Monday, May 20, 2013

European Vacation Installment One - Phoenix>Charlotte>London>Amsterdam!

In the summer of 2005, my sister, Bree, and I took a one-month trip to Europe. We visited eight cities in 30 days and had an incredible time bonding and taking in all the experiences that come with traveling. In order to preserve those memories and share the hilarious stories from the trip, I asked Bree to collaborate with me on this series and have a written conversation about our month abroad.
On a cruise down the Seine. We were so exhausted we forgot the camera was on zoom.
Hally: So first off, I think we should explain how we managed to afford this incredible dream trip. When Dad’s father passed away, he left him some shares of land that he owned down near Florida, I think. It was swampland or something, so around 2005 Dad decided to sell that property and graciously gave each of us (as well as our brother, Logan) some money to do with as we wished. I want to make clear that this little windfall was the only way we afforded a trip like this; we aren’t the type of people who could normally take a month off and jet around Europe. However, traveling has always been important to us and it was a pretty immediate thought for me that we should plan a trip to Europe. Why did you want to do this trip?

Bree: Yes, as you mentioned, we are definitely not the type of people to be able to afford a trip like this normally. I was able to make it back to Europe on a work-study program a few years after this trip, but I honestly thought I might never get to travel overseas at all in the first place. It just wasn’t something that was talked about or considered as a possibility in our family because no one else had done it, so when Dad bequeathed us this nugget of financial freedom, I honestly hadn’t even thought about using it for travel. Then you invited me out to Delectable’s (H – One of our favorite restaurants in Tucson) for lunch and told me that you wanted to plan a trip to Europe and wondered if I would like to join. The thought of leaving everything I had come to know for a strange land full of new people, experiences, cultures and languages completely washed over me like a Tsunami of frightening happy, and I found myself instantly leaping at the chance to abandon dried up, predictable old Tucson for the vibrant, mysterious unknown that beckoned from across the Atlantic ocean.

Hally: In the planning of the trip, we had to decide which countries to visit and figure out all the logistics. I remember coming over to your house about once a week for awhile so we could have dinner and then do Europe research. I’m the type who likes the planning of a trip almost as much as the thing itself, and I think you are too, so this stage was a blast. You definitely did the lion’s share of the research, spending hours on the computer looking for accommodations, plane tickets, things to do, etc. You found a lot of great web sites for this kind of stuff, but I think this was before the days of Yelp or anything like that, so we also used some guidebooks. Do you remember anything specific about the planning?

Bree: Being a diehard list maker and planner, I clearly remember this process.  It was back when I lived in Caliche Gardens on 19th and 3rd. Bear (my husband) would usually make us dinner when you came over and we would lose hours surfing the web and dreaming about our travel plans.  We would work ourselves up into such a palpable fervor, browsing images of the quaint B&B's in London or figuring out the best way to get to the beach in Lido.  This was before the days of Yelp and Trip Advisor, and many of the usable travel planning sites that I have come to know and love.  The only modest tools I had at my disposal were PBS, DVD's from the library and a copy of Rick Steve's "Europe Through the Back Door"(H - Still my favorite title of all-time).  I think the hardest part was figuring out how to get from point A to point B.  There were certain destinations, such as our commute to from Paris to Venice, that required not only an airplane flight, but a cab ride, 2 bus trips, a water taxi, a long walk– pretty much every mode of transport one can fathom. Not to mention we were using modes of transportation which we'd never been introduced to before, such as the Tube and the Metro. This took a ton of research and planning in order to make sure we two seemingly clueless American girls got to where they were going in one piece.  If I had it to do over again, I would probably leave a bit more unplanned and let the wind blow me wherever I felt like going at that moment, but being that this was our first trip overseas and a part of me was scared to death, I understand why I needed to make sure that everything was taking care of beforehand.

