15 June 2012

Benelux #3

I call it the "Hootananny Hostel." The proprietor is Cousin Dan.

The name comes from when I was scurrying to grab a last minute accommodation the first time I traveled to London. I found a spot called the Hootenanny Hostel. I was so blown over in awe of the name that I immediately tried to book a reservation. I was slightly dismayed when I found out that it restricted it occupants to only females with long-term housing commitments. I shared the humorous find with Cousin Dan, and we had a little joke that I could dub his place the "Hootenanny Hostel" and stay whenever I pleased despite my male gender.

Located in the heart of the Jordaan district of Amsterdam, Cousin Dan's place has served as base of operations for both of my trips to Holland. It is a short walk to the train station, across the canal from both the oldest Protestant Church in Europe, and the house Anne Frank hid out in during WWII. But being in a prime locale contributes but a mere fraction to the appeal; the rest of the credit belongs to Cousin Dan himself.

Cousin Dan studied two subjects during his undergraduate education at UCLA: Economics and Festivities Management. He spent the majority of his time focusing on one, and got a degree in the other. More than any other person I know, Cousin Dan has the knack to create memorable moments and accentuate life and good company through celebration and recreation.  

Once all the 15 minute craziness died down with not knowing where we were going to stay, Sam and I trotted off to the HH to connect with my family. What made this time in Amsterdam most excellent was the fact that not only would I see Cousin Dan again, but also his parents (whom I lived with many summers growing up) and my dear Auntie Sue!

We were heartily welcomed by the whole crew when we arrived. One of the traditions Cousin Dan observes when family and friends come to stay is to provide as much gastric happiness as he can. Tonight's special was warm roast beef sandwiches on Auntie Sues favorite fresh "pistolets," with a few genuine Dutch side dishes. We ate, and caught up each other on our travels, skyped with our family across the sea, and had a truly lovely evening.

I was amazed how at home I felt 5,000+ miles away from my mailbox. It just goes to prove to me that the family connection is something unique and powerful. It doesn't hurt either that I have the most amazing family of all time though... :)

The next day I combined visiting with my family with another one of my favorite things: visiting beautiful places.

25 May 2012

benelux #2

I'm a planner. I naturally anticipate most situations and feel slightly-moderately uncomfortable when I don't quite have enough time to wrap my head around big decisions. Traveling to Europe and dropping a significant chuck of my salary fits into the 'big decision' category on most accounts. Hence, I have been planning this trip for months.

Usually my travel plans are well researched, documented, and rechecked into a tight and tidy itinerary that holds up well when the time for execution arises.

Except this one time in Amsterdam.

 We pull into Centraal Station and the weather is gorgeous. The Amstel River is right where I left it a year ago, and the sun is shinning bright. We are excited for the next few days of adventure. The adventure is heightened with the fact that we have scheduled something novel: we have reservations to stay on a genuine Dutch river barge houseboat!

Being trained in the ways of Dutch navigation by my favorite resident-relative of Amsterdam, Cousin Dan, I immediately set off to lead our small two-man-band to our intended river barge. As we passed the canals and the other boats on the river, our sense of anticipation grew more and more intense.
We playfully articulate our excitement, "C'mon, we were about to stay in a river barge! Who even does that? Oh yeah, hardcore travelers...like us!" I myself being the party lead for this leg of the trip, felt even more confident that I had planned a rockin weekend.

After a mile or so we practically waltzed onto a dock which was berth to about 10 or so barge boats. Some looked like they didn't cater to travelers, and some looked like they had catered to too many (and the wrong ones at that). At the end of the dock was one that was glistening in the sun, freshly painted, with a cheery Dutchman sweeping up to make it look nice. This was the Amicitia, our intended destination. I knew who the man was because I had taken about 2.9 hours to fully investigate all the possible house boats in the area, and read every review posted about each of the top 5 that had been submitted in the last year. The Amicitia and its proprietor "Captain" Roy, were clearly the top choice for backpackers, and it was easy to see the outside comparison as we stood there in person.

