Marrakech & Casablanca, Morocco

January 8, 2019
by Christina

We arrived at the Marrakech Menara Airport and got through customs and immigration without incident. Once through, we went to exchange money for Moroccan dirham. The strange thing about dirham is that it is a closed currency; it is illegal to take dirham out of Morocco, so it is not possible to change money before arriving in the country. Dan found a tip that said to visit the currency exchanges in the departures area to get a better rate, which was straightforward to get to, and did offer a better rate than at arrivals.

The airport itself was very beautiful and well signed, so it was easy for us to walk out to the bus stop and board the Number 19 bus into town. It’s a short ride, and we got off the bus near Koutoubia Mosque and walked the remaining ~2 km to For You Hostel Marrakech in the Kasbah.

For You is weirdly related to its neighbor Red Castle. They are in adjacent buildings and run by the same staff, but you book, check in, and pay independently. They are connected via their roof terraces only, and the included breakfast is served out of the kitchen in Red Castle. I got the impression that Red Castle was cheaper with more tightly packed dorms (they had more patrons), but I didn’t bother to look it up.

Once we were checked in to the hostel, we began our week long love affair with street food. Fortunately, the training that our stomachs received in Latin America and Southeast Asia held, and we didn’t get sick despite eating from any and every cart we came across. That first night we got a plate of food that would quickly become familiar: a mix of rice, noodles, eggs, beets, olives, some kind of mystery pink substance that was maybe meat (?) with hot sauce, a side of cheese, and tea. For the cost of about $1 USD.

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The next day we took a walk around and saw the famous Jemaa El-Fna market, which is a huge open space packed with food, fruit, juice, and stuff vendors. Though, as we learned over the course of the week, it’s much more active at night. It’s high on the list of tourist spots in Marrakech, and even Nomadic Matt waxes poetic about it.

The snake charmers at El-Fna are for real, out there with cobras basking in the sun. They are only out during the day, probably because the snakes can’t hack the cold. While most of the snakes were sluggish and just got occasionally herded back to their places with sticks, some of them were kept in place with big rocks on the end of their tails, which seemed rather cruel to me.

From Jemaa El-Fna we took a walk to get a closer look at Koutoubia Mosque. which we had glimpsed the night before. The stones to the side of the mosque were very interesting, but I wasn’t able to figure out what they were.

At a small hole-in-the wall restaurant nearby, we got the sandwich and fries version of the rice/noodle/egg/etc dish we had had the night before, called bocadius on the menu. Just up the street from there was a shop selling juices, sweets, pizzas and sandwiches, where we accidentally ordered milk (thinking it was a yogurt drink), and a pastry.

There we also saw another patron drinking a juice smoothie that was a mix of dates and avocado. Date smoothies were very common at the plentiful juice shops around Marrakech, and delicious, as was the avocado-date mix, something we will definitely be making home. There were also many carts dedicated to pomegranate juice, which was really good.

Another day we spent a while wandering about the souks. These are markets selling food, spices, clothes, souvenirs, and leather goods. We found the prices of items to be about the same cost as what we would expect in the United States, but of course the atmosphere is unlike anything you would find stateside. Mostly we just enjoyed wandering the narrow winding alleyways stuffed full of colorful items.

With the cost of street food being so inexpensive, we spent a lot of the week hunting down interesting foods and tasty food carts. Mint tea is also very popular in Morocco, more so than coffee, though eventually we figured out that the men wandering around with giant teapots were selling Berber coffee, which is a delicious, highly-sweetened, spiced coffee. We also enjoyed a lot of bean and lentil soups, accompanied with tea and bread.

Other notables included the yogurt vendor who was only out in the evening, selling fruit-flavored yogurt in un-labeled plastic water bottles, and the other evening-only vendor with a cart selling fried onion and merguez sausage sandwiches, which we really loved.

On New Year’s eve we went for a run and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. While we were out running we encounter a young girl running and pacing herself carefully with her watch, while what appeared to be her parents and brother tracked alongside her on a moped. Why it was a whole-family affair I don’t know, but I admired her determination. Unfortunately these highs were accompanied with a low: some of the worst street harassment I have received on the entire trip, in the form of a pack of tween/teenage boys yelling obscenities in broken English. I might have been frightened if I were alone, but Dan was with me and there were other people around. It wasn’t enough to ruin my day, but it was a bummer. Le sigh.

That evening we went to ring in the New Year at Jemaa El-Fna, which was absolutely packed with people. Some of the people at the hostel had been afraid to go out because of the crowd, but we didn’t have any problems. Interestingly, the atmosphere was very festive, but we didn’t hear anyone cheering at midnight.

On the way home from the square, we noticed a pair of storks sleeping in their giant nest on top of one of the buildings. Those things are gigantic, and they are all over the city.

On New Year’s Day we got to catch up with a friend! Chamini, who we got to visit twice in the UK during our travels, had planned a trip to Morocco for the New Year. She was with a group, but had a bit of time to break away. We went for cake and juice, and then took walk around the neighborhood.

That afternoon, I treated myself to a visit at a hammam, which is the traditional Moroccan bathhouse, with origins in the ancient Roman empire. If you’ve been following along on the blog, you know I adore bathing culture, and I got to experience it in South Korea, Japan, and Hungary.

A traditional hammam in Morocco is separated by gender and involves a lot of steam and a thorough scrubbing by a third party. I was reading up on it, and many people’s description of the scrubbing process is absolutely terrifying. I wanted to go to a local hammam versus one of the fancy spas-for-tourists, and I was delighted to be told by one of the hostel staff that a local one existed just around the corner.

Based on this article, which I found the most useful in my researching, I took my own  soaps, scrub towel and drying towel. In addition to my hair soaps, I purchased and brought the traditional black soap made from olive oil. Unfortunately I didn’t get any of my own photos, so these are borrowed from others around the web. It is sold in giant vats mostly at spice vendors. I had to ask what it was, because I never would have guessed soap. But it is a must for hammam; it is what is used for scrubbing and cleaning the body.

I paid at the door for entrance, as well as the fee for the scrubbing. I used what little broken French I had, and thankfully the cashier had a little English as well. I also needed money to pay the bag-check lady to keep my things. In total the entry fee, bag check, and payment for the scrubbing was 67 dirham, or roughly $7 USD.

A woman inside, clad in traditional garb including a head scarf, asked in French if I was there for hammam. I said yes, undressed, and gave my things to the bag check lady, excepting my soaps and towels. What I failed to bring were shower shoes, and a loaner pair was found for me. I went into the bath proper to find a lot of people had also brought a mat to sit on and their own buckets, which I did not have. Also notable was that while a lot my reading lead me to believe that underwear was worn while bathing in hammam, most of the other (all female in this area) patrons were fully nude. The whole space was marble with high ceilings, and there was a lot of chatter as well as kids running around and playing.

I was wandering around for a bit, confused, when a large woman wearing only a pair of pink underwear called out to me. It took me a moment to realize that the was the scrubbing administrator that I had met in the dressing room. She had a loaner mat for me to lie on, and a scrub mitt (she didn’t want to use my scrub towel). She had me lie down on the mat on the floor, and proceeded to use the olive soap and hot water to aggressively scrub my whole body, exfoliating me so thoroughly that the dead skin pilled up in clumps. While it was intense, for the most part I wouldn’t call it painful. Once that was done, she washed my hair and used my scrub towel to wash my face. Finally, she dried me off, both my hair and body.

From my American perspective, it was kind of wildly intimate to have this stranger handling me in this manner, including the face washing and drying, which made me feel rather child-like in her matronly hands. It was a little intense, but as a bathing and bathing culture enthusiast, I really enjoyed the experience. It felt good during and after. Despite obviously being the only foreigner at the hammam, everyone was very friendly and welcoming, and we made it work despite a massive language barrier (the scrubber and I both barely spoke a little French, and it was the only language we had in common).

The next morning we had our last breakfast and left For You Hostel to take a bus from Marrakech to Casablanca. There is a also a train, which is supposed to be more comfortable, but didn’t really generate much of a time savings and was slightly more expensive. Dan did the research and determined that the CTM bus was a good option. Unfortunately we walked to this bus station, where they sell CTM tickets, but discovered that the bus doesn’t actually depart from that location. To catch the bus we would have had to take a taxi to the departure point.

Penny-pinchers that we are, we walked to the actual CTM departure location where we bought tickets on site for the next departure for Casablanca, a little later than originally intended owing the confusion. The ride was about three and a half hours and uneventful, depositing us here.

Casablanca being our last destination on our long journey, and with us feeling rather travel weary, we elected to splurge and rent a small one-bedroom apartment there through AirBnB. We walked another ~2.5 km to get there (located roughly here), where our host met us and showed us the apartment. To our relief, it was beautiful and as-advertised. I enjoyed doing a fair amount of cooking there during our week long stay.

