Tuesday, March 31, 2015

My Euro Trip - Stop Two, Paris

So, as you know by now, just over a week ago I was in Europe. 

Since I've been back, I've been getting a ton of the same questions - how was it?  what did you do?  where did you go?  Etc., etc., etc.  To help myself from being on constant repeat, for the next week I'm going to devote my blog to recapping my trip, posting photos, and telling you all about what went down. 

Each day this week I'll recap one of the aspects of my trip.  Enjoy!

---

My European Vacation - Stop Two, Paris

After enduring two days of touring in Amsterdam with tremendous jet lag, by day three we were finally starting to adjust to a more European time table.  Good thing, because we had to be up bright and early for a high speed train ride to Paris!

As I packed up all my things that morning after dressing, I had to admit: I wasn't really digging the fact that I was traveling with a back pack.  I mean, living out of a suitcase is hard enough.  But doing it out of a back pack is even worse. 

But the moment I had to catch a train with my luggage, my back pack was redeemed, because not only did we have to catch one train that morning, we had to catch two - one train to get from the airport to the main train station, and then another train to get from the Amsterdam to Paris.  Whew!  I can't imagine trying to do all those transfers with a roll aboard.  Or two.  Or five.

Actually, I can.  I saw quite a few others doing it.  And it did not look fun.

Since my husband and I could easily board and sit down without fighting a roller up a flight of stairs and onto the train, we burned our spare time taking selfies.




Admittedly, the selfies he took were much more romantic / serious.  But mine, although stupid, are sure a lot more funny. 

Or at least I think so.

Anyway!

Finally, everyone was on board, and the train started rolling.  And that's when the fun began.  Let me tell you something about European train tickets: you have a seat number, but you also have a wagon number, and you have to carefully check both points of information prior to boarding your train.  We had a ticket for wagon 17, seats 73 and 74, so we sat in them.  Our neighbor had a ticket for wagon 17, seat 72, so she sat in it.  And we were all three Americans riding a European train for the first time, and we figured it out.  But yet, for some reason,  multiple AMERICAN tourists just could not get it right.  Both my husband and I, as well as our neighbor, were approached by people and told we were sitting in their seats. 

When my neighbor looked at their tickets, she gave them a look like "really?!" and proceeded to say "This is wagon 17, you idiots.  Your ticket is for wagon 18.  Move on back."

Heh.  I think she took a little pride in the fact that the three of us got it right, because she looked at me and said "It's not that hard, really - how do you get that wrong?  It's clearly marked!!  It says on the door as you board your train which wagon and seats are in this car."

Hahahaha, I had a good time talking to her for a few minutes after that.

Although the train was fast, and we were going close to 200 mph, there was still a good 2-3 hours of train time to kill before we arrived Paris.  I burned some of it by using the - surprisingly free - wifi on board.  It was painfully slow, but it allowed me to message a few friends on Facebook and update them on my adventures, so I endured the suffering.  I also enjoyed the scenery out the window.

Somewhere along the route, I realized we had some welcome cookies from the Amsterdam hotel in my purse (since we didn't eat it the day we arrived and it was in a sealed pouch), so I pulled them out and offered one to my husband.  As soon as I bit into mine I was immediately chagrined - it was a famous stroopwafel cookie and it was delicious!!  But I had just left Amsterdam.  How could I live the rest of my life never having one of those again?!  Sigh.  The thin waffle like wafers with a chewy caramel filling were so good...

I pretty much got over it as soon as I set foot in Paris, though.  Because ... Paris, duh!

Paris Hotel

As I mentioned in my overview, in Paris we stayed at the Le Meridian Etoile.  To get there from the train terminal, we purchased a 10 pack of metro tickets and hopped the subway.  Note: at 14 euros for a 10 pack, each trip on the metro cost us a nominal amount.  We ended up buying a second 10 pack to allow us to wander the city fully the two days we were there.  Also, pro tip - save your ticket, you have to use it to get both IN and OUT of the metro stations.

After transferring to a second subway line in order to get to our hotel from the main train station, we hit our stop and exited the metro ... only to pop up to one of the most beautiful and notorious monuments in Europe.  I almost died of excitement.




Granted, it was daytime when we came out of the metro and we took this photo later in the evening, but you get the idea.  And note my awesome sunburn in that photo.  When my face is that red at night, you know I've got a good singe going.  (Ok, to be fair, we did split a bottle of wine at dinner that night, so it may not be 100% sunburn ... heh.)

Anyway, the walk from the Arc de Triomphe to our hotel was just over a kilometer.  Not too bad when you're empty handed, but a little tedious when you're carrying a 30+ pound pack.  By the time we got to the hotel, I was a little bit sweaty.  Thankfully they were not full, and a room was available for us immediately, despite our early arrival.

The room was different that I am used to, with a long entry hallway and a separate room for bathing versus toilet:



 

It was also 100% haunted.  I'm not kidding when I say this.  The first night we stayed there, something was using our bathrooms and opening/closing the doors while my husband snored away next to me.  Whatever it was even opened the doorway that separated our bedroom from the bathroom/hallway, which I had closed prior to going to bed (yes, I awoke before my husband did, and he did not get up in the middle of the night).  Even more hair raising was that this "force" also visibly wiggled the security latch to the main door of our room for quite some time when I was zipping up my boots the next morning, which my husband even saw and had absolutely no explanation for.

At least whatever it was decided to leave us in peace the second night, as we did not have a repeat performance.

