doorways as we made our way towards the Grande Place in search of waffles–what? It’s Belgium people!

I swear it must have been 6 inches in an hour.

I can’t even begin to explain how magical the Guildhouses that enclose the Grand Place were in the sun after the rain. The sculptures and gothic-esque architecture are so intricate and detailed that they don’t even seem possible. I mean how could someone actually design and build these?!

Grand Place

Tonight the Grand Place was the busiest we would see it for the whole vacation. Tourists and groups were everywhere, all eating waffles and carrying bags from Godiva and Leonidas. They were also heading in the same direction, which it turns out was down the side street to Brussels’ most famous and stupidest statue: Mannekin Pis. With all seriousness, it is a teeny statue of a toddler boy peeing. And tourists and any shop catering to tourists are obsessed with it. Chocolate sculptures of the kid, t-shirts, magnets, golf balls, corkscrews…you name it, they made it and stamped it with the peeing baby.

Mannekin Pis, pointless?

We only saw it because it’s like the Belgian Mona Lisa, but I even preferred the Mona Lisa. The only upside was that it brought us closer to waffles (Speculoos for me

Newest Addiction: Speculoos!

and Strawberry, Cream, and Chocolate for Partner), which were as delicious as promised by every tour book I ever looked at.

It was heading towards 10:00 pm and the sun didn’t seem anywhere near close to setting so we continued to walk around the Grand Place, just in the interest of exploring. We walked down this street called Ilot (I think) that was wall to wall seafood restaurants all serving the same food and all with “maitre d’s” attempting to usher unsuspecting passersby into their restaurant that is identical to the one next to it. We came across a small theater that shows a marionette puppet show; unfortunately we were an hour late and they had no more shows for the weekend. Such a shame. From there, the search for a loo sent us back to our hotel and an instant pass out on my part. This is what happens when you don’t sleep the night before a vacation!

The Big 100th Post

Isn’t it amazingly fitting (and completely coincidental) that my 100th post is my leaving Oxford to return home to the States? This was never my intention; I didn’t plan out all of my blog posts for my entire year to make sure that I ended on the 100th post. I can’t even really believe that I’ve had 100 posts!

In fact, this post is truly the last part of me in England at the moment. In case no one noticed, the time stamp on this one is 4:15 pm, GMT, which means that as this is being blasted into cyberspace, my plane towards Los Angeles has just taken off and I am now in the air, eleven and a half hours of a plane ride ahead of me. Let’s hope there are no screaming children!

So as this is my 100th milestone, in typical blogosphere fashion, I thought I would do a little fun listing, an almost sum-up of my incredible time abroad. Nothing is in any particular order. Enjoy!

25 Great/Funny Experiences

  1. Meeting my amazing dance partner, Dan, is probably the best thing that happened to me here!
  2. Being pelted with snowballs outside the Sheffield competition. First time in the snow!
  3. Disneyland Paris
  4. Harry Potter Studio Tours in Leavesden
  5. Seeing Les Mis on the West End…twice
  6. Dan running into a bollard at Blackpool. This was mostly funny because of the email his dad sent him afterwards, but it’s a favorite inside joke with the two of us now.
  7. Blackpool IVDA!
  8. Thinking that Iguanadons were the same thing as Iguanas (you’ll understand this one later)
  9. Baking parties in the Acland kitchen
  10. Dan’s birthday BBQ
  11. Days spent at the Missing Bean
  12. Keble Ball
  13. Meeting up with Dale in Paris
  14. The Port Meadow Photo Challenge
  15. My family visiting!
  16. Driving in Ireland
  17. Finding Charles Brandon’s grave in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle
  18. Becoming friends with all the people on the dance team
  19. Dancing on a table in Wahoo with Ania 😉 and nearly getting kicked out
  20. Flying off to Zurich alone, completely random! Sidenote: Awesome zoo
  21. Seeing the town that  my family has lived in for hundreds of years (Harlech, Wales)
  22. Walking through horse pastures in the Cotswolds
  23. Varsity Match for OUDC
  24. Going to tutorials in a room that is older than any of the original 13 colonies
  25. Stonehenge in the pouring rain with my brother

