This is it!

Well, we’ve finally reached that day everybody: the last blog entry of my trip.  I could go on about my last travel day, but there’s not much to it, and I’m sure we can all appreciate it if I shorten it a bit.  The short version goes a little like this: took the tube to my hotel (very nice place), went back to the Transport Museum to pick up some Underground souvenirs, ate dinner in Covent Garden, back to pack and shower, fell asleep to Batman Begins, and now I’m a few hours away from LAX as I write this.  Good enough?  Okay, moving on then lol.

Overall, I must say that I’m very happy to have done this trip.  Even more so, it’s given me a huge confidence boost.  Of course I’ve traveled in the U.S. before on my own, but never have I traveled for this long, let alone in a foreign country (or 8 haha).  I’ve had to deal with so many new things on this trip, and I’ve truly enjoyed every moment it.  Even the boring stuff, such as doing my laundry, always had a bit of a learning curve to it, and I’m always up for learning something new. 

I’m also glad that I’m the planner that I am.  This trip was one year in the making.  I spent many hours reading and annotating guidebooks, navigating travel sites, finding well-reviewed hostels and buying the right packing gear.  Not only did it make my trip run much more smoothly, but it also prepared me for the differences I was about to expect and what to face.  I especially am glad to have read Rick Steves’ book Europe through the Backdoor, which not only provided sound travel advice, but also showed me the cultural differences of Europe and how to learn to accept them.  In the end, any challenge or problem I faced just became another part of the adventure haha.  The planning just made the problems less severe lol.

As I’ve said before, single traveling has its pros and cons, as does traveling with someone else.  I am glad to have done it, because otherwise I’m sure I wouldn’t have forced myself to meet all wonderful people traveling the European continent.  I thank each and every one of you and hope that your travels are or were safe.  I’d especially like to call out all the people who took the time to get to know me and share part of their adventure with me.  To Nick, Nina, Ellen, Andrea, Gray, Tianna, Liz, Andrew, Claire, Slawek, Vinay, the British guys in Poland, Kayla, Alexa, Jillian, Justin, Agustin, Hans, Casper, Anna, Matt, Jaime, the Swedish guys at Oktoberfest, Layne, Kim, Roxie and anyone else I missed, you guys all rock!  I’m happy I got the chance to meet you and I hope to either hear from or see you sometime again!

So what’s next?  I said this to myself several times on my trip and I’ll say it again: it’s bad that I went on this trip.  Why?  Have you ever heard of this little illness called the “travel bug”?  Well, I caught it lol.  Sure, it’s an expensive and time-consuming sickness, but I just feel there is so much to explore.  And now that I know I can travel on my own for a month, the possibilities are endless!  I might just end up like one of the Aussies, traveling for 9 months all over the world.  You never know!  Man, just to think, 6 years ago I was afraid to fly over oceans and liked to stay in my little bubble of Grosse Pointe.  Look and me now!  I’m thinking Italy, Spain, Greece, definitely all of Eastern Europe, Russia and Japan to name a few.  Don’t worry; I have NO money and NO vacation to do that right now, so I won’t be leaving just yet lol.

Back in the real world, what can I expect?  Work…grad school…bills…all the stuff that makes day-to-day life fun lol.  I’m set on making a trip back to Europe and beyond.  And who says your daily life can’t be a blast?  I live in one of the best places in the world, surrounded by awesome people and some great places.  There’s plenty to explore at home!  And school?  That’ll open up even more doors!  Maybe I can even study abroad, that’d be sweet!  Oh man, I almost forgot about my book!  Don’t worry, it’s going to get finished and published, you just wait!

After blogging continuously over this past month, I think I need to take a vacation from it lol.  I think it may be a little while before I post again. :-P  There’s still pictures to post and organize, slideshows to arrange to show the peeps, and maybe even a photo book of some of my favs.  We’ll see. 

What’s left?  Oh yea, my blog entry wouldn’t be complete without some lists!  So here we go, top this-and-that, best/worst, all that good stuff (not in any particular order lol):

City Rankings:

1.       Berlin
2.       Krakow
3.       Prague (All of Eastern Europe rocked!)
4.       London (needed more time)
5.       Amsterdam
6.       Paris
7.       Munich (Oktoberfest was cool, but it overran everything)
8.       Vienna (Just no, at least if you’re in your 20s)

Best / Worst

·         Trains: Germany / Poland
·         Non-native English Speaking: Dutch / French
·         For your money: Krakow / Paris and Vienna
·         Public Transit: London Underground / Paris Metro
·         Bars/Pubs: London / Vienna
·         Clubs: Prague / Vienna
·         Foreign Food I tried: Steak Tartar (Prague) / 2-day-old Milk (Krakow)
·         Museum: Deutsches Museum / Ludwig Museum
·         Hostel: Ars Hostel (Krakow) and Raise a Smile (Berlin) / HI Deutz City Hostel (Cologne)

Favorite Moments:

·         DJ Tiesto!
·         Oktoberfest with the Swedes
·         Eating special brownies (and not feeling a thing lol)
·         Walking into the hostel in Krakow to Slawek’s smiling face and a tray of cherry vodka shots after a long day
·         Riding and sleeping in trains
·         Berlin, just period.
·         The Asian guy in Vienna burning a hole in his underwear
·         Shopping for a new jacket in Germany after my hoody zipper broke
·         Grocery and market shopping
·         Bernard!
·         The guy in Amsterdam who told me to pay him €100 so he won’t forcefully have sex with me
·         Finding the world’s longest happy hour in Berlin; Cheap drinks from 16:00-05:00 every day!
·         Opera in a t-shirt
·         Layne and I knowing the same street artist in SF
·         Clubbing in Prague until 06:00
·         Dancing to Polish pop music
·         Finding the biggest LEGO collection EVER in Krakow
·         The peeing statue in Prague

Lessons Learned: (* = those mentioned in Rick Steves’ book)