Bree, on our day of departure

Hally: I think we embarked on this journey in late May or early June (memory is a bit foggy). It was so strange to send in a month’s rent in advance on my apartment knowing I wouldn’t even be staying there. Oh, I guess we should talk about how we got time off work for this. I was working at a law firm and I think I was even managing a department at the time. I had a great relationship with the head attorney, but I was pretty scared to request four weeks off. It was kind of unprecedented. We were having a conversation one day and I finally just went for it and asked. Luckily he was extremely accommodating and was even excited for me to go have this experience, and he allowed me to take leave, which I’m still so grateful for. I got a fair amount of flack from my co-workers for leaving them with extra work, but it was all good-natured and they were happy for me (at least to my face). Did you have any complications in getting time off work at that point?

Bree: I remember the day I was going to tell Susana, the owner of the restaurant where I was then employed, that I would be taking over a month off in the middle of the summer – a time when the restaurant is usually under-staffed anyway.  To give you a little background on my work environment, though my boss was one of my biggest role models in many ways, she was notorious for being nearly impossible to deal with.  She painted herself as someone who was completely unwilling to bend and ruled with an iron fist.  Rarely did a night go by that didn't include a screaming episode, some plates being smashed, and an employee or two nearly being canned.  Previously, I had a hard time even getting one night off work even when I was sick or injured, so you can imagine my trepidation at requesting six weeks off to toddle off to Europe.  But I mustered the courage and approached her one day.  To my complete disbelief, not only did she not mind that I was taking time off from work, she was elated and excited for me to embark on this new adventure.  It seemed that the resistance I had felt from her with regard to taking time off of work for school was no longer present when the subject switched to travel.  Apparently she valued the latter more than the former, which was fine with me at that point.

Hally: Packing was a tad complicated. How do you pack for a month-long trip? We knew we’d be moving around a lot and considered buying big camping backpacks at one point. I decided to buy a large, wheeling suitcase instead. By the second day of the trip I regretted that choice, because it was such a pain in the ass to lug that thing around, up and down staircases, load it on buses, etc. I remember seriously considering just shoving a few clothes in a garbage bag and leaving everything else behind somewhere around Rome. I brought a lot of weird clothes (this was almost a decade ago and I was in my early twenties, still trying to “figure it out”). I had a lot of cheap stuff from Old Navy. I bought a pair of Sauconys for walking and I think I took a pair of black heels in case we went out anywhere nice, but maybe that was it for shoes? It was also hard to plan out a wardrobe because it was quite cold in London, where we started and ended the trip, but it was sweaty and hot in Italy, so we had to pack for several climates. I remember you saying that one of your friends looked at our pictures from Europe and said, “Wow, you definitely look like Americans in your bright colors!” Embarrassing.

Bree: Layers. It was all about layers for me. Not only was it about tight precise layers of rolled up clothing in my one medium sized travel bag that accompanied me, it was the secret to being able to maintain some sense of comfort in nearly every climate you can think of. I remember the rolling suitcase that you brought. That thing was a monster! I could've sworn you eventually ditched it and bought some tremendously overpriced smaller piece of luggage in an airport somewhere. (H - Nope, that was just a daydream. I still have that suitcase to this day and still use it!) In a way, it was a blessing to only have a certain number of choices with regards to what clothing to wear on any given day. It certainly made getting dressed in the morning a quick and easy task. I will say that by the time we got to Venice I was growing a bit weary of rotating through the same pieces of clothing over and over again. Laundromats were a scarce commodity during our travels, so our clothes started to pick up a somewhat "European" smell along the way. More times than not we were relegated to hosing them off in the sink. Sometimes, I would just wash them while they were still on my body. I remember the comment you are referring to that my friend made about us looking like Americans. I think the actual term he used to describe what we were wearing was "Old Navy colors."  Where was he when we were shopping?

