Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Europe... or bust!

Ever since I mentioned to my family that I'd be moving to Amsterdam, my mom had (what I presume was) a twinge of jealousy. She had tried, ever since that fateful day, to hop on the European bandwagon and move out here as well. Two years have come and gone and her never-ending attempts have finally paid off.

My mom is moving to Germany - in October, for at least two years. My mind reels with the endless opportunities available to me now!

  • Weekend trips "home" to do my laundry -- who cares that I have a washing machine at my own apartment.
  • I'll finally be able to get decent (and cheap) haircuts on my regular visits to Germany, since -although I love Holland- the hairstylists here really aren't that great.
  • All expense paid vacations to Greece, Italy, Croatia, Switzerland, (and the list goes on)... all thanks to mommy dearest.
  • And best of all: access to the military base's American grocery store where all food items are priced in dollars!
(oh yeah, and it'll be nice having family close by)

Yay for moms moving to Germany!

Friday, June 26, 2009

Crazy is as crazy does

Meet my next door (ground floor) neighbor. He's what one might call an artist.

These must be what he considers his masterpieces, ...since they are on display.

And here is his studio... a bit too chaotic for my taste, and unfortunately this picture doesn't. even. give. it. justice!
BUT - there is a bright side to his chaos. On the days that the weather is absolutely perfect, and I find myself wishing more than anything to have a balcony, all I have to do is look out my window to realize -- I'm better off without one.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Pardon the Flem.

There were three reasons why I went to Belgium. 1) I had a commitment free weekend, 2) chocolate, and 3) my friend Annelies moved back to Belgium in April and I was dying to see her and her new baby boy.

I ended up spending all Saturday afternoon with Annelies, her husband, son, and parents, with whom they live while waiting to move into their own house. Now, Belgians speak what is known as Flemish - it is a softer version of Dutch in that they don't pronounce the harsh "G" sounds in their words. However, depending on the region of Belgium, the dialect can be all but indistinguishable - not only by the Dutch but by other Belgians as well.

That said, Annelies's parents spoke nothing but Flemish, with a West Flanders dialect. Having been surrounded by the Dutch language for 15 months now, although I don't speak it very well, I can understand many things and recognize most words. That wasn't the case when her parents were speaking. I was at a loss when they would ask me questions. I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out what it was they were saying. Annelies would then repeat the question in Flemish -- a recognizable Flemish -- to which I'd be able to respond in my highly choppy Dutch.
It's funny to think, having grown up in a country where you can understand everyone independent of which region you're from, that within the distance of a few kilometers you can't understand your fellow countryman -- who is, in fact, speaking the same language as you.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A hop, skip and a jump.

Apparently Belgium is so close I can walk to it, so said a friend of mine. As true as that may be, due to a time constraint, I opted to take the 3.5 hr train ride into Brugge instead. Brugge happens to be one of the top tourist destinations in Belgium, and rightly so. It was a medieval city that in it's prime rivaled the biggest cities in the world in it's power and trading influence. But luck was not on it's side, and by the 1500's the channel that provided the city with it's acclaim started to back up with dirt and debris. Since that time the city was abandoned until the mid 1900's when it was "re-discovered" and renovated.

So, according to guide books, you are supposed to feel like you're going back in time as you step into the city streets. I don't know if it's because I'm jaded or not, but the city looked like that of any other 16th/17th century city in Europe that hadn't been bombed during the war leaving it's integrity intact. That said, Brugge is a striking city... especially so with it's over abundance of chocolate shops lining every street! It is also home to Michelangelo's Madonna and Child, which was the only sculpture to have left Italy during his lifetime. But what's even neater than that is the fact that you can see it for free in the Church of Our Lady. Then, the city boasts 15 Euro a night stays at one of their Youth Hostels with breakfast included in the price. Granted, the showers are a bit archaic, but 15 Euros is 15 Euros. And the cream of the crop came in the form of a free map made by locals to point out THE things to see. Such an ingenious idea, and great gift for the traveler who wants to see it all!
But those maps aren't for Brugge alone. Oh, no. They have them for every major city within Belgium. Including the number 2 city on my list, Ghent. Only 25 minutes away from Brugge, Ghent has an entirely different feel. Besides the city center, the rest of the city is quite modern. The city is much larger than Brugge (although no less striking) and it gave the sensation that there was barely a soul on the streets. I truly felt as though I was in a ghost town until I reached one of the city's squares where there was a tiny craft market and French speaking band playing. The city center has a row of 4 cathedrals, each stunning in it's own regard. I could only help but wonder how one chose which church service to attend because the 4 options would be too hard to choose from based on architecture alone.

Due to the fact that it was Sunday, most things were closed, and there was hardly anyone on the streets I decided to take a stroll down the river towards the city's castle and then call it a day. And even though it was only 4pm when I left for the station, and didn't explore everything I could have over the weekend, I felt no guilt. Because, after all, Belgium is so close I can 'walk' back there any time I want.

Monday, June 15, 2009

I took the train into Belgium on Saturday.

Now, you may think "hmm... exciting", with a twinge of sarcasm. And I'll whole heartedly agree that there's nothing spectacular or out of the ordinary about the above statement, especially here in Europe. But for the non-European readers out there, permit me to continue in my rambling. (I say non-European readers, because what you're about to read is, again, nothing spectacular or out of the ordinary -- if you were born and bred in Europe).