·         Pretty much everyone traveling in Europe is Australian or a “kiwi” (New Zealander)
·         Free toilets are few and far between *
·         Small hostels are more fun and you meet more people
·         Water is carbonated; if you don’t like it, ask for “still” or “without gas” *
·         Parisians absolutely DO NOT stop for pedestrians
·         Do the free tours; they give you a good overview for any city (Thanks Kristen for the tip!)
·         German trains rule, Polish trains suck
·         Avoid people flying souvenir airplanes, dropping rings, holding bracelets or carrying a little piece of paper with a paragraph in English *
·         Look right and left at least twice when crossing the street in England; I don’t know if I’d ever get used to people driving on the left side of the road!
·         Seat reservations (even on high speed trains) are usually pointless
·         All the words you need to know: “hi”, “please”, “thank you”, “yes”, “no”; the rest is all just pointing at things *
·         Everyone smokes, get used to it
·         Smaller proportions abound, but if you really want a lot of food, you just have to pay for it
·         Don’t fly through Texas
·         Locks on a bridge might be for love, but I think I’d stick with a combo lock so I could take it off (just in case) :-P
·         You can absolutely get every comfort and food from home that you could possibly want *
·         Transit passes are very nice, museum passes not so much
·         Starbucks, McDonalds and KFC are everywhere, but not BK (at least in France lol)
·         Please mind the gap
·         A true European “enjoys” their meal, taking up to 2 hours.  And expect to flag someone for the bill *
·         Vodka is cheaper than water in Poland; Beer is cheaper than water in Munich; Wine is cheaper than water in Paris
·         Coffee and tea reign supreme in Europe; Sorry orange juice, you’re not the “in” thing.
·         Don’t freak if eggs or milk aren’t refrigerated. 
·         Groceries and markets are the cheapest (and most fun) way to eat by far *
·         Looking for a street sign? Best bet is the corner on the side of a building (Thanks again Kristen)
·         Three hours in a museum is enough
·         I can’t compete at Oktoberfest
·         Accept free drinks, just know you’re dealing with first!
·         PDA is much more fashionable in Europe; Not my favorite thing, but you guys go for it
·         The ground floor is not the first floor; it’s Floor 0
·         Get an unlocked GSM phone and use SIM cards; it’s so easy!

With all that, I bid you goodbye from seat 44A.  Hopefully I’ll see you all soon!  Oh, and for all you Michiganders/Michiganians (whichever you prefer), I’ll be home for Thanksgiving!

Later folks!


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Baguettes or Bust: Paris in 4 Days!

My apologizes for the delay, I’ve been trying to write you a note since three days ago, but Paris had other plans haha.  It’s been great seeing all the sites and trying all the foods that Paris has to offer.  Sure, some people are a bit rude and they don’t like speaking English, but hey, I just take that as part of the culture.  Today, I finally have some time at the train station before I hop across the Chunnel to write up my notes.  We have four days to cover, so sit back, maybe grab a snack and settle in.

We left off on last Friday, when I was planning to head to Paris at night.  Well, by the time I finished up my blog and pictures, it was raining and thundering outside.  Don’t know how I missed that.  Also, I was missing my jacket!  I realized I left it at the first coffee shop (before I snuck into Starbucks for free WiFi), so I assumed all was lost.  It wasn’t there when I got to the shop, but after asking the cashier, they pulled it out of the back.  Whew!  It’s my lucky jacket now lol, and MAN did I need it for that rain.

I got totally soaked searching for a nice dinner.  Rain makes things tough, especially when everything closes.  Well, I ended up at a steak place and got fajitas, which are not very Bavarian, but they were pretty good.  It may have been a bit more expensive, but I figured I’d get a nice meal before I went (mostly) on the cheap in Paris. (there was no kitchen at the Paris hostel)

Back at the train station, I searched out free WiFi to kill time for an hour or so before my train, since the rain wasn’t making walking around easy.  I sat at a Burger King and started chatting with an Austrian guy about the differences between German and Austrian accents.  Turns out it’s like the difference between Canada and the USA to them.

I called my parents at the cottage, but there was no answer.  I guess my dad thought I was a telemarketer with my weird number and screened the call.  By that time my train was ready, so I walked over to the platform and confused myself with the train boards before finding the right train.  My train was making a bunch of stops, so the train number and destination (Amsterdam Centraal) didn’t match, since my train car would be switching trains along the way.

Oh man, the couchette, now that was an experience.  First thing you notice is how cramped it is; 6 people, 3 to a side, in a compartment (and I had the top!).  It was nice meeting Joe from Australia (I don’t remember his name, so he’s Joe).  He folded the one bed in to make a seat and we chatted until everyone wanted to sleep.  Our compartment was very nice and quiet; the Austrian girls (according to my one couchette mate at least, I thought German) were gossiping until 03:30 and I could hear them through the walls.  Oh well, I still got about 4-5 hours of off-and-on sleep, which was good.  Twelve hours later, I was in Paris!  The night train was fun, and definitely a time-saver, but I’m glad I didn’t do it too much, and I’d definitely get a sleeper or couchette; there’s no way I’d sleep in those chairs!

Alright…Paris…we’ve got four days to cover, so looks like we’re going mostly with the list format, starting with Saturday:

·         Split ways with Joe at the train station, who was heading back to London.  I spent a good amount of time figuring out the Metro, avoiding people selling me tickets, and cursing out the millionth ticket machine that doesn’t accept larger bills or mag stripe cards.  In the end, I got a 5 day pass from the window.  If you’re in any big city (London, Paris, Berlin), get the pass, it’s worth it!  And you avoid the hassle of buying tickets ever again!
·         Got to the hostel, but couldn’t check in until 14:30, so I just dumped off my bags.  From what I saw it was really nice and HUGE.  Not my favorite when places are so big, since you pay for everything, but whatever, it was my last stop.
·         Waffled on whether or not to take the free tour.  It started right then from our hostel, so I said screw it and went.  I didn’t feel like I was going to meet a lot of people at the bar (everyone is in groups or mostly to themselves usually, like Amsterdam) so I went.  It’s always a good primer for a city, especially as big as Paris.
·         Met Roxie and Kim while on the tour.  Roxie’s from Cincinnati, has two college degrees, and is currently going to be TAing in France.  She’s been to Paris many times.  Kim is from Santa Maria (yay CenCal!), and went straight to working in Yosemite, which sounds really cool.
·         We followed our VERY energetic tour guide.  Man, she might not have had all the facts, but she had MILLIONS of references to TV, movies, you name it.  I had to listen closely just to follow along!  It was an okay tour for me, but personally I like a little more of the history and less fluff.
·         After the tour, the three of us toured Paris on our own.  We went to the Eiffel Tower and took TONS of pictures, but didn’t go up since it was packed.  I figured I’d try the weekday.  Oh yea, scams and souvenir peddlers were EVERWHERE.  Just watch out in Paris, they’ll get ya!  And keep your hands in your pockets!
·         Did the Arc de Triomphe and the walk down the expensive Avenue des Champs-Elysées.  Went into the largest (and I think first?) Sephora with the girls.  Glad that all my Michigan friends weren’t there, otherwise I would’ve gotten sprayed with all kinds of perfume lol!
·         Headed over to Pont Neuf so Roxie could meet up with the rest of her TA friends, but seems as though we either missed em or there was a miscommunication.
·         Took the Metro to Marais for a falafel dinner and paid the extra money to sit since we were all tired of walking.  Turns out Kim isn’t a drinker, which made me feel better about not being much of one myself.  Still, Roxie and I decided we’d make up our own “wine tour” in Paris.
·         By now it was dark, so we took the Metro back to the Eiffel Tower to take a LOT of photos.  Kim took plenty of artsy ones from different angles (note to self: get those pics).  Oh yea, my hat!  Well, actually it’s Kim’s, but I wore it most of the day since it matched what I was wearing better lol.  I was very impressed by Kim’s haggling technique, she got the guy down from €12 to €5 and even did the “walk away method” lol.  I was sad to see it go after the day was over :-(
·         By now we were freezing, so we took the Metro back and got to the hostel to check-in around 23:30.  Whoops.  Luckily, they were open until 02:00, so it was no big deal.  We were all dead tired after 12-13 hours of touring, so Roxie and I just went up to our rooms and passed out.  Kim headed off to find her new hostel for the night before going to Barcelona the next day.
·         The room was really nice.  It was up on the top floors, so the bar and club were far away, and the beds even had individual curtains like in Seattle!  And I got my first shower in about 2-3 days, which was a pleasant experience haha.

From that first day in Paris, I learned a few things.  First, the Metro has got to be one of the most confusing and worst transit systems I’ve been on lol.  Rob, and everyone else who’s told me that, you were right!  Damn, I even got lost once or twice, and I’m a navigator!  Oh well, I guess I saved the most complex for last right?

That and traveling alone can be tough sometimes.  At least that’s what Kim, Roxie and I (all single travelers) agreed on.  It’s especially true of bigger hostels like St. Christopher’s.  I listened to them tell stories of sitting at breakfast and trying to meet people or sit with people, just to find out they don’t want to talk or are travelling with someone and want to stick with their groups.  I’ve been there!  All I can say is travelling alone is a mixed bag, as is traveling with someone.  And when there’s just a huge bar and no common room or kitchen, it’s harder to strike up a normal conversation.  Also, I’d wish more people would approach me to talk.  I know, I know, Europeans are more reserved, but many of the people in hostels are not European!  And I’m a shy guy, yet I’ve almost always had to search out people to talk to lol!  Well, I’ve met some great people on this trip in every city, and I hope that we stay friends for a good long time.

Okay, enough of my ranting, let’s move on to Sunday, Sunday, Sunday:

·         Roxie and I met for breakfast at the hostel.  We were going to do Versailles, but she decided that it wasn’t worth trekking up there to see the gardens (good call since it was cold and threatening to rain) and she just wanted to take it easy. 
·         Did a 6 hour trip to Versailles to see the Château.  My contacts went bizerk enroute to the palace, which turned out to be because I ripped the brand new pair I had put in.  And I didn’t bring my glasses because I didn’t think I’d need them.  Oops.  Well, I took them out finally, since I can see fine without them, everything was just a little blurry.
·        Waited in a MASSIVE line to see the Château.  I mean, I think it was the longest line (in terms of people, not wait) that I’ve EVER seen.  Oh, and my Paris Museum Pass, which I paid big money for, was useless for this ticket (as it was for many others).  Lesson learned folks, don’t buy the passes, they’re useless, unless you really want to skip a few lines at some museums.  Not worth it!
·         Met two guys from Vermont in line.  We talked about all sorts of stuff.  My favorite comment: “The people at Versailles need to go over to Euro Disneyland and learn a thing or two about lines.  They GET you in!”  Very true.  The line snaked in a very awkward ‘S’ back and forth two times to reach the front gate.  Wow.
·         The palace was absolutely beautiful.  Like I said, I only did the Château, which was enough for me.  There were so many rooms, so much artwork and so much information.  I was glad one wing was closed, since I was already on overload haha.  Oh and the people.  The place was PACKED; I felt like a sardine being shoved along in every room.  Crowd control people.
·         Afterwords, I grabbed a cheese crepe from a small street shop.  Not very mentionable other than I was proud to order completely in French, and the lady totally understood me and spoke to me in French!  I was happy, especially after she had to deal with an annoying English couple ahead of me.  Of course I couldn’t understand the amount of the bill, but luckily it was on the cash register lol.
·         Back to the hostel just before 17:00 and the rain.  I logged on to the Internet a few times (we only get 60 minutes free, but I scrambled my MAC address a few times lol) and Skyped my parents for a bit.  I was going to see Notre Dame and try and get back by 19:00 to meet up with Roxie, but I figured it’d be a rush, and the weather wasn’t helping.  While it rained hard outside, I caught up on my journal and pictures in the cozy computer room.  I also planned my Monday out, which would be back to back museums since they’re closed on Tuesdays.
·         Sitting there, I realized that I’m glad I’ll be home soon.  I’m pretty burned out, although I’m not super excited about work and school stuff, but hey it’s home!  I also decided that night that I’d try and make it home for Thanksgiving.  I know, it’s close to Christmas and only a few days, which is what I always say, but I haven’t been home for Thanksgiving in 6 years, and it’s becoming harder and harder to find people to have it with back in California.
·         At 19:00, I met with Roxie, and we went to the trendy Montmartre neighborhood for a nice French dinner and some wine.  By now it was pouring, but luckily I had found my umbrella.
·         We climbed the stairs to see Sacré-Coeur, avoiding all the guys with bracelets and rings (watch out!)  It was a beautiful church with a great view.  I let Roxie take the pictures.  I had fogged up the inside of my camera lens trying to get rid of dust speck that’s been in my pics since Oktoberfest.  Luckily, it’s probably just the sensor that needs to be cleaned, so I just touched up my pics in Picasa and I’ll fix it at home.  Going to this church on a Sunday reminded me of how sad I was that I didn’t get to go to mass in a historic church while over here in Europe.  That would’ve been a cool experience, but you can’t win them all.
·         Walked down through the crooked streets until we found a busy little restaurant for a nice meal.  We got an appetizer (which they call entrée I guess) + main course (plat) + dessert for around €15.  Not too bad.  And a carafe of wine (which to me just looked like a full bottle of wine in an unlabeled bottle) was about €10 and made for about 6 glasses of wine.  Not too shabby!  Hey, I’m in France, I figured I’d enjoy a few good meals!
·         For my main meal I just had pasta, nothing too special.  However, for an appetizer I ordered patê and for dessert, brie.  My opinion?  The patê is good (as long as I don’t know what’s in it lol) and the brie is also great.  I like stronger cheeses, so French cheese has been good to me, although I still avoided the moldy ones lol.
·         Roxie and I talked about all sorts of things: college, friends, finding a job, etc.  It was a lot of fun, drinking wine and sharing our experiences.  Once we finished our meals, we hunted in the pouring rain for a certain type of wine that’s hot with spices called mulled wine.
·         We walked around Montmartre, looking at all the red light district sites and even passing by the famous Moulin Rouge!  Roxie, thanks for taking me to all those sites that night, I wasn’t even planning to see them!
·         Finally, we found a place that was still open which had mulled wine.  It was very good and I was happy that it was warm!  Roxie was starting to get worried about her trip to west central France Monday, since she still hadn’t gotten in touch with anybody over there to find out if she had a ride or place to stay yet.
·         We headed home enjoying the wine buzz, and after arriving at the hostel around 01:00 dead tired, we skipped another drink at the bar, which was pretty dead on Sunday, said our goodbyes and went to sleep.

*Takes a breath*  Okay, on to Monday:

·         Ate breakfast really quick and got to the “secret” entrance of the Louvre just before 09:00 and waited in a small line.  For reference, don’t go to the pyramid (main) entrance, use the Metro entrance (Passage Richelieu) to save time and hassle.  This was also the first time I got to use my pass!  I got to walk right in and not pay, pretty nice.
·         Walked around the Louvre, navigating between all the must-see exhibits on the map.  Everything was nice and quiet in the morning for the most part.  The Mona Lisa was packed, but I think it always is.  I didn’t take an audio guide; I never use them to their full extent.  Most things were in French, so that saved me the time of reading just like Vienna lol.
·         I covered the Louvre in 3 hours;  I was pretty proud of that.  I was dead tired of walking; most of the time was spent navigating the crazy wings and floors of the museum.  It is HUGE and the artwork, my God, it’s everywhere!  I thought I’d go back to any sections I thought I wanted to revisit after seeing the major works, but in the end, there was nothing I wanted to see more of.  After going to several museums, out of all classic artwork (I’m really a modern art kinda guy), I’d say I like the Dutch paintings the most.  They are very unique, I love the colors they use and they’re not all religious-themed.
·        Grabbed lunch and took an hour to sit, recharge, and catch up with my journal. 
·        Walked over to the Pompidou Center, which is very impressive in person.  Only floors 4-5 are the museum (and free with my pass), so I went through those floors in about 2-3 hours.  I started off reading everything, but near the end I burned out on museum placards.  There were other exhibits I thought I might pay for (even De Stijl Blake!), but in the end I decided to skip them, since I’d need a museum + exhibition ticket.
·         Shopped around the surrounding neighborhood, which had lots of cafés and stores.  I hit up a Starbucks to use the net, but got confused when I found the WiFi locked.  You pay for everything in Paris!  Actually, several places that had “free” Internet were locked with a username/password, which I never asked about, so I’m not quite sure how that worked.  Oh well, I had my drink and decided to push off for Notre Dame, since I finished the museums quicker than I thought.
·         Walked around Notre Dame and took lots of pics.  It was pretty overrun for the late afternoon, and I couldn’t get the ticket lady’s attention to see if my pass got me an audio guide.  Oh well, I was already tired of those like I said and I know the history of the building.  Actually, a lot of these buildings I’ve seen are from my Architecture History class, so I remember a lot about the buildings and the history surrounding them.  I’m my own personal tour guide lol!
·        Walked over to the Latin Quarter to sample the bookshops and stores before taking the Metro back to the hostel and grabbing a burger.  I think I’ve had enough burgers/fries for a week, so I’m changing my first American food request from In-n-Out to a good sandwich, maybe turkey and avocado?  Mmmm…
·         I broke down and paid €5 for 3 hours of Internet and worked on my finances, touched up pictures (damn dust spot), and booked a flight for Thanksgiving.  I’m spending just below what I expected for this trip, which is why I figured I could book a Thanksgiving flight.  With the money left over I can get my xmas flight and a new phone, yay!
·         The hostel was pretty dead for a bar and club.  More of the same, people keeping to themselves or talking in groups.  Every time I was about to try and break the ice with someone, they’d usually be joined by their group of friends.  Oh well.  This hostel was also a little unusual in that the eating areas are also frequented by people from the neighborhood, usually much older than the hostel crowd.  That and there’s a lot more older people staying in this hostel.  Weird.  I mean, I know it’s a big hostel, but for its “hip” image, I think St. Christopher’s might want to impose an 18-35 limit like some of the other ones do.  Just saying.
·         Showered, uploaded some more pics, checked out the bar/club again (which was dead) and went to bed early for the first time in Paris, around midnight.  The next day would be my last full day in Paris and last real vacation day.  The rest of the time, I’d be traveling home.

