Sunday, 18 April 2010

The Depression after the Vacation - Reflections And Reverse Culture Shock

I felt I needed one last post to sum up our travels after receiving an irate email last night about how I left the story off at:

Destiny dictates I can't NOT get on that aircraft back to Raleigh, society doesn't let me suddenly stay. No I would be boarding flight 173 tomorrow, not because I want to, but because I had absolutely no other choice. It wouldn't be a conscience decision. It would be whatever forces are driving my life, pushing that one foot in front of the other while tears roll down my cheeks and in my mind I'm screaming "I don't want to go."

Apparently the reader threatened never to read my stuff again on account of, as she states, "I've never read a blog that made me as sad as yours tonight." I assume that's a compliment, but it's also clearly a reflection of something I think many people are hesitant to talk about after returning home from abroad: depression.

"The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality and, instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are." Samuel Johnson

So where does that leave us? Day 9 was a eight hour flight back to Raleigh. Since then I've been deeply depressed to the point I probably should seek medical advice. Then again, with no health insurance, that's not likely going to happen. It's literally like walking around with a knife in your chest.  I confessed to Shan, that if there was pill, I'd gladly take it to make the pain go away. What would I tell my therapist anyways? I found happiness somewhere else, and feel like living in the States is complete Hell? That there's no way out! What sort of medicine do you give a crazy woman whose been transformed to a point she's not entirely sure she's wholly American anymore? While this bout of emotional depression is certainly the worse I've encountered, I went through a similar feeling last year. It drove me to work hard at finding a way to return to Europe. For six months I diligently weighed every option, every job, every school. In the end, when all the doors were closed I went into my room for a week with a $30 bottle of Spanish Porto and demanded to be left alone. Eventually I got on with life and did my best to forget, ignore, and pretend like none of it happened. In the end I guess I succeeded. I even began to admire my life here in the States again. A nice house, two cars, a job writing and making money from my own home. It's not that bad of a deal, right? Apparently I had got so good at pretending that I actually believed I could get on a plane again to Europe and come home without any repercussions. I was tragically mistaken. The moment we got there it was as if every detail, every moment, every feeling came rushing back in. All the fears I had created in my head to distance myself from what I loved suddenly vanished and I was once again; saved, if only briefly from the inevitable truth: that I am completely, 100% without a doubt: hopeless.

Since it's now clear to me that who I've become isn't changing anytime soon, and my phone isn't going to ring off the hook for a crazed travel writer in Belgium, I suppose I should reflect on the good things we learned from this trip:

So what did we learn? Well, we learned a lot of French. My favorites were:

Chouette  - meaning owl, but generally means "cool" or "awesome".

Ouais - pronounced "way" it's basically "yeah" commonly used more often than "oui" [wee]. You'll feel like a complete idiot the first time you use it but no one else will think anything of it until you get back to the States and say it to the Airport parking lot attendant forgetting you're back.

Chez Moi - As in "lets go back to my place?" Leave it to me to acquire the only French lessons in the world that left us with only the appropriate phrases to pick up dates and bring them back to our hotel for sex.

We also learned about Schtroumpfs known in America as Smurfs, and that they're actually Belgian, and there's a much deeper meaning to all of it.

We learned a bit of Dutch too:

Dank U - There's no forgetting the moment we walked out of a frites restaurant and Shannon commented how she thought it was nice they tried to write "Thank You" on the Belgian receipt next to the French translation. Sarah looked at her like she was completely nuts trying to decided if indeed she should tell her it's not a misspelling of English, but Dutch for the same phrase. (Pronounced: DAHNK-uh.) The week continued with us saying "Denk Youz" everywhere we went.

We learned to be quiet, sit closer, talk softer.

We also learned the sexiest post a woman can do is to put her arms behind her head and let her odor fly. With this pose you'll attract men for miles.

We learned touching another's knees is the first sign of intimate intentions.

We learned at any single moment, in every pub in the world there's at least one drunk Scottish man to buy you a drink.

We learned Winnie the Poo was right especially when we had to speak French and transverse France alone.:
There is something you must always remember. You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.

We learned some Americans think the only birds in the world are bald eagles which just happens to rhyme with "sea gull". Something may have been lost in translation. Also, even the ducks are more friendly in Europe than the States.

We learned: religion isn't always bad. It's sometimes beautiful, poetic, and sometimes it surprises you with acceptance.

We learned our friends are priceless.

We learned that simply saying "deux barbecue bacon cheeseburgers si'l vouz plait" will only successfully allow you to order dinner at Quick Burger if you say it with a French accent.

We leaned the 3 weeks of French was far more useful than the 3 months of Welsh. Not once did I get to say "dw'in hoffi cymraeg cacennau." Though I did get Welsh cakes merci very much.

And while there is a lot more, I will end on this quote from Thomas C. Wolfe, a North Carolina native who wrote on the drabness of American Life and famed for the phrase "you can't go home again--not ever."