On our walk to the apartment we had seen several small ice cream shops, advertising 3 scoops with topping for 10 dirham (~$1 USD), which seemed too good to be true. Over the course of the week, we tried out several ice cream shops along that strip. Not all of the flavors were great, but some were. With the toppings and the great price, we happily ate quite a bit of ice cream that week.

We also had the goal of trying out traditional Moroccan tajine, which are named after the ceramic dishes they are prepared in. They consist of a flat bottomed dish with a deep lip, and a cone shaped lid. They are filled with meats and vegetables, and placed over a charcoal fire to cook. We tried one at a sort of sit-down cafe, and weren’t very excited about it. Then we found another vendor on a busy shopping street that was well-trafficked by locals, and absolutely fell in love. Tajines are delicious.

And the merguez sandwiches that we had tried in Marrakech were on offer by many vendors, and we made a point to eat as many of them as possible. Our preferred vendors typically ended up being the carts, with little plastic tables and chairs nearby to sit, rather than sit-down cafes. This style of street food (cart plus little tables/chairs) was very similar to a lot of the street food we ate in Southeast Asia, except in Morocco they had Western style chairs and taller tables, whereas their Asian counterparts either offered low tables and stools, or simply a mat on the ground.

Food aside, the big tourist landmark to see in Casablanca is the Hassan II mosque, which is the largest mosque in Africa, and the 5th largest in the world. It’s very popular, so showing up early to line up and buy tickets to the tour time you want is advisable. The ticket office is located in a building adjacent to the Mosque, and the tour leaves from there as well.

The architecture of the building is beautiful, both inside and out, and one of the amazing features of the building is that the roof over the main worship area is retractable, which is an engineering feat of epic proportions.

During the tour we got to see the main worship area and various points of interest inside of it. One of the features of the space is that the men are separated from the women during worship, with the women adjourning to an upstairs portion with sort-of slatted walls, so that they can see out, but not be seen. Then we went below to see the bathing areas, where worshipers cleanse themselves before services.

As science nerds, one of the additional allures of the Hassan II Mosque was that it has a green laser at the top of its minaret which is turned on at night, pointing the way towards Mecca. We made a point to peer at the mosque at night from the stairwell of our apartment building, and even went back during the evening, but we weren’t able to see the laser. Looking at photos posted online, it seemed that the laser probably wasn’t working, which honestly, is no big surprise. Lasers are huge divas.

Here is a photo of the laser that someone else was able to capture.

Before visiting Morocco, Dan had never seen the film Casablanca. So we made a point to watch it, and that’s how Dan saw Casablanca in Casablanca. There is also a Looney Tunes spoof called Carrotblanca, which we enjoyed, and honestly, Pepe Le Pew as Captain Renault is one of the best casting choices I can imagine, for characters that have both not aged well. (Black and white Looney Tunes sketch by Douglas MacCarthy)

And some enterprising soul has created a Rick’s Cafe in Casablanca, in the theme of the film. It is a incredibly beautiful and well-appointed tourist trap with obscenely expensive drinks in a place where alcohol already comes at a premium. I hauled Dan there out of curiosity, and in celebration of the end-of-journey and watching the film, but honestly, it wasn’t worth it. It beautiful, that’s true, but if it hadn’t be called Rick’s Cafe, I never would have drawn the parallel; it has some features/accessories that fit the era, but none of the large, open floor plan that the cafe in the film had. And honestly, the martini I got was nothing special, but I had to get gin at what was supposed to be a gin joint, eh? Maybe the food is good, but at those prices, we weren’t biting.

Rick’s Cafe is also located next to the Ancient Medina of Casablanca. This is the part of Casablanca that still has all the narrow-windy streets made ages ago without cars in mind, all behind a tall perimeter wall. There was lots of shopping to be done there, both inside and just outside the wall, with vendors selling everything from clothes, household items, and electronics, to vegetables, meats, breads, and spices. It felt a lot like the Medina/Kasbah in Marrakech, and we did a little belated Christmas shopping in preparation for our return home.

And on a list of touristy things that is uniquely our own, Dan found a velodrome! The Stade Velodrome was evidently destined to be torn down and replaced with a new facility, but it hadn’t been torn down yet, and it was possible to ride there. However, it was really challenging to find a place to rent a bicycle. Bicycle rentals are just not a thing in Casablanca. Dan was finally able to track down a guest house nearby, called Carré Français de Casablanca, that rented bicycles to guests and was willing to rent one to a non-guest. I took a turn or two around the velodrome as well. For Dan this was his 4th continent where he rode in a velodrome, including Mexico City, Medellín, and Beijing, with the goal being to ride on every continent. Though Antarctica may prove a bit of a challenge…

Then, just like that, it was our last night in Casablanca, meaning our 19 month long trip had come to an end! We went out to eat our last few merguez sandwiches, had a final ice cream, and then back to the apartment to pack up. Then it was an early morning the next day to begin our long transit home.

My next post will be a photo-essay of our journey home, which involved five airports, four flights, and almost 48 hours of travel… because that’s what happens when you use award miles! Stay tuned, and find out why Heathrow Airport is my least favorite airport in the world!

Also, a note, even though the journey has come to an end, we here at Wott Could Go Wrong will still be producing content for a while.

 

 

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Barcelona: jamón, Christmas poop, and architecture

December 23, 2018
by Dan

Our bus arrived at Barcelona in the evening. From the bus station we too the metro to where we were staying, Meeting Point Hostel in Sants neighborhood. It was a nice quiet neighborhood without too much going on. A bit far from the tourism center of the town, but we ended up liking the area and it was convenient to public transit. And since we weren’t going into the city center every day it wasn’t a big deal. Plus there were some weird things nearby like a mostly empty model prison and the Parc Industrial with a cool dragon slide.

In my opinion, the most important and distinct thing about Spain is ham. It’s like the bread/rice/noodles of any other country. It’s in exactly every single Spanish dish (true facts). And so to illustrate this potentially exaggerated fact, and to continue our trend of pointing out the crazy vending machines that we find throughout the world, here is a picture of a freaking ham vending machine that we found in Barcelona. Case closed.

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Barcelona also has other things going for it besides ham. Namely, Barcelona is the main city in Catalonia. That means despite speaking Spanish, we didn’t really speak the local language. We were kind of excited to get to speak Spanish again. And yes, most people speak Spanish, but a lot of the signs are in Catalan, which looks to me like a mix of Spanish and Italian. Not too hard to decipher, but it still made menus harder to figure out than I was expecting.

It also means lots of protests for independence. Most everyone outside of Catalonia seems indifferent or against this call for independence from the rest of Spain. I figured there would be more of a split opinion here, but it seems very strongly supported. There were flags and graffiti and pro-independence clothing everywhere. So I avoided that topic of conversation but more on this later.

Finally, since we were there for Christmas season, it meant a whole lot of wacky Christmas traditions. Mostly involving poop. Seriously. This really took me by surprise. Surprise poop!

First up is the local addition to the nativity set which consists of a figure squatting to poop called the caganer. There isn’t a great explanation for why this is the case, but it usually has to do with pooping being some great equalizing factor among humans. I think it’s popular because it’s silly. The figurines are for sale in markets everywhere and often there are pooping pop culture figures to be found (Darth Vader, David Bowie, Hello Kitty, etc).

Next up in the Christmas poop category is something called Tió de Nadal. I thought this meant uncle Christmas but in Catalan tió is log. So Christmas log. It’s got eyes on it and you apparently take care of it during Advent, and then put it on fire and/or beat it with sticks and it will shit out presents. I didn’t read about it too carefully just because I like the version of the tradition as it is in my head currently. The point is, it’s pretty weird and I heard lots of little kids singing the Tió de Nadal song when walking past these decorated logs for sale in the Christmas market. I love that we got to visit at Christmas so we could experience these weird unique traditions.

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Another big feature of Barcelona is the architecture. Antoni Gaudí is from here and his architecture is a big reason it is a tourist destination. Our first encounter was on a run through Ciutadella Park. The park itself is really small and not great for running since most of the park is occupied by the zoo (that you can’t run in). Still it seems like a popular place to run in very small circles. Near the park is the Barcelona Arco de Triunfo. In the park is Cascada Monument, which was a work by Gaudí when he was still a student. It’s a crazy large fountain with really beautiful clear pool. You can also climb the stairs to the top of it.

After the run we wandered around the area a bit. We had some beer and bocadillos (sandwiches, usually ham). Then we wandered some more and stumbled upon this crazy looking building. It was like a small colorful version of the Gherkin in London. It’s called either Glóries or Agbar Tower and was built by a Spanish king in 2005. We also stumbled upon a flea market with a crazy sci-fi looking roof which will be discussed in more detail when we returned for a proper visit.