Tuesday arrived in a flash.  Paris is much like London, in that there’s just SO much to do.  My last day went a little like this:

·         Got up early again (don’t know why I can’t sleep in lol) and took Rick Steves’ advice and tried one of his “Back Doors”.  I went to Rue Cler neighborhood to shop at a few markets for a picnic lunch.  Well, the Metro was absolutely PACKED (rush hour on a Tuesday) with lots of shoving, but I eventually made my way there.  It’s a cool little neighborhood with lots of authentic shops.  That and for what I got for €5 (baguette, fromage, tomato, peach, wine) it’s the cheapest meal I could get in France!  I did pretty well with my French, although a lady yelled at me for stepping on her clean floor with my dirty shoes.  Oops.
·         Headed over the Eiffel Tower, which was not crowded at all.  Unfortunately, no glass is allowed when going up the tower, so I hid my mini-wine in the bushes, hoping to get it later.
·         Climbed the stairs of the first two levels and took the elevator to the top.  Great views and great exercise lol!  Supposedly walking to the first and second levels was the equivalent of the 21st and 43rd floors of a building.  I honestly wonder how far I’ve walked on this trip, because I can really power walk and climb stairs with no problem now.  I hope my biking hasn’t taken too bad a hit ;-)
·         On the way down, I grabbed a plastic knife and napkins from the expensive Eiffel Tower café.  I needed them for my picnic and was glad to find them.
·         Running down the stairs, I ran into several girls who smiled and said “bonjour monsieur”.  I’m not sure if that’s just a formality or what in France, but that’s the first time it ever happened, so I’ll just assume they thought I was cute ;-)
·         Ah, the recovery of the wine.  Lucky me, I put it in the bushes right next to the police station at the Tower.  AND there were 6 guards dressed in camouflage and carrying semi-automatic machine guns right in front of the bushes.  Yikes!  I decided to wait 10-15 minutes and see if they went on patrol, otherwise I guess I’d have to say goodbye to my wine :-(
·         Found a quiet place to sit and catch up on my journal.  After a bit, I went back and the guards were gone!  Sweet.  I grabbed my wine when nobody was looking and went off to find a quiet place in the park.  I probably looked like such a weirdo, but hey, I wanted my wine lol.
·         Set up my picnic on a park bench, hiding my wine in my bag.  From what I could translate, the signs in the park said no alcohol.  Screw that.  I ate my baguette and gulped my wine from its hiding place like a hobo.  The cheese was fairly strong, but good; I sliced the tomato and cheese and put it in the baguette to make a sort-of sandwich.
·         Had not one, but TWO refugees come up to me with their notes in English asking for money.  Of course I shook my head when they asked, “English?” , but the first one still came up to me!  Geeze!
·         Some more soldiers walked by me one last time right before I finished my wine.  I waited until they were out of sight to take the last swig, dispose of the evidence, and casually stroll off, away from the Tower and all the security.  I had enough subverting the law for a while haha.
·         Decided to take the Metro to the catacombs.  Man, they are just ENDLESS bones down there, albeit someone did a very good job organizing them into neat little rows and stacks!
·         Headed to St. Chapelle on advice from my mom.  The line was huge, since the church sits right in the middle of the justice department and the main police station, so there was a security checkpoint.  Luckily, I noticed that pass holders get in a special line.  Hooray for the pass!  Still not worth the money though.
·         Wandered back over to the central part of town by the Pompidou Center and found a place with WiFi and ordered a coffee.  That had to be the world’s smallest coffee mug; I felt very French sipping my little cup lol.  Still couldn’t figure out the Internet and couldn’t get the waiter’s attention to ask.  By the look of the waiter’s glasses, which he kept in his pocket, I’m guessing he just didn’t see me.  All in all, I ended up with 300 touched up photos for Paris.  Wow, that’s the most of any city by far!
·         Walked up to the Chartier, a famous old restaurant from 1896 recommended by my guidebook. 

Alright, at this point I feel I must tell the story of what happened next in paragraph form.  There I was, sitting at my own table ready to eat my last good French meal, when I man randomly sat down across from me.  From what I could gather from his strongly-accented English, I believe his name was Bernard.  At first I thought he sat there by mistake, but in the end I realized that the place is really popular, so they probably sit single people together at a two person table.

So who is Bernard?  Well at first glance, based on his ramblings and stories, I thought he was either drunk or crazy.  In the end, I realized he’s definitely not crazy, but probably just lonely and likes to talk.  A little too much wine, maybe, but I think his strong French accent and difficult English just made it hard for me to understand, so I at first misinterpreted it as rambling.  He also liked to speak loudly, wave his arms in random gestures and make funny sound effects, which I realized was just part of his character.  In the end, it turned a one hour dinner for one into the most interesting three hours of this trip to Paris.

Where to start.  Well again, based on his English (which is really good, but still VERY accented) I gathered that he was around 62, a retired insurance adjuster from a French company that does business all over the world.

He ordered all sorts of food.  I think by the time I left, he had ordered an appetizer, cheese, main course, two bottles of red wine, a dessert (thanks for the baba au rhum recommendation, it was awesome!) and coffee.  And MY bill of water, a small salad, main course and dessert came to around €17.  Whew, good for him!  Now, right when his wine came, he poured me a glass too, even with my friendly “No thank you.”  I know, I know, watch out for this guy, he might be a creep!  Well, after listening to his stories for a bit, he seemed safe, and hey, the man gave me free wine, how could I refuse?  I decided to stay and hear what he had to say (I got few words in edgewise) and 5 or so glasses of wine and a baba au rhum later, I had a whole collection of stories.

Most of what he shared was his political beliefs, which from what I gather he’s a French nationalist who likes a lot of Republican policies in the US.  That’s fine with me, I always like having a good argument and conversation with someone who seems to know their facts.  And this guy has collected several famous English books, many by former presidents, so he seemed to know his facts.  Although he’s retired, he’s a strong proponent of reading to exercise his mind, which I think is a very smart idea.

Some of his better arguments/stories:

·         Earthquakes are actually governments secretly testing atom bombs beneath the surface.  Now you can see why I thought he was a nutcase at first lol.
·         His father’s background and the history of the Antwerp coat of arms and how the hands represent the giant’s hands that were cut off in order to rid the harbor of him.  I need to look that one up online.
·         Histories of various presidents which he has read about, along with Senator Goldwater.  Oh, and he loves Obama lol.
·         Guns should not be allowed for everyone as in America.  I can’t tell you how many people have brought this one up with me.  No, I do not carry a gun lol. 
·         The history of France in the Americas, whether it was the French helping us with our independence or Napoleon and the Louisiana Purchase.
·         Social security and retirement and the differences between France and the US.
·         Working for the insurance company and what he found, especially in Russia during the Soviet times.  Apparently the Russian Ruble is useless even over there lol.
·         Why creating the Euro was just a game so that the European governments could get more money.  Perhaps.
·         WWII was not an accident; it was an agreement between governments.  Not too sure about that one.
·         His beliefs in freedom of speech and religion, which seem to be lacking slightly in places in the EU according to what I could understand.
·         Issues with the younger generation (yea, we have lots of problems lol)
·         Different opinions in America and France about each other.
·         Lots of movies from way back when.  I enjoyed hearing about the German movie involving the gangster Al Capone trying to buy off Mussolini and Hitler before the war.  Evidently they both refused and kicked him out, proving you can’t even buy off a dictator.

As you can see, he was ALL over the place, although most of it was political or historical.  And with all his shouting and gestures, he made for quite a colorful person to have a conversation with.  I felt a little embarrassed, but hey, none of those people next to me will ever see me again, so why not stay and have more wine?

In the end, I had to go and plan for my trip across the channel to England on Wednesday, so I did my best to politely cut him off and say my goodbyes.  At that point I had my share of wine, and I know he did lol, since he kept calling me “Matt” or “Max” or “Mike” and asking me the same questions over and over.  Ah, interesting times.  I’m glad I could stay and be good company, since it seemed like he needed someone to talk to, and judging by the people’s expressions at the table next to us, I don’t think people normally listen to him for that long.

I took the Metro back to the hostel full of wine and got ready for Wednesday before passing out.

That’s where you find me today, travelling back to jolly old England!  Right now I’m about to pull into London fresh from the Chunnel, but I’ll fill you in on all that later.  I’m sure I’ll have a final post or two before my trip home, including a “best of” and tips list lol.

Until then, you look tired from reading all this, go take a break.  Home sweet home in one more day!


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A Stroll through Bavaria

Wow, three days have come and gone in Munich.  It's been awesome being part of Oktoberfest, as well as experiencing all the other traditions and sites of Bavaria.  Let's break it down.

Wednesday afternoon I got into town and rode the tram to my hostel.  Well tent.  The place is litterally several giant tents with about 200 people sleeping in them!  It's pretty cool; they have a bonfire every night, which makes it really easy to meet people.

But enough of that for now.  Oktoberfest!  I was literally at The Tent for about 15 minutes to just check in and put my stuff in my locker, when I found the first group heading down to the festival. I found 5 Swedish guys who just got there as well, so I tagged along with them. They were all blue collar guys who had come down to Munich just for Oktoberfest. (like everyone else except me lol)  As you approached the Theresienwiesen where it's held, there were SWARMS of people. And over half of them were in lederhosen and dirndls. I don't know if I could pull of that look lol. That, and I don't feel like paying €200 - 700 either.  But it was quite a site!

I think one of the Swedish guys put it best when describing the beer tents: "These aren't tents, they're airplane hangars."  Yea, they're pretty huge, with several levels and decks all over.  We didn't really see much of the festival, since it was already 16:30, and even for a Wednesday, tents tend to fill up by then.  After having no luck at the first two tents, we finally got into the Hofbrau tent.  Yea, I know it's the tourist tent, but we were just happy to get served.

Immediately one of the guys ordered a round of 6 Maß for our group.  The beer (and the huge pretzels) were awesome.  We chatted with everyone around us and sung songs.  I didn't get a chance to get up on the table and dance tho lol.  After about 3 or so (about 9-10 pints), I was definitely feeling it.  We ordered some food; I got some wurst to follow in the Bavarian tradition.

Sadly, about that time, I started to fade as the Swedes marched on.  What can I say?  I'm a lightweight lol, and that's a lot of beer for me in 2-3 hours.  I don't quite remember all the happened next (what was it, 21:00?).  All I can say is that I wandered off, got sick, made it to the tram somehow, got to The Tent, took a shower, and passed out in my bed.  It's all kind of a blur.  I woke up around 10 hours later lol freezing cold in the tent.  To all you guys that can drink for a week straight from 11:00 until 23:00, I salute you!  Still, it was great experience and I'll never forget it (there's plenty of pics to go along with it too lol).

The next day (Thursday? yea)  I woke up cold and with a backache.  I may have had a bed in the tent, but it's not much of a mattress lol (MAN, I miss my bed), so no surprise it felt like I just slept on the floor.  I got up and did some emergency laundry lol (my clothes from last night were in bad shape) and had a quick breakfast.  I planned an extra day in Munich just for this reason, since I'd feel like crap and not want to do much for a day.

I made my way down to the train station to find the free tour.  I walked around for about an hour or two before I realized I missed both tours and had to wait.  By now it was lunchtime and I was hot and tired; my breakfast hadn't been much.  Since people have told me American fast food is much better quality in Europe, I caved and tried Burger King, since I also felt like some comfort food.  It was actually really good, especially after a night like that!  I think it was the one thing that day to revive me a little bit, at least enough to give me the strength to find the next free tour.