Cpt. Roy kindly invited us in, and asked if we had a reservation. Affirmatively we told him our names and he warmly welcomed us and pulled up his records on the computer. He paused, and asked for our names again. I repeated my name, but was met with confusion as it didn't seem to appear on his list. "No problem," I thought, as I reached into my backpack folder of printed reservations I had just in case of such a problem (which of course there rarely is when I am planning). Here it was, my printed reservation for two people, for two nights, at the best boat hostel in the city! Roy took my paper with a smile, and then returned it looking slightly sullen, pointing to the answer to the confusion.

My paper was indeed a reservation listed for Thursday/Friday night, at his location, listed under our names; but...for the Thursday/Friday of the previous week. As I freshly realize my months-old mistake, all my confidence quickly vanishes faster than the immigrants that sell those knock-off purses do in Rome when the Policia come around the corner. Ugh, we don't have a place to stay.

Instantly, a dozen scenarios run through my head as Sam (no less frazzled than when we waltzed up the dock) queries, "Do you have any extra rooms tonight?" Roy replied it was the busy season, and he was booked for the month, much less this weekend. "But," he added, "For you...I will ask my associates." So he did. He walked a few steps out from the door of the boat, took a deep breath, and then started to yell loudly in Dutch down the dock.
Hé, buurman! Bent u er? IK heb hier twee dwazen die de verkeerde boekingen die behoefte hebben aan een slaapplek vannacht?

Almost immediately, a small face peered out from underneath the distant deck of the boat across the dock from us. The small face and Roy had a lengthy conversation in Dutch presumably about our predicament. For those of you who aren't familiar, the Dutch language is not the most pleasant to the ear, and is almost impossible to pick out any words since it has little resemblance to American English (though it is a very close lingual cousin of the High English spoken during the Middle Ages). After much discourse, Roy turned to us and declared, "I think my friend can help you. You go across to his boat." We graciously thanked him, and set off down the dock. What we wanted was an experience, and it appeared we were about to get precisely that.

Jimmy is not the captain, but he is the manager. Jimmy is a tall skinny Dutchman who was formerly trained as a French cook, and now runs the boat hostel for the Captain (who prefers to be seen and not heard).  We walk across the dock to a completely new set of rules and expectations, not knowing exactly what we will find, what we will experience, and what we will pay. Sam and I are relieved as the situations unfolds.

Jimmy immediately puts us at ease with a big smile and a hearty laugh. He informs us that we only can stay for that night, but he is happy to have us. Without even asking for payment, he dives right into his 'script' of instructions of how the boat works. "She is not as...modernized (Jimmy smiles again)...as the Amicitia, but if you know the workings we are all happy," he declares. His list of instructions for boat happiness is not short, and because we are enjoying his jokes and the ADHD symptomatic way Jimmy has of telling funny stories about himself, we spend the next 40 minutes learning everything there is to know about staying one night in our new favorite hostel and its manager. Sam and I walk away convinced Jimmy is genuinely happy to have us (and our 50 euros), even if he isn't very convinced that two single American travelers aren't there for the beer, Red Light district, and the marijuana brownies.
photo credit: http://www.hostels.st/en/holland/amsterdam/hostel-hotelboat_amsterdam/index.html
Our adventure meter now buzzing at top gear, we travel across the city to my favorite spot in Amsterdam: The Hootenanny Hostel.

11 May 2012

Benelux #1

Crossing into the Schengen Zone was more difficult than usual. We got stuck right outside the 'Chunnel' for about 90 minutes. Good thing Sam and I had a pack of cards and a power outlet to run his laptop. Eurostar trains are generally a fantastic service, so don't take my comments as complaints; it only added to the adventure. Plus we sat with a few lively British couples that were not lacking in funny quips or jabs at the delay.