Hally: The flight to Europe was a bit of a beast since we departed from the west coast. We flew to Charlotte and had a layover there before continuing on to London. I remember we ate our last, awful American meal at the airport Chili’s (ewwww) and then we quickly made a restroom stop before heading to the gate. While we were in the bathroom, we heard our airline make an announcement that said, “Last call for passengers Bree and Hally Richmond, please come to the gate immediately.” We freaked out! Since we had never been on an international flight before, we didn’t realize they board much earlier than domestic flights. Whoops.

Bree: Almost missing our flight was a horrible experience!  I remember hearing that announcement, and full-on sprinting from the bathroom to our gate. When we got there, the stewardesses were glaring at us with this evil look in their eyes, as if we had held up the entire plane.  We scurried aboard, catching shade from the other passengers on our trek to our seats as if we'd also held them up, and crammed our bags into the only minuscule space left in the overhead bins. We stuffed ourselves into the cubic foot that we would call home for the next nine or so hours and tried to catch our breath.  I had just eaten a full meal and then basically run a 5K, so I was sure I would vomit all over myself in the seat.  Once we settled in, we kept trying to catch some sleep, but found it impossible with such adrenaline coursing through our veins.  Eventually, the sun rose, we were offered some orange juice and a snack, and we arrived at our first destination—London, England.

Hally: Oh yeah! This was the first overnight flight I’d ever been on, and I remember how surreal it was when the sun rose! Watching these beams of light streak through the plane cabin and contemplating the idea that we had traveled across time zones and an entire ocean left me with such a strange feeling. We landed at Heathrow early in the morning and hit the ground running. We went to the ATM and got some GBPs, then went to find a cab.

Bree: I remember when we landed at Heathrow, the entire airport was under construction. Trying to find the baggage claim was like mastering an obstacle course.  Once we managed to get through all of the security and proudly receive the first stamp on our passports, we headed out front to catch a cab.  It was one of the coolest cab rides I'd ever experienced, driving through the streets of London, seeing a way of life completely foreign to mine for the first time.  Everything seemed so much more saturated, as if we had just stepped into a movie.

Bree in front of our B&B in London's Notting Hill
Hally: Totally! Great description. I think the fact that we come from a long line of Anglophiles played into that feeling of being in a movie. You had booked us at this amazing B&B in Notting Hill owned by a youngish woman who is an artist (can’t remember her name or find this place on-line). That was definitely my favorite place we stayed. It was a split-level home, like most in London, and our bedroom was on the main floor, then the kitchen was downstairs, and our host lived upstairs. Our bedroom had a nice bed and was decorated with some of her beautiful paintings. And the bathroom… wow! I know it’s weird to be impressed with a bathroom, but it was at least as big as the bedroom, maybe bigger, and had a claw-foot bathtub, a stained glass window and was just so pretty. It could be awkward at some places we stayed to eat breakfast with the host, but she was really cool and made me feel comfortable. We usually had toast, cereal, some fruit – all “normal food” by our standards. She had a French press for making coffee, the first I’d ever seen, and I bought one as soon as we got back home.

Bree: That first day, we got to our B&B (the name escapes me as well), unpacked our things, and you took a nap that lasted almost 6 hours.  I had been fighting the urge to go to sleep in an attempt to switch my schedule around to accommodate the time change.  Eventually, I got a couple of hours in.  When we awoke and freshened up, we decided to meander down to the local Tube station.  Having never ridden a subway and only having been on a bus once or twice, figuring out the intricate system was more than difficult at first.  I was sure we would end up stranded in the British countryside somewhere with no way to get back.  But eventually we managed to figure it out and "Tubed" it to Piccadilly Square.  It was a bustling seen full of tourists as well as locals, street vendors, performers. It was a little overwhelming in our sleep deprived state.  There we found a bar and sat down for our first pint and an order of fish and chips.  Unfortunately, the fish and chips were horrible, but the pint was pretty great.  We finally made our way back to our room and passed out watching some crazy show on BBC.

