Travel Epiphanies and Night Ferries

“Just one drink,” I say, as I’m looking at myself in the mirror of my tiny cabin on board an overnight ferry. My face is sunburned and my hair is frizzed, I had just spent three very hot and exhilarating days in London. I expected to fall deeply in love with London, for reasons I couldn’t really explain, and London certainly delivered any preconceived expectations and then some. My final day in London consisted of riding the tube to Camden, browsing all the open air markets, and then finally settling down on a grassy hill in Greenwich Park with a bottle of wine and friends. My new friends. People whom I’ve met about a week before in Dublin.

After spending a few hours lying on the grass, talking, drinking, observing, and laughing, we force ourselves out of London and onto a ferry bound to the Netherlands, where we will continue our adventure together in Amsterdam. I’m tired, and already feeling a little boozy from my wine. While already declaring that it will be a quiet night on board, I make no effort in my appearance, and I sheepishly leave my room in a t-shirt and yoga pants, wearing no makeup. I see some familiar faces, and we convene by the bar in the lounge. Someone remarks that the bar drinks are overpriced, and it makes more sense to buy bottles of liquor from the duty free shop on board. I shrug and buy myself a glass of wine, as I don’t expect to hang out for very long before returning to my cabin.

As we were one of the first passengers to arrive, the deck is completely empty. The chairs and tiny tables are strategically attached to the deck with wire, but we figure out how to arrange a little sitting area for all of us. Slowly, my travel mates find their way to the deck and we begin to chat about what we all did in London. Soon, everyone becomes generous with their bottles, and paper cups filled with nothing but alcohol are passed around. I can’t tell if it’s from drinking or being on open waters, but I start to feel dizzy. As I sit around and look at my little group, I am taken over with pure happiness and amazement at how well we are all getting along, despite being strangers just days prior. Somewhere along the line, I relent and buy myself my own duty free bottle and have been taking swigs out of it for who knows how long? How long have we been out here? What time is it? Don’t we have to be up pretty early tomorrow? Who cares? It’s a vacation, dammit, and I’m enjoying every second out here on this boat deck. Tomorrow morning can wait.

After a while, I worry if we are being too loud and disturbing the other passengers. I turn my attention away from my crowd, only to see that we have become the center of a ring of other passengers, who have been happily watching our antics for god knows how long. Instead of the scowls I expect, I only see people drinking and smoking while shaking their heads and laughing at my crew. A few eventually decide to come join us. An employee makes his way on deck, but instead of telling us to quiet down and go back to our rooms, he exchanges smiles with us and asks if he can take any garbage or empty glasses.

The night carries on, people keep coming and going to the duty free shop to replenish, regrettable photos are snapped on smartphones, and I sit there thinking how I’m so glad I decided to come out for “just one drink”, instead of curling up on my cot and catching up with my friends and family on Facebook. Somewhere, on that ferry, mid-transit between London and Amsterdam, I fell in love with everyone I was traveling with. I felt so lucky that somehow, by fate, we all unknowingly decided to travel together. We crossed the boundary of simply being companions while abroad, and were now, undoubtedly, friends. No more awkward icebreaker conversations, we were instead freely conversing and divulging; without worry of any judgment from someone you don’t quite know yet.

It was that night when I had my first “travel epiphany”, where the profoundness and magic of travel really came flying at me and hit me in the face. It wasn’t when I saw Big Ben and the London Tower for the first time in person, nor was it when I had my first pint of Guinness at Temple Bar in Dublin, as wonderful as those moments were. No, it was there, on the deck of that ferry, sitting in a metal chair, resting my elbows on a table littered with paper cups, empty bottles, and ashtrays, that it really hit me that I was in the midst of something truly special that will stay with me forever.

I got up from my chair to stretch my legs, to prepare myself for what was already making itself into a very long night, when I looked over the railing and noticed that we hadn’t even left port yet.

Saying Goodbye and Decompressing

In my very first post, on the eve of my departure, I wrote about how I knew I’d be making strong bonds and friendships with the people I’d be traveling with. Little did I know how strong and powerful those bonds would be, so soon into my trip. It sounds so cliché to say, I know, but truly, my life has been changed from the 25 days I spent abroad. And most of it has to do with how I did it, and who I traveled with.