Holland and I are on great terms. The Dutch and I see eye to eye on many things, I resonate with quite a bit of the national 'personality' of Netherlands. I was excited to get back and show Sam around and above all, visit my family! But before we arrived in Amsterdam, we had to make a pit-stop in Brussels.

Our two objectives for Brussels were very simple, foremost was to eat what I call the "Belgian Trifecta" which is comprised of: Belgian chocolate, Belgian fries, and of course, Belgian waffles. We also wanted to spend a few hours walking around the city and get a feel for it. We arrived a little late in the afternoon, but luckily we got right into our hostel and out the door (with a top-notch tip for a good place to look for waffles).

Within a few hours, we had gloriously accomplished our goal. More on that success in my upcoming food post.

We also enjoyed walking around the city and stopping in on random cathedrals and telling Jack Handy jokes and Nacho Libre quotes to pass the time. 6 miles later, we had gotten our fill of Brussels, but still made room for a few more of those divine waffles. p.s. “When you die, if you get a choice between going to regular heaven or waffle heaven, choose waffle heaven. It might be a trick, but if it's not...mmmmmmm boy!!"

We woke up and booked some train tickets to Amsterdam the next morning. I love trains, and there are few places more lovely to train through than Holland. This year has been kinda schizophrenic in its weather patterns from what the locals said, but nonetheless it was breathtaking to see the orderly housing plots, canals, and tulips fields once again.

Once we rolled into Amsterdam, the adventure really took on a few twists.

09 May 2012

london calling

The first time I went to London was kinda on a whim, and it was only for 36 hours. Nonetheless, it was magical. I spent the entire day walking around the city with the sun shining and surrounded with British folk who were just as excited to see the sun as I was. I could not wait to get back.

London β had a few advantages of London α:
1. This time I had 5 days
2. This time I had Mark+Cherie and Sam

I rolled into Victoria Station early in the afternoon, picked up an Oyster card (love these things) and hopped on the Tube. The London Underground is alot of fun for Americans. The main thing that makes the Tube so fantastic is that the announcements are in the Queens English.  It never gets old to hear the voice overhead direct you to "mind the gap" every time you make a stop.

MC and I had planned to meet at the palace they had reserved for us, so off we went. I felt kinda out of place waltzing into our posh hotel wearing a 70 litre backpack and a few days worth of facial hair, but was way stoked to see my favorite European expatriate couple. When I saw them walk into the door I knew London was going to rock on so many levels. It certainly did.

First thing we did was go here:
To understand our travel traditions you need to understand that my crew and I have known each other for years. We have a history. So when we travel, we do our best to sync the history of the place we visit into our saga of friendship. Prince Albert Hall is a great example of this. The reason this was first on our list wasn't because we wanted to see a show; it was because we had already seen a show.

In 2010 Mark moved into my life and introduced me to the Killers. He was so excited to get the blu-ray copy of their concert at Prince Albert Hall I swear he watched the entire disc no less than four times in the first two days he owned it.   So of course, we HAD to visit the actual place where it was filmed. We walked around, snapped a photo and added another layer to one of our favorite memories and went off to make a few new ones.  This was the method we followed for the next few days. Here are some of the things we did/saw:

 Hyde Park! (Totally bigger than you imagine it to be) We did 'Speakers Corner' on Sunday evening. That is a fun experience that is rife with the essence of English free speech. 
 One of my favorite Disney films has a scene glorifying this place; but in real life its not much to visit for a frugal traveler like me. It would have been way cooler if David Tomlinson would have jumped out of the bushes and started singing to me. At least we got a fun photo.
 Nothing awakens you to the fact that you are in London than seeing the Biggest of the Bens
 Whitehall Road ruled a good chunk of the world for centuries. It was a must to see.
 We didn't catch the changing of the guard, but I did catch Sam's awesome dance moves.
 London pubs are fun. I will write more on food in another post.
Yeah I admit, it is about the most touristy thing you can do in this part of town, and I don't usually gravitate towards this type of blatant recreation of pop culture but we had to do it. The local folks who commute down this street must despise the throngs of people that make a pilgrimage here just to run out in the middle of Abbey Road and snap a picture in between red lights.


A true highlight of the trip was seeing this show at the Queens Theatre. We were kinda tossed up between Wicked and Les Miserables but since TKTS had seats for this one (and MC hadn't seen it live yet) we were easily won over. BEST DECISION of the day. This show was dynamite. Les Mis in London should be on everybody's bucket list.

Easter Sunday was our first full day in London. We got up and ate a stellar breakfast at the palace, and then walked right to Westminster Abbey. We were lucky we were an hour early, there was quite the line. Attending Easter Services there was pretty incredible. The organ they got in that place is out of this world (and I think they intended it to be so). Anglican services are good times and even though we were not-so-secretley hoping that Dr. Rowan Williams would break tradition and speak here on Easter Sunday, the Dean of Westminster was good to hear from. The BBC camera crew was there to catch some of the action, so look for me on the 2nd row when the special on Westminster Abbey airs next year!

After we finished with Anglican Easter, we walked down the road to Latter-day Saint Easter and had a wonderful time with the congregation there. Even though there are tons of Mormons all over the world, you never really get as good of picture of how cosmopolitan our membership is until you attend a London congregation. It was simply and inspiring day. Of course we topped it all off with some of the best Indian food we have ever had for our Easter dinner. It was no India Palace, but it did the trick.

Later that week we went to see all the fun British stuff like:
 The actual Rosetta Stone!!!
 The coolest Train station in the world!

 My favorite cathedral in the world!
 London from the sky!
 The reconstructed Globe Theatre!
 Tower Bridge!
 The Tower of London!
 The pub Charles Dickens used to hang out in!
 and Kensington Gardens.

Overall, London β was all I had hoped for! Our last morning we trekked to St Pancras and hoped a train to the Benelux states for some good food, family time, and more adventures.

01 May 2012

"Swine Flu Special"

Bacon, sausage, and ham.

I had already committed to only including two of them; but Mike is a very persuasive chef.

14 April 2012

jolly ol' England

After initializing my vacation in Paris, I was off to England for more formal matters. England is the land of which the Walker name claims origin. My earliest confirmed relation in England was christened in a small borough in Lancashire named Ashton-under-Lyne. I wanted to visit, so I headed to the closest major city thankfully only a stones cast away: Manchester.

UK border officers are a funny bunch. Each person they meet every day is a complete stranger to them, but their job demands that they ask as many questions about your trip as possible in a 90 second window. The gal at Manchester airport was a kind sweet woman by nature I could tell, but soon knew everything about my trip anticipations with the exception of the number of steps I predicted I would take. After passing that test, I headed into a new world that I had not yet encountered.

England is an amusing culture to Americans. They speak English, but we don't understand more than the first two words of any sentence. They love democracy, but still have a monarch. The British Empire once ruled most of the worlds population, but most British folk never travel more than a few dozen kilometers from their home and are quite content about it from what I gather. I on the other hand, love to travel across the globe, and Manchester was worth being a stop on this trek despite some snags.

My first order of business was to go worship in the LDS Temple just an hour north in Preston. Getting a train ticket there proved to be a little more complicated than I expected (and alot more expensive) but nothing a few more quid couldn't fix. The Preston Temple was lovely, and it was nice to take a break and get some quiet time to contemplate holy things. On my walk back to Chorley train station, I encountered something more man-made but still heaven sent: fish and chips.

I was hungry, but was more excited to go home and rest than eat. However, on my trek back to the train station there were no less than 8 signs tempting me to come and eat Browns Famous Fish and Chips. I envisioned some large pub that was touting one meal to attract customers, but when I arrived at the takeaway "chippy" at Parker Lane, I was pleasantly surprised. I opened the door and found a line of about 5 blokes in front of me snaking around the wall and back towards the door per the register. I payed close attention to the ordering process and was handed something that looked like this:

I couldn't resist dashing it with some 'Chip Spice' (which I believe was just seasoned salt) and dousing it with some onion gravy. I learned that night that a real English fish and chips plate actually dosent come in a plate at all, it comes wrapped in newspaper. If you are ever in Chorley, I highly recommend Browns. Its not the classiest place in the world, but as I walked back to my hostel chowing on a newspaper-wrapped mess of fried haddock and fries, I never felt more English.

The next day I bounced off to my primary destination: Ashton-under-Lyne. It took me a bit to find the proper way to take the trains, but the wait was not wasted as I got to a good lot of fine Manchester folks in their native environment. Despite being able to rarely decipher much of any words they said, it was neat to sit and listen.

When I arrived in Ashton, I was surprised to see a much busier place than I had expected. In reality, Ashton is a growing borough with a few large draws to town not the least of which include an indoor arcade (mall in America), an Ikea furniture store, and dozens of shops right in downtown. I only had to walk down the street to find St. Michaels church, the locale of my grandmothers baptism in 1804. The church had not aged terribly well, but I snapped some photos just to document. I was greeted by a baptism of my own; it started to rain. Welcome back to England Walker.

Unfortunately, I hit a snag. Hopeing to explore this church and the local history library down the road (and out of the rainstorm) I was blocked by the fact that they were all closed. Ironically enough, I had not realized when I had planned my visit, that the very day I was in town was an English Bank Holiday and one that closed most churches and national services; it was Good Friday.

Good Friday, but bad luck.

Nonetheless, Manchester was a pleasant time and I will return someday. That someday will be on a Thursday and will not be a bank holiday.

Upon arising on Saturday morning I caught my train headed to London, where the party would truly begin.

04 April 2012

Au revoir a Paris

The rest of my Paris excursion was no less exciting. I am still fighting off a spell of jet lag, but all in all, I've covered just about everything I wanted to experience.

Day 2
Kicked off today by going to the market and getting a smoothie for breakfast. I walked down the street, away from the shops, to enjoy it in some peace and quiet. When you walk in a busy neighborhood in the morning in Paris, all the markets are abuzz selling/delivering food to the local restaurants. I didn't have to wait long to taste the best effect of that interaction.

Confession time. I really had only two motives for going to Paris. Those reasons did not included seeing the Louvre, or visiting Versailles gardens, or brushing up on my French. Those of course, were nice side effects of such a stop, but not the prime mover of re-routing my whole European stay. Nope, I made sure Paris was a stop on this trip for really two reasons. One was this place:

Last time I was here, my life changed forever. I had no idea food could taste this good. I had no idea a simple lunch could be such an epiphany. I wanted, nay needed, to come back.

This creperie only opens for about 3 hours a day, five days a week. It is run by two French men and one dude who I can only assume is the kitchen help. It opens precisely at noon and closes up shop around 3pm.  Some people only need three hours a day to change the world.

When you arrive (and observe the formalities like immediately extending a dignified "bonjour"), you are seated as soon as Ludvig (the extremely well dressed and to the point owner) has a moment to direct you to an open seat and pull out the table for you. Take a few minutes to try and decide what to order, and before you know it, you got your lunch.

I had debated to go with last time's pick of ham/cheese crepe but I decided to branch out and get the cheese/mushroom/cream/cumin one. I can't pronounce its name let alone spell it, but it did not disappoint. Afterwards I got dessert as a matter of necessity. This crepe was much lighter, but filled with caramel sauce, nuts and sliced pears. I took my time through this whole process, about 1.5 hours. In France, the term 'fast food' exists, but it is a base offensive swear word. If I could choose a few hours of my life to be played on repeat, visits to this place would be in the running.

I didn't have the heart to take a photograph of my meal and degrade my favorite Parisian creperie into a tourist attraction, sorry all. Some things are just left better to your imagination. After bidding a fond farewell to my favorite crepe masters, I headed off to Versailles gardens for a nap.