Hally: Oh yes, the terrible fish and chips! What a letdown. But they did serve them with a side of mushy peas! (As if that’s a selling point. I noticed mushy peas were also big in Ireland when I visited there this past March, too. Mushy peas!) I remember the pub was full of younger kids who seemed like they had just gotten out of school. The legal drinking age is 18 there, but pubs close super early, so the drinking culture was very different than what we are accustomed to. And British TV… to this day I have nothing but love for it. I remember “Celebrity Love Island” was the big show at the time, and I think they played it every night.

Bree: The next few days of our stay in London were glorious.  We hung out at Hyde Park for one whole day, which was the biggest, most beautiful park I had ever seen.  Please keep in mind that we are from Tucson, Arizona, a place where the grass is brown and there is an abundance of dirt. Regardless, it was absolutely the prettiest park I had ever seen.  There were lakes and birds and squirrels and people painting, and it seemed to stretch on into infinity. 

Hally: Absolutely, Hyde Park was a big one for me. I had also never been in a metropolitan park and was simply blown away. It was so huge and beautiful and it was fun to walk around and enjoy nature. You took a picture of me hugging a tree, and that perfectly encapsulates how it felt to be there. I am a bit fuzzy about the timeline after this, so maybe we can just hit on some highlights? I know we went to the National Gallery and were bummed because we missed a Caravaggio show, but the gallery was very good regardless. We saw the painting “The Arnolfini Wedding Portrait” by Jan van Eyck, which I had studied extensively in Art History classes, and I was shocked by how tiny it is!

Bree: Yes, one of my favorite parts about our trip was the museums.  I think the first one we visited was the British Museum.  I had no clue what I was in store for.  To be able to see things like the Rosetta Stone, their amazing collection of Egyptian artifacts, and the Elgin Marbles left me breathless.  They were also having an interesting mummy exhibit at that time, and they actually had some on display.  After the British Museum, which took us hours and hours to get through, we decided to tackle the National Gallery.  I think by that time, we were so exhausted that we barely made it through. I remember squinting and bracing myself on a wall just trying to get through the many floors and all the exhibits, by the end, not knowing or caring what priceless work of art I was in the presence of. 

Hally: It was all-too-easy to become overwhelmed by the museums, but I’m glad we saw so many on this trip. You went to the Tate Modern and The Globe Theater one day when I felt lazy and stayed in our room, sleeping. Want to talk about that?

Bree: I did visit a couple of museums on my own on the day that you weren't feeling well.  I was sad that you didn't make it to the Globe or the Tate museum because they were amazing places to visit.  Of course, the Globe was a reconstruction of the original one, but I could still sense the spirit of Shakespeare around me.  And the Tate was an Art major's dream come true!  One of my favorite experiences was the Dali Universe museum at the base of the London Eye.  (H – I had totally forgotten about the Dali museum! It was very cool, though it seemed to be a popular destination for American frat boys. I was going to link to it, but the museum is apparently now closed!) Remember, they had that trippy video that Dali directed playing on a loop, and they had his lip-shaped couch and many of his other paintings and sculptures on display.  Being that Surrealism is my favorite art movement, and Dali one of my favorite artists of all times, I was like a kid in a candy store.

Bree at the British Museum, Walkin' Like An Egyptian
Hally: We went out for some interesting meals. The most memorable for me would have to be Belgo Centraal in Covent Garden, which you found on-line I think. The waiters dress like monks and they specialize in Belgian food, so lots of French fries and roasted chicken to be had. They also have a brewery on-site and had some awesome beers, like a cherry lambic that was to die for! But I happen to be a lover of beer. You on the other hand…

Bree: Belgo was great. It was meant to resemble a medieval monastery, and everyone had to eat at communal tables sans silverware. The worst thing about London for me was trying to get a drink.  I am not a beer drinker.  I tend to prefer a nice glass of white wine or a martini.  No one in the whole of London knew how to make in martini the way I had grown accustomed to drinking them.  They would simply serve me vermouth on the rocks, which made me gag when I smelled it.  And if I ordered a glass of wine, it usually tasted like vinegar, so I quickly learned to like beer.