The night of our farewell dinner started off in the hostel bar where we all had some drinks before walking to the restaurant. One by one, we all eventually made our way down there and we started talking about our trip, our favorite memories, and our flights home. I didn’t want to believe that this really was our last night together, I was having so much fun chatting with everyone but it was hard to ignore the fact because it was the topic of our discussions.

We made it to the restaurant, and the dinner went by as fast as the trip! I remember talking to my table about what our favorite cities were, how much we enjoyed our group, and everything else you would talk about at a farewell dinner. Later in the night a lot of us got up and mingled at other tables, then we walked back to the hostel. The night was still early (especially for Barcelona), and I know none of us wanted the night to end, so we ended up straight back at the hostel bar! The bar was a lot more crowded than it was when we left, and we all just hung out and drank some more.

The night was winding down, and my heart was getting sadder. I had been dreading our last night for at least a week, and I tried my best to shove it out of my mind and to live in the moment, so when the actual moment came for our last night, I had no choice but to live in it. I started crying when two girls, Gabby and Carly, left for the night. I really did start to lose it when I was outside with Megan, Darren, and Kevin. Kevin was being so cute and sweet and was telling Darren how much fun and amazing our trip was, and as I was listening to him talk, I started crying more and more. It was one of the very few times in my life that I’ve cried in front of people, but I didn’t care. I just had to.

I eventually made it up to bed, I had to be up really early for my flight home the next day. I woke up the next day feeling as depressed as ever, but I can only chalk that up to being a good thing because it meant that I had the best time of my life. We all said our goodbyes at the airport, which was honestly a blur and I don’t think I said goodbye to everyone which I feel bad about. Luckily, Ashlee was on my flight to Atlanta, and we both had long layovers there, so we hung out for a bit before we had to part ways for our flights home.

Now that I’ve had a few days to decompress and reflect on my trip, it absolutely was, hands down, the best time of my life. Every single day I felt happier than the last, and I found myself laughing at new memories every day. I’ve yearned to travel for as long as I can remember, and most of the time it felt impossible, especially the past few years. Having finally got the opportunity to do so, I honestly can’t imagine it could have been any more perfect than it was. The trip fulfilled every thing I could have possibly wanted it to, and then some. It sounds so lame, but there were so many times in my trip where it felt like the stars aligned and things just seemed too perfect for me.

Obviously visiting so many amazing places was what made my trip so magical, but I feel so grateful and lucky that I got to experience those moments with the people I was traveling with. I completely underestimated how great it is to travel and bond with a bunch of strangers and become so close to them in such a short amount of time. I decided to travel with a group for the convenience, little did I know what a great decision it was because I made so many new friends.

Many of us were traveling solo, and it’s funny how quickly you will bond with people when you are forced to. I am normally a pretty guarded person when you first get to know me, but I felt myself getting so close and comfortable with everyone really quickly, and it felt like we had known each other for years and years. I was telling and sharing things with my new friends that I haven’t even shared with my friends back home. There were so many different personalities in my group, and we all came from very different backgrounds, but we all got along together so well and I loved spending time with everyone. I didn’t feel weird or out of place with a single person in my group, there was always someone to talk to or hang out with. During our free time, it was always so easy to find a person to go out with because there was at least one person interested in doing something that you wanted to do.

There were times where I thought it was just too crazy how similar I was with certain people in my group and how, by chance, we ended up signing up for the same trip and ended up traveling together. Ashlee and I were roommates together in Dublin, and we roomed together in every other city after that because we just had so much in common and we got along so well. We were always on the same page, and we were just great travel companions. I don’t know how it worked out so well, but it really did! It just felt like the stars aligned and we were supposed to meet and become roommates in our first city. I had so many of those “We were supposed to meet!” moments on my trip with many other people, I don’t know if I believe in a higher power, but it’s times like that where it’s hard not to.

Another reason why my trip was so great was because of my tour director! Darren was just so awesome! He was so funny, cool, and he really made sure we were all prepared and ready to take on each city. It felt like we were traveling with a close friend, rather than a chaperone taking us around place to place. Darren made sure we were always at the right place at the right time for certain events, and was always so patient with us when he was explaining important details like public transportation, directions, meeting points, etc. He was so casual about everything, but he worked really hard behind the scenes to make sure everything was seamless for us. He would circle important points on all of our maps, write down the addresses of our hotels on the maps, and he always had interesting facts and anecdotes about each city or monument we were visiting. He also set up some optional excursions for us in each place that were so much fun and a lot of them were the highlights of my trip. Going to Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris was definitely one of my favorites, and Darren read us quotes from Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde, which was a real nice touch.