Heading Out to See the Sights in Paris

Once we finished marveling over the cheetah printed carpet of our hotel room, we decided to make the most of our first day in Paris.  But first, some lunch.

Just up the block from our hotel, on the corner where another metro stairwell was, conveniently there was a restaurant.  And it looked decent.  So we gave it a shot.

My husband ordered a rotisserie chicken that was very good, and I had the equivalent of a chef's salad.  Let me just tell you, if salads in the US tasted as good as my lunch there did, we would have no obesity epidemic in this country.  That is all.

With full bellies, we were good to go.  And that is what we did.

Our first stop was the Notre Dame cathedral.  I had been hoping to catch a tour, but we were a hair late and missed it.  Since the church is free to all who wish to enter, and the guy working the info desk was an absolutely stereotypical Paris douchebag, we decided to just walk through on our own.
  

 
 
 
As I walked the church, I found myself emotional beyond belief.  I was here.  I was really here.  I started to get teary eyed.
 
When we exited the church, my husband asked me what was wrong, and I lost it.  I started to cry, trying to explain to him: After years of wishing, I'd somewhat given up hope of ever making it to Europe.  This tour of Europe had been something we talked about doing years ago, before the economy tanked and I used to have a higher paying job (so we could afford it).  At that time, we were hoping to do it within the next year or so.  Then I got laid off from my job.  At which point, I had let the string go on that balloon and watched it float away.
 
But now I was there.  And I just couldn't believe it.
 
I took a minute or two to compose myself after that, and we both just stood in awe in front of the church before moving on.  After which, we roamed the area, window shopping and leisurely crossing bridges to enjoy the view of the river. 
 
Eventually, we decided to head to a nearby metro stop to take in this:
 


 


I have to admit, the Eiffel Tower is HUGE!  I just couldn't get over how massive it is!!  Isn't it funny how you see photos of something and you get an idea in your head what it's like, but then when you see it in person your brain kind of explodes when you realize how wrong you were?  That was me.  For like ... at least half an hour while we walked the park around the tower.

And, I have to add something here.  I don't know what it is about Paris, but it just seemed like everything was more enjoyable there.  Even something as simple as the park at the base of the Eiffel Tower felt amazingly relaxing - I could have stayed at the Eiffel Tower's park for the rest of the day.

Eventually, though, we decided that we'd had enough for day one and headed back to our room to relax and research dinner options.  With the handy-dandy assistance of Yelp, we found this place:


 


And were amazingly pleased with their food and friendly service.  My husband enjoyed a puff pastry appetizer filled with escargot (I told him that was alllll him and had no interest in trying), we both had delicious entrees, and I finished my meal with a poached pear in an amazing fudge chocolate sauce. 




The next day, we opted to take another bike tour to help us see the sights in a more meaningful way (Paris Fat Tire Bike Tours), since walking around on your own doesn't give you the greatest historical perspective on what you're seeing.  The tour was absolutely fantastic.


 

 



From left to right, top to bottom, the above photos show:  the current resting place of Napoleon, the square where the guillotine was during the French revolution (which had to be moved several times due to unstable footings when the soil was saturated with blood - eeek), the same square from another angel showing the obelisk of Luxor (which Egypt writes France for yearly, requesting return of, and is refused), a close up of the obelisk's base (which features a diagram of how to reconstruct the old crane used to place the massive statue ... fun fact - it took 3 years to get the monument from the Turks to the river just feet away form it's current resting point, and another 3 years to get it off the river and hoisted into place), a photo of me standing in front of the Lourve Art Museum, and a miniature Arc de Triomphe just across from the Lourve which was built due to Napoleon not being able to get the original done in time for his troops to march home/through (another interesting fact - Napoleon married his second wife under the mini arc to legitimize the child she was pregnant with for the throne, which required him to divorce the love of his life who was barren.  He was quoted during the ceremony as saying "I am not marrying a wife, I am marrying a womb."  Romance, eh?).

The midway point for the tour included a stop at the park leading up to the Lourve, which did not allow bike traffic through.  We paused there for a short lunch before continuing on.  By the way, it was worth walking our bikes to get there, as the croquet monsieur sandwiches they served were fantastic.

After completing the bike tour mid afternoon, we took the suggestion of our tour guide and headed towards the Montparnasse Tower to enjoy the Paris skyline.  I had originally figured I wouldn't do this, at least via the Eiffel Tower, since I heard it was a rip-off and not worth the time in line.  But ... Montparnasse is less known to tourists and was a fantastic experience, with no wait!  I highly recommend a stop.






The most unique part of the view at Montparnasse was being able to actually SEE the Eiffel Tower from above (as opposed to standing on it, which is what happens when you tram up to the top of the Eiffel Tower).  Plus, it was interesting to see the view of the central train station, and the remarkably large grave yard that took up a sizable portion of downtown Paris.

Oh, I suppose I also enjoyed Montparnasse because they served champagne by the glass there.

Hey, it was our anniversary week!!  Why not celebrate?

Champagne aside, something I've lost in the above recap, now that I'm thinking through all the details, are my many stops to patisseries while in France.  Seriously, I think we ended up going to three in less than 48 hours.  The first day we stopped at a place called Guest, where the server was tremendously friendly.  The second day we stopped for breakfast at one near the tour agency, after many failed attempts to locate an open crepe restaurant (FYI - I later figured out that a crepe is a mid day treat in Paris, not a breakfast option).  The third ... hm, I forget now.  Maybe it was an afternoon snack after the tour or something.  Whatever.  All three were AMAZING, and I am forever ruined for pastries, and coffee for that matter, in the US.

And speaking of food, eventually it was time for dinner again.  After roaming around at random, just wandering the streets of Paris, somehow we settled on a restaurant maybe 4-5 blocks away from our hotel, on a main intersection (although unfortunately, I don't recall the name of it).  Regardless, the dinner we had there was easily the best meal of our entire trip:




Essentially, it's just a simple mixed greens salad with sliced apples that is served with an herb crusted, warmed goat cheese.  But the flavors!  I simply cannot put it into words!  (Don't worry, I made a knock off recipe that came pretty close when we got home, so I'll post it next week.)

Oh, and that crepe that evaded us at breakfast?  Yeah, we ordered one with a Grand Marnier flambé for dessert.  Fantastic.

As we enjoyed our dinner, my husband and I remarked on how much we surprisingly enjoyed Paris.  I think we had both been expecting it to be just so-so, as you hear so many bad stories about Parisians being rude to tourists, especially Americans.  I'm willing to hazard a guess that we were treated fairly well because (1) we didn't dress like a sloppy, sporty American and (2) we made a conscious effort to speak softly and blend into our surroundings.  I even had a French woman approach me when I was with my husband on the street prior to our bike tour, trying to ask me something in French, so my guess is we played the part of a European at least somewhat ok.

When in Rome ... or rather Paris, right?  (Since Rome came later in the trip, ha!)

Finally, after another long day of touring and eating, my husband and I were ready for a good night's sleep, so we tucked in and prepared for our next early morning train to Munich...


Monday, March 30, 2015

My Euro Trip - Stop One, Amsterdam

So, as you know by now, just over a week ago I was in Europe. 

Since I've been back, I've been getting a ton of the same questions - how was it?  what did you do?  where did you go?  Etc., etc., etc.  To help myself from being on constant repeat, for the next week I'm going to devote my blog to recapping my trip, posting photos, and telling you all about what went down. 

Each day this week I'll recap one of the aspects of my trip.  Enjoy!

---

My European Vacation - Stop One, Amsterdam

On Friday night, after a long day's work, my husband and I headed out to the Minneapolis airport.  Our flight was scheduled for 8 pm, so we arrived a little before 6 pm to ensure plenty of time to clear security and check in for our international flight.  Not thinking, once we cleared security we grabbed dinner to kill time pre boarding... only to turn around and be served another dinner around 2-3 hours later on the plane.  D'oh!

Overall, the flight over was very nice.  My husband opted to purchase the Economy Comfort ticket, which meant we had slightly more space in our chairs and free booze.  Whoop! 

The upgrade was definitely nice, and I enjoyed the extra leg room while I dozed.  But no matter how much extra space you have, an airplane seat is still no bed.  So after 8 hours in the air, I arrived to Amsterdam feeling a little exhausted.  And wilted.

But, this was it.  Our big trip.  And I had no idea if I'd ever get to come back again.  So I refused to waste even a minute.  I was ready to go, Go, GO!

First things first - hotel check in.

Amsterdam Hotel

As I mentioned in my overview, in Amsterdam we stayed at the Sheraton at the Airport.  This was amazingly convenient because we literally did not have to exit the airport to get to our hotel.  Once we cleared customs, we dumped out into the main terminal area where the restaurants, gift shops and escalators for the trains are located.  There, we just followed the signs to the up escalators that took us through a hallway and straight to our hotel.  We didn't even have to go outside.  Score!

Unfortunately, since we arrived at about 10 am and check in time was around 3 pm, we were much too early to get our room.  The staff was very friendly and welcoming despite our early arrival, and offered to hold our luggage while we waited for our room.  Although we were both a bit ... as I said earlier, "wilted" from a long day at work the day previous and an international flight, and thus would have liked a room to freshen up, that definitely wasn't an option.  Given the circumstances, we opted to just dump our bags and keep moving.

Before I leave the topic of the hotel, by the way, I'd like to put in a few comments about our stay there.  The room was very clean and modernly decorated, the staff was friendly and prompt, and the room was actually very quiet despite being connected to the airport.  The only down side to this hotel was that it was quite a distance from the downtown area, so we did need to ride a bus or train to get into the city.  However, it is quite easy to get around in Amsterdam, and a train or bus only takes about 20-30 minutes to get you into the downtown area from the airport, so it's not a major hassle to stay at this hotel.  If you are looking for a reasonably priced hotel, I would definitely recommend this location.

Heading into Amsterdam's City Center

I had done some researching prior to our trip and had tentatively planned to take a tour of Amsterdam on the first day via bike ... if our flight arrived on time .  And in fact, we landed a bit early, so after hotel check-in, off to the tour we headed.

Amsterdam has a fantastic metro transit system, and is really easy to navigate.  Using the advice of the bike tour service (Mike's Bikes), we hopped the #197 bus in front of the Airport to Leidseplein in order to join the tour.  Side note: the bus fare for that one trip was something like 5 Euros each.  Had we realized sooner that it was available, we could have purchased an unlimited ride tourist pass and saved money on the first day's worth of bus fare ... but we didn't do that until the second day, whoops.  These passes are available for purchase from the metro information desk in the airport, and come in 1, 2 or 3 day options.  BUY ONE, they are worth it!  Ours came with a city map attached, which was extremely useful for the rest of our visit.