On the next day we paid a visit to La Boqueria Market. It’s mostly a tourism market, but they have some really nice Spanish products, such as the aforementioned jamón. They also had a bunch of juice vendors with some really delicious flavor combos. My favorite was the strawberry and coconut. These juices were legit cheap. You could find deals for 2 juices for 1.5 eur, which on the global scale of juice prices is pretty darn good. Cambodia still has that beat in terms of price and quality, but this is pretty close and the combination with the coconut milk was a game changer in terms of juice drinking experience.

From there we walked over to the Cathedral of Barcelona. This was a huge disappointment. I have complained already at length about being charged an entry fee (a huge entry fee) to see the inside of the church. So let’s just say we didn’t go inside, but the outside was very pretty.

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We then had some time to kill and we took a break inside a little hole in the wall sandwich and booze shop, which despite being right in the thick of Barcelona tourist  land, was quite cheap and super local. The bartender was dangerously generous with the gin for the gin and tonic. Gin and tonic is super popular in Spain BTW. Also vermouth. After drinks we tried to hit up the Picasso museum when the free vising hours rolled around, but we got turned away since you need to pre-book the free tickets. Makes sense, but it was a bummer to miss it.

The next day we made a return visit to the flea market with the space age looking reflective gold roof. It’s really bizarre. We arrived a bit late in the evening and many of the shops were starting to pack up, but there was still a fair number of shops open. Around the outer edge are proper shops selling fabrics or bootleg clothing. In the center were people with tables (or stuff on the floor) full of antiques and various other broken old things as well as household goods and clothes. I loved it.

Our next failed touristing attempt came we tried to visit the Magic Fountain. I chalk this failure up to translation error of Catalan. I guess I was assuming that it was similar enough to Spanish to be able to get the picture of the visiting hours. So we ended up arriving in time for the summer show, which was at least an hour late for when the winter shows happen. So we missed out on the fountain lighting up to music.

Instead we wandered around the nearby square where some pro-independence protesters were blocking traffic. We made our way to the top of Arenas De Barcelona shopping mall, which looks like a Roman amphitheater with Moorish embellishments, and watched the ensuing drama. There weren’t very many protesters, and police eventually unblocked traffic and then there was some shuffling about and re-positioning of the protesters and police. All in all it seemed pretty tame, and almost no one even had any signs with them.

We decided that we had to see the main Gaudí attraction in Barcelona: La Sagrada Familia Basilica. It’s an epic modern church that still isn’t finished after more than 100 years, but they are working on finishing it. The outside is amazing. It’s weird and imposing and interesting. For example there are bouquets of fruit on spires and dragons. I love it. After so many churches and temples on this trip, this one definitely stands out. I personally like the SW side and Christina was more of a fan of the cave-like NE side. Unfortunately though they’ve put up an ugly security barrier around the church. I’m sure Gaudí would not be happy with that addition.

To see the inside of the church it’s a pretty hefty entrance fee. I’m not so offended by this one since the church is still being built and it’s a huge tourist attraction, but I’m still not keen on paying to enter Christian churches for a number of reasons and the fee was just too high for our budget. So we were lucky to be able to attend mass at the church. It’s free, but only happens once on regular Sundays and other holy days (here is the schedule).

We went early on a Sunday morning. The official queue is supposed to start at 8:30 am for the 9:00 am mass but we got there at 8:15 and were about midway in the group. The mass was an interesting mix of languages. Mostly conducted in Latin, but the readings and homily switched between Catalan, Spanish, French, Italian, English and a little bit of German for good measure.

After the mass there were about 10 minutes where we were allowed to hang out inside. The whole group of people pretty much instantly started wandering around photographing after we said our “Thanks be to God” at the end of mass. It is really beautiful inside, with vibrant stained glass casting rainbow light on to the white walls.

The one thing we didn’t get to do, that we would have for the normal 15 euro tour was climb the towers using the beautiful spiral staircases. So I can’t really pass proper judgement, but I think the main feature of the church is the exterior and overall, to see the inside, mass is the way to go though. And to any non-Christians reading this, don’t be intimidated, it’s a rather welcoming set up. Just follow the majority of people when standing or kneeling and know that nobody else there can actually understand what’s going on either.

Since we got up so early, by our standards, to go to mass at Sagrada Familia, we actually had time that afternoon to do a second tourist activity in the same day. We went for a run up to the Montjuic Castle. It was a pleasant but steep run. We chose to go on Sunday because it’s free entry to the castle. I’m really glad we did. There isn’t really anything there to see; I don’t know why they charge an entry fee. But you get a nice view over the city at least and the surrounding area makes the hike up worth it.

From there we ran back down the hill and stopped by the Olympic stadium (fyi: you can run there on the last Sunday of the month). Then we headed down further to see the wacky art deco communications tower nearby in a big open plaza area. It was really cool with the setting sun.

On Christmas Eve we headed out in the evening to do the modernism walking tour that we found online (pdf map). Some of it was kinda cool, some was a let down. But it was a pleasant walk around the city. Many of the buildings you can pay to go inside, but we were happy looking at the outside, and some of the night-time lighting was really cool, especially at Casa Batlló (in blue).

We did the tour in the reverse order, so at the end we arrived at the Palau Theatre. We had purchased tickets to a flamenco show so we got to the see the inside as well. It’s a gorgeous theater with really cool tile work and sculptures and stained glass. Unfortunately the nose bleed seats weren’t the greatest. They needed a little bit more of a step up between the rows. It was a lot of peering around the backs of heads for me. But the show was quite good with really great Spanish guitar music.

The finally, it was Christmas! I was worried that everything was going to be closed leading up to and following Christmas, but it really wasn’t so bad. Most things were just closed on Christmas morning. We had bought enough groceries to carry us easily through the day so we didn’t even go out much.

On Christmas we stayed in the hostel pretty much all day except for a short trip outside for a ring work out. That evening we laid out a huge snack spread with all sorts of cheese, crackers, jamón, and pickled items. Then we watched Die Hard, ate, and drank champagne. Merry Christmas!

Then the next day we left for the airport for Morocco. On the topic of getting to the airport (often complicated via public transit) I did some research and only got this handful of copy/pasted SEO tourism sites that I have learned to equally hate and also rely on. In this case they were utterly useless. They all quote some L9 line which leaves from city center and requires a special expensive ticket (which also doesn’t allow transfers to other transit lines). I don’t know why the L9 line exists.

The actual way to get to the airport is to take the R2 train, which conveniently for us stops by Barcelon Sants, and uses the regular transit tickets that allow transfers to all the other public transit lines in Barcelona. It takes the same amount of time as the L9.

The only catch is that the R2 line drops you off at the domestic terminal and we had to take a shuttle bus to the international departures terminal T1. This wouldn’t be a bit deal but it’s a really long shuttle bus ride. I think it was just driving out of the way for fun. There was a sign in the terminal that said it was just a 1.5 km walk, but it took at good 15 minutes at highway speeds on the bus. Anyway, I’m glad I figured out that we could take the normal trains, but very frustrated that the internet didn’t help me out on that one, we only figured this out with the help of the hostel staff.

Once at the airport we were spent our last few euro coins enjoying some vending coffees while we waited to our flight to depart to the final country on our travels: Morocco.

Paris & Lyon: snails for lunch, the Eiffel Tower, and surprise lions

December 10, 2018
by Dan and Christina

~Dan~

With the family we took the Eurostar from London to Paris. Once we got settled into our AirBnB our first order of business was going out to a nearby bakery to score some macaroons. My sister is a bit of a fan and has made some herself, so we had tons of fun trying the bakery versions vs the supermarket ones. Also obtained was wine and baguettes. Fun side note on baguettes: you might think it’s a stereotype of the French, but the number of folks that we saw just wandered down the street with a baguette in hand was astounding.

After dinner we went to attend Saturday evening mass at Sacre Cour. The cathedral is perched on top of a huge hill. The view of the city is phenomenal and we got a nice look at the Eiffel tower all lit up and sparkly. The interior of the church is rather simple except for an enormous mural of Jesus, which was pretty cool.

The next day was our only full day in town with the family, and so we went pretty hard with the tourism. Our first stop was the allegedly most visited museum in the world: the Louvre. I had read that the lines to get in were pretty long, and we were going on a Sunday, which had me worried. We got a late start and arrived at noon, but there were hardly any lines for the security or the tickets!

Once inside we bee-lined as a group to the crowds surrounding the Mona Lisa. From there we split up to explore independently for two hours. Not only is the art in there fantastic, the architecture and lighting plays a big part of the experience. I wasn’t expecting to be so in love with the visit. [Note from Christina: The ceilings of the building were one of my favorite parts!]

I didn’t realize at all how massive the Louvre is. Just walking the whole building at a leisurely pace would probably take the better part of an hour. So there is absolutely no way to see the whole place in 2 hours or, really for the matter, a whole day. Still we all had pretty serious museum fatigue at the end of two hours (this is a real medical condition, trust me, I’m a doctor). We pretty much all agreed that if we were to do it again it would require packing snacks (yes that’s allowed… I know right!?) and maybe taking a strategic nap or two on a bench inside the museum.

After our allotted two hours we wandered off for food. Unfortunately the area around the Louvre really sticks it to you for a simple mediocre meal. Again, I really wish I knew about that snack situation.

Following lunch we paid a visit to Notre Dame Cathedral. The outside is super impressive, but I didn’t know much at all about the interior. Turns out, this was what the cathedral level in Time Splitters 2 was based on. It’s pretty obvious in hindsight, but it was fun to recognize while I was there. The stained glass was very impressive.

From there we headed to the Eiffel tower. We arrived a bit after sunset. It was cool to see it all lit up, but we were really hoping to go inside the tower during the day, so that was postponed until the next day. After having some fun photo shoots, we headed home and pretty much collapsed for the day.

The next morning we checked out of the AirBnB and stored our bags in the Gare du Nord station. We were able to get everyone’s things into two large lockers, so that worked out pretty well.

The next item on the agenda was to go out for a proper French meal.

I did some research on this and a ‘proper French meal’ in Paris generally means something super fancy and is described with words like “daring” and “inventive”. Not really what any of us cared about. But I found Le Bouillon Chartier which seemed to be a fine dining experience of classic French food for the common person. The prices were reasonable, the food was tasty, the atmosphere was nice. It was perfect. The main complaint of the place is that it’s busy and they shuffle people in and out too quickly. As a normal American family that wouldn’t typically bother us. But also we were on a tight schedule today so reading complaints about a place with service that is fast (by European standards no less) was perfect for us.

We were the slow part and took a long time to order food. But we were all super happy with what we got. The main event was the escargot. Christina and I were super proud of my sister who tried a snail (there may be a video of this…). My parents had never had snails before, either. My mom went into the meal willing to try just one, but then she ended up absolutely loving them. Way to go mom! And they are really quite delicious.

Then we were on a mission: summit the Eiffel tower or bust. To get into the ticket booth, you have to pass through security. The entire area below the tower is walled off and there is only one entrance on the north east side. Once through security we got worried when we saw the huge line to go up the tower. Luckily that was for the people getting tickets to take the lift up the whole thing. We were planning to walk up the first bit, which is my preferred approach for towers.

The line for the stairs was way shorter, and the tickets are less expensive. We opted to get the tickets that would take us all the way to the top which, no matter what, requires an elevator ride from the second floor viewing platform. It’s possible to buy the tickets in advance but only for the lifts, to walk the steps it seems that you have to buy the tickets in person.

It’s a pretty long hike up to the second stage. We were all worried about the line for the second elevator, but it turns out that it wasn’t so long at all. And the rather small viewing platform at the very top was also surprisingly not very crowded. All in all we spent about 1.5 hrs there. The view from the top is pretty great. I think the most interesting aspect of the city is that the skyline is minimal except for this one patch of skyscrapers off to the NE far from the center of town.

We then went straight back to Gare du Nord station to get the family on their train back to London, and their flight back out of Heathrow. We had a bit of a scary moment when their storage locker was out of order and wouldn’t open, but it didn’t take too long to sort out. So we got them to the Eurostar check in on time! It was really great to have my family join us and see what our life has been like for the last year and a half. I think that they had a good experience, and I hope we inspired some further travel adventures for them. It was great to have you guys visit!

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Once they were on their way, Christina and I had a few hours to kill before meeting up with out Couchsurfing host Anais. We went to meet her and hung out and watched a movie together before bed.

The next day out we didn’t have much planned other than to walk around the city. We really expected to be able to find a nice cafe or library and hang out. This turned out to be more challenging than anticipated. First off cafes are only really open from around 11 am to 5 pm maybe. And even then they are not really places to hang out for very long. It’s more of a midday break sort of thing for French people. That was hard to wrap my head around and I wasn’t super comfortable with the concept of not being able to buy coffee at 8 am. Early morning coffee is not a thing in France, or at least, Paris.

After a pastry at a boulangerie with no WiFi, we found a promising free library near to the Eiffel tower, Bibliotheque Amelie. It was promising mostly because it was open at 10 am… compared to 1 pm for most of the other libraries. The hours kept in Paris were very strange for us. The library is tucked away up a set of stairs inside of some courtyard with government offices. We arrived only to find out that it was closed that day for staff training, but we ended up sitting in the waiting room chairs outside the library and using the WiFi anyway. Plus there was a bathroom and a really cheap coffee machine downstairs, so it all worked out.

We went to take a look at the Champ Elysees, which was pretty boring except for the lights and saw the Arc de Triomphe. By triumph arch standards, it’s pretty impressive. Christina got a short run in before we went to buy some groceries for dinner and meet Anais back at the house.

Christina was inspired by a veggie sushi dish that she had in London which was fake eel sushi made with sauteed eggplant. I was skeptical of recreating this, but it turned out quite perfectly. She just sauteed slices of eggplant in butter and soy sauce and they were amazing. We used apple cider vinegar for the rice and it actually turned out close enough to sushi rice. It was pretty amazing work with limited ingredients.

The next morning we said farewell to Anais (Thank you so much! It was lovely to meet you!) and took off early. We made our way over to the bus station near Bercy. We had some time to kill before our bus. It was cold and the not-open-early cafe situation was pretty dire. Even the Burger King wasn’t open yet. Luckily we were able to pay a visit to the Francois Mitterrand Library. This place is massive, with a forest courtyard in the center. I don’t even know what all is in the four huge towers attached to it.

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To get in you have to go through security. They didn’t mind our huge backpacks even though they were clearly well above the specified limit. There was tons of space to work and free WiFi. It was all very cool and modern. This is definitely a great place to do some work in Paris.

When it was time, we made our way across a cool icy pedestrian bridge to the bus station. It was a bit of a waste land, but they seem to be trying to liven the place up. We hopped on our Flixbus to Lyon.

~Christina~

We were quite surprised to discover that the bus stopped for bathroom breaks every 1.5 hours, and this is a bus that has an on-board bathroom! After the long haul buses in Latin America and Southeast Asia, where at one point we had to argue vociferously for a bathroom stop on a long haul bus with no bathroom, this was a pleasant shock.

We arrived at Lyon and took the metro to our AirBnB, a private room in a shared apartment. Our plan was to just have some downtime and not do much after the visit with the family. Our hosts, Alex and Louisa, were very social folks, and they had friends over a few times during the week, inviting us to join, but mostly we just cooked our meals in and puttered around the house.

One day we went out for lunch to meet Janet, the mother of my friend Matt. Matt grew up in Lyon and is now living elsewhere, but he put us in touch (many thanks!). We met her at Les Gamins de la Place, where we enjoyed savory and sweet crepes with cider, and had a nice chat about travel and research. Thank you so much Janet, it was lovely to meet you.

Despite the cold, we found a time to go for a run in the Parc de la Tête d’Or near our the apartment. It houses a large botanical garden, a zoo, and a velodrome. It was the first time I’ve ever had a surprise lion on my run, which made the pack of deer a little later a bit less impressive.

The velodrome was closed, but we took a peek at it as we ran by, and interrupted our run to visit the botanical garden, which was free.

We made a point to go downtown and have a bite to eat. The main street was lit up pleasantly for Christmas, and the buildings on the Fourvière hill, including the basilica and the court house, also had some very nice architectural lighting.

We ate flat breads and enjoyed happy hour beers at Flam’s Lyon restaurant, which has a all you can eat deal, but I somehow managed to avoid overeating, though exactly how, I’ll never know.

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I returned to the park on another day to do a ring workout, and was very discouraged to discover that though there was lots of playground equipment, there were no monkey or pull up bars to hang the rings on. Also, there were giraffes. Hi.

I nearly gave up, but then I found a nice tree and had a pretty pleasant work out, and I was very proud of myself for managing it despite the cold.

And so, after five pleasantly relaxed days in Lyon, we made our way back to the bus station, and our next destination: Barcelona!

 

 

London & Surrounds: the Eye, the Tower, an enigma machine, and more than one henge!

November 29, 2018
by Dan and Christina

~Christina~

Once seated on the Eurostar I fell dead asleep and woke up on the other side of the channel at international arrivals in St. Pancras. From there we made our way to the Piccadilly line and to Uxbridge to visit with my friend Chamini. Chamini is a friend and neighbor from my Japan days, and we got to see her briefly earlier in the trip when we had a long layover in Heathrow.

 

When Chamini got home from work we headed out to The Fig Tree pub for dinner and drinks. I got a pie! Christmas decorations were also in full swing.