..And at the end of it he knew, and with the knowledge came the definite sense of new direction toward which he had long been groping, that the dark ancestral cae, the womb from which mankind emerged into the light, forever pulls one back--but that you can't go home again...

You can't go back to your family, back home to your childhood, back home to romantic love, back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame, back home to exile, to escape to Europe and some foreign land, back home to lyricism, to singing just for singing's sake, back home to aestheticism, to one's youthful idea of "the artist" and the ideal...
He saw now that you can't go home again--not ever. There was no road back. 

The question is now, where do I go from here?

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Ripped from this World : "I Don't Want to Go" She screamed and cried in pain at Cardiff Castle

Tick tock, tick tock. As the clock counted down, and the window onto this world began to close, we awoke in Cardiff ready for the last day of our lives abroad to walk among the fields of daffodils, eat Welsh cakes and Clark's Pies. For as far as I was concerned, this was my last day on planet earth. We were now less than 24 hours till we boarded an aircraft to the States, and I prayed and hoped for a miracle, anything to happen that would say this is reality and everything else was just a dream. A sign like a volcano going off in Iceland and grounding air traffic or something! But that's not very likely is it? No it was apparent that reality was setting back in; but, for one last day I would ignore it to the best of my ability.

We packed the bags, checked out of the hotel and took off towards central Cardiff. Our first stop? Cardiff Market, a Victorian era farmers' market that has existed since the 1700s right off of St. Mary's Street. I had actually written about the Cardiff Market in another publication after doing lots of research. Being actually able to stand there, made me beside myself, like I was a character in my own story. It's a lovely market with everything from hardware, to clothes, to food. This is when we ran into our friend from Demrio's. He came running up to us yelling "Ladies!!! How are you? Out for a stroll?" Here we were, once again in Cardiff making friends after one day. It only made my bitterness about leaving worse. Back home I'm lucky to have my friends even Facebook me, yet here after one day we knew all about the guy's brother in Delaware, his immigrating and not being able to speak "the" English. They say the American south has "southern hospitality," but I say we romanticize the idea more than we exhibit such behavior. Here in Cardiff, or Bristol, or Brussels, or even London? I could be married and pregnant if I stayed there more than a week.

Shan ended up buying some convertible gloves. Normally I'd be jealous but I had already placed an order for a set of European style Ugg boots without her knowing.... so I just kept my mouth shut and smiled. As you can imagine, I was fighting back the tears at every corner, refraining from dropping to my knees and screaming "why is the world so beautiful?" That's when Shannon interrupted my emotional discourse by finding some Clark's Pies in the butcher's case at the market. Oh blessed Jesus of meat pies, I'm finally in heaven.

After a bit more shopping we worked our way up to Cardiff Castle's gift shop. I was looking for a new Welsh rune stone. I had bought one here last year, and was hoping to find another. I've worn it everyday for a year, and it was time to update it. Unfortunately they no longer sold them. :( With a few hours till our train departed to London we finally decided to spend the £20 to go inside of Cardiff castle. We didn't have the time to spare last year, and this year I was still a bit reluctant since we had already seen numerous castles, forts, and what not... and well, £20 seemed a lot. In the hindsight I was glad we did. After all, the money does goes to support my Welsh sisters and brothers. It was a good thing we had prepared for this trip by purchasing backpack style luggage since we'd now be climbing countless steps and not having traditional luggage gave us the freedom to trek the grounds. It worked out perfectly. Cardiff Castle consists of an outer partially subterranean hollow wall with super long halls that you can actually walk through, the inner buildings and then aloft a giant mound of dirt surrounded by a moat, the actual castle, called the Norman Keep. Apparently many more buildings at one time occupied the surrounding grounds but through various occupations the structures were destroyed, rebuilt, or modified for the rulers at hand. What's equally amazing is that it's still used by the city today to host concerts, and other events. It makes the grounds apart of the modern Cardiffian's lives rather than some tourist attraction behind a glass window.

We explored almost all of the castle including parts of the "apartments", kitchen, clock tower and outer wall. You really couldn't help imagine being a princess or some royalty- pitter pattering along the great halls in a long flowing gowns rendezvousing with your love in some dark remote corner under candle light. It truly is probably the closest I'll ever get to touching something from my families past in such a ironic, poetic manner. Of course if there was any question, we only needed to look at the historical signs on the castle's grounds. In fact, this guy, looks so much like my dad I almost thought I was on candid camera:

Shan of course said- take a picture, because it's "like so bloggable" for when you get home. She was right of course.

Time was now running out. We hit a few more stores, then scurried over to Cardiff Central Rail Station about forty five minutes early. We grabbed some baguettes, and a few items for the two and half hours train trip back to London and then finally made our way to the train platform. Once again I was forced to say goodbye to Wales. A place I wish I grew up in, a place I wish was my home. This time though, I was also saying goodbye to so much more: to Brussels, to Sarah, to our friends, to Bristol, to the Italian guy, even to my dreams. They say you get exactly what you expect when you go on vacation in Europe, and in a way you do. For me the vacation is never just a vacation, for me it's a drug that keeps me sane, that keeps me alive and without it, I stop functioning- I become just this empty shell. It was at that moment when I got on that train: I shut down completely. I just sat there. For hours in silence, like you do after someone dies and you finally cry yourself to the point you're emotionless. That was me. When we stepped off the train at Paddington my body moved forward, but not by any lucid order from my own mental being. As like breathing merely to thwart of asphyxiation, my body placed one leg in front of another and took me somewhere not by any choice of my own.