While we rode the bus to the bike tour's office, we passed some of the major museums of Amsterdam, including the Van Gogh.  I was immediately disappointed to see the length of the lines to get in to any museum we passed - they were easily a 2-3 hour wait each.  When I considered this, and factored in that a museum visit once inside would take easily another 2-3 hours+ ... and then remembered I only had 2 days in each city ... I made a decision that I would likely not go into any museums during our trip.  I simply couldn't see myself sacrificing 6 hours for a visit inside ONE building, when I could be outside experiencing the ENTIRE CITY instead. 

Finally, our bus stop arrived.  We hopped off and walked towards the tour office, where essentially we had arrived about 20 minutes before the tour was to start.  So, once we purchased our tickets, we just wandered outside to kill some time.  As we wandered, people watched and window shopped, there was no mistaking that Amsterdam has ... uh ... "de-criminalized" marijuana.  And "magic" mushrooms.  And other things.  It's fair to say my eyes were opened.  Or rather, my nostrils?  I think I got a contact high just passing by people on the street.

Finally, the tour began.  We hopped our bikes and away we went.

Amsterdam traffic is ruled by bikes.  I heard once that per capita, they have more bikes than any other country in the world (don't quote me on that, it may not be true).  Since bike traffic there is insane, our tour guide started our tour in a very smart way - down some untraveled side roads for a few minutes with a stop at a nearby park to let us regroup.  This allowed us to get a feel for the bikes, and to stop for our first photo opportunity.  Where I promptly almost fell into the canal.




I'm not kidding.  This is the first photo of our trip.  You can practically see my eyes bugging out in fear.

 


Luckily I did not fall in.  In celebration, I posed for a second photo with my bike.




After the brief photo op - away we went.  The tour guide took us all over the city, showing us various churches, points of interest, the Anne Frank house ... he even pointed out and explained some of the current political issues of the city and its angst - there were some protesters in one area "occupying" a building to protest the change coming to the public education system for college students, and another location where some "squatters" were protesting/celebrating their last day in the building where they lived, having been recently evicted by a judge.

The halfway point of the tour brought us into the most notorious area of Amsterdam: the red light district.  Prior to arriving, our tour guide explained that the red light district is centered around one of the first Catholic Churches of Amsterdam (his commentary included something like "makes sense that the Catholic Church would be so nearby to these services, no?" followed by a wink), and then he told us that the streets in this area are much too narrow and crowded, so we would need to dismount our bikes and walk for this portion of the tour. 

I braced for the worst.  Ok, I thought.  Let's do this.

But no matter how much I braced in anticipation, it wasn't enough.  Immediately I was shocked to my core.  Here's why: after dismounting our bikes, the tour guide turned down a narrow alleyway.  I had no idea where we were going, so I was looking forward to see what was down the road.  But, I was quickly distracted by a thumping sound to my left.  So, I turned to figure out what the noise was, and realized it was coming from a woman behind a glass window with round, hard, fake, grapefruit sized breasts. 

She was mashing her boobs against the glass to make the thumping noise. 

She was calling to her potential customers.

But it wasn't just her in this alley.  I was face to face with an entire alley of windows filled by scantily clad women, most of them in just "panties and bras" (are they really panties or bras if they only cover the most important bits, or do I just call them Band-Aids?).  These women and their windows were stacked one right next to the other down the alley like dominos.

And before I could even let the shock sink in, I came down the alley into the intersection to see a woman of maybe 50 or 60 years old, bent over a canal, retching her guts out while her husband stood by in a marijuana induced haze. 

Well, I thought to myself, welcome to the red light district.

The tour guide directed us to the nearby square where the church stood, explained some of the history of the area and its dangerous past, spoke about how the women now are all independently employed and licensed by the state, and then proceeded to lock up all our bikes so we could ... choose to entertain ourselves.  He pointed out a few places that had good snacks for sale, and then the group dissipated.

I opted to go to a rather "safe" looking shop to purchase a pair of gloves (it was much colder than I anticipated it would be and my fingers were frozen), and then my husband and I went into the café that is inside the church to have some carrot cake and coffee (which was excellent, by the way).

After a 30 minute or so break, we resumed the tour, which eventually wound back to our starting point.  By the time all was said and done, it was about 3:30 and we were both exhausted with jet lag.  We thanked our tour guide with a tip, returned our bikes, and in a drowsy stupor managed to make it onto the bus and back to the airport where our hotel room was finally available.

At which point, I think I had one of the best showers of my life.

Feeling a little fresher, but still extremely exhausted, my husband and I decided to grab dinner in the airport - simply because of convenience.  We were pleased with the Dutch café we chose, and also happy to find a grocery store nearby.

Once we finished eating and getting some simple groceries, we decided to go back to the hotel.  At 6:30.  To "just relax".  Which in jet lag speak, for me meant - pass out asleep, dead to the world, waking up at 1 am.  After a little tossing and turning, I managed to fall asleep again, waking up around 7 or so.

With only one day left in Amsterdam, despite the early rise on a Sunday morning, it was time to get hoppin' again.  So after a quick shower, off we went.  And went.  And went.  I honestly wouldn't be surprised if we walked all of Amsterdam in that day.  I'm not exaggerating when I say this, either.

We started the morning by heading straight to the Heineken Experience since it opened very early.  We determined since there was no line, we could be in and out before it was even time to each lunch, so we went for it.  Which was perhaps a small problem, as I was not hungry for breakfast, and ended up having 2 or 3 pints of beer there before 11 am.