Hally: At one point, we met up with one of my friends from Tucson. He happened to be passing through London on his own trip and it was his birthday, so we all went to Yo! Sushi and ate sushi off conveyor belts.

Bree: I remember meeting up with your friend and going to that sushi place, too. I thought it was Go! Sushi which is what I chanted as the sushi raced by. Eating sushi off a conveyor belt was much more fun than it may sound. I was tempted to hedge bets on which sushi would make it to the finish line first, but that may just be the gambler in me talking.

Hally: We visited the Tower of London, which I LOVED. Coming from America and seeing history - real, actual history - for the first time is amazing. Thinking about how many people had been imprisoned, tortured, and executed there over time gave me chills as we walked around. Anne Boleyn was imprisoned and beheaded there. Elizabeth I was imprisoned there by her sister, Queen Mary I, before Mary was killed and Elizabeth ascended the throne. 12-year-old Edward V and his younger brother, Richard, were imprisoned and never seen again. (Rumor has it that they were murdered on orders of their uncle, then buried somewhere on the grounds of the Tower. The room where their bodies are supposedly buried is the absolute creepiest.) Guy Fawkes was imprisoned there before his execution. The stories are all brutal and gory, but completely fascinating. The structures there have a very haunted, eerie feel to them for sure. The tour guides, called Yeoman Warders, definitely play up this aspect. But, to mix things up a bit, the Crown Jewels are also housed at the Tower. They are pretty and sparkly and stuff and it seemed like lots of older lady tourists were super excited to see them.

In front of a fountain in London
Hally: From London, we flew to our next destination of Amsterdam. We used Ryan Air for all our flights within Europe, and it had pros and cons. The tickets were always insanely cheap, because you’re really not traveling far, but at the time they only operated out of very small airports far from city-centers. Getting to the airport required bus rides, usually, and it was a little stressful to do that much traveling every few days.

Bree: I remember our flight out of London on Ryan Air.  Though the tickets were very cheap, there was a limit to how heavy your bag could be, and this was before the airlines had started charging for baggage.  If you're suitcase weighed more than the allotted amount, which was not very much, they charged you an exorbitant fee on a per-pound basis.  I remember your bag was way over the limit, and I can't remember if you opted to ditch some things or if we just sucked up and paid the extra money.  (H – I am a terrible packer! I think I just paid the extra money. Dumb.) I do remember that the airport we flew out of was some makeshift temporary thing constructed out of plastic bags and duct tape. And security was pretty much non-existent. We had to actually walk out onto the tarmac and board the plane by stairs.  The whole thing left us with a very uneasy feeling, but we arrived safe and sound in Amsterdam. 

Hally: We flew into Schipol Airport and culture shock set in a bit. The majority of the signs were in Dutch and it was a little scary and confusing as we know not a word of Dutch. We both have some background in Spanish, and while it’s easier to pick up on other Romance languages, Dutch is completely alien. Luckily, the majority of people there also speak English, so we gratefully were able to converse just fine. We took a trolley from the airport to our next B&B and I remember thinking that Amsterdam was the most beautiful city I’d ever seen. Even just on that short ride, I was blown away. It’s so clean, everyone rides bicycles and is super fit and blonde, the canal is so gorgeous… it’s amazing. Our B&B hosts told us to exit the trolley at the Heineken Brewery, if that tells you anything about the kind of city Amsterdam is. We then walked to the B&B, Between Art and Kitsch, which is an adorable canal house owned by an older, married couple. When we arrived we had to carry our bags upstairs and the stairs there are no joke. I was quite sure I’d die when I reached the top. The owners were very welcoming and had a cute little dog that scurried around our feet.