Day 3

After eating a buttery croissant drizzled with some prune-honey (way tastier that you imagine), I was off to the Louvre to cover what I missed last time around. I was the first one in line to get in actually,as I used ol' Rick Steves trick of using the downstairs metro entrance instead of the pyramid. Since I beat the crowds, I figured I would say hi to these two gals before I hit up Egyptian Antiquities and the Flemish Renaissance wing.

After 3 hours of bumming around the best museum on the planet, I followed my Louvre tradition of eat lunch at the highest rated bistro I could find in a neighborhood nearby. This time I went to the Marais section of town just east of the museum and introduced myself to the Cafe des Musees. This place was rated in the top five for fixed-plate lunch menu's less than 100$ by a fabulous Parisian travel blog I adore. I figured I spent about that much last trip on my previous post-Louvre lunch outing, and didn't need to repeat it.

When I arrived, there was only a small table with one seat left in the packed cafe. The handy French waiter quickly wiped it clean and put me to work figuring out what I wanted. No need to scan the menu when they have a fixed-price set lunch. Today's lunch was two courses:

A flavourful chicken-liver pate

Roasted duck-breast drenched in heaven sauce with mashed potatoes

and for dessert: creme chocolat!

Yep. There is the secret. The best style of vacation only has three ingredients: a walk around the city, cultural visit, and as much tasty food as I can find.

Au revoir Paris! I hope I its not too long before we meet again.

02 April 2012

bienvenue a Paris

I was last in Paris only a year ago, and stepping off the plane it genuinely felt like I had never left. On the metro ride heading into the city, I smiled at the nice French gentleman and he knew exactly where I was from (American tourists always smile).

Le homme: American? (in that awesome Parisian accent)
Moi: Oui. (in my gallant but less effective attempt sounding French)
Le homme: Ah, bienvenue a Frànce.
Moi: Merci boku. 

Such a great interaction to start off my trip. The nice Frenchman then proceded to explain all of the cool things I needed to see, described a woman he knew (perhaps his daughter) who taught at Georgetown, and lobbyed for how cool President Obama is. Europeans, especially the French love Obama.  I pondered about trying to explain the virtues of the conservative political spectrum and that Mitt Romney actually speaks French and lived in France for a few years, but decided to resist the temptation to resume teaching Government on my first official day off. All of this conversation took place in subdued French (it is rude to speak loudly on the Metro).

I took out my trusty Rick Steves:Paris travel  book to write down some suggestions. My impromptu guide got a bit flustered and in a momentary flash of where I am sure I experienced the gift of tounges I understood as he authoritatively declared:
"You don't need a book to see Paris, you only need your shoes!"
Quickly realizing my error, I ruffled in my bags and produced my worn but clearly purposed Asics running shoes. He smiled, and gave me an approving thumbs up.

I spent most of the rest of the day staving off jet-lag and making good on his suggestions. Here is a short-list of the accomplishments for Day 1:

  • My favorite Parisian cathedrals: Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame & St Michel
  • Tasty food at the Latin Quarter
  • Arc di Triumph
  • Montemarte Cemetary (one of the largest in the world)
  • Evening walk on the Siene

I only had to spend 2 metro tickets and walk about 5 miles to get them all. 


In honor of the spring/Easter season, which is one of my favorites (for many reasons), I have decided to bring new life to my brain, my soul, and my blog.

Here are some updates from across the pond or if you would rather visualize them just take a gander as I post photographic evidence of my progress. Cheers!

New travel blog posts:
Paris #1
Paris #2
Benelux #1, #2, #3

31 March 2012


The little skeptic voice inside my head constantly poses questions regarding my life.

"Cashews? In an omelet? Really?"

Usually that voice does a fair job at keeping me safe, sane and sanitary.

But sometimes I snuff him out like a double crossing informant.

And consume one of the best breakfasts I have ever tasted.