Darren was also such a good sport with our crazy group too, dealing with us messing with him on a constant basis, whether it was hijacking his phone and updating his Facebook status, trying (and failing) repeatedly to impersonate his English accent and British speak (swimming costumes?), or all of us wondering why the hell he was so obsessed with Notting Hill… But Darren also had his fun at our expense too! Making fun of our American accents (Feck off! Ehkwerddddd.), constantly pulling pranks on us and messing with us with his straight-faced sarcasm. I’ve never been on an EF tour before, but it’s hard to imagine there are any better tour directors than Darren!



The memories made on this trip will stay with me forever, and going on this trip only solidified what I always knew, that I need to travel and see the world. I know my traveling adventures are far from over, and new memories will be made, but I don’t think anything I will do will be able replicate how amazing my first time overseas was, for the reasons I just wrote about. Yes, seeing the Eiffel Tower, Big Ben, and going to the top of Mt. Pilatus were amazing and life changing, but the small moments of me getting to know everyone on my trip and having intimate conversations with them was what set this tour apart from any other tour across Europe. Whenever I told people back home that I was going to Europe for a month, everyone responded the same way, saying that I was about to have a life changing experience. Of course I believed them, but it was hard to truly grasp what they meant until I came home and realized how much my life has been changed and enriched. I fell in love with so many things while I was there, and learned so much. Now I just can’t wait to move onto the next chapter in my life which hopefully includes a lot of traveling, and coming back in contact with all of my new friends.

Message from our hostel in Barcelona
 

 Our trip’s theme song!
 

Barcelona


After spending a lovely two days in Cannes, it was time for us to head to our last stop on the trip, Barcelona. I had a lot of mixed emotions heading to Spain, part of me was extremely excited for obvious reasons, but a cloud loomed over me because I was so not ready to be closing out my amazing journey.

Once we made it to Barcelona, we checked into our AWESOME hostel, then made our way to the beach to find dinner. I ended up at a restaurant right along the pier with Ashlee, Kevin, Courtney, and Hillary. I ate the best dinner, there was so much food for only 26 euros! We got four tapas to share, a main course, and a dessert. My main course was lobster and potatoes. And the tapas were huge! I was expecting really small plates, but the portions were quite large and we weren’t able to finish any of the dishes. We were so surprised with how much food (and how good it was) for the low cost. After dinner, we made our way back to the hostel, which had a great bar with cheap drinks.

The next day was packed with fun activities. First we took a tour of Barcelona, we first ended at Park Güell, a park that was designed by Antoni Gaudí. My favorite architecture in the cities we visited was Barcelona, thanks to Gaudí. Very whimsical, nature inspired, and dream-like. You could honestly stare at one of his designs for hours.

 
After Park Güell, we made our way to Sagrada Familia, a famous Roman Catholic church also designed by Gaudí. This church is still under construction, and hopes to be completed by 2026, the 100th anniversary of Gaudí’s death. The church is absolutely breathtaking, so intricate and it’s nothing like you’ve ever seen before. After the church, we cruised by a few more attractions, and then made our way up to see the best views of Barcelona. We were on top of a hill and saw the entire city below us, it was so massive and beautiful.




After our tour, Darren arranged for us to attend a paella cooking class, which was so much fun. We were all cramped in a small and very hot room, but that didn’t matter once we got some tapas and sangria. Watching the demonstration and learning about the history of Spain’s most classic dish was really interesting to me as well. My grandma was born in Spain, so it was special to hear about how important family and coming together is to cooking and eating paella. I’m sure my Grandma Jeanne was pleased to know that I finally made my way to Spain and got to eat true authentic paella in Barcelona. 🙂 We also got to make our own sangria at the bar, which may not have been the most authentic experience as none of us had ever made it before and we were already a few glasses deep, but…it was fun nonetheless.