Bree: I remember the trolley ride to our B&B, and I could tell that Amsterdam was also amazingly beautiful, but quite different from London.  I love the name of our B&B, "Between Art and Kitsch." It was so cute! The only thing I didn't like about it was those 10,000 steep-ass stairs. I remember actually pushing you and your monstrous suitcase up them in order to get to our room.

Hally: Our room there was nice and spacious with two beds and high ceilings and a cool view of the Rijksmuseum. The bathroom was enclosed, but basically in the middle of the room, so that was a little awkward. Being with your sister is one thing, but if I was traveling with a friend, that could have been an issue. The home was situated on several floors, so I remember there being sort of a lounge area one flight up with a computer with internet. Do you remember that? I used it to check my MySpace account! Because that was the thing to do back then! I think in the mornings, we’d eat breakfast in that area. Breakfast in Amsterdam was a bit strange. There was always some mystery meat and cheese, crackers I think, maybe yogurt?

Bree: The bathroom was in a glass chamber in the center of the room.  After one day of shopping in the market, we had stopped for lunch and it ended up not agreeing with me.  We went to the room, and I remember looking at you, knowing that I needed to use the facilities in a way that was not going to be pleasant, and saying, "I'm sorry for what I'm about to do."  I don't know if you've ever managed to erase that memory or not.  I haven't.  I remember the breakfasts they would serve.  It usually consisted of the an extremely soft boiled egg, which made you throw up in your mouth a little just looking at it, a tube of uncooked meat which was supposedly fit for human consumption, and some yogurt.  We ate a lot of yogurt. 

Hally: So much yogurt. Europe seems to be obsessed with it. I think our first big stop in Amsterdam was the Van Gogh Museum and it was truly incredible and I highly recommend it. We walked a lot in Amsterdam because it was so beautiful there and fun to stroll around. I remember one day, we stumbled out of this narrow alleyway into a town square, and there was an antique book fair going on. I bought some antique paper and a few other things and I think I still have some of that. Did you buy anything memorable?

Bree: I got some of the coolest paper there which looks like glittery cats, but I'm still waiting for just the right chance to use it. The city of Amsterdam itself was extremely clean and charming.  The canals running through the center of the town, the bohemian spirit that permeated the streets, there were hardly any cars and everyone used bikes.  In fact there were public bikes that you could ride from one destination to the next for free.  It seemed like a very idealistic, beautiful place to be.  We didn't get to as many museums there as we had in London, but I did enjoy the Van Gogh museum as well.

Getting ready for a night on the town in Amsterdam
Hally: To answer the question everyone always asks, we did not smoke any pot in Amsterdam. I think we were just too nervous to lose our bearings being two girls traveling alone. We did find a Laundromat and got some clothes washed and we discovered toasties, these delicious little toasted cheese sandwiches that everyone seemed to sell. We also ate some of the best Italian food of our lives, strangely enough, at a restaurant called Monte Verde. (By the way, it is such a trip to look these places up and find them on the internet! These experiences seem like they happened a lifetime ago and it feels like every place we visited must have surely ceased existing by now.)

Bree: I can't remember if I indulged in "the mota" back then, but I'm kind of glad we did not smoke pot in Amsterdam.  I don't think it would've really enhanced our experience very much in any way, although maybe it would have made that meal at Monte Verde even better. It was great finally getting to wash our clothes too. I think that was the last time we got to.

Hally: I think our only real night out in Europe that involved “clubbing” in any way was in Amsterdam. We got dressed up and went to this place called The Bulldog. It is billed as a "cafe" but it was definitely a club - maybe even a discotheque! Even now their web site seems very interested in having an “international celebrity presence” and that basically sums up The Bulldog. It’s this cavernous club with very gaudy decorations and multi-colored lights everywhere. It was completely empty at first, but steadily got more crowded. The clientele was a mixed bag, a lot of older people, a few locals. