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.