After eating paella and drinking sangria, we had a chance to roam around Barcelona a bit more. I stopped at a cafe with Ashlee, Megan, and Jordan to get a cafe con leche. Darren told us how good Spanish coffee is, and if you couldn’t tell from the name, cafe con leche is just coffee with milk. But how good it is! Dare I say I like it better than the many cappuccinos I drank while in Europe (sorry, Megan!)?

After our little coffee break, it was time to ride bikes throughout Barcelona! I was so excited to do this, I really wanted to do the countryside bike riding excursion in Amsterdam, but decided against it because we only had such a limited time in the city. When I heard we were going to have the chance to bike in Barcelona, I felt so much better about my decision because I loveeee bike riding and was glad that I was going to have a chance to bike while in Europe. 

Biking in Barcelona was intense! We biked through the city, which included tiny alleyways and streets, squares congested with people, crossing busy intersections, and anything else you could imagine you would find in a busy city. But it was so much fun! It was so liberating to see Barcelona while biking, we biked through Parc de Ciutadella where we went by a zoo and a beautiful fountain. We made our way to the beach and stopped there for about a half hour for a breather. Then we eventually made our way back to where we started from, but not without weaving in and out of all the traffic and chaos, which I liked.


After biking, we made our way back to the hostel to get ready to go out for the night. I wasn’t very hungry after all the paella we ate, so I just got some patatas bravas at the hostel bar and some vino tinto. Barcelona has a huge nightlife, where people don’t go out until very late (around 12 AM or 1 AM) and don’t get back until the very early hours of the morning. It reminded me a bit of Buffalo, with it’s late nightlife, and I really wasn’t feeling it after such a long day. I decided to hang back at the hostel bar with a few people from my group and had a few glasses of wine and also caught up with some people back home.

The next day, Ashlee and I decided to head out to see Casa Balltó, a house that was designed by Gaudí that has since been turned into a museum. Each and every room was so interesting and different from the last, even though they all had Gaudí’s signature elements. 


I heard that going Casa Balltó at night is a great experience, and I could tell with the lighting and all stained glass that it must be, but we couldn’t go at night because that night was our farewell dinner…

Italy and Cannes

Leaving Switzerland was tough, but I think we were all excited to make it to Italy! We arrived at our hostel in Florence in the early evening, and then we set out to one of the main squares to explore and grab some dinner.

I got some dinner with Ashlee and a girl from our group named Courtney, and our first Italian meal was a success! We had good wine and pasta, then finished it off with some delicious tiramisu. So good. This time of year, Florence is filled with tourists, so Darren took us all to an American karaoke bar for the night, and that was FUN.

The bar was filled with mostly Americans and Australians, and while there certainly weren’t many locals, it was still fun to meet others and hear about their traveling adventures. It was also a blast to sing along to the karaoke; the highlight was definitely Bohemian Rhapsody, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and the Spice Girls (naturally).

The bar definitely had a Chippewa vibe, which usually isn’t my scene, but it was a perfect night and it was great to be out with my group.

The next day, we had a walking tour of Florence, and we were able to go inside the Duomo, which was stunning, however, the outside is much more beautiful than the inside. We went around the city a bit more, and everything was so beautiful and just seemed like classic Italy to me.

After the tour, Darren took us to a leather shop where we watched a demonstration  and we were able to do some shopping. We got a small discount because of our group, and we were able to get free gold embossing of or initials on our products. I bought a small suede purse and got my initials embossed on the front, the gold embossing looks great against the deep purple!

After that, a lot of us went to a wine tasting excursion in San Gimignano. On our way there, Darren and our bus driver Carlos let us off to get a glimpse of the best view of Florence, and it was quite the view, that’s for sure. Just gorgeous and very…Italian. We then set off to San Gimignano!

We were able to explore San Gimignano for a little over an hour, which gave us some time to eat some gelato and do some shopping. The gelato I had was unreal! I got a scoop of saffron flavor and a scoop of sparkling grapefruit wine flavor, and they were both divine! I did some window shopping after that, then it was time to head out to the wine tasting part.

The guys hosting the wine tasting were a trip. Just the typical flirty, attractive, charming Italian men that every American girl imagines. It was clearly part of their job, and I doubt they are REALLY like that when they are off the clock, but it was still entertaining.

The wine tasting was a lot of fun, we sampled about nine different wines and then got to purchase some. I bought a bottle of my favorite red wine, I think makes for a nice souvenir!

The next morning, we set out for Pisa before heading to Cannes. The only thing that’s really at Pisa is the famous Leaning  Tower. I got a kick out of all the tourist there doing the typical pose of trying to prop up the tower.

After Pisa, it was time to head back to France! Unfortunately, we had a little hiccup traveling to Cannes because there was a car accident in a tunnel on our way there which left us stuck at a rest stop for a few hours. And it was HOT. And pretty miserable. But I guess it was better than being stuck on a bus for hours without being able to use the bathroom or get something to eat or drink.

When we finally arrived at Cannes, we almost instantly forgot about the horrible ride there, because we were staying at a freakin’ resort! It was so beautiful, and our suite had three bedrooms, two bathrooms, a living room, kitchen, and a giant balcony. The suite I was staying at was called Niagara, which was cool for me!

Because we got in much later than was planned, all we had time to do that night was get dinner at the hotel and get some sleep.

The next morning we set out for the beach, which was unbelievable! We stayed there for hours just basking in the sun and swimming in the Mediterranean Sea. I had such a wonderful time, but despite applying and reapplying sunscreen several times, I still got killer sunburn.

After swimming, a few of us walked around town a bit and did some shopping. Cannes was a just so beautiful and posh. The beach we went to was right next to the area where the famous film festival is held, so that was fun to see.

After shopping, we grabbed a cab back to our resort and had dinner. While eating, private jets were roaring over our heads either departing or landing nearby. Ah, the life of the rich! We stayed out for a few hours and had some great conversation, then we headed back to our room to have some wine on our balcony. While on the balcony, a fireworks show went off! What a perfect ending to a glorious day in Cannes.

The next morning we set off to Barcelona, where I am currently writing this entry in our really cool and trendy hostel. I cannot wrap my head around the fact that this is our last destination and I leave for home in two days. I am so, so sad to be at the end of my amazing adventure, but I guess all good things have to come to an end, and I think it’s a good thing that I am sad to leave as opposed to yearning for it.

Barcelona has been magical, and I still have one more full day and night to experience it and enjoy this crazy journey until it’s time to go home and back to reality. There are many complicated emotions whirling through me right now! Part of me wants this to go on forever, just to continue to travel the world, where each day is packed full of unbelievable moments, but another part of me is excited to see my family and friends and reflect on what I just experienced in three short weeks. And sleeping in my own bed will be nice…

Beautiful, peaceful Switzerland

In my previous entry, I mentioned how Switzerland was one of the countries I knew the least about on my trip, but after visiting, it’s definitely on my list of places to return to. 

Switzerland was the perfect the place to go to after the hustle and bustle of Paris. The air was the freshest air I’ve ever breathed, the water was so cold and refreshing, and wherever you looked there were astounding views of the beautiful Swiss mountains. I woke up and just laid in my bed for about fifteen minutes staring at the view outside my window.
Our hotel was located in a small ski resort town, and we ate dinner a sports center in town that had an ice rink with hockey players practicing! It reminded me of home; the sounds and the smells of an ice rink. The hockey players inspired me to wear my Sabres shirt the next day. 
We left for Lucerne the following morning,  we first went to the Lion Monument. The monument is to commemorate the bravery of the Swiss soldiers from the French Revolution. Darren told us that Mark Twain once said that the monument is the most moving statue ever, and after seeing it, I can see why he said that.
We then had a few hours to wander around town, then a bunch of us went on an excursion to go to Mt. Pilatus. We first took a boat ride across the like, which was amazing. I like being on (and in) the water, so I enjoyed being on the deck and again, witnessing all of the beautiful views.
We then arrived at Mt. Pilatus, and it was time to go up! We had to take a train up to the top, I learned from Darren that the train is the steepest cogwheel rail in the world. It felt like being on a roller coaster when its climbing its way to the top of the  first drop.
Once we made it up to the top, we got to wander around and explore. It was so humbling to literally be on the top of the world; a recurring theme on this trip (aside from the heat), has been me saying, “Is this really my life?” Being on top of the Swiss Alps was definitely one of those moments. Completely breathtaking.

After exploring, we had to go back down obviously. I’m actually pretty afraid of heights, so the gondola ride down was making me really nervous. The first gondola was sooo scary, but I made sure to stand up front because I wanted to take it all in. We were going pretty fast and it was so steep, I had a few internal freak out moments, but it was also exhilarating.
The second gondola ride wasn’t so bad, it was smaller, but it felt slower and I got more relaxed as we were going down. There were only four people to each gondola, and it was Ashlee, a girl on our tour named Lisa, Darren, and me. We all had a nice conversation about the trip and about where we all lived, so that was nice, and it took my mind off my fear of heights.
After Mt. Pilatus, Ashlee and I found a marketplace along the lake and we did some shopping and then grabbed a beer and sat by the lake. Eventually we slowly started seeing people from our group and then we all got some food from some stands and then made it back to the bus to head back to our hotel.
Ashlee and I then took a long walk around town, which was so pretty and relaxing. We went on some walking paths and found a creek, then walked around town a bit more and admired all the beautiful homes and watched people dining outside of various cafes and hotels. When we made it back to our hotel, it was thundering and lightning in the mountains, it was so neat and peaceful for me to sit outside and watch the storm in the distance.

The next morning we had to leave early for Florence, and while we were all looking forward to Italy, I think there was a general consensus that we all wanted to stay in Switzerland a little longer. Everything about it was just so lovely, the sheer and overwhelming beauty. We’ve seen so much on this trip and so many different cities. I’m a city girl at heart, but it would be hard for me to pass up an opportunity to live in Switzerland, that’s for sure.

Paris, Oh Oui Je T’aime

Ah, what else can I say about Paris that hasn’t been said before? It’s got to be the most romanticized city in the world, and now it’s another city I can cross off my list of places I’ve been.
Our hotel rooms in Paris were more like apartments; equipped with a bedroom, living room, kitchenette, and a small balcony. 
For our first night in Paris we took a cruise down the Seine River and it was magnificent! Paris at night is so beautiful, especially along the river, with the lights reflecting in the water. The sidewalks along the river were lined with people picnicking and watching and waving at the boats passing by. We got to cruise by some major Parisian attractions like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the Louvre. 

The next day we got up early and took a sightseeing tour around the city. We saw other major Paris sights such as Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe. After the tour, many of us went on the optional excursion to the Palace of  Versailles. I couldn’t wait to finally see it in person! When I first learned about Versailles in high school, I knew I had to see it one day. I also read a biography about Marie Antoinette (Marie Antoinette: The Journey), so I also had a heightened interest in seeing Versailles because of that.
The sheer luxury you experience when you are in the presence of this wonderment is hard to explain, or justify with pictures. We got to get lunch and eat it in the gardens before heading into the palace, and I could have spent an entire day exploring the gardens alone. So beautiful, intricate, immaculate, and vast! Everywhere you looked it seemed there was an endless stretch of more beautiful gardens.

After exploring the gardens, we were able to go into the palace, I kept having to touch the walls and the marble, because I think it’s always so neat whenever I’m at a place that has so much history, knowing that I’m at a place that I’ve learned and read about for years.
The palace itself is intense. It is HUGE. Our guide said during its time, thousands of people llived there, and no one knows how much it cost to build it. For measure, I remember my professor in college told us that if Steve Jobs and Bill Gates got together to try and rebuild it, they would both go bankrupt. 

I’m so grateful I was able to see this amazing palace in person; it was so fun to imagine the halls filled with royals and servants alike from centuries ago, instead of all the tourists.
Later that night, Darren organized a dinner for everyone at a nice restaurant in the Latin Quarter. For €45, we got a three course meal, a glass of champagne, and unlimited beer and wine. There was also two men playing live music and singing. They played a few songs from one of my favorite movies, Amelie, so that was really nice! They also played a song called Aux Champs-Élysées, and all the locals were singing along to it, so I felt special that I knew the song and got to sing along as well.
Our table decided to get a bunch of appetizers and share them. I was most interested in the frog legs and escargot. And they were both really good! Frog legs had a similar texture to fish, and the escargot was similar to clams or mussels. I also got some duck and a peach dessert, all really good. It was such a fun evening, the restaurant was really small so the atmosphere was really intimate, everyone was singing, clapping, and dancing to the live music. The ride home was also a good time, two of my roommates and myself caught a cab with Darren, and I think I remember singing a not-so-sober rendition of Michael Jackson… 

The next day, my roommate Ashlee and I set out to the Musee d’Orsay. The museum was huge, the first floor was loaded with amazing sculptures and paintings, but we were most interested in the top floor which was filled with paintings with artists like Van Gogh, Monet, and Pissaro. So many paintings to feast your eyes on, many that I’ve never seen before! There was also a terrace at the top, with stunning views of Paris.