 

The next day while Chamini was at work we knocked about the house, then I made my way to Southampton to give a talk to a local chapter of my professional organization.

 

I spent the night in Southampton, and in the morning before going to the university to give my talk, I got to eat a full English Breakfast at my accommodation! There were the usual (for an American) things, like sausage, bacon, and yogurt, but there was also deep fried toast (!), baked beans, fresh tomatoes, and sauteed mushrooms. Asking some Brits later, it sounds like this is more of a special weekend type affair, not a typical daily meal.

 

After giving my talk I returned to Uxbridge in the afternoon. That evening Dan, Chamini and I went to try out a local Asian fusion restaurant Javitri, and tried the famous butter chicken aka Chicken Tikka Masala, which is now considered one of the national dishes of England? It was only okay in my estimation, but later another restaurant would change my mind…

 

The next day the three of us went into town where we paid a visit to Paddington Station and the Paddington Bear statue, got a pint, then saw the Sherlock Holmes house gift shop at 221B Baker St. a formerly fictional address, but no longer!

 

From there we had a nice walk, taking in all the Christmas lights, and made our way to meet my friend Keri! Keri and I were lab mates many moons ago back in college, and we probably had not seen each other since she graduated (she was a year ahead of me) over 10 years ago. Keri’s boyfriend Paul (who was also wearing Feiyue shoes) joined us as well, and we chatted over drinks and got some fish and chips.

 

And here I present to you a photograph of three PhD scientists. Isn’t that nice! So good to see you again Keri, and so nice to meet you Paul! I hope we see each other again soon.

 

After that our little trio returned to Uxbridge to turn in for the night. The next day we paid a visit to a boot sale. The Brits don’t have garage sales, they have boot sales, where traditionally stuff is sold out of the boots (trunks) of vehicles. It’s not a place to buy boots. This was a mix of tables in doors and proper boots out in the parking lot.

 

Next up, we paid a visit to the London Science Museum, where we saw some cool exhibits including historic calculating machines, an enigma machine, and various communication system exhibits, just to name a few. It’s a high caliber museum and free, and I highly recommend it.

 

From there we went to Camden Market to see the sights and get a bite to eat. We enjoyed the food stalls, walked around, had a coffee, the finished up with a pint at a cool indie pub called Black Heart.

 

After that we returned home for our last night in Uxbridge. Chamini, it was lovely to see you and catch up! Thank you so much for having us to stay!

 

 

~Dan~

It was raining the next morning when we departed from Uxbridge. Christina went to the airport to pick up our visitors: my parents and little sister! I headed off with our bags to check into our Airbnb (referral sign up link if you want to score both of us some $$) in the Shoreditch neighborhood.

I preparation for their arrival I made a ploughman’s lunch, which is simple yet delicious. I bought it exactly one at a pub before realizing that it’s the easiest pub food to make for yourself. It’s some bread, a huge slice of butter, an even huger slice of cheese, some raw onions, maybe some ham, and pickles.

The pickles are the tricky bit if you’re outside of the UK. There are two types of uniquely British pickles that I’ve come across. The first is Branston’s, which are diced root vegetables in a kind of BBQ type sauce. The second is piccalilli, my personal favorite, which is a mix of veggies, including cauliflower, in a spiced mustard sauce. It’s all just snack food, but it feels good when an entire country supports me in calling it a meal.

When Christina and the family arrived we settled in and had a nice chat over the food.

 

To keep everyone awake and stimulated so they wouldn’t fall asleep too early, that night we headed back to Camden market. It was a big hit with the family because of all the great souvenir shopping. They had some good deals on souvenirs and the Brits have wonderfully calm markets. The bargaining was easy and no pressure from any of the vendors. We arrived a bit late in the day so some of the shops were “shutting”, but it was still a great outing.

 

The next day we started some whirlwind touristing. In general I think it was pretty manageable for the family, but it was definitely a higher tempo than Christina and I were used to. The first day we went out to see the Tower of London. First off, it’s not a tower so much as a castle, but you say flat, I say apartment, so whatever. On the way we stopped by some ruins of the old Roman wall from the days of Londinium.

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I was a bit nervous about the ticket line at the Tower, but we were in low season and there was exactly zero line for tickets or to enter. We joined one of the free tours lead by a Yeoman (beefeater). While the tour wasn’t super dense with information, our guide was quite entertaining. It was definitely worth the wait, though if it had been actively raining it would have been a bit miserable.

 

The tower of London has some notable features, and one in particular that I would like to mention. They keep a number of ravens with clipped wings at the tower to satisfy some superstitions. One of them decided to glide into the chapel as our tour group was entering. For myself, who am ever so slightly scared to death of birds, it was not entirely a welcome experience. There was also a bit of a kerfuffle when one of the ravens swooped down to snag some school kid’s lunch.

After the tour we wandered on our own. We saw the crown jewels of England. Again there was no line, but apparently there is often a lengthy wait. You get shuffled through rather quickly, but presumably I saw the Kohinoor which England stole from India (or some of their neighbors, depending on who you ask, but I know that India is particularly sour about the situation). Man-made diamonds are far superior so I don’t really care for these things, but I do have a bit of a beef with England for holding on to precious items stolen from its colonies, especially when they are kept in places with entry fees.

From there we visited the area dedicated to torture. I was quite pleased that this exhibit didn’t go into too much detail and was kept small. Finally, we made it to the white tower. Again, not a tower so much as what I would call just a building. But it was one of my favorite exhibits, full of armor and swords and generally cool castle stuff. It was easily my favorite part.

 

When we left the Tower we took a Thames river ferry from the London tower down to the London Eye Ferris wheel. The ferries are part of the public transportation system, incredibly slow, and pretty expensive, but it’s a great tourist thing to do. They are also super posh with a cafe on board and everything. I’m not really sure if they are used in a practical sense for anything but tourists.

At the London eye, I took a break and the rest of everyone went on the ride. I was a bit glad to have the family around for this part. I’m not a huge fan of Ferris wheels, but Christina is. They got on at probably a perfect time. The first half of the ride was during the sunset and the last bit got them some views of the city being lit up for night. They also got a great view of Big Ben covered in scaffolding for repair. JK.

 

For the next activity we broke up into boys and girls. The girls headed off to afternoon tea which consisted of massive pillars of cakes and sweets. Christina had been very excited about having a proper English tea, and my mom treated her for her birthday (thanks Mom!). They went to the Wolseley, which Christina selected based on this London afternoon tea review article. It was everything she had hoped for, including a fancy multi-tier tray.

 

Meanwhile, my dad and I headed off to a pub for a few pints, and we all reconvened at the Lego Store near Piccadilly Circus which has some pretty pretty cool displays.

 

The next morning we woke up early to catch the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace. I personally found this to be a miserable experience, but everyone else found it amusing to various degrees. My view was more or less restricted to a sea of tiny mobile phone screens in front of my face. There is lots of pushing and shoving and mounted police shouting at the crowd during the ordeal [Note from Christina: Listening to the mounted officer offering loud verbal beat downs to transgressors was actually very satisfying for whatever reason]. Even during low tourist season in the rain, it was packed. I highly recommend that you never go. But if you do, this guide was pretty useful.

 

From there we got lunch and then we went to visit the Churchill War Rooms. I have mixed feelings about the museum. On one hand, it’s cool to get to go through the actual bunkers were much of the Allied war was directed from. It’s nearly perfectly preserved, since the bunkers were abruptly abandoned at the end of the war. My favorite part was a room full of graphs tracking estimates of various war time supplies of the Nazis.

So that part was pretty cool, but the main museum section was dedicated to Churchill. I find the guy pretty interesting, but I felt like the museum was a bit incoherent. On my own I would have probably prioritized going to the Imperial War Museum because it’s free, but also would have covered more aspects of WWII.

 

That concluded our London visitation, as we had another big destination outside of the city: Stonehenge. This was one of the more logistically challenging aspects of the trip, but I am really glad we did it. While there are some tour companies that take you from London on a day trip and they aren’t too expensive, but we aren’t generally big fans of organized tours. And with 5 people it became economical just rent a car, since there’s no direct public transit available.

To rent the car we went through Enterprise at St. Pancras station. They were really great to deal with. There is one office with like 5 different companies all set up there so it’s probably all about equal. One thing to note about car rentals in London is that the city center is a congestion zone and if you enter it, you’ll be charged about 12 pounds for the day. St Pancras is right at the edge of this zone. Luckily it’s a straight shot out of the city to get to Stonehenge, but you want to be careful not to accidentally make a detour into city center.

We could only include two drivers on the rental and since my mother made the reservation, I was the second driver. Christina and I had gotten used to driving on the left in New Zealand, and I had some additional practice biking in Japan. The catch was now we had a manual transmission. I can drive a manual, our dear Harvey was manual, but with the driver on the right hand side of the car and operating the stick with my left hand, I was uncertain how difficult that switch would be.

As it turns out, it was pretty easy. If I wasn’t already used to driving on the left side of the road, it would have been a lot more stressful. But I had that part down. The shifter and pedals are all in the same orientation, i.e. not mirrored. So it’s still a little backwards and shifting with my left hand was a little awkward, but I just tried to shift without thinking about it and let instincts take over. It worked out just fine.

So we had the car for one day. We got up bright and early and headed off to the small town of Avebury. We were recommended by two people to go here, one of them an archaeologist, because it’s home to an enormous (but less famous) henge and you’re able to walk right up next to the stones.

 

To visit the Avebury henge it’s necessary to pay for parking at the Red Lion pub. It was super cheap, probably because it was off-season. The inn itself has a really epic thatched roof and we had a quick lunch there after our visit to the henge. They had great fish and chips and everyone was super friendly to us yanks.

 

We rushed off from Avebury and did some drive by touristing of the Silbury Hill. I dunno, it was a big mound. It’s not possible to climb and we were tight on time, hence the drive by on the way to the West Kennet Long Barrow, which is an ancient burial tomb that you can go inside. It was most notable to me because it reminded me of the scene in Conan the Barbarian where he finds his sword. CROM!!!

 

 

Then we hustled off to Stonehenge. It was not very crowded this time of year and so there was no waiting and hardly any crowds. Apparently they’ve changed the access recently. There used to be a road going very close to the stones, but now you have to take a shuttle bus from the visitor center. There’s no hot dog stands or tchotchke shops adjacent to it, as we had heard. It was crazy cold and windy when we visited, but we were super lucky that it had stopped raining and we even got some really beautiful lighting before sunset.

 

 

After sunset we headed off to Stonehenge Inn nearby, where we got a crazy good deal for a large 5 person family room. It was a classic inn sort of experience. We checked in and went downstairs to the pub for some dinner and drinks. In the morning we got a classic British breakfast (beans on toast and all that, see Christina’s discussion above).

 

We took off early the next morning to return the car before we headed off to Paris on the Eurostar. We actually got there early enough that we had a few hours to kill. Christina and my sister went off for some conveyor belt sushi and across the street to King’s Cross station to see Platform 9 3/4. It was a total mess with huge crowds of people to look at a wall with a shopping cart buried in it that is no where near any of the actual platforms.

 

[Note from Christina: Just for fun I am throwing in a vintage photo. This is me, at King’s Cross, aged 15, in early 2000.]

That concluded our travels in England! Next up, the family goes to Paris!

 

 

Brussels, Belgium: beer, mussels, comic strips, and Atomium

28 November, 2018
by Christina

We arrived to Brussels armed with information for how to leave the airport on foot, and found our way to a small pub nearby in Cafe’t Hoeskske. There we drank Chimay and ate a cold sausage dish while waiting for the friends we were staying with to get out of work. The pub owners also permitted us to bring in kebab from a nearby shop (since the kitchen was closed) while we hung out, which was nice.

When he was finished with work, my friend Jean-luc came to pick us up. I met Jean-luc at a professional event way back in 2009 and we’ve stayed in touch since. Once back at the house we got settled in and had a home cooked dinner with Jean-luc and Geneviève. Over the next several days we got to have several family dinners, including with their two children, which was really lovely.

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The next day we took the train into town to do a little touristing. We took a walk around town and to see the famous Manneken Pis, which is a small statue/fountain of a boy peeing that has become incredibly popular, as you can see by the quantity of tourists. He even has a huge wardrobe of clothes (he was dressed in a blue robe the day we visited him), with some of the garments having been gifts from other countries.

From there we walked further to the Grand Place, which is the central square in Brussels, and it has some truly epic and beautiful architecture, including the City Hall which is the largest building on the square.

Right off the Gran Place we went to the chocolate shop Leonidas, and got some freshly made Belgian chocolates, which were delicious. We ended up preferring the more traditional chocolate and caramel focused flavors, and were less fascinated with the fruit flavors, though we did give some a shot.

Next up was a visit to Jeanneke Pis, a small statue/fountain of a girl squatting to pee, though this one isn’t as popular as Manneken Pis, but does get quite a few visitors nonetheless.

She is also adjacent to the Delirium village, where there are several bars and cafes run by the Delirium brewery (you know it as the one with the pink elephant). We stopped in and tried the Guillotine, Tremens, and the Christmas brews. We agreed that the Christmas was the best of the set.

That night back at home we got to enjoy a dish known as “Raclette“. This involves melting cheese over potatoes, accompanied by deli meats and salad. The modern way to do the melting is a fancy contraption with little wedge shaped trays to put the cheese in for heating. It is a cold-weather Christmas time food, so it was a little early for it, but it’s the kids’ favorite, and for good reason. It was wonderful.

The next day we went out for a run with a local running club, which was on a picturesque trail through the woods. It was cold, but the foggy fall weather in the forest was stunning.

When we were home from the run and got cleaned up, we were in for a real treat: Geneviève showed us how to cook mussels! It involves mostly washing of the mussels repeatedly in the sink, discarding any that have broken shells, and then cooking them in a large pot with butter, veggies, and wine, and no added water. It was delicious! And something we will likely prepare at home assuming we can find a good supplier of mussels.

On our third day, we went to visit Atomium: a enormous structure/statue of unit cell of an iron crystal that was constructed for the World’s Fair back in 1958. (Can we have the World’s Fair back? It also gave us the Eiffel Tower.) I thought it looked really cool in the sort of grey hazy weather, even if it wasn’t the most comfortable time to be outside.

From there we headed back into city center to see the European Parliament Hemicycle. It’s free to visit, you just have to go through the security screening to get into the building. They have an app that you’re supposed to be able to use for a tour, but it was un-downloadable on the provided free wifi. Keep trying guys! We thought the hemicycle itself was very pretty and sat to enjoy it for a while.

Something I found amusing on the way out, and imagined couldn’t be a coincidence was the park adjacent to the hemicycle building with a bunch of ostriches with their heads buried in the dirt… except one. I couldn’t find a plaque, so I don’t know.

I did find a few articles online as I prepared this post, and one of them states that “No one seems to know anything about the 12 ostrich sculptures that stand in the Parc Léopold next to the European Parliament. Seven of them have their heads buried in the sand, while the other five are standing up [I didn’t notice the other 4 evidently]. One English tabloid newspaper saw the birds as symbolising the European Union. But they got the story wrong. The birds were put up as a reminder that the park was originally a zoo, founded back in 1850 but closed in 1900.” But why ostriches? Hmph. Not sure I buy it.

The next day we went to see the St Michael and St Gudula Cathedral, which is beautiful architecture and a lot of stained glass. There’s also a lovely pipe organ, though we did not get to hear it. Entry was free!

We got some classic Belgian snacks after that, waffles and frites (no, they’re not French fries!). Weirdly, there was this creepy frite statue out front of the shop that was exactly like one we saw in Egypt at a long-haul bus stop.

We then took a tour of the comic book route around city center. Comics are a very important part of Belgian culture, and there are many murals of famous comics all around town, as we noticed on the way to see Manneken Pis. I’m not very familiar with many of them, but I found a suggested route here and it was a nice walk. Here are just a few of the murals I saw.

That evening we met up for drinks at Brasserie du Lombard with Jean-luc, Geneviève, and my friend Anna, who also works in Brussels, and I am still kicking myself for forgetting to get a photo! Blast! But it was lovely to see Anna and to introduce her to JL&G, even though she couldn’t stay long. Afterwards we went to have dinner nearby at In ‘t Spinnekopke and enjoyed a delicious traditional Belgian meal (I got the boulets), complete with profiteroles.

On the way back to the metro we encountered the final of the pissing statues: Het Zinneke. This one is not a fountain like the other two, but it’s counted as part of the family.

The next morning we bid farewell to JL&G before heading into town. It was really wonderful to get to spend time with you guys! We had a great time, thank you so much for everything!

Our next stop on our journey was London, via Eurostar, but before our train left we got to go to lunch with a friend that I made in Japan, where we stayed to together at the Sakura House in Kyoto for several days. Kathleen doesn’t live in Brussels, but she was in town so we got a chance to catch up! Good to see you again!

After that, we hopped on our train and we were off for the UK!

Berlin, Germany: currywurst, running on the tarmac, and the Bundestag

November 20, 2018
by Dan (with short interlude by C)

From Vienna we took a train to Berlin with a short layover in Prague. We have visited Prague several years ago and thought it would be fun to see it with a new perspective. All in all we didn’t have time to see much. We spent most of our time wandering around with our bags in search of a place to eat.

