Tuesday, May 28, 2013

All good things must come to an end

I have gotten very behind on my blogging so I apologize for that, and honestly I have no valid excuse.  I've done nothing of real worth over the past week and a half to set be behind.  Hope this post makes up for lost time :)
So, 2 weeks ago I made my 3rd trip to England in the past 5 months.  I wouldn't call it an obsession so much as seizing an opportunity.  My housemate Janine moved back home to Nottingham, England on Sunday and she let me tag along on the drive home.  Her dad and one of his close friends made the drive across the ocean to pick us up and then the drive back.  We got to cross the Channel via the ferry. I've now taken all 3 modes of transportation to cross the body of water that divides England and France.  When taking the ferry,
Once we had crossed to the famous white cliffs of Dover we made the rest of the long drive up the middle of the country to Nottingham.  Janine actually lives in a small village called Annesly which is next to Kirkby and all a part of Nottinghamshire which is all a part of the East Midlands region in Northern England.  Learned something new!  We didn't get back to her house till pretty late that first night.  After a quick birthday party for Janine's birthday I was ready for some sleep!
The first day we drove to Matlock with Janine's mom, sister and her sister's boyfriend.  It was about a 30-45 minute drive north of their little village and since it was a bank holiday everyone and their cousin was on their way to this little city in a valley.  The city of Matlock was really cute and typically english.  We had lunch in the park and got ice cream from an ice cream truck.  Had my first 99p.  It was pretty much vanilla ice cream in a cone with a little piece of flaky chocolate.  It was originally sold for 99 pence but of course the price has gone way up.  We then drove to another part of Matlock and went into an arcade to play some slot machines and walked along a canal that ran through the city.


The second day in England we spent most of the day hanging around Janine's house with her family.  We did get out for a little bit of shopping at a small shopping complex down the road from her house.  It was so nice to speak to the sales personnel in english, even though I struggled paying in British pounds.  On Wednesday we took a trip to Nottingham University were Janine goes to school and I got to meet several of her university friends and we walked around the campus for just a bit.

Wednesday morning before going to Janine's university we did a little shopping in town and saw the sights of Nottingham.  This is of course where Robinhood lived so I had to take a picture with his statue.  We also walked past the oldest pub in England.  I got to go shopping in my favorite British store: Primark.  We had lunch at a small seudo french cafe and I ordered a fabulous hot ham and cheese on a croisant with fries.  


On Thursday the Manning clan and I drove to Whitby for the day.  On the way we stopped in a small village that had a working steam engine train that would commute passengers to the coast.  The train station was very well preserved and set up to look as it would when steam engines were all the rage for transportation. 

Whitby is a small coastal town in northern England where Bram Stroker got the inspiration to write parts of his famous novel Dracula.  The day started with a stroll through town and then a stop to the most famous fish and chip shop in Whitby.  I got a full British fish and chips at the seaside experience in the rain and attacked by seagulls.

Later in the day we took a bus up to the cliffs of Whitby and say an old monastery and walked through an old church.  I've never seen a church set up like this one before.  Families would rent out the benches and they were sectioned off for just the family to sit in.  At the end of the day we did a little bit of shopping in town and I bought some Whitby Rock.  It's a hard candy cane like candy that comes in all different flavors.

I had a truly amazing week in England with the nutty Manning clan and can not thank them enough for the generous hospitality and showing me all the highlights of the north.  I'm proud to say I am the first American to stay at International Hotel Manning!
I have spent this past week with my dad.  I'm proud of him for getting on that plane and flying all the way to France to visit me.  It's been a truly memorable week and his help in getting me all packed and ready to go home has been a complete life saver! 
These past 8 months have come with many ups and downs and some amazing new friends.  Each experience I have had has enriched my life and made me who I am today.  I wouldn't trade this time for anything but I am very happy to say that my time in France is coming to a swift end and in just 2 days time I will be back in my beloved USA!!!!!!
Thanks everyone for following me on my journeys this year.  I hope you have enjoyed following my blog and reading all about my life in France.  I can't wait to see you all soon!