After the museum, we stopped at a cafe for some lunch and then walked along the Seine on our way to Notre Dame. There were many stands selling souvenirs and other neat trinkets along the way, and I bought some really neat posters and prints. When we got to Notre Dame, the bells were going off just as we arrived, so that was cool!
Later in the evening, we met up with a few other people from our group and had a picnic right outside the Eiffel Tower. We had crepes and wine, we all felt so Parisian (okay, and also kind of touristy, let’s be honest…). Eventually, Darren and other people from our group found us and we all just sat and chatted and drank wine and had a great time. Every now and then I had to remind myself that I was sitting in front of the freakin’ Eiffel Tower. So amazing. Then it was time to go up!
The views were amazing, and it was really windy. Again, I made sure to touch posts and rods just to remind myself that I was on the Eiffel Tower! Sometimes you get so caught up in the chaos and excitement of it all that you really forget what you’re doing and where you are.

The next day, Darren took those who were interested to Pere Lachaise to see Jim Morrison’s and Oscar Wilde’s graves. The cemetery itself is very massive and very beautiful. Jim Morrison’s grave had barriers around it because people used to party and have sex by it (although as Darren aptly pointed out, that’s probably something Jim Morrison would have loved). Despite the barricades, his grave was still loaded with pictures, notes, and other mementos left by fans who had jumped the barrier.
We also visited Oscar Wilde’s grave, which had a glass protectant surrounding it because women would kiss his grave and leave lipstick marks. But even with the addition of the glass, women still left their mark on the glass and there were also a bunch of mementos left.

After the cemetery, we head out to a perfumerie to learn how perfume is made, how to properly apply perfume, and what the different notes are. I was tempted to buy a bottle, but I can’t stray from my Coco Mademoiselle!
After that, I stopped by a cafe near our hotel to get lunch. I don’t think our hotel is located in a very touristy area, so I think most diners were local. Our waiter didn’t speak English to us very much, and the menu was entirely in French. I enjoyed the challenge, I think that’s the fun of visiting a foreign country. We were also convinced the people around us were annoyed with our lack of French speaking skills, but one young women sitting next to us smiled sweetly at us as she was leaving at said, “Bon Appetit!” which we thought was really nice of her.
After lunch, we all went back to the hotel to shower and pack because it was our last night in Paris. For dinner, a lot of us got some wine, bread, and cheese and sat along the Seine to people watch. It was a great end to our Paris adventure.

Paris was so exciting and beautiful, but it was also really HOT (have you noticed that’s an ongoing theme in every place I’ve been?) and tiresome. Some people in my group were turned off by Paris because of the language barrier and the French being the least willing to speak English to us (opposed Amsterdam). But that’s part of the fun of traveling, and I do wish Americans had a stronger grasp of foreign languages. I honestly didn’t come across too many rude people, maybe some who were a bit short, but they still accommodated me by speaking in English. It was also a fun challenge to see how many interactions I could have with people with barely any words spoken at all; just facial expressions, body language and gestures.

All in all, Paris was amazing, but I know I barely scratched the surface of everything it has to offer. Just more incentive to keep traveling so I can return.  Paris was definitely exhausting though, and it look a lot out of me. Luckily, we were heading to serene Switzerland next.

Amsterdam

Oh, Amsterdam. I love you. Our two very short days in Amsterdam were some of the best days of my life.
In my previous post, I mentioned how hungover we all were when we first arrived, so as soon as we could check into our hostel we did to have a much needed shower and a nap.
After that, I went out to explore Amsterdam. This city is absolutely gorgeous. Full of narrow townhouses, canals, boathouses, and bikes!

I’m pretty sure there were more cyclists commuting than cars. The streets in Amsterdam are pretty narrow, so you didn’t see much on-street parking, but everywhere you looked you saw rows and rows of parked bikes. Everyone decorates their bikes which was really cute to see all the different designs, and it was great to see all different people biking; young, old, men in business suits, women in dresses and heels, people biking with small dogs or children on their laps, I even saw a young woman biking while holding three chairs.