25 Things I’ve Learned

  1. The Rose has the best cream tea in Oxford
  2. Custard, cream, and mayo might as well be their own food groups here
  3. Pants=underwear, not trousers
  4. Pimms is awesome. There is always an excuse to drink Pimms.
  5. The instant the sun comes out, expect the streets to get very, very crowded.
  6. Blackwells is the most deadly store in the world.
  7. Sometimes it is cheaper to take a train to a foreign country than to Cornwall.
  8. You can get to Brussels or Paris from Oxford faster than you can get from Oxford to Cambridge (they must have planned it like that!).
  9. Awesome words like keen, overkeen, and knackered should be incorporated into our everyday vocabulary.
  10. British people think that all Americans are gun-toting, obese rednecks.
  11. Cobblestones do not mix well with high heels.
  12. Punting is not just a type of kick in football.
  13. At a BBQ, Brits bring their own meat. Americans bring desserts and sides. Plan accordingly.
  14. Stand mixers are necessary to avoid baking catastrophes.
  15. 14lbs=1 stone. This is how they measure weight. But then they use kg? Wth?
  16. Fancy dress means costumes, not cocktail attire.
  17. Stealing ties and bow ties makes night clubs into a game.
  18. You never wait for a cross walk to cross the street.
  19. Buses will run you over and they get really close to the curbs.
  20. Salad means assorted vegetables that you can have put on your baguette at lunch or lettuce with delicious toppings. However, salads are rarely meals.
  21. You need a television license just to stream a show online.
  22. Everyone, and I mean everyone, watches and loves Downton Abbey.
  23. I know more British history than a lot of British people.
  24. Waffles are dessert, not breakfast. And for that matter, pancakes are basically crepes, not the fluffy goodness we get in the States.
  25. If you forget an umbrella, you’ve guaranteed that it will rain. If you brought an umbrella, it will still probably rain but at least you will be dry.

25 Things I’ll Miss

  1. Nightly tea parties with my dance partner
  2. My friends on the dance team
  3. Olives (the sandwich shop not the food item)
  4. Cream teas
  5. Being able to walk everywhere
  6. Saying Cheers instead of Thanks
  7. Spur of the moment day trips into London
  8. West End shows for cheap!
  9. Being surrounded by history everywhere I go
  10. My bay window
  11. How happy everyone is when its sunny
  12. Oxfordshire Public Library
  13. Free entry to museums and galleries
  14. Everyone in the Keble MCR/Acland
  15. The collective understanding when someone mentions Jamals or Park End
  16. My scouts (aka the women who clean my room every week and empty my bins. They were the nicest people!)
  17. The accents
  18. Ease of travel, unless you want to go horizontally across the country. Good luck with that.
  19. Baking for Dan’s friends and Keble events. Love easy taste testers
  20. Laughing as Dan and I attempt to Quickstep/Waltz/Jive/Cha/Foxtrot/Viennese Waltz
  21. Hearing everyone’s opinions on LA
  22. Dirty Chais
  23. All the literature and film links in the city
  24. Feeling like I’m constantly at Hogwarts
  25. My coworkers

25 Places that I Didn’t Get a Chance to Visit, But That I Definitely Will Someday

  1. York
  2. Cornwall
  3. Dover
  4. Calais
  5. Norfolk
  6. Budapest
  7. Prague
  8. Vienna
  9. Pompeii/Rome/Venice/Naples/Italy
  10. Warsaw/Other Places in Poland
  11. Berlin/all over Germany
  12. Geneva
  13. Istanbul
  14. Marrakech
  15. North Carolina
  16. Athens, basically all of Greece
  17. Slovenia
  18. The Netherlands
  19. Northern Ireland
  20. Brighton
  21. Denmark
  22. Russia
  23. Bruges/Antwerp
  24. The Caribbean
  25. Portugal

Yeah, it’s a long list, but hopefully I’ll have a long life in which to fulfill it, with wonderful friends and family by my side. Now don’t think that because I’m back in the US that this blog is ending. I’m still going to be traveling and I’m working on finding my way back to England for a bit longer of a term. So stay tuned!

And thank you to everyone and everything in England that made this the most amazing year of my life.

The Big Reveal

So where was it that Dan and I disappeared to this weekend? I’ll give you a few hints, so see if you can guess it before the end of this post.

It’s one hour ahead of England.

We did not take a plane.

They speak two languages, neither of which is English.

Dan was unfortunately not helpful with either language; I managed a broken version of the other.

They have an obsession with a peeing child.

Lots and lots of chocolate!

Home to the EU headquarters.

We both definitely consumed two of the most delicious waffles ever.

Yup! We went to Belgium! Specifically, Brussels. We left on Saturday morning, took the Eurostar into the capital of Belgium and then spent two and a half gloriously perfect days taking in this incredible city. I don’t feel like I can really do an account of the trip justice at the moment, since my plane home leaves tomorrow and I have some last minute things to get done, but rest assured there will be three long winded accounts of each day coming your way as I settle back into life in California.

Partners in the Grand Place, Brussels!

Disney Magique! (EuroDisney, part 2)

Returning to the scene of our second and unfortunately final day at Disneyland Paris. Days like this one are always bittersweet; you know that all too soon you will have to leave the parks and return to that horrifying place we call “reality”, but you still have a whole day of fun ahead of you. So you put the inevitable out of your mind when you jolt out of bed all too early for a continental breakfast that is only a few small steps above what you’d get at any European hostel. None of it matters–not the sleep deprivation, not the macerated fruit salad that plopped out of a gallon tin jar, not the chill of the air preventing the sun’s heat from reaching you–because you are on your way into a Disney park.

Do I sound like I’m romanticizing it a bit too much? Sorry, I’m a bit Disney deprived over here!

The entrance plaza

Anyways, as Disney Resort guests, we were able to enter Disneyland at 8 am for “Extra Magic Hours”, that turned out to be not as magical as we had anticipated. We had poured over the maps at breakfast, setting a solid plan that would allow us to ride all the major roller coaster type rides before any of the crowds swarmed in, but it all went to waste as over half the park was closed! And was going to stay that way until the park opened to the general public at 10! The tragedy of false advertising! Yet we are nothing if not quick thinkers, and some hasty rearranging still gave us a fairly solid morning to-do list.

Mickey Mouse!

We started out with a detour from the plan almost immediately when we saw Mickey Mouse! Of course we had to get pictures, because when else are you going to get pictures with Mickey without a really long wait? Then we proceeded to make up for that lost walking time by skipping down Main Street, USA (yes they kept it the same as in the US parks) towards Sleeping Beauty’s Castle and Fantasyland. If we had known how long the lines for rides like Peter Pan were going to get, we would’ve gone on those first, but our plan was to take a roundabout way into Discoveryland for Space Mountain. But again, we quickly became sidetracked by the opportunity to be on the first ride of the Teacups for the day! What luck! What a workout! I don’t know if it was because the ride’s wheels hadn’t been unstuck by hundreds of other guests turning them or if French engineers were afraid of a safety risk, but these were the hardest teacups to turn that we had ever been on. We tried as much as our strength would allow, but it was never enough to get it spinning so we soon gave up and just let the teacup meander around in its Figure 8 without any help from us. Determined to recover from that initial disappointment, we wound our way over to Discoveryland, hoping that Space Mountain would make up for it.

Teacup Fail

And did it ever! Not only was the ride amazingly fun, but we also were able to walk on it with no line…twice! The park’s designers did seem to think that every single ride in the park would be packed full all the time since the queues were the longest and windiest queues we had ever experienced. Signs at a certain point, if there was no line of people, would list a 10-minute wait time, which we think was because it took ten minutes to walk through the maze of railing. The ride itself was a blast, figuratively and literally, with a launch start, a loop, and two corkscrews! Our heads definitely were rattled after one round, so naturally we decided to immediately go on it again. Our second mission was very fortuitously located in the front of the ship, making it even more fun, though we failed to walk in a straight line for about a quarter of an hour after that one. We agreed that nice and easy rides in Fantasyland would be the best decision prior to the opening of Adventureland in 45 minutes.

Space Mountain

Not that our agreement made a difference because no sooner had we arrived back in Fantasyland then we were accosted with the sight of crowds of children! Looks like their parents were finally able to get them out of bed, and all the rides had wait times of at least 30 minutes, not worth it for Fantasyland rides. We ended up wandering around taking more Vinylmation photos before waiting for the ropes blocking Adventureland to be dropped and making our way through the stunningly designed pathways towards Indiana Jones and Le Temple de Péril. The crowd of just entering visitors was gathering forces quickly behind us, but we made it walking through that queue as well before the mob hit and were enjoying what seemed like a slightly trumped up version of Mulholland Madness–now Goofy’s Sky School–at California Adventure, and then WHOOSH! We were thrown sideways into a loop! I have no idea how they managed to throw us sideways into a loop but they did and neither of us were expecting that at all. Le Temple du Péril is not at all like The Temple of Doom; something must have been lost in translation.

Indiana Jones

Thoroughly shaken once again, we had to bypass the closed for repairs Big Thunder Mountain and take our chances with the ghosts of Phantom Manor. Continuing the day’s theme of unexpected twists, the only similarities between this attraction and The Haunted Mansion were the beginning’s stretching room and the actual path your Doom Buggy takes through the manor. The storyline was very different: something revolving around a deadened bride and ghoulish groom that we couldn’t really figure out because, surprise, the narration at the beginning was in French. Curse being in France!

Phantom Manor

It was also a lot spookier, with more grisly skeletons and a creepy forest, not to mention some weird western thing at the end. Now creeped out as well as shaken from the roller coasters, we headed back towards the innocent Fantasyland for a far superior Storybook Ride. I’m really jealous at the miniatures in their attraction, so much cuter and detailed than ours, though to be fair our is a lot older, but they have Beauty and the Beast!

My favorite movie ever!

Having hit all of the highlights of Disneyland Park and with a to-do list looming from the day before, we ate lunch on Main Street and said goodbye to this magical park, returning to the land of imitated films.

We first went by Crush’s Coaster only to find out that it too had broken down and that our nearest by alternative was Animation Studios. I don’t remember what the one in Florida is like, but definitely parts of it had to be the same as the one here, including the video of Mushu and his animators. But there was a beautiful montage of moving scenes from Disney’s animated movies that instantly added yet another Disney movie marathon to my summer plans. We only had about two hours left before we needed to be back at the train station to return to *cry* civilization, so we took in the two shows: Animagique, a live black light show that follows Donald through the Disney Animation vault and featured some of the songs translated into French, and Cinémagique, a parody medley of George (played by Martin Short) falling into movie scenes from quintessential films such as Some Like It HotCasablanca, Titanic, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Both were cute and clever, and took up the rest of our time in EuroDisney.

Heartbreaking, isn’t it? Two partial days just didn’t seem like enough, so we stayed a third!

Just kidding, real life called us back into the United Kingdom and we were seated on the Eurostar at 18:02 as scheduled and in our rooms in Oxford much sooner than either of us wished to be.

So happy that I got to spend this time with you Partner!!!

Train of Thought (EuroDisney part 1)

“If I’m thinking while sitting on a train, and the train is moving at 160 miles per hour, is that then the speed of my train of thought?”

At the train station

It was probing and philosophically inane questions like these that characterized 48 hours of pure, unadulterated, child giddiness. In a complete fit on spontaneity, Dan and I decided to maintain my now 11 year old tradition of celebrating my birthday at a Disney resort by booking a trip to the one, the only, the EuroDisney!! Also known as Disneyland Paris and Walt Disney Studios Parks. I love that I have a friend around who loves Disney just as much as I do, as well as is in the position to take two days off of his extremely important research (studying pedestrian movements on bridges, woot!) to goof off in my home away from home of a Disney theme park. Within two hours of my breaching the subject of a Disneyland Paris trip, we were booked in and counting down the days until the Eurostar would whisk us away to that magical land.

Walking into Disneyland Paris!

That magical day: Thursday morning. We met bright eyed and bushy tailed (well, his hair was bushy, mine was straightened, and I guess I wasn’t that bright-eyed since I had barely slept and hadn’t had any coffee to compensate, so Dan was bright-eyed and bushy tailed while I was bagged-eyed and straight-haired) at the Oxford train station for yet another trip into Paddington Station, a tube trip to St. Pancras, and my desperate search for a cup of coffee. Thankfully we found a Costa right before the entrance to the Eurostar terminal, but I only had a few blessed sips of the caffeine before security informed me that I wasn’t going to be able to bring the coffee in with me through the check-in. Into the trash went my cup, and my last hope of staying awake on the train ride into the Disney Resort.