Prague seems to be pretty dead (during November) on Saturdays, especially outside of the main tourist area. And since they aren’t on the euro, we had to find a place that could accept a credit card for payment, which further reduced our options. After much walking up hills, we finally found a small little place to some pilsner and snacks.

We then did exactly one tourist thing: we went to see the very odd Zizkov TV tower. Besides falling hopelessly in love with pilsner, this tv tower is one of the things that I remember most vividly from the first trip to Prague. It’s a weirdly shaped building, like something you would definitely build in Sim City. Apparently people hated it at the time and to make it more likable they added giant crawling babies to the side of it. I think it’s quit emblematic of Eastern European weird and silly. Unfortunately the babies were removed last year for maintenance and haven’t made their way back onto the tower yet.

[Baby-free photo is Christina’s, baby-ful photo is grabbed off the interwebs for your comparing pleasure. You can find more by image searching “tv tower babies”]

After that we made our way back to the train station to continue our journey to Berlin.

We arrived in Berlin late and I was a bit sick, so Christina rushed out for some groceries. The one thing that I find unbearable about Germany is that exactly everything (i.e. grocery stores) is closed on Sundays. I think there is a large enough Muslim population that they would work something out to have half of things closed on Sunday and others closed on Friday. Anyway, I’m glad we arrived with this knowledge from our previous trip to Munich, and that we were able to stock up for Sunday.

When looking at places to stay in Berlin, most affordable options seemed far from the city center. We ended up far on the west side of town at the Schoeneberg location of the Happy Go Lucky hostel. I was not happy with it. It is effectively a massive hotel (hundreds(?) of rooms) where the rooms converted into dorms. There was also no kitchen for guest use, which didn’t help the Sunday food situation. [Note from Christina: The staff we dealt with were very nice, but it was nothing like what we had wanted.]

The crappy hostel, bitter wet windy cold, and being sick weren’t a great start to the stay in Berlin but it all turned around from there. Berlin is a place that a lot of people really rave about, so I was suspicious, but once we started exploring the town, I ended up really liking it and wishing we could spend some more time getting to know the place.

Our first day out, we went to the “abandoned” Tempelhof Airport in the center of the city. I was expecting more abandonment than we found, but it was a lot of fun. This is the airport that was used in the Berlin Airlift to supply the Western half of the city with supplies. It was closed in 2008, but it wasn’t really abandoned so much as re-purposed. Supposedly there is a museum in the terminals, but we couldn’t find this and just encountered a lot of offices and closed doors.

It took a bit of wandering to find our way into the airfield, which was our main objective anyway. We found an entrance along the northern side of the field. Perhaps if we walked around the western edge we would have found the museum? Anyway we just wanted to just go for a run on the tarmac.

It’s a pretty large loop and with the wind and cold on that day we weren’t able to go for long. On a nicer day it would have been awesome to run there and even better to bike. I brought my small skateboard, and we determined that it is not compatible with Christina, who took a tumble off it. The best would be to do wind sports there, if we had that sort of skill/equipment. Because yes, that is a thing that happens there, and we did see someone out windsurfing (on skates?). There are also all sorts of community gardens and little parks.

After the run we went to look for the local specialty: currywurst. We visited Curry & Beer which was recommended to me by someone I met in Bosnia who used to work there. It’s not listed on google maps, but the location is 16 Warshauer. It was a really nice shop with pretty reasonable prices and the owner is really sweet. It’s also in one of my favorite parts of town. [Black frites! Made from fried, truffled, mashed potatoes?]

Now, what is currywurst? It’s a sausage sprinkled in curry powder and then covered in ketchup. So much ketchup. Its really simple and surprisingly delicious. Probably not something I would crave very often, but really nice if you want something different and cheap. We had them a few times at different street vendors. They are also usually served with fries but additional sauce for the fries, like ketchup or mayo, costs extra. That blew my mind. It wasn’t just a couple cents either, it was as much at 0.80 euro. But don’t worry the currywurst is plenty saucy.

Curry & Beer was right next to this re-purposed warehouse district, which we visited next. I actually don’t know what the area was, but it was everything that I imagined from Berlin. Old warehouses covered in graffiti that are probably “the coolest nightclubs in all of Europe” *said with strong German accent* where you have to stand in line for many hours and wear all black and look to be the most serious nihilistic party person (this last bit was actual, albeit paraphrased, advice for getting into a Berlin nightclub). Basically it was a perfect parody of the Berlin that I had in my head. So rarely in life do naive expectations match the real world that I found this delightful.

The point of this excursion during the day was to find a teledisko, which is a telephone booth converted into a mini-night club. You pay a couple euros and then select a song from the touch screen outside and the door will unlock. Inside you can fit maybe 3 people and try to dance to the song in a tiny space with a fog machine and crazy flashing lights. Probably it would be quite silly fun in the middle of the night of drinking. As it was, we went in the middle of the day and picked a terrible song (you have all of spotify to choose from so come with something ahead of time).

After a few minutes of dancing we headed to see the East Side gallery which is a large section of the Berlin wall that is covered in murals and graffiti. There were a few really cool murals along the way. If it wasn’t so crazy cold we would have probably spent a lot longer walking the length of this section of the wall.

After that we paid a visit to the Allied museum in Berlin. It covered the post war years and the management and reconstruction/rehabilitation of the western half of Germany  as managed by the Americans, French, and English. A large portion of the museum was also dedicate to the Berlin airlift. In general I found the exhibit a bit too feel-good. It felt like propaganda, but there was some interesting facts to be found. They have a plane that was used in the airlift outside. We were too late to go inside, but the cockpit looked plastered over so maybe it wouldn’t have been too interesting anyway.

Ashleigh, friend of Christina’s from high school, came to meet us there. She and Christina hadn’t caught up since probably 2003, and since then she’s become a zoo archaeologist, which was amazing to learn about. We went out for dinner at Heidelbeere tavern which was full of old stodgy Germans, the sort of cultural experience that I always am excited about. They gave us lots funny stares and sour looks when Christina laughed (this will not surprise you if you have heard Christina’s laugh). It was really good to see you Ashleigh!

The next day we arranged a visit to the German Parliament Bundestag building. It’s free to visit, but needs to be arranged in advance. The visit takes you to a huge glass dome above the place were parliament sits. It’s designed to allow natural light and air into the space below. They say that it symbolizes the transparency of the German political system… but most of it is made from mirrored surfaces so I don’t know if they really thought that analogy through enough. Anyway, it was a really really cool space to walk around and take pictures.

[Note from Christina: So many pictures! It’s a treat as both a hobbyist photographer and an architecture fan. There’s also a free audio tour that knows where you are and gives tidbits based on your location on the ramp, and stops talking if you move away from the thing it’s talking about.]

We then continued with a visit to the Brandenburg gate, followed by tour of the relatively new monument dedicated to Jews murdered in Europe. It was a very abstract memorial consisting of rectangular pillars of various heights. It evoked a surreal and disorienting feeling as you walked through it.

We finished off the day by visiting Checkpoint Charley. It was really silly, and more like a Disney reproduction with some guards standing there trying to get money for taking pictures with them. The most comical aspect was the heavy presence of US fast food chains in the area.

That afternoon we moved to 12 Monkeys minihostel. It was a welcome change from the Happy Go Lucky hostel. It was quite tiny (it only sleeps 12) but cozy. There was a basic kitchen and the staff and owner were really delightful and cool to hang out with. Also the location was far superior in terms of getting into town.

Speaking of transit in Berlin, I was rather surprised. I knew already that German train systems are pretty confusing with multiple tariff zones and a dizzying array of ticket types, but usually with all the frustration comes pretty reliable trains. Berlin had all the complexity and none of the reliability. Trains we consistently late and slow. At best it was comparable to DC’s metro system, which is great, if say you’ve ever lived in Florida and public transit is nil, but it’s kind of an embarrassment on a world wide scale.

~Christina’s Fitness Interlude~

As this is the first real winter experience we’ve had on the trip, I’ve had find ways to cope with the cold and get exercise. Sure, Peru was cold at high altitude, but November in Berlin is a different beast. So I went looking for gyms with day passes, and discovered FitX. They offer two free trial visits with an ID for them to hold (I used my driver’s license). I was somehow allowed to do this, so I ended up visiting twice, in two different locations.

They were pretty standard in most ways as gyms go, but two things stood out. One, they have a card system that lets you swipe in and out AND lets you select and use a locker in the changing area with a prox-card-based locking system. There is also an unlimited drinks station (with a house bottle that costs 3 euro from the vending machine) that offers still and sparkling water, and a variety of fruit-flavored sports drinks. I couldn’t resist so I bought a blender bottled and tried all the drinks. Sparkling mixed with the flower-symbol flavor (elderberry?) was my favorite. Also, the Llama mascot is fun.