Amsterdam is loaded with cafes (not just the coffee shops where you can buy weed), and it was so relaxing to just sit outside with a cappuccino and watch all the activity. It seems as though the cyclists have the right of way over the cars, they have their own road, similar to a bike lane, but it’s separate to the road for drivers and cars nor pedestrians are allowed to be on it. It was a bit hectic when we first arrived because you have to remember that when you are crossing the street to look for oncoming traffic from both the cyclists and the drivers.
It seems as though everyone in Amsterdam speaks in English, and they had no hesitation to speak English to us when we were out and about. Everyone I encountered, from the tram drivers, to servers, were incredibly accommodating, patient, and kind to me.

It was such a weird and surreal experience to see people selling and smoking weed in the coffee shops. There were some really nice upscale coffee shops that had a neat vibe (Buffalonians, almost like Mothers restaurant), and also some that were more casual and dive bar-like (like Brick Bar on Allen). The funniest thing was you were allowed to smoke weed in the coffee shops, but most definitely NOT cigarettes, and they were very strict about it.

We also explored the Red Light District, which was another culture shock. The cool thing is that these areas aren’t sketchy or seedy at all, still a beautiful part of town, it just happens to be a part of town where you can look at naked girls standing in windows (and maybe do a little more than just staring…)
The next day, I went to a few museums with one of my roommates, Jenna. We first went to the Van Gogh Museum which was incredible. Van Gogh is my favorite painter, and I’ve seen some of his work already at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, MoMA in NYC, and at the National Portrait Gallery in London. It was funny, when I was at the National Portrait Gallery a few days prior, I saw that two of Van Gogh’s famous sunflower paintings were temporarily off display…because they were being loaned to the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. “No big deal,” I thought, “I’ll see them in a few days!” And I did!

After the Van Gogh Museum, we went to the Anne Frank House. The line was very long, but so worth it. It was very humbling and moving to be walking around in the house where Anne wrote her famous diary, and also hid with her family for two years before ultimately being betrayed and meeting her death at a concentration camp. I learned at the museum, that when Anne’s father (the only survivor from the Frank family) decided to turn the house into a museum, he wanted to keep the rooms completely bare to remind everyone of the void and emptiness that the Holocaust left on so many people.
The rooms all had photos of what the rooms looked like when they were in hiding, and the windows were completely blacked out, to recreate the darkness the families had to live in for two years when they were in hiding. Anne’s quotes were written on many of the walls, and it’s hard to believe what a brilliant and thoughtful person she was at such a young age.
Visiting her room was the most powerful, because even though it was empty, the pictures that she plastered on the walls still remained. She had photos of movie stars of the time, and also pictures of public figures and artists like Leonardo da Vinci. It was an experience I’ll never forget and I hope if you ever have the opportunity to visit the museum, please do.
After the museum, Jenna and I met up with our other two roommates, Megan and Ashlee, and we went to get something to eat. We found some other people from our group, and Megan decided to head back, while a girl named  Lauren from our group decided to head with us to get dinner. The night before, our tour guide Darren told us about a really good Indonesian restaurant, and we were intrigued because none of us have had Indonesian before. Thanks for the suggestion, Darren, because it was all sooo good! The location was great too, right near a busy square so we were able to eat delicious Indonesian and do some more people watching.

We were all in agreement that Amsterdam was lovely, and the lifestyle and attitude was so refreshing. We all wished we could have spent at least one more day there. I talked to some people from my group who said they weren’t too keen on coming to Amsterdam because they didn’t care about the Red Light District or smoking weed, but Amsterdam is so, so much more than that. Yes, those things can be fun, but the city has so much more to offer and it’s a place that I know I will have to come back to.
I’m currently on a bus on my way to Switzerland. We just spent four days in Paris (I’ll write about that later), and I can’t believe we are already more than halfway through the trip. It’s been so amazing that I don’t want to think about coming home. I’m trying really hard to live in the moment because things are happening so fast and I know these memories and moments, big and small, can never be recreated.
Switzerland is probably the country/area I know the least about on my trip, but Darren said it’s his favorite place on our trip, and that’s saying something considering all the places he’s been! I’ll try to write soon, the wi-fi in Paris was god awful, hopefully Switzerland will be better!