Monday, April 29, 2013

Waffle+Beer+Chocolate= Belgium

Hi all,
For my last big trip in Europe with all of my friends we went on a 6 day adventure around the beautiful yet small country of Belgium.  We had planned to visit 4 of the most well-known cities: Brussels, Antwerp, Gent, and Brugge.  I unfortunately didn't not remember to watch the film In Brugge before actually going to Brugge.
We started out on the first Saturday of our last holiday from school in Brussels.  This left me with only one day of "recovery" after the field trip to England with one of my schools; let's just say the exhaustion caught up with me by the end of the trip.  We were all excited to start out our trip together so from the train station in Brussels we decided to walk to our hotel rather than taking public transit.  Along the way we say many of the landmarks my mom and I say when we visited the city together, but it's still a lovely city so seeing it all along wasn't a big deal for me.  Our hotel was very centrally located and in the process of updating the interior (luckily we didn't hear load construction noises during our stay).  The hotel had made a little mix up with room assignments and ended up putting us in 2 rooms, one with 4 beds and the other room with 1.  This worked out perfectly since there were 4 girls and 1 boy.  The hotel felt so bad about a "mistake" we saw as a fortunate mix that they gave us complimentary breakfast the next day.  We felt like we were back in junior high having a girly sleep over!  At first I thought this was a pretty cool deal, but when we went down the breakfast that morning I realized it was just some cold pastries and watered down coffee.  Nonetheless it was free!  After checking into the hotel and eating our packed lunches we headed towards the center of town.  Janine and Jason had never been to Brussels before but Emily, Deliece and I had.  We first had to stop at a climbing structure so some of the gang could let their inner child out.
Our first major stop in Brussels was to see the Mannekin Pis.  After several trips to Brussels I still don't understand the fascination with this little statue, and quite frankly neither does an Belgian living in Brussels.  This time around he was dressed up as a leprechaun.  We then headed to the Grand Place, which I think is one of the prettiest open areas in all of Brussels.  I finally got another speculous waffle that I had been craving since my last visit.  While we were enjoying our afternoon waffles we noticed a woman who we later presumed to be homeless was digging through the trash cans picking out unfinished food items and just chowing down: lunch and dessert.  I am always amazed by something new when I travel around Europe.  Next we made the walk up to the European Parliament building to tour the visitors center.  It was pretty cool to stand outside such an important building lined with flags of the European Union members.  The visitors center was very very informational so we took our time going through it learning about the history and development of the European Union.  The visitors center was actually very interactive and with our audio devices we got a pretty good background on what was, is and will be the EU.

We headed back to the Grand Place and found a quaint little restaurant for dinner.  We all ordered the menu and enjoyed a first meal in Belgium.  The meal was of course followed by a waffle covered in chocolate sauce and whip cream.  To end the night we met up with Emily's friend Emma, who is studying in Brussels, for a beer at the famous Delirium bar.  They are rated to have the best beer in the world and the largest selection.  There are three floors to the bar and each serve different flavors of beer.  Yes, flavors like passion fruit, chocolate, speculous and the list goes on and on; literally in a binder.
Day two in Brussels started with a trip to the Sunday market outside the Midi train station and then a tour around the comic museum featuring cartoon artists from Belgium.  It mostly featured Tin Tin, but included a couple other classics like Little Nemo (a childhood favorite of mine).  We at lunch at a Subway, which is actually a little different from the ones in the US.  At this point Deliece and Jason went to the museum of natural sciences to see some dinosaur bones, so Janine, Emily and I went shopping in town and found some cool stores and a covered market in the middle of the city.  Janine and I took the metro out to the north western corner of town to meet Deliece and Jason for a presentation at the planetarium.  Emily met back up with Emma for some coffee and girl time.  Next to the planetarium was the Atomium structure, which you can actually go inside for a pretty high price, and little Europe.  I had really wanted to go to little europe since it was mini structures of all the famous landmarks around Europe and this just piqued my interested.  But after peeking through the fence what it really is, I'm so glad we didn't wasted our money on that.  The planetarium put on a really neat show about how stars are formed and what can be found at the far reaches of our galaxy and the universe.  We then met back up with Emily for a quick dinner at a small restaurant just down the road from our hotel.  We ended the evening with some people watching in the Grand Place.

The next morning we boarded a train for a 45 minute(ish) journey to Antwerp.  The train station in Antwerp was really pretty on the inside and a lot bigger than I expected.  After a little wondering we finally found our hotel and dropped our bags off in our respective rooms.  We found a Delifrance for lunch.  I thought this was fitting since Deliece was on the the trip with us and we call her Deli for short.  After lunch we walked to the Grand Place and the famous Grottemarkt, which is pretty much a big town square with lots of tall buildings lined up one next to each other and all leaning slightly.  There was a really neat fountain in the middle of the square.  This city seemed to be more fashionable and the streets were lined with clothing stores.  This wasn't good news for poor Jason.  After the two large town squares and walk around the giant cathedral in the middle of town we walked to the river that flows through Antwerp and then discovered an ancient castle on the river banks.





We trekked back to the giant cathedral in town and paid to tour the inside.  It looked like all the other churches I've seen in Europe.  We then went to a waffle shop, where I bought one of the worst waffles (it wasn't cooked all the way on the inside), but it was cool to watch the waffles being made.  We then decided to walk to another cathedral (just to see it from the outside), but it was closed and barred off so we couldn't get very close.  Jason then let the girls do a little shopping so we went into Forever 21 since the Brits had never been to one and then a quick little trip into Hema.  We went back to the hotel for a rest before dinner.  


After a good rest at the hotel, we went to dinner at a french fry restaurant and then walked off dinner with a stroll around town.  We saw the diamond wheel (apparently Antwerp is a capitol of diamonds in Europe or maybe just Belgium), the city zoo (from the gate) and china town.

After a little sleep in the next morning we headed off to Rubenshaus.  Rubens was the famous architect in Antwerp during its construction and development.  The interior of his house was very dark and a bit depressing, but the gardens in the back were pretty.  We then caught a train to Gent.  

Once we got into Gent we rather easily navigated the tram and were dropped off pretty close to our hostel.  We checked into the hostel and dropped our bags off in our rooms.  The 4 girls shared a private dorm and Jason shared a 4 bed dorm with a couple other male travelers.  We picked up some really cool maps from the front desk that pointed out some hidden restaurants and things to do/see in town.  We started out with lunch at a butcher's shop and ate along the banks of a really pretty canal.  We then paid to tour a ancient castle in the middle of town.  The castle was set up really well, half museum half historical site.  There was even a real guillotine with an original blade dating back to the middle ages.  We then walked to the Grand Place and stopped for some coffee at a quaint little coffee shop our handy map pointed out.



The map raved about this building that was supposed to be "the most beautiful building in Gent", well we disagreed with this assessment.  So much so that I didn't even take a picture of the building.  Since most all restaurants and stores close around 7pm in Gent we had to quickly choose a restaurant for dinner and eat quickly.  We find a really nice vegetarian burger joint.  For the evening we all hung out in the lounge playing cards and talking.  There was a school group of young french kids staying on our floor and they were a nuisance to our neighbors all evening and then woke us up too early the next morning before breakfast.
Since our overnight fee to stay at the hostel included breakfast the next morning we got up early enough to enjoy another cold breakfast of cereals, meats, cheeses and coffee.  We gathered our bags and took the tram back towards the train station, but first stopped at STAM.  It's a history museum of Gent and while it's really well laid out and informational it got quite boring.  Until the last room, which had a table full of legos for the visitors to built the Gent of tomorrow.  Of course we had to indulge ourselves.  After eating lunch in the train station and a quick train ride to Brugge we were all of a sudden at the last city on our trip.  
We started out with a stroll along the famous canal running up the southern part of the city into the center of town.  Our handy little map pointed out interesting sites along the way: swans in the canals, a horse fountain, the Beginjhof (a convent surrounding an open field of trees and spring flowers, a famous candy shop, a cannon buried upside down in the pavement and then the Grand Place with belfry.  




We continued following the recommendations of the map and explored the basement of the Crowne Plaza, where ancient walls of a 12th century church still exist.  We strolled onto a square called the Burg where a really pretty statue of a prince and princess are embracing and there's a frog at their feet.  Of course all the girls had to "kiss" the frog to see if we'd receive a prince in exchange.  I knew the frog wouldn't turn into a prince for me because my prince is already in Nashville, TN :) .  We took a boat tour along the canals of the city and got some pretty sites from a different perspective.  We had dinner a fastfood restaurant and then ice cream at a place called Davinci's.  I of course had to order speculous ice cream.  We did some people watching in the Grand Place before finding a bar to get one last Belgian beer.  I ordered a Kwak which came in a really neat shaped glass and a wooden stand to keep it up right.

The next day we started out at a chocolate museum that took us from the creation of chocolate to its present day state as an international delicacy.  There were a couple of school groups on field trips at the museum at the same time, which made it difficult to see all of the exhibits so I just skipped around the museum till the end.  The best part.  A room of chocolate statues and then a live candy making demonstration followed up by a free piece of chocolate.  We spend the rest of the day shopping for chocolate souvenirs, eating waffles and then lunch at a bar where we all ordered the best spaghetto EVER and it was only 4 euro!! We then collected our bags from the hotel, hopped on our last train and headed back to Lille.