Turns out I was right around the corner from the Starbucks where it started.  Figures.  The tour lasted for almost 4 hours and the guide was really good.  I think her energy was the only thing that was keeping me awake.  On the tour, I met Layne, who's Canadian and lives near Calgary.  She had been traveling for a few weeks so far and is planning on doing a bus tour next, totaling 8 weeks.  She was off to Berlin next, so I gave her a bunch of advice, since that's been my favorite city so far. 

After the tour, we hung out, got some fruit juice at the local market and grabbed sushi and ice cream.  Apparently, she has been to SF and knows the EXACT same street performer as me, you know, the one who hides behind a branch and jumps out at people to scare them?  I love him!  It's a small world after all.

We parted and I grabbed the tram back.  I was struggling with whether to stick to the museums I planned for Friday or going to Fussen to see the Disney castle.  Once I realized that the train ride was 4 hours round-trip (and I had a train Friday night) I nixed the Fussen plan for the museums.

Back at The Tent, I met all sorts of people around the campfire.  Of course most were drunk, but that made their stories so much more interesting!  Most were from Australia (no surprise).  I'd definitely recommend The Tent for meeting people, although during Oktoberfest it's a little harder since everybody's always wasted and you can't remember anyone.  Still a ton of fun though!  After a couple hours of chit-chat, I grabbed an extra blanket and passed out.

Friday was museum day.  Well, I only made it to one of the two lol.  After checking out and stowing my bag at the train station, I grabbed a S-Bahn to the Deutshes Museum.  According to Wikipedia, it's the largest science and technology museum in the world, and I believe it!  Man, I'm glad the lady at the counter gave me the English map and said to just pick a few exhibits to visit.  Out of the 65 there, I managed to hit 5 or so in a little over 3 hours.  Wow.  It was REALLY interesting.  I spent most of my time in the electricity, energy, and computer sections (of course), but they have SO much stuff, it'd take days to just cover all of an exhibit.  Looking at the exhibits got me thinking about a lot of stuff, like picking up my circuits hobby again, research stuff, and grad schools, so I'm excited to look into that stuff once more when I get back.

After a quick lunch, I headed to Oktoberfest sober (yea it's a crime, sue me) to take better pics lol.  It's Friday, so it's even more packed, and it's not even evening yet!  I can't even imagine what that will be like.  This time, I got a chance to see all the main beer halls and the amusement park part.  I didn't even know there was an amusement park part to it lol.

After baking in the sun taking pics, I found a coffee shop to cool off and catch up on pics, videos, and journal entries :-)  I'm taking it easy for the night (I guess I walked WAY too much yesterday).  I think a good meal will be nice.  I had planned to go to the BMW Museum, which I heard is also awesome, but I think that will wait for my next visit to Germany.

Tomorrow is Paris; I head out on the night train at 22:00, wish me luck!  I have a sleeper, so I'm hoping it's not too bad, although I know we'll be packed in there like sardines.  I'm also a bit confused about my ticket, since I'm no longer using my pass, so we'll see how this goes lol.  I've gotten plenty of warnings about Paris and French, so I think I should brush up on my French (or lack thereof) at some point before I get there.  Oh man, and all the sights, so much to see!  This will definitely be the last push before I'm burned out enough to go home lol.

Alright, time to go and get ready for tomorrow, wish me luck in Paris.

Au revoir!


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Burning your Britches and an Opera in a T-Shirt

Well guys, I just have to say sorry again about the pics and videos.  I’m a little slow because I’ve had spotty Internet, and I’m not too sure how much uploading I’ll get done here in Munich lol.  I heard there’s this little thing called Oktoberfest?  And it’s the 200 year anniversary?  And I’m sleeping under a giant tent?  Should be FUN, let’s see how this plays out! 

Oh Vienna?  It was good, I’m glad I was only there for one full day.  It is a very nice city full of museums and history, but if you’re looking for fun things to do, it might not be the best destination.  Oh well, I took my chance to get cultured lol.

Let’s back up to the first night actually.  For the most part, I spent it uploading pics and trying to get videos up.  The hostel connection was really slow, and uploading 15 videos takes a little while lol.  Most of the people at the hostel are fairly quiet and were traveling in groups, so I didn’t really meet too many people.  No big deal, not every hostel is a winner, and I’ve had pretty good luck so far.  Another thing, everything in Vienna is in German only pretty much.  I can usually translate, but I was just surprised compared to Germany.  I guess maybe Austrians are less tourist-friendly? 

Ok, so the first night in Vienna is probably my best hostel story yet.  I went into the room around 11 p.m. and pretty much EVERYONE was in bed or asleep already.  Lame.  I hate having to shuffle around in the dark like I’m being a pain, but whatever, I wanted a shower.  I fell asleep around midnight or so.  Now, my Asian roomie left his light on, which is fine, since I figured he liked the light.  Around 01:00 or so, I woke up suddenly and was confused.  I figured the couple below me woke me up.  I sat there tossing and turning for a half hour with my eyes closed.  Then I realized I smelled something strange, like burning fabric or plastic.  Then I opened my eyes…

The ENTIRE room was absolutely filled with a white haze, almost like smoke.  I immediately jumped off the top bunk, searching for the source.  The couple and two others woke up in shock.  I checked the heat register and all the stuff that could be burning, but found nothing.  It wasn’t smoke; I wasn’t coughing.  We opened the door to clear out the room and walked over to reception to buzz the night clerk.  I waited for about 15 minutes and no one came.  When I buzzed again, I got something to the effect of, “We cannot bother anyone at this moment.”  Our room is full of haze and you don’t care!? Nice, you guys get like zero stars from me.  The rest of the night, we slept with the windows open to vent any more smoke, although it appeared to stop around two. 

What was it?  Well. The next night, the German guy in the bunk below told me.  Apparently, the Asian dude (who keep in mind was the ONLY one who slept through all of this) had his underwear hanging above his head next to his light.  The light burned a GIANT (like 4”) hole into his underwear!  And he didn’t even wake up with a pair of burning underwear above him!  Awesome.  That’s one for the books.