We made our usual stop at Hammersmith. Switched lines, grabbed some dinner: some "take-out". Shan got her Indian food. I got some chips and sauce. Yes sauce, as in like Belgian frites and saus. This is when my heart had reached its terminus and nearly broke in two. I sat in our hotel room with a styrofoam take-out box of French fries and frites saus forking them into my mouth while I cried the entire time, tears rolling down my face. I didn't want to go, I didn't want to leave.  This was the end of the most amazing adventure of my life. Tomorrow I would go home and none of this would be real anymore. The world magically transforming and rearranging below you as you fly. Is it really all that different than going through a rabbit hole, or being swept away by a tornado? If you never knew the places or people existed in this world, and I had told you about my adventure in this magical land with brick roads, gothic buildings, and weird foods, you probably would say "Liv was just having a dream." I know it's real though. Isn't that- that fact: that Dorothy knew it was real, and that I do too, but no one else really does (or can in the way I do) the ironic injustice in all this? That when you go back home it becomes nothing more than a memory? Some photos, maybe even a keepsake. It's all out there somewhere, it's just I can't have it any more. Destiny dictates I can't NOT get on that aircraft back to Raleigh- society doesn't let me suddenly stay where my heart beckons. No I would be boarding flight 173 tomorrow not because I want to, but because I had absolutely no other choice. It wouldn't be a conscience decision. It would be whatever forces are driving my life, pushing that one foot in front of the other while tears roll down my cheeks and in my mind I'm screaming "I don't want to go."

Friday, 16 April 2010

Clark's Pies - A rite of passage in Cardiff Wales

The famous Clark's Pies shop.
One of the best foods in the world comes from a tiny little kitchen inside of Clark's Pies, also known colloquially just as "Clarksies", or "Clarkies" in Cardiff Wales. It's famed, and regarded almost as a national treasure by locals. Tom Jones is said to pilot his his private jet in weekly to maintain his heritage by buying a dozen of their meat pies. Since they opened for business in the 1920's they've made one thing, just pies. Meat pies that have been baked by hand with century old Welsh recipes. Each a taste of Welsh history. A object of desire mentioned in poems, plays, and history books for over five-hundred years. It's a food that transcends time, and would be just as home five centuries ago as it is today. It's timeless.

A real meat pie from Clark's
A typical tourist may not have ever heard of Clark's, yet locals seem to almost base their sense of direction upon the aroma of the meat and onion emanating from the little Canton bakery where they're made fresh each morning.

We only needed to ask the public bus driver "where is Clarkies?" to make him turn around to us with a smile and say "Take a seat darlings, and I'll get you there in not time."  As if his sole purpose in life was to serve American girls who were keen enough to participate in what can only be called a Welsh baptismal. Our entry into the ranks of the Welsh's most treasured meat pies was nearing moment by moment. When we finally arrived our chauffeur who seemed to know everyone on board his bus by first name, leaned over gleaming with pride and pointed to the shop about half a block away. I glanced back only to realize the entire bus of passengers had been carefully listening in on the conversation and were now smiling, even encouraging us on our journey with hand gestures, like we were their children on a rite of passage.

Shannon is trying to take it all in.
They say to eat Welsh is to be Welsh, but when we arrived, Clark's Pies had already closed for the day. I was saddened and dismayed. I had traveled over three-thousand miles, across three countries, and now destiny had intercepted my right as a descendant of Wales, preventing me from my sacrament of beef and vegetable gravy filled pies of Clarks! Say it isn't so? It was a freaking Welsh tragedy. But not all was lost though, as we soon would find out.

The next day while visiting the Cardiff Market, we stumbled upon a butcher who just happened to be selling.... you guessed it, Clarkies Pies! At just over a £1.50 a piece we waited patiently for them to be warmed in the oven. Again I think we shocked the vendor just by asking for them. The people of Cardiff get real excited to watch people eat a Clark's meat pie for the first time. Like that scene in the 'Wedding Singer' where the grandmother wants to watch Adam Sandler's character eat the meatball.
A Clark's Tash - The nickname given to burning the upper lip with the hot filling.
So here it was, moments after we lost our Clark's virginity:

I'm sorry, it doesn't get much better than this.