A cup of coffee and three beers for breakfast.  Drunk by 10:30.  Only in Amsterdam!!

Anyway, technically this Heineken location is not a brewery anymore, but essentially it's like taking a brewery tour.  And if you're not dumb like us and mess it up, you can also get a free ride in a boat down the canal after the tour.  (Needless to say, we did not get to partake in that part of the "experience".)



 
 
Despite the somewhat tourist trap nature of the Heineken Experience, my husband and I actually had a fantastic time.  In addition to learning about brewing, they have a bunch of really fun extras like being able to sample wort (unfermented beer), an interactive ride that simulates what if feels like to "be beer" (water splashes and bubbles included), an old timey photo booth with free print outs of the photos, and a handful of other photo opportunities throughout the tour:
 



 


After we were done, we both said - well, that was worth it.

Since we were on the far side of the city at that point, we decided to just start walking and explore.  We wandered for a long time - maybe two hours or more - before we finally stopped at some random café for lunch.  There I learned that regardless of how good someone's English appears to be, it is best to point to what you want on the menu, as I ordered a locally farmed Dutch cheese sandwich but somehow ended up with a Dutch meatball sandwich.  Oh well.  It was still pretty good.

While we wandered the city, somewhere along the way we passed the flower market.  There we marveled at the millions of bulbs for sale, and I secretly wished customs wouldn't catch me brining some home.  But I didn't bother buying, because I knew I would get busted.  Not to mention the hassle of having to haul them around the rest of the trip.

As we walked, we continued to gawk at the leaning row houses that the tour guide had pointed out to us the day prior.  Apparently, Amsterdam is built on a filled in marsh/swamp area, and in the old days they built the city on pilings that were just wood logs.  Now, as the wood rots and gives way, the buildings have started to lean.  Some of the houses are so distorted that the windows actually step down about 3-6" across one floor, and the windows are all kinds of warped out of square.  It's pretty amazing.

You can see how the buildings lean some in this photo.  Notice how the building with the red curtains is pitching forward while the building right of it is pitching back and to the side.




After being on our feet almost all day, we decided to have a rest at a another brewery.  This time, though, it was to an actual functioning brewery - Brouwerij't Ij.  It's pretty hard to miss this place, given its location in a windmill:




Aside from the obvious photo opportunity of a windmill in Amsterdam, the beer there is amazing and the staff was super friendly - they even tried teaching us how to pronounce the Dutch names of the beers, which we promptly slaughtered.  I enjoyed their seasonal Easter brew which had a clove/spicy flavor, while my husband sampled their IPA.

Being on the far side of town at that point, we opted to catch a tram (using our metro pass, of course) back into the city center.  There, we continued to wander, shop, and just generally stare wide eyed at our surroundings.  As tourists do.

Around 6 pm I started to have a mini meltdown, as my feel felt like they were going to explode and we were not in an area that seemed conducive to a decent dinner.  Somehow we stumbled across a hole in the wall British looking pub, where we had a snack of beirbitterballen.  Apparently they are a Dutch snack food...?  To me they were kind of what you'd expect for pub snacking: a breaded and deep fried meat and flour dumpling of sorts, with a hint of beer flavor, that is served with a side of mustard.  They were interesting to try, but a bit on the greasy spectrum of food choices.  Regardless, it was a nice break, and kept my hangry face away.

Eventually, as we wandered towards the main train station, we came across a restaurant called The Alley that looked suitable for a sit down meal (the majority of places we passed seemed to cater to the smoked up munchies crowd and really didn't suit my fancy).  The Alley wasn't anything too fancy menu wise, but the atmosphere was nice.  Not seeing much that caught my attention, I settled for - embarrassing to admit - a hamburger.  A live band was setting up to preform as we were finishing our meal.

Once we closed our tab, the exhaustion of having just arrived in Europe over 24 hours earlier settled in, and being close to the train station, we decided to call it a day.  We hopped the train back to the hotel, and crashed for the second night in Amsterdam, knowing the next morning would be an early wakeup call for our train to Paris...

Friday, March 27, 2015

My Euro Trip - An Overview

So, as you know by now, last week I was in Europe. 

Since I've been back, I've been getting a ton of the same questions - how was it?  what did you do?  where did you go?  Etc., etc., etc.  To help myself from being on constant repeat, for the next week I'm going to devote my blog to recapping my trip, posting photos, and telling you all about what went down. 

Let's get started! 

I'll begin my recap today with an overview.  Next week, expect more photos and a more detailed recap city by city.

---

My European Vacation - An Overview


 


First, the origins of this trip -  last week was my 10th wedding anniversary.  This trip was a direct result of that major milestone, and also the reason why this vacation popped up out of the blue.  Here's how it went down:

Me - So, husband, should I take a couple of PTO days a few weeks from now so we can do something together on our anniversary?

Husband - Sure. 

Me - Ok, I submitted PTO for the Thursday and Friday of our anniversary weekend.

Husband - How much more PTO do you have?  Just a few days?  Can you take off that whole week?

Me - (Confused) Well, I have like 10 days or something.  I guess I could take off the whole week  Why, did you want to go to the cabin or something?

Husband - Nope.  Happy anniversary.  I'm buying you a plane ticket to Europe that week.

Me - *Passes out in chair and falls to floor*

Ok, so that's not exactly how the conversation went, but you get the idea.  Essentially three weeks before we were about to depart, we were booking airline tickets. What followed was an absolute whirlwind because (1) we didn't have ANYTHING planned out or reserved and (2) I realized my passport was due to expire in a matter of about 2 months.

Yikes.  We had a lot to do!

Immediately the next day, I was taking a long lunch to get my passport concerns addressed.  By the way, if you need to get your passport expedited, the process in Minneapolis is actually quite smooth ... if you schedule an appointment to go into the offices downtown and fill out the expedited paperwork properly.  I had my new passport mailed to me within a week!!  I couldn't believe it.  That was a major relief.

With the passport ironed out and the flight booked, we spent the entire day the following Sunday figuring out logistics (those tap rooms sure do come in handy sometimes, ha).  After much stewing over the Eurail website, and reviewing potential train routes throughout Europe, we settled on this:




If you can't read the above map well, to clarify it reads: Amsterdam, Paris, Munich and Rome.

Now, before I go further - I know that the possibilities in Europe are endless, and there is much discussion to be had about the merits of the route we planned.  I will even admit there were many other places I was wanting to visit.  But with a trip of essentially 8 days and no car, we were forced to limit ourselves to places that we could get to via rail AND cities that were feasibly able to be experienced with about 2 days worth of time to visit each. 

Knowing the above limitations, our journey began in Amsterdam simply due to convenience and cost, as Delta has a hub both in our hometown of Minneapolis and in Amsterdam and we could fly directly there on a Friday night via an 8 hour flight.  Then, since there was a high speed train between Amsterdam and Paris (the Thalys), our second stop was a no brainer.  From there, however, our route was a bit of a question mark since I knew I wanted to make my way into Italy somehow - ideally Rome - but I wasn't sure how to make it happen.  We ended up determining that there was a night train that ran from Munich to Rome (the City Night Line), and two different high speed trains that ran from Paris to Munich with a connection in Stuttgart (the DB Bahn).  Boom!  Problem solved. 

And that is how we arrived on the selections of Amsterdam, Paris, Munich and Rome.

Once our train tickets were booked (which was a bit of a chore, as a few sites didn't like our credit cards and required a few phone calls to straighten things out with false fraud alerts), we started researching hotels. 

Ugh, another tough hurdle.

After reviewing a plethora of options, we decided to be somewhat "safe" by choosing brands we recognized, and somewhat "frugal" by choosing locations that were a bit further away from the tourist sites to save ourselves some money.  Our hotels ended up being:

Amsterdam - The Sheraton at the Airport
Paris - The Le Meridian Etoile
Munich - The Le Meridian near the Train Station
Rome - A boutique local hotel called Villa Duse

Four or five hours later, and closing down a taproom, our trip was finally sketched out.  Now all that was left was the fun part - planning what to pack.  In a back pack.  *sarcastic eye roll*




Our arrival to Amsterdam was Saturday, March 14th and our departure from Rome was Sunday, March 22nd.  Read: volatile spring weather.  Ugh - this is very likely the hardest time of year to plan wardrobes for in your own home, let alone trying to figure out how to cram all of that into a back pack for a week's tour of Europe. 

Not to mention, Europeans are notoriously more stylish and well dressed when compared to Americans.  Yet at the same time, they are much more understated and subdued in their fashions. 

Uh-oh.  Understated is definitely not part of my wardrobe.

After some reading online, much himming and hawing, and many checks to the weather in all the cities we were to visit, I settled on a pack list as follows:

Three pairs of pants
   one skinny black jean, one skinny dark wash jean, one standard boot cut dark wash jean
Two pairs of leggings
   one black, one black and white striped
Two light weight sweaters
   one lightweight long sleeved black tunic v neck, one black three quarter sleeved cardigan
A three quarter sleeved black blouse with white polka dots
A black v neck t-shirt
Two InkNBurn long sleeved pullovers - flutter and sugar skull
A lightweight poly dress, short sleeve and just above the knee - because it never wrinkles!!
Four tank tops for layering/warmth - two white, two black
Two fashion/pashmina scarves - one solid black, one solid magenta
Undergarments and socks (one spare of each)
One pair of sporty tennis shoes, bright aqua

**You'll notice most of the items above are fairly plain in color.  This is intentional, as it allowed me to mix and match anything throughout the entire trip.

In addition to clothing, I also packed a small travel umbrella, a curling iron that ran on 220V (this is NOT US standard, but I was fortunate enough to have a curling iron from my days of doing business in Hong Kong that ran on UK equivalent electricity, so I just needed a plug adaptor for the European 2 pin system), a hairbrush and some various hair clips & ties, a few empty plastic Target shopping bags (to segregate dirty clothing later in the trip), and a standard Ziploc bag / airport friendly toiletry bag.

All of the above (except the shoes) fit in my Jansport Rightpack without any squeezing, and I even had room for a few small souvenirs later on in the trip.  For size reference, I believe that pack is about a 30-35L.  I also carried a Tumi cross body tote bag for my purse (that is where my sporty tennis shoes ended up when we were on the move).

In addition to the above, on the plane, I wore a pair of VERY COMFORTABLE AND SUPPORTIVE black boots (which I highly recommend - the Hush Puppies Feline Alternative), a heavy weight pair of black leggings, a white tank top, a light weight tunic length blush colored sweater, and my jacket for the trip (a light weight trench type jacket).

Yep, that's all I had for an entire 9 days.  And amazingly, I didn't even end up wearing everything!  I realized later I could have skipped the striped leggings and the boot cut denim and still come out ok!!

BTW - If you're a guy, or curious what I packed for my husband, his wardrobe consisted of mostly button down shirts, lightweight sweaters or long sleeved shirts, a few undershirt t-shirts, and casual but dressier looking pants (khakis, dark wash non-worn denim).  For shoes he wore a pair of casual dressy tennis shoes, similar to the Sketcher's Vassell.  Also, he used a really nice Osprey Fairpoint pack that I recommend; it had a detachable mini backpack, which came in handy on the trip.

And ... this is how it all began.  With a last second plan, and our packs .... well, packed ... we were ready to go!!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

My Big Fat European Vacation

HOLLA!!!!!!



I just got back from Europe, yo!  Or, said otherwise, "A European trip makes me holla, Natalie boo boo."

Hm.  I'm torn on that one.  I really hate that show, but it's such a great line.  Dang it.

Anyway, I bet you didn't even notice I was gone, since I had my blog all filled up with stuffs before I left, huh?  I mean, I'm just that good.  Right?  I care enough about all you readers that I kept the posts coming. 

Aren't I so nice?!  I wanted to make sure you were entertained while I was busy.

Well, me being sassy aside, I have so much to talk about from my trip.  Give me some time to get my thoughts gathered and I'll post a few things about my trip, ok?

Stay tuned!

Monday, March 23, 2015

How To Ruin Your Life (Without Even Noticing That You Are)

I know I'm a little late to the party, since this article made the rounds over a month ago.  To be fair, I've had it sitting in my to-do box for awhile, debating what I wanted to say about it.

But instead of adding my two cents, maybe I'll just repost the entire article, with my favorite parts in pink, and let you do the rest of the thinking...

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How To Ruin Your Life (Without Even Noticing That You Are)
Bianca Sparacino

Understand that life is not a straight line. Life is not a set timeline of milestones. It is okay if you don't finish school, get married, find a job that supports you, have a family, make money, and live comfortably all by this age, or that age. It’s okay if you do, as long as you understand that if you’re not married by 25, or a Vice President by 30 — or even happy, for that matter — the world isn’t going to condemn you. You are allowed to backtrack. You are allowed to figure out what inspires you. You are allowed time, and I think we often forget that. We choose a program right out of high school because the proper thing to do is to go straight to University. We choose a job right out of University, even if we didn’t love our program, because we just invested time into it. We go to that job every morning because we feel the need to support ourselves abundantly. We take the next step, and the next step, and the next step, thinking that we are fulfilling some checklist for life, and one day we wake up depressed. We wake up stressed out. We feel pressured and don’t know why. That is how you ruin your life.

You ruin your life by choosing the wrong person. What is it with our need to fast-track relationships? Why are we so enamored with the idea of first becoming somebody’s rather than somebodies? Trust me when I say that a love bred out of convenience, a love that blossoms from the need to sleep beside someone, a love that caters to our need for attention rather than passion, is a love that will not inspire you at 6am when you roll over and embrace it. Strive to discover foundational love, the kind of relationship that motivates you to be a better man or woman, the kind of intimacy that is rare rather than right there. “But I don’t want to be alone,” we often exclaim. Be alone. Eat alone, take yourself on dates, sleep alone. In the midst of this you will learn about yourself. You will grow, you will figure out what inspires you, you will curate your own dreams, your own beliefs, your own stunning clarity, and when you do meet the person who makes your cells dance, you will be sure of it, because you are sure of yourself. Wait for it. Please, I urge you to wait for it, to fight for it, to make an effort for it if you have already found it, because it is the most beautiful thing your heart will experience.

You ruin your life by letting your past govern it. It is common for certain things in life to happen to you. There will be heartbreak, confusion, days where you feel like you aren’t special or purposeful. There are moments that will stay with you, words that will stick. You cannot let these define you – they were simply moments, they were simply words. If you allow for every negative event in your life to outline how you view yourself, you will view the world around you negatively. You will miss out on opportunities because you didn’t get that promotion five years ago, convincing yourself that you were stupid. You will miss out on affection because you assumed your past love left you because you weren’t good enough, and now you don’t believe the man or the woman who urges you to believe you are. This is a cyclic, self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t allow yourself to move past what happened, what was said, what was felt, you will look at your future with that lens, and nothing will be able to breach that judgment. You will keep on justifying, reliving, and fueling a perception that shouldn’t have existed in the first place.

You ruin your life when you compare yourself to others. The amount of Instagram followers you have does not decrease or increase your value. The amount of money in your bank account will not influence your compassion, your intelligence, or your happiness. The person who has two times more possessions than you does not have double the bliss, or double the merit. We get caught up in what our friends are liking, who our significant others are following, and at the end of the day this not only ruins our lives, but it also ruins us. It creates within us this need to feel important, and in many cases we often put others down to achieve that.

You ruin your life by desensitizing yourself. We are all afraid to say too much, to feel too deeply, to let people know what they mean to us. Caring is not synonymous with crazy. Expressing to someone how special they are to you will make you vulnerable. There is no denying that. However, that is nothing to be ashamed of. There is something breathtakingly beautiful in the moments of smaller magic that occur when you strip down and are honest with those who are important to you. Let that girl know that she inspires you. Tell your mother you love her in front of your friends. Express, express, express. Open yourself up, do not harden yourself to the world, and be bold in who, and how, you love. There is courage in that.
You ruin your life by tolerating it. At the end of the day you should be excited to be alive. When you settle for anything less than what you innately desire, you destroy the possibility that lives inside of you, and in that way you cheat both yourself and the world of your potential. The next Michelangelo could be sitting behind a Macbook right now writing an invoice for paperclips, because it pays the bills, or because it is comfortable, or because he can tolerate it. Do not let this happen to you. Do not ruin your life this way. Life and work, and life and love, are not irrespective of each other. They are intrinsically linked. We have to strive to do extraordinary work, we have to strive to find extraordinary love. Only then will we tap into an extraordinarily blissful life.

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Tacking on to the above, I recently saw this from Richard Branson (of all people) at a Jimmy Johns (of all places).  I know, don't judge.  Regardless of it's origin, I thought it matches well with the above sentiment:

How I Live My Life, by Richard Branson

  • Have faith in yourself.
  • Think YES not NO.
  • Live life to the fullest.
  • Never give up.

Just Do It

  • Believe it can be done.
  • Have goals.
  • Prepare well.
  • Help each other.

Have Fun

  • Have fun, work hard and money will come.
  • Don’t waste time. Grab your chances.
  • Have a positive outlook on life.
  • When it’s not fun, move on.

Be Bold

  • Calculate the risks and take them.
  • Believe in yourself.
  • Chase your dreams and goals.
  • Have no regrets.
  • Keep your word.

Challenge Yourself

  • Aim high.
  • Try new things.
  • Never stop learning.
  • Always try.

Stand On Your Own Feet

  • Rely on yourself.
  • Chase your dreams, but live in the real world.
  • Work together.

Live In The Moment

  • Love life and live it to the fullest.
  • Enjoy the moment.
  • Reflect on your life.
  • Make every second count.
  • Don’t have regrets.

Value Family and Friends

  • Put the family and team first.
  • Be loyal.
  • Face problems head on.
  • Money is for making things happen.
  • Pick the right people and reward talent.

Have Respect

  • Be polite and respectful.
  • Do the right thing.
  • Keep your good name.
  • Be fair in all your dealings.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

10 Long Years

Thursday, March 19th I celebrate 10 years of marriage with my husband.


 

In honor of that, below is a random mish-mash of throwback photos.  And, I'll leave this as my only post until next Monday.


  

 
 
 

 
 

 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Product Review: InkNBurn Run Or Die Gear

It's no secret that I'm an InkNBurn junky (and now also an official ambassador of their brand).

And ... my love of them makes sense, right?  Just look at the collection I have from them and you'll see why I like them so much:


 
 
 
 



Yeah, it's true - I have an addiction.  No doubt about it.  But to be fair, there's a reason behind the addiction.  And it's not just because the design is great and looks amazing on. 

But more on that in a bit, because a few weeks ago I ordered this:




Yeah.  That's part of their new 2015 collection - RUN OR DIE!  Isn't it amazing?!

Fun fact, if you look really close you can see the words hidden in the art:



Ok, to be fair, I was kind of guessing
on the RUN and OR, but I think I see it.



Anyway, on to the meat of this entry - which means, product review time!!

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It seems like ages ago that I reviewed the first "set" of stuff I got from InkNBurn.  Just out of curiosity, before I started writing this review, I went back there to see what I said.  When I read it through, I thought ... my opinion hasn't changed at all since I wrote that review close to 2 years ago, so why reinvent the wheel?!  I already said it once, why not just repeat that with some modifications here?!

Here goes!

I don't have a single complaint... well, except for maybe that I can't tell you how AWESOME the InkNBurn stuff is!  Honestly, it really is great. 

The shirts - I now own many of their shirts and I love them.  A lot.  I might even go so far as to say I'll end up transitioning my entire workout collection over to their shirts some day. 
(True story, this is happening).

The pants - Well I love them, too, but I wonder if I should have stayed with the same size as the skirt I have.  I find that the capris are a little loose around the knees.  However, it's probably a good thing I got the size I did, because I do notice when I do deep squats and what not that the fabric stretches from black to gray/white.  I take that to mean I'm putting the fabric to it's outer limits.  So the extra wiggle room is more than likely a good thing.  (I'll amend this and say that the new capris I got don't have this issue, and I definitely prefer the extra wiggle room since I bend in a million different directions when I teach.  I'm not sorry I sized up.)

So, ok, the above is a lot of words.  And I could keep going on and on about quality.  But who really cares if I keep spouting, right?  I know by now you're saying ... just gimmie more photos!!

OK, wish granted!


 




And I just have to say - the pants, those stripes really make them versatile.  Check out how they pair with my InkNBurn wave t:






Not to mention, they totally look like denim jeans, so everyone was pinching my butt at the gym to give them a feel.  (Ssssh, don't tell my husband ... just kidding).

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All in all, what do I say?

Well, I am an extremely finicky consumer.  It's very rare that the brand I like today I continue to like a year or two later, since many companies seem to tweak their designs, fits and qualities in the effort to make better profits on their end. 

I think it says A LOT that I'm still loving InkNBurn after wearing their stuff for ... 4 years maybe?

And to prove how much I love them, I just bought another set from them last week:




Yep.  There's a whole lotta lace in my future!!

And don't fret - if the lace doesn't appeal to you, they've got another new fancy option as well:





As my uncle would say: Studly!


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Visit InkNBurn here.
Sign up for an account on their website to see special featured lines like Run or Die here.

If you order, tell them ... Cheetah Natalie sent ya!