As for Tuesday, here’s the general breakdown:

·         Woke up after a restless night and had a small Viennese breakfast at the hostel (two rolls and a coffee).  Yea Europe is coffee, coffee, coffee!  Man, I hope I don’t get addicted to caffeine again like in college.  I miss my orange juice :-( …add one more thing on the list for foods/drinks to have once back in America. 
·         I packed my pizza from Monday night and headed out to town.  Instead of “sofa pizza” like The Hangover, I had “backpack pizza” lol which I figured I’d eat for dinner.
·         Took the U-Bahn to St. Stephan’s and explored the cathedral.  I couldn’t find the golden elevator the girl from Zurich mentioned, but I did ride up and north tower and walk up the south tower to take pics.  I paid for both, so my recommendation, if you can handle walking 340 steps, is the south tower, which has a much better view.  Also, watch out for school groups and lots of tourists, they’re everywhere lol!  Oh yea, and Austria = $$$.  It has probably been one of the more expensive places so far; they charge for everything lol!  Just be prepared.
·         Next up, I wandered around Hofburg Palace.  The treasury was closed, so I instead got lost on the grounds and actually ended up in a restricted area inside the palace.  Whoops.  Not much to do so I walked out.
·         I sat down in the gardens and for the second time that day I tried to plan out what museums and things to see.  I was honestly having a hard time coming up with enough to do.
·         I walked over the ticket window for the opera.  Everything was sold out except the most expensive seats for €170.  No thanks.  I figured I’d try to get standing room later at 17:30 before the performance (more on that later).
·         Afterwords, I walked over to a hidden coffee shop mentioned in my Let’s Go guidebook to grab a sandwich and some mélange (coffee with steamed milk).  I know, I know, more coffee haha, but it’s a specialty in Vienna.  I was actually expecting smaller proportions in Europe, but most are still pretty good size.  I wouldn’t care if they were even smaller.  I’m just happy they are somewhat smaller, since so far on this trip I have not felt overstuffed from eating like I often do in America.
·       Wandered towards this modern architecture museum that supposedly has no straight lines in the building, but then did an about face and went to an Internet café to burn €6 on 45 minutes of net and a drink.  Geeze!
·         Went to the fine arts museum, since I figured I should go to at least one museum in this city that’s full of history.  The museum was absolutely beautiful, and the exhibits, my God.  I’ve never seen such a collection of Egyptian and Roman artifacts and paintings!  I thought it’d take me so long to get through I’d miss the opera, but fortunately for me the whole first floor didn’t have anything translated in English, so I just perused the exhibits.  I liked that; reading seems to burn me out sometimes.  Upstairs in the picture gallery, I only read the descriptions of paintings that interested me.  That seemed to be the right way to go.

Ok, so now for the second part of today’s blog title.  Around 17:00 I went to the opera house early to sit in a line for standing tickets.  There were only 30 or so people ahead of me, so I would surely get one of the 500 spots.  I sat and did some Sudoku.  I figured I’d grab my ticket, find a park and eat my backpack pizza, run back and change, and be back for the performance at 19:30.  Wrong lol!

After getting my ticket (I bought the most expensive one, which was €4 lol), everyone immediately rushed down the hall.  What’s the deal?  Evidently, I need to study my opera edicate.  I rushed to another line, which was the entrance to the opera.  WTF?  I have to wait AGAIN for two hours!?  Oh well, I guess that pizza would have to wait.  Around 18:30 we were corralled into the standing area, where there were several aisles with bars to lean on.  After shuffling with a Spanish couple, I got a seat front row center!  Wow, I was on the main floor just behind the seat rows!  And all for €4!

There was a little more confusion with “marking my territory”.  In order to save your spot, you have to tie a scarf or something to the post where you’re standing so no one steals it.  At first I used my coat and then had to run to coat check to give them my backpack.  Then they told me I couldn’t use a coat.  Oops.  I dug through my pockets (I happened to forget my opera scarf) until I found my Vienna map, which I just laid over the bar.  Hell, people used napkins.

I scanned the standing crowd.  I was glad that I wasn’t the only groundling in a t-shirt.  Hey!  I was going to change alright?  How was I supposed to know that I was going to be at the opera from 17:30 until 22:30 lol!  Walking around the crowds in the lobby made me feel I was definitely in an opera (not to mention out of place); there were mostly older people, all dressed in suits and dresses, sipping wine and nibbling on hors d’ vours.  I promptly retreated to my place with the lesser peoples lol. 

Now, I’m pretty sure this is my first opera ever.  For a guy who listens mostly to pop, rap and techno, I knew it probably wasn’t going to be my thing, but hey, when in Vienna right?  It was very moving; the piece was in Spanish, but even so, it was hard for me to decipher.  Luckily, they had screens at each seat and standing post that translated into German and English.  While that’s all great, I tried my best not to read the thing all the time so I could just enjoy the singing.  In the end, I just used the screen to get the gist of the plot.

At intermission, I met Jaime, who was standing next to me.  She’s traveling from Taiwan for 4 months and her next stop is Krakow.  Awesome!  I had all sorts of info to give.  Too bad she’s not staying at Slawek’s hostel, that’s the place to be lol!  I gave her my fb info after the performance.  Just goes to show you, you meet people everywhere when travelling Europe, even the opera!

Worried I’d wake up my roomies again, I rushed onto U2 and U3 home, eating my (now very sad) pizza lol.

Wednesday I find myself on a train to Munich.  Woo!  I’m excited for Oktoberfest, although I’m not too sure what to expect, especially for the 200th anniversary lol.  Oh, and I’m staying under a giant tent.  Jaime said that the place is awesome, with clean facilities and a bonfire every night.  Sounds good to me, it’s in the true spirit of sleeping in a tent for Oktoberfest lol!  I’m not sure how much beer I can handle, but I’ll do my part lol, you have my word.  I wonder if I’ll even get into a beer tent.  That and I want to at least take part of the day and see some of the sights, although my list is fairly short.  Then Friday night it’s off to Paris!

Alright guys, I’ll drink a beer for each and every one of you!

Until next time!


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