Disney Village

A wonderful thing about the Eurostar is that once a day they offer a train ride that takes you directly to the gates of Disneyland Paris, and when I say directly to the gates, I mean literally two steps out of the train station and you are in front of the Disney Village (their version of Downtown Disney). Talk about Disney Magic! I was able to fall asleep before leaving England and wake up a mere 10 minutes away from Tinkerbell. Of course, unless you have done the Disney Magical Express service where they check your luggage from the train straight through to your hotel, you have to take a short bus to your hotel, check-in, and receive your all important park tickets. Having forgone the Magical Express, we joined the bus queue for Disney’s Santa Fe and arrived at the sorriest interpretation of Santa Fe, New Mexico that I have ever seen. Every building was this reddish-orange adobe copycat, sparse, none of the comforts and atmosphere that one expects from Disney (granted we did stay at the lowest tier of hotels). Basically there was nothing around. Oh wait, then it was probably the most accurate interpretation of Santa Fe, New Mexico! After confusing the Trainee employee with our check in, we dropped off our bags and headed back into DisneyTown (a literally just coined region) and bounded into Walt Disney Studios.

I told him to do something stupid 🙂

For anyone familiar with Disney World parks, Walt Disney Studios is the EuroDisney version of Hollywood Studios, formerly MGM Studios. And like many things in the resort–as we were to find out–this park felt like the diet version of its predecessor. Many of the rides were the same. There was the Tower of Terror, an absolutely hilarious experience to watch the opening video dubbed over in French with English subtitles, Rock’n’Roller Coaster with a much less interesting backstory and interior decorating, and a “Backlot Tour” that consisted of about five or six artifacts from movies, a confusing audiovisual explanation as it was done with two different actors speaking two different languages, and driving around at the hurling speed of 5km/h. To be fair, everyone knows that they didn’t film anything on this site, but they still could have put in a little more effort.  Also for some reason, all of the restaurants seemed to be undergoing renovations at this time so the line for a snack kiosk took us longer than any ride line, and then Dan couldn’t pronounce the French word for pretzel properly and confused the poor employee.

K'Nex, remember those?

But putting aside the feeling that this was a sad attempt to replicate DisneyWorld, this park had some awesome features, such as a whole little Toy Story land, complete with K’Nex fences and a Slinky Dog whirlythingy. We got to ride Slinky’s butt! In fact, the whole time, we were unleashing the five year olds within and beaming at new attractions and giggling over signs written in both French and English. Unfortunately–or maybe not in hindsight–this park closed at 7pm, so we couldn’t do everything there was to do in time before we were forced out, so we left with a to-do list for the next day and went over to the later closing Disneyland.

He told me to mimic a statue 🙂

Fortuitously we ended up going to Disneyland Paris on the EXACT date of its 20th anniversary! So the whole park was decked out in golden yellow streamers and trimmings and there were special parades and a fireworks show that had just debuted. In typical Disney style, it was recommended that in order to see the fireworks from a prime location, we get a spot….now. Dan and I grabbed a quick dinner, a quick Viennese Waltz in front of City Hall, picked up some coloring supplies, and walked over to the castle, settling in for an hour or so wait until the show began.

Sleeping Beauty's Castle

Coloring? You say. Yes, coloring. I told you we were five year olds.

I got the Princess Pack and he the Pirate Pack

The show was a really interesting experience, being in a combination of French and English. Some of the songs were translated into the other language, and from my quick retranslations back into English, the words were totally not the same. Overall, it was more of a World of Color water show mingling with light special effects (I mean lights as in lasers and stuff by the way) with some fireworks thrown in for emphasis. The storyline was so interesting and well done: Peter Pan’s Shadow lets all of the magic out of the castle’s star and ends up traveling through the movies trying to get it back in. Clever! And what would Disneyland in any capacity be without fireworks? Exactly! This did mean that we couldn’t go on any attractions in Disneyland on this day, but we had extra magic hours the following morning, so Hakuna Mattata.

Disney Dreams

We finished our first day with a stroll through the one street long DisneyVillage, stopping in at a Starbucks for hot chocolate before heading back to the deserted Santa Fe for bed. After all, early to bed, early to rise (okay, midnight is not that early) and we had a lot to do the next day!

Oh goodness, I almost forgot. Dan and I bought these little figurines called Vinylmations and had a complete and utter blast taking pictures of them in places around both parks. Dan is an amazing photographer and the pictures are absolutely adorable, though far too numerous to show them off!

At the Santa Fe Hotel