My one complaint is that people seemed terrible about putting stuff away in the free weights area (and by people I mean dudes, it was mostly dudes). Bluh. Like, finished doing dead lifts and just leaving the fully loaded barbell on the Olympic lifting platform. Grrr. So much grrr. Overall though, I really liked FitX, and would probably buy a membership if I were to live in the area. And it’s good to know you can use it even as a traveler!

~End of Christina’s Fitness Interlude~

Our path out of Germany was one of the few flights that we took during this trip. We used Ryanair, which is a super low cost airline. It’s one of those discount airlines that try to nickel and dime you for everything. This was the first time that I flew one of these airlines in Europe so I went ahead and purchased the all-inclusive ticket, which is ~3x as expensive as the super low cost ticket that they quote, but I felt it was worth it. That way you know what you’re paying for without any surprises.

We were traveling to Belgium and this was not only way faster than bus or train, but it was also significantly cheaper even with the more expensive ticket. It also simplified all the stress about the size of your bag being accepted and all that. The only stress was making sure that we printed off our tickets beforehand. That will cost you 70 euros (!!!) if you want them to print it off at check-in. I really hate stupid games like that, but all in all the Ryanair ticket worked out well for us.

The weirdest aspect of using Ryanair out of Berlin is that you leave out of the Berlin Schoenefeld Airport. It’s not hard to get to, but it’s very strange. Half of it looks like it’s made out of shipping containers like some cool eco-vegan currywurst stand next to the teledisko. The lines were insanely long for everything and at one point we were included in a large group that was led outside into the cold (I put my jacket into checked luggage so this was not fun) like a large pack of confused ducklings, and then told (in German) to walk to some other terminal to check in.

Everything in the airside of the terminal looked like it was under construction and our gate wasn’t assigned until just before boarding. We were shuttled out to the plane and again waited in the cold to board. It was a weird experience, but it all worked out fine in the end.

I really liked Berlin. I think it would be an even cooler place to live than to visit, and I’m quite fond of the place and I look forward to visiting there again.

Vienna, Austria: sausages, waltzing, and famous dead people

November 17, 2018
by Dan

Waiting to greet us upon our arrival in Vienna was a wonderful friend we hadn’t seen in over a year. When we were couchsurfing in Costa Rica we met fellow traveler Kathi, who happened to be from Vienna. So we all made grand plans to catch up in Vienna over a year in the future, and as with most causal plans for the distance future, none of us were totally convinced it would happen… but it did! And it was wonderful!

On our first night Kathi had other guests in town, so she set us up with her friend Felix, who kindly hosted us sight unseen (thank you!!!). He lived out in Ottakring on the edge of town, home of the Ottakringer brewery and the popular Manner wafer cookie. He took us out for some dinner and drinks and we had a great time talking travel. On the way back we found a beer vending machine. They exist outside of Japan! But we couldn’t use these ones because we didn’t have an EU ID card for age verification.

The next day we moved over to Kathi’s place and had a lovely breakfast with her neighbor Sebastian, who turned out to be a regular in the apartment. He made us think of the cool sitcom neighbor, always popping by on some pretext or another to liven up the scene. We had a great time staying with Kathi and cooked a few dinners and ate breakfast together when she was available.

For our touristing activities, we first went out to a few of the local churches. St. Stephen’s Cathedral had really phenomenal architecture. The day we went was a bit foggy and so it was surreal seeing the top of the church disappearing into the fog. The inside was also excellent. The most notable factor was an enormous story book type display thing at the back of the church. I’ve never seen something like this in a church before and I’m not sure of what it was or when it is open, but it was certainly interesting.

We also took a trip to visit the campus of the University of Vienna where Kathi studies. The library was beautiful and the whole campus was ornate well beyond anything that you would expect from a university in the USA. A really cool place to study.

Also nearby the university was another church, Votiv church, and after parting ways with Kathi we went to explore it. The outside just blew my mind. Inside about half of the church was housing some art exhibit that we didn’t visit, but the inside had some nice stained glass.

On our next day in town we took a run along the Donauinsel island on the Danube. It’s an artificial island built from dredging a secondary canal along the river. It was a long cold run, but beautiful and we did alright overall.

We finished the run at Leo’s Wurstel Stand. This is a typical Austrian street/drinking food which usually seems filled with cheese. This particular stand came highly recommended (thanks Sebastian!). It was a great introduction to the wurstel. We went all out and got the Big Mama and a second smaller sausage. After ordering we saw that the Big Mama apparently is intended for 4 people. Guess we shouldn’t have also ordered a wurstel box… but we made quick work of it all.

Vienna has a lot to see and we found a few oddball sights that topped our list of places to visit. The first among these was the Museum of Art Fakes. It is a museum that collect and displays forgeries. We learned a lot here, including that there are different classifications of forgeries. Identical forgeries are replicas of actual known artwork. These can be a bit harder to pass off as actual originals if are known to exist elsewhere. More popular though are forgeries that are done in the style of a famous artist and then passed off as a previously unseen work.

I don’t have the art history background to appreciate any of this, but I loved the stories behind the forgers. Typically they are very skilled but disillusioned with the art world and decide to show their skills by making forgeries. The famous forgers become famous in their own right and often their works will be worth almost equal as originals, but unfortunately they often seem to find themselves facing a lot of jail time and tragic deaths. There was even a forgery of a forgery, a work passed off as the work of a forger who had gotten famous. Amazing. Overall it was a great find.

Right next to the Museum of Fakes was the wacky Hundertwasser Haus buildings by artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser with architect Joseph Krawina.

We also discovered the tiny Esperanto museum. The idea of a global language fascinates me, but we both kind of thought that Esperanto had died out. It hasn’t and there are a significant number of native speakers. The museum was tiny and, but we did learn a few cool facts. (And Christina got the high score on the Pac Man themed pedagogical Esperanto game, which yes, actually exists.)

The museum attributed the language’s burst of popularity on the expansion of the Austro-Hungarian empire, where the kingdom had a large number of languages existing and a common language with Latin and Slavic roots would be a huge benefit to the empire. Apparently the numerous fascist and communist political leaders of that time were not so supportive and the fuss around the world wars squashed further expansion (aside: same with this brilliant calendar system that was gaining momentum at the same time).

There were also some exhibits on other planned languages and all of it was interesting but mostly the museum was posters from Esperanto summits, books written in Esperanto, and pins that Esperanto speakers were encouraged to wear to promote finding other speakers.

Along with our entry to the Esperanto museum we also got entrance to the Globe Museum in the same building and a papyrus museum down the road, but based on our timing we were only able to visit the globe museum. We quickly realized that we actually purchased entrance to the Globe Museum and it was the Esperanto museum that was included in the ticket price.

The Globe Museum was many times the size of the Esperanto museum, with tons of globes of varying sizes. Some of the early globes were intended to educate Europeans about the people in the new world… usually with super racist caricatures. There were also some really cool devices that simulated planetary motion with fun complex gear systems as well as lunar and martian globes.

Over the course of the week we spent a few nights hanging out with Kathi’s friends. The favorite hang out spots were Huerigers, which are local Viennese taverns/wineries. They have some connection with vineyards that are located within the city limits or have some special contract to serve new wine. I don’t really get it and I think the status and term has changed a bit in recent times, but the point is these are awesome local taverns.

The drink of choice was spritzwine, the mix of the house wine (typically white) and sparkling water. I found this to be a delightful mix and only upon careful reflection did I realize that wine spritzers are actually the same thing and definitely something that I’ve seen in the US. But whatever, it was fantastic especially in a group since you would get two pitchers of each fluid and mix your own around the table. I was told that it’s all the same price to order individual spritzwine, but the ‘style’ is better when you get pitchers to share with the group.

The great thing with the huerigers is that they also serve delicious traditional food. Our absolute favorite was krautfleisch which is just sauerkraut and pork.

One night Christina managed to sneak in a work out at Fitness Club ISC, and she was very happy with the facilities there, particularly the squat rack and gymnastic rings.

Christina also celebrated her birthday in Vienna, so we did a few special things to celebrate. First up was a visit to the Vienna Central Cemetery. Such a traditional birthday celebration, but that’s our Christina. We went primarily to see the burial place of the physicist Ludwig Boltzmann, but the more popular gravestones belonged to famous Austrian music talents like Strauss, Mozart, and Beethoven. Overall the cemetery was phenomenally beautiful. It was a massive place with some really ornate sculptures and a whole seemingly abandoned section that looked exactly like the set of a movie.

After pondering gravestones, we headed off to a Viennese waltz lesson. Christina already knows the dance, but since I’m not so skilled in these areas, a dance lesson was the best way that we could dance Viennese waltz in Vienna. We signed up for a group lesson, but ended up being the only ones there so we go to advance pretty rapidly. It’s a lot of spinning and quite dizzying. I think I held my own. Many circles were made.