No fork needed, you just grab it in your hand and shove it in your (excuse the reference) pie hole. The pie crust is very versatile and handles well without crumbling. The taste is amazing. The crust was buttery and flaky and melted in your mouth. The filling? Like heaven itself. How can something so simple, the art of food, become so lost in America? Here a little meat pie, unknown to most of the world exemplifies exactly what's been lost in our modern society of brand name foods. The predicament of realizing such a thing of course, when you don't live remotely near a Clark's Pies, is that nothing will ever taste quite good enough again.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Chasing her past, she stumbles into the future in Cardiff Wales

I know from listening to Hillary Duff that there's two things you need in life. Somewhere you belong, and someone to love. I've got the love, and I have never felt there's anywhere on earth that I belong more than Cardiff. Perhaps it's because I'm part Welsh? Perhaps it's because the city hall is inscribed with a declaration of the Welsh's love of music and arts? Maybe it's the vibrancy of a city on the verge of destruction, revitalizing itself? I'm not sure exactly why or what it is that makes me love this place so very much, but I do. Every time we go we make friends. It seems almost unlikely that in a city the size of Cardiff you can go out to dinner make friends with the waiter then run into him the next day in the market and he remembers you. We know now about his family, his brother, and his ambitions. I've been to Cardiff before, and I've explained what Hiraeth is. I now have similar love for Brussels, but Cardiff will always have a special place in my heart, a first love. I suppose some readers might say "Liv is just always fascinated with Europe. Everywhere she goes, she fall in love with it." Not true. I could never live in Paris, and after visiting Cardiff and Brussels, London seems a bit too much for me to raise my family. I'm not saying I'd ever turn down a job if it meant a stepping stone, but I absolutely love Cardiff and Brussels.

The train from Bristol to Cardiff Central is a short 40 minute ride, only made longer by the Bristol Channel which gets in the way. Enough time to use the toilet, and get your tickets out for exit. When you exit you are smack dab in the middle of central Cardiff.  A short mile walk gets you down to by the Atlantic Wharf where we were staying at the Mecure Lodge. A lovely hotel quietly hidden behind the old wharf and just a few feet from Mermaid's Quay, and the Millennium Center. We love the old wharf... It's a oddly hidden treasure most tourists probably never see.

This is when we knew we were back. Back in Cardiff, home to my forefathers, a place with a song in its heart, a kinship that runs through my veins- beckoning me, calling me, and here I was smack dab back where I belonged, again.

I stood outside the giant Cardiff water tower, looking upon my reflection like Alice in Wonderland; who had just stepped through the looking glass. Here was a land I had left a year before, back again like the reopening of a favorite book- ready for us to explore. Unlike last time where we spent only a few daytime hours in Cardiff, this time would be different. We were spending the night. We'd shop Queen street, get drunk off our rears  at the legendary Saint Mary's Street, and we would eat dinner under candlelight overlooking the bay in a famous star frequented restaurant, and live to tell about it tomorrow. We couldn't wait to get started!

We threw are bags in the room like children at the amusement park, barely able to contain ourselves for what was to come. Running to the music in our heads down the stone path of the wharf and into the famed Millennium Center area! Finally a sign we had arrived:
Brains beer. Unheard of in the States, impossible to get outside of Wales- and Sarah thought I was a complete nutter when we asked the bar-maiden in Bruges for the stuff... but here it was, perhaps the best beer in the world- Brewed right in Cardiff. (Go for the "bitter" it's "bittersweet" awesome!)

We were getting hungry so we decided to hit the World Famous Harry Ramsden's Fish and Chips. This place is legendary with its unlimited chips, sauces & amazing breadings. Unfortunately they were understaffed and it was still sort of a holiday so it took forever to get our food, but it was worth the wait!

You may remember this carousel from a previous blog thread. Oddly enough it's all there. Something I didn't notice last time was the little metal maritime anchors shaped in the shape of "8" attached to the "6" large stones next to the carousel. The 86 phenomenon had became real once again.

After lunch we headed over to the visitors center.  Lovely historical movies, and gifts like sheep whoopsies, stuffed dragons, and wool scarfs can be purchased at a fraction of what they charge in the tourist trap shops downtown by the castle. You can even rent a bike out front and ride throughout the city on two wheels.

Afterwards it was time to partake in the lovely local public transportation. They may have never finished a London-Underground-like subway system in Cardiff, but you can still get around with ease with their many public buses including a free one that circles the city. We got a day pass for the "local's bus" which is £3 a person and good for unlimited travel even to other areas. When In Rome, I mean Cardiff- ride like the locals. We rode back up to the central bus terminal and then transferred to a bus going to Canton, a small neighborhood in Cardiff. We were headed to Clark's Pies. World Famous Clarks Pies. Famous as in Tom Jones flies his private jet in from the States just to get some. Yes they're that darn addictive. I'm going to do a full write up on Clarkies in the next day so I don't want to give to much away. But here's a picture of the place:

We then took a walk through Victoria park, and onto the famous Pontcanna fields. We witnesses blood covered chavettes getting into a teenage fight, their fathers pulling up in a plumber's truck, half in tears and half in anger. Guess parenting is the same anywhere in the world. Looking at the beautiful park I could just imagine my kids playing here.

After a bit of thrift store shopping downtown and being thoroughly confused if UK clothing sizes are the same as the US we headed back to the hotel to drop off our shopping bags and get ready for something I've dreamt about ever since our last trip abroad. It was the one regret I had last time. Tonight there would be none. Saint Mary's street is legendary not only in Cardiff but all of Britain as the place you get pissed out of your brain. It's not uncommon to find people in costumes, wearing bunny ears and finding hordes of soon to be grooms and brides on their last night out in Cardiff. Tonight we were going out and getting drunk!

Indeed we did. The area was a bit more tame since it was a weeknight, but still plenty of skimpy mini-skirted barely legal girls and guys discovering adulthood through the beer of the tap, and the pavement they'll pass out on. It was this night our bartender introduced us to the "Dublin car bomb" a Guinness and Baileys concoction that you must chug before it curdles like an explosion. I suggested to the bartender that it would seem such a drink might be a bit offensive to some. He just shrugged his shoulders. When we finally left the pub- the lights were brighter and more colorful than ever. We stumbled out onto Saint Mary's street just as any slightly tipsy Welsh girls and found a bus stop. That's the beauty of the UK... you don't have to worry about driving, you just need to be sober enough to figure out which bus to take.

Of course the night wasn't over. It was time to hit Mermaid's Quay once again for some real Welsh cuisine at Demiro's. A upscale, romantic restaurant overlooking the bay, the Welsh Orchestra house and the water tower. This is where we met a lovely Italian man who told us all about his family. He made us feel so at home, I almost wanted to ask for a job the next day when we met him at the market. Demiro's is famous place often frequented by some pretty big names, and we joked how I would faint face first if John Barrowman or Russell T. Davies showed up that night. I probably would have choked. We started dinner off with Cocos a Bara lawr (Cockles & Laver Bread) and then I had Ffiled Ciw Iar Sir Gar (Carmarthenshire Chicken) and Shan had the Ffiled Hwyaden (Breast of Duck) followed up by Tiramasu and a big huge Ice Cream sundae on my part. (A sobering up craving...)
The night was coming to an end. It was almost midnight now which was cool in itself. Just blocks from the hotel, we didn't have to worry about trains, public transport or when they stop running. We took one last stroll down on the lower boardwalk in Cardiff Bay and down to the Torchwood door, which has been turned into a Llanto Jones memorial.

It began to rain as we walked back along the wharf and back to the hotel. This was one hell of a day. Amazing, crazy, and wonderful. It's everything a vacation should be, but we also knew it meant our vacation was coming to end. Tomorrow we'd head back to London, and the day after that board our flight to the States. It was tragic, and depressing in the same breath. This is when I began to tell Shannon I wasn't going home on the plane with her. She thought I was joking. I wasn't so sure that I was.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Losing my mind in Bristol. I need a Doctor... Who?

We awoke in London and headed to Paddington station to go visit our friends in Bristol. Bristol is right across a channel called the Bristol Channel from Cardiff and home to one of my favorite television shows called 'Skins'. If you've not seen the show, then clearly you haven't seen high-brow drama! They're even doing a remake here in the States but it will never live up to the antics of several juvenile British students in their years leading up to university while living in Bristol.

When we arrived at Paddington we had plenty of time to spare. We happenstanced upon Cafe Sloe. A leather sofa cafe with free toilets. Yes no thirty pence charge for us! Outstanding coffee and full English breakfast overlooking the rustic main terminal, what more could you want?. There's even a departure board so we knew when to go find our train. It was a wonderful slow paced morning that left us relaxed and ready for our train ride.
Eventually it was time to go. We were becoming pros at the whole train thing, and this was our second year on this National Rail route. We were also very glad the strike was avoided that had loomed our planning prior to coming. (Europe is always on strike it seems.) The train is fun and often quiet allowing time for reflection, reading or sight-seeing out the windows. At one point we went for a soft drink in the cafe car and Shannon was once again coquetted, this time by the ticket taker guy. While I believe the gentleman did hold some fascination with two American women on his train, it was clear by now that Shannon has officially earned the "trollop of Europe" award for this trip. The lady in the cafe counter just rolled her eyes. We knew our next train, a eight minutes ride in a "Cross Country" train from Bristol Temple Meads (the southern station) to Bristol Parkway (the northern station) was a tight one but we managed without an issue. When we pulled in and walked out there was our friends with open arms. We were so excited. We were in a strange town ready to discover it with friends... what better way?

Our friends have a beautiful home, and the city of Bristol is just an amazing place. Rolling hills, gorges, very unlike I had imagined it from the show. Just absolutely fabulous. When we got to their place they sat me down in some electric recliner which was way swanky and flipped on Doctor Who! Yes Doctor Who. I actually was watching Doctor Who, in a real British house with real Brits. Does that sound condescending? It's not meant to because honestly, I was beside myself. You always imagine the grass is greener on the other side, but seriously LOOK:

So I got to watch Doctor Who, loving every minute of it. I probably could have died right there knowing my life was complete. It was rather odd relaxing with friends as the craziness of Belgium and Paris faded into the past. Our amazing race seemed now as if time was standing still. After discovering that Karen Gillian is perhaps the hottest and most ginger companion yet, and that there is something to be loved about Matt Smith even though he killed David "Ten-Inch", we headed off to Strada in Bristol. I've talked about Strada before. It's a chain of Italian restaurants, which as we discussed that night- its closest equivalent in the U.S. would probably be Macaroni Grill, though it's a bit more upper scale in my opinion. Great pasta, breads, and Italian and wonderful gay waiters?  We had yet again another gay waiter.... Which was completely awesome! In fact I don't think we found a straight wait staff anywhere in Europe. It was such a relief and comfort to see people are so "out" over there unlike the always tense culture of America. The conversation was great, the food was amazing and once again we were asking ourselves how we were so lucky to be right there, right then at that moment. It all gets a bit surreal. We then went on a tour of Bristol. Got to see the giant Clifton suspension bridge which is breathtaking and hung marvelously over the gorge like a crown to the city. It was built in 1859 by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, one of the great British civil engineers who was also responsible for the SS Great Britain Iron Ship which is now anchored permanently in Bristol, and the Temple Meads rail station. Apparently they had to cover the motorway below due to the weekly suicides. Some famous like Sarah Ann Henley who was caught by an updraft and lived through her attempt. Remind me when I decide to off myself because I can't get a job as a waitress here in the States... that this bridge is the perfect place to kill myself!
Bristol Parkway Train Depot

We also got to see a defunct Clifton Rocks Railway that burrows up the hillside and was used by the BBC in times of war to maintain broadcasting capabilities. We then learned about the Bristol's dark past connection with America serving as a port to deliver slaves to the "New World". There's a lot of history here in the winding hilly streets of Bristol, so it's no wonder that Bristol is branded as the "Best English City To Live". I know I would move there in a heartbeat. In fact the only downside seems to be that much of Bristol does require some form of automobile. It could be a blessing if you enjoy your car, but I think when and if I ever can make the jump abroad I'll want to ditch the car completely.

So that night we went back to our friends and had a chin wag about everything going on in our lives. Paul and I go way back to when we both moved to NC about 6 years ago. We talked about health-care, religion, and learned all about chip and pin. We talked about our trip and I found myself growing in self-reassurance. See when you go to Europe, you see things,and  it changes you. When you come home it takes yourself awhile to deal with these thoughts and feelings. Like a reverse culture shock. Sometimes you doubt yourself and tell yourself you're a liberal nutter who just refuses to go along with the majority of people here in the States. Then I go back abroad and I talk to people, real people, and they think like me. They're like "you're kidding?". I'm like "no, I'm not". This is usually in response to "What happens if you have to go to hospital and have no insurance?" (you just die broke) or "What do you mean there's a tea-party who throws bricks through senators windows." Basically America, when you explain to foreigners what's going on here; they think we're all a bunch of monkeys humping footballs. Which probably is mostly true for some of us.
Clifton Suspension Bridge

Alas the night was coming to an end. For the first time in our lives we fell a sleep in a home in England. No four star hotels, no concierge, just a real place, with real friends. Again, this might all seem like I'm overstating the obvious, but it was way cool. Remember this is the girl who almost forwent the hotel in Paris to sleep out under the Eiffel Tower. I dig the little stuff. I like standing barefoot on a terrace in Brussels, watching the sunrise over my "adopted" backyard, or just sliding my hand over the bricks of a building hundreds of years old. Yeah that's me, the one who thinks rain makes a vacation better, that I'd rather order in French and get it wrong than not try at all. Someone who yearns for those hugs from both friends and complete strangers just because this world is so much better than most Americans will ever realize.

You love this town
Even if that doesn't ring true
You've been all over
And it's been all over you

It's a beautiful day

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Faster than a speeding Eurostar Train out of Paris: The Island of Britannia

Cue my personal theme song because today we were going "home". Home away from from home in London, across the English Channel aboard a high speed Eurostar, racing along the French countryside at just under 200 MPH. We awoke with church bells ringing on Easter Sunday from our balcony aloft over-looking the square below just outside of Gare Du Nord. Morning in Paris, tonight we will dine in London, this can't be for real, can it?

This was perhaps our first day to slow things down a bit. Our train wasn't out till about three o'clock, so we could afford to sleep in a bit. I don't think we actually did, but it was nice not having to set an alarm for the first time. When we finally got dressed and done up we checked out and still had plenty of time to spare. This was our moment, our time to shine, our last chance to be French. So what do two girls in Paris do? They go shopping!

What's more is we were awesome. Shannon hit a French bakery for some pastries, ordered all in French. The lady didn't even switch to English upon hearing the American accent as they usually do. See even when you speak French, your accent gives you away just like when you hear a French person speak English here in America. Either she didn't know English, or was being super kind.... but it was cool. It was all coming together. I got to do the same for lunch at the rail station ordering lunch. It was that last re-assuring bit we needed that we were stronger than we thought we were, and worthy of this great adventure. Especially for me I felt like all this was too great for somebody like me. As if I wasn't deserving. I had already seen more than many people and I pondered why in this great big cosmic roulette wheel of life; I had been chosen to witness such wonders. I felt tiny in the greatness of it.... and that's a great feeling to have.

Upon leaving Gare Du Nord's main terminal and entering Eurostar's international terminal, you're met with both French immigration (a bit too late now guys!) and U.K. immigration, and a security check point. I think the agent at the U.K. booth was a bit taken back by our travels as she examined our passport stamps. While I'm certain they see lots of travelers, I don't think we struck her upon first glance as wealthy travelers nor poor student backpackers. Just two average women conquering the world one country at a time. Eventually we passed the test and we were granted access to the Eurostar lounge; a boxed in glass terminal with coffee, ice-cream, pastries, and a newsstand. We grabbed a cappuccino and waited to board. Down the escalator and we found our seats. Suddenly we realized not everyone was French. A very flamboyant British woman whom would do well in America sat raving beside us. It's a bit of an adjustment since everyone in France stands or sits almost touching and literally whispers in a breathy voice even in the most loudest conversations. There was however a little French girl about five years of age who we made great friends with despite the language barrier. Reminded us of our Renny. We were now getting itchy to phone the kids, which we knew we could once we shot out of the dark English Chunnel and into the British mainland with our Orange powered world phone. We were both a bit saddened that you can't see any of the French or English coasts from the train. In fact the whole TGV experience is a bit lackluster, but far better than airline travel any day.

When we hit Londres, I mean London, we immediately boarded the Saint Pancreas station tube with our Oyster cards still loaded from last year and headed down towards the London Eye. This is the center of London, especially on a holiday. We shot over to Ned's Noodles and walked over to the Thames. Paris might be people's idea of romance, but for us it was a bench overlooking the Thames eating take-out Japanese. It had been burned in our minds since last year. We thought we would never ever experience the romance of the situation again, but lo and behold it all worked out perfectly. We secured a bench by the river with a Swiss girl playing music. It was as if it was meant to be as the sun set behind Big Ben. The bell rang and another day was slowly coming to an end. Finally we a took a nice walk across the Thames to the Tube station and began the journey to our hotel which was about 1.5 hours away via tube and bus.

We always stop at Hammersmith. If I ever moved to London, I'd rent a flat near Hammersmith so that station could be my terminus. You walk out of the tube and directly into a shopping complex with a grocery store and lots of restaurants. Our favorite is the crepes place. I had a "I'll have what she's having" (no that's what it's really called) which was chocolate, strawberries and cream wrapped up in a crepe. Shannon got some self-imagined concoction of Nutella, bananas and other stuff. We would enjoy these as we walked downstairs to the Piccadilly line, and waited for the next tube to Heathrow. Eventually we ended up in that old familiar place: Heathrow's central bus terminal. We were however staying at a new hotel, outside of the free zone. Bus A10 up Stockley road was ours to catch as we stood with our Nero coffee. It's easy to pay with the Oyster at about £2 and the Crowne Plaza Hotel is easily seen from the bus. The stop is somewhat further out and you walk about 1/4 mile back to the hotel. The hotel was amazing and definitely 4 star. It was a nice evening that left us with a few hours to relax, call the kids, and catch some BBC. We ate our leftovers, re-hydrated our bodies and took showers preparing us for our next journey. Tomorrow we'd head back to central London; this time going to Paddington station and boarding a train to Bristol to see our friends. We were super excited and couldn't wait for the adventure to begin again.

Belgium to Paris by train, blood, tears and reluctance.

It was the best of times, but the worst was coming... we were leaving Brussels today. We were leaving Sarah for something unknown, Paris, a place that I was warned was touristy, and that I'd later dub 'The Vegas of Europe'. I mean, we were excited but Brussels had been life altering. We were practically ready to marry Sarah. I offered to be a live in maid, cooking and cleaning for her and her roommate. In the end, we reluctantly left Sarah at Gare du Midi in Brussels aboard a high speed Thalys train with me sobbing like this was the last day of my life.

The day started off simple enough. I woke up several hours before everyone and walked out to Sarah's balcony, now "my" balcony, and just stood in the crisp, cool Brussels morning air. The plaza came alive as the minutes passed. It was pure joy just to watch the locals cross the street, the tram stop because of a tow truck, or the old ladies bewildered and lost on their way to buy morning flowers and a baguette. Eventually I made my way to her laptop where I felt I just had to share what was going on. It was just too much to hold in. All the beauty, all the wonder... I was in complete euphoria just pretending to be Belgian for the day. Sleeping in their real Belgian apartment, eating from the Stockel market, pretending that just for a moment that this was my life and that all the smog, fast-food, angry tea-baggers, and loud mouthed Americans wasn't my true life.

It's in these moments of bliss I can almost justify some insane thoughts. Like the homeless people in Brussels who all have puppies. The joke was if you became homeless you get a free puppy. One guy fed his dogs Belgian cookies. Even the homeless puppies are doing well here. I could do homeless I thought?

Eventually I snapped out of it. I then lost all emotional control over Sarah's tale of man and his self-gratification in front of her on a street one night when she was returning  home. We just happened to be sharing a giant hot-dog at the moment and without thinking I ended up making a comment juxtaposing the two conversations which by this point had me laughing and crying so hard I couldn't breathe. No really... I'm not exaggerating. I thought for a moment I'd pass out, miss my train and end up in some hospital with a condition of hysteria. A dream come true.... or didn't I guess. That's how I left Brussels.

The TGV really wasn't as big of a deal as I expected. I imagined prior to arriving that it would be something like a theme park ride, but high speed rail is actually pretty tame. The only way of telling how fast you're going is by the poles that go swishing by, and only if you have some reference to compare it too, like the U.K.'s National Rail.

When we arrived at Gare Du Nord in Paris there was no immigration because of the Schengen Treaty. We walked the one block to our hotel, the Albert Premier. It was a pricey 3 star with American amenities but a view to die for! Two balconies facing outward onto the city of Paris. We would only realize the beauty of the hotel when we awoke the next day to church bells from our balcony. Total movie moment.

The next 7 hours were a blur. Shan in some impromptu slap-stick comedy managed to get stuck in every Paris Metro turnstile. Buying tickets in French and not remembering how to say "ticket" in French. Walking approximately eight miles on blistered, and bleeding feet in our attempt to get all of it in, every nuance. In the end, we did pretty good. In one night we saw the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomph, The Louvre, Champ du Mars, every last foot of Avenue Des Champs Elysees, Notre Dame, and lastly Quick Burger. Quick Burger you scoff? We shall explain later. See we knew we were in a time crunch, add into the fact every holiday-maker (vacationers) in the world came to Paris that day and it quickly became a race against the clock. Lines over a mile long (no exaggeration) into the Eiffel Tower meant we would not get to climb the tower. We grabbed a quick sandwich at a grocery store somewhere early in the evening and ate it while walking to to the Arc De Triomph. A cute French man advises "bon apetite" with the cutest of smiles as we practically jogged in the rain. We were alive, we were having a blast... but my body was shutting down. My shoe was now awash in blood. I hobbled as fast as I could from my damaged foot. At one point before hitting Notre Dame Shannon insisted we call it a night and find a Metro station back to the hotel. This is when I grabbed her by collar and said... "I'm in effing Paris... This princess's fairy tale isn't over yet!" and off we went- blood and tears. Hope was restored inside the cathedral for a Easter service in Latin, and then finally at the end of the night a lovely stroll (hobble) back to Le Metro and back to our hotel. Before it was over though, and much to our surprise (unlike London which shuts down at 7pm) everything was still open. So we decided to hit Quick Burger.

Why Quick Burger? Well from the moment I started planning this trip Sarah had told us she'd meet us at Quick Burger at Brussels National. We never ate there with her, but for me it was this elusive restaurant that formed my images of what would become our vacation. I had always assumed the name of the restaurant wasn't "Quick Burger" but that- that was just a descriptor. No... that's its name. There's also a Quality Burger. Not exactly Parisian cuisine but with me practically now a paraplegic; the idea of grabbing some food and heading back to our room at 11pm at night seemed rightfully acceptable. That and also the fact that French and Belgian mayonnaise is amazing. It also gave me one last Paris moment. A chance to prove myself and order in French. Shan refused and pushed me to the counter. I figured, hell I can figure this out, after all, the menu actually says "Bacon, Barbecue Cheeseburger". "Deux bacon barbecue cheese burgers" I advised the lady in my best French accent. I followed up with "aux frites" and "Coca Cola". (We got O.J?) Hey it isn't pretty, but here I was the retarded little farm girl from North Carolina surviving, managing dinner in France. I was so proud of myself, and later got enough courage to add "I want" in French to the next day's ordering experience. That's immersion- one word at a time. I loved it. I wanted more. I still do, though I'm not sure how to get it.

Eventually we made it back to the hotel to ride the tiniest hotel elevator in the world up to our postage stamp bedroom where I carefully removed my shoes, took a shower and watched Super Nanny in French. Tomorrow would be another day, another train, another city. Paris is one of those places you've got to go once in your life. It's very touristy, though I bet if you stay away from the touristy things there's much more to enjoy. In all honesty I was still missing Sarah and Brussels. One last cry before bed. Tomorrow we'd be in London. "London"... I say that like it's home. It felt like it. We knew where everything is. We have all the local tools: Oyster cards, a mobile phone, and a past knowledge of what to do, and how to do it. It's a home I've visited in my dreams, and tomorrow it would be real again. Paris would fade to some mental filing cabinet, but Brussels would still be lodged in my heart like a silver bullet causing me to bleed tears of blood. Don't get me wrong, I liked Paris, Je t'aime Paris, it was dramatic, beautiful, and flamboyant. Unfortunately, and also quite ironically (and I say this as least hypocritically as I can)- there were too many darn Americans.

NOSH! - The International Cookbook