I caught the 7am train out of Amsterdam Central Station. 15 minutes later we were at Schiphol International Airport where 2 girls entered and sat in the seats in front of mine. 45 minutes after that, in Den Haag, the 2 girls were joined by 4 others... all giddy and excited - like most young 20-somethings when taking a road trip. Another 20 minutes later, in Rotterdam, a few more girls joined their group. And so it continued at every stop throughout the Netherlands.

By the time I changed trains in Antwerp Belgium, the group had swelled from 2 girls to at least 16. My thoughts, when watching the exchange, ranged from - 'you definitely can't do this in the US', to 'wow, they just keep on coming!" How they all knew each other from across the country is beyond me. (Granted Holland's size is equivalent to that of a US state).

But, where else can you take trip into another country and have friends join you along the way other than in Europe? Man, this continent is awesome.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

"Mommy, look what I made!"

So your 5 year old just painted their latest masterpiece, huh?

Well.... take a look at what I made.

I win!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Lions and Tigers and Bears, oh my!

The last time I'd been to the zoo was 5 years ago in Brazil. Although, I don't know if I'd even call it a zoo - as it seemed more like a glorified animal shelter. We paid 2.50 reis (the equivalent of 1 dollar) and were granted access to see an orangutan, a few exotic birds, rats, a giant rock in the shape of an elephant, a couple stray dogs and two tigers. The tigers can actually be seen from outside of the complex, and I admit that I'd occasionally catch a glimpse of them through the fence while walking by since I lived near it for a few months. It's just a shame we didn't realize the best part of the 'zoo' could be seen just as easily from the outside of the complex until after we had entered initially-- though I'm sure the rats benefited from our 2.50 reis entrance fee. But before I give the wrong impression, I should clarify that there are real zoos in Brazil... I just haven't been to one.

Ok, back from my moment of nostalgia... . I often ride by the Amsterdam zoo, which lies in the middle of the city. Since arriving I've had a desire to go inside the zoo which is fully surrounded by 200 year old buildings. The thought alone of a zoo enclosed by historic buildings is romantic and I was itching to experience it. The only problem was, I never seemed to have the time to go, until last month- thanks to a public holiday.

The weather was perfect, the animals were great subjects to photograph, and even though the zoo is a bit smaller than I was hoping, it was easy to spend a few hours there.

Friday, June 5, 2009

A Sorta Fairytale

If I was living in my own dream reality, or had I been born into royalty, I'd know exactly where I'd want to spend my life. All my days would be spent in the Pena Palace. It's situated high above the hills of Sintra with breathtaking views of the landscape below in all directions. On a clear day it can be seen all the way from Lisbon. There are acres and acres of gardens surrounding the palace, and even more acres of a tropical like forest to explore. But the most striking feature of all is the palace itself. The design, the color, the beauty... no wonder it's one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal.

But neither fairytale character nor royalty live in the Palace any longer, since Portugal is now a Republic. The current descendants of the royal family live in the valley of Sintra. Instead the palace is open to the public, so that as they tour the palace they can dream of a life that would actually allow them to live there... even if it only were for a week.

The city of Sintra the perfect backdrop for the Palace. The quaint city is full of character and plenty of delicious pastries to boot! Since it's located at the bottom of the hill, you're provided with two options of reaching the palace and Moorish Castle which is just below the palace, if you don't have a car. A) You can hike up the hill for 5 miles, which some gung-ho tourists do, or B) take the lazy route and pay for a bus ride up. And even though the cost of the bus ride is as much as the round trip train ticket from Lisbon to Sintra, we can attest that it's worth every penny.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

"You haven't really visited Lisbon without eating a Pastel de Belem"

Like I have stated before, there's nothing better than combining my love of travel with my passion for food, and I discovered that Lisbon is my haven. The food there was phenomenal; from the most inventive and delicious soups to melt in your mouth steaks. And every city in Portugal, as it seems, has it's own signature torte.

So what better way to discover Portugal than by eating our way through it. (side note: Between the times that I feel the need to lose 5-10lbs, I find myself so grateful that I don't weigh 75lbs more than I do). We started Saturday morning off right by eating at the city's historic bakery, the Brasileiro, before walking a few miles along the river to Belem.

Now, the city of Belem is most widely known for 2 things: the tower and the torte. The tower, built between 1515-1521, was the city's fortress for a few hundred years. The main level of the tower was where it housed it's military defense. The tower itself is a few stories high, and only has one stairwell - narrow and circular at that. I'm sure that was no problem back in the days of it's glory, when most of the militia stayed on the bottom level, but when there are hoards of tourists going up and down the stairs it gets a little tricky. The views from the top were breathtaking and the inside of the tower was quite neat, so smashing yourself up against the wall in order for someone to make their way down the stairs was quite worth it.

Lisbon locals will be the first to tell you that although you're walking around their city, if you haven't eaten a pastel de Belem, all that walking will have been in vain-- because you can't experience Lisbon without trying one. And of course we had our priorities straight! So before we toured the tower we stopped at the nearby restaurant and had the torte. Words can not describe it's goodness, so I pried my mouth away from the dessert long enough to take a picture, and let the torte speak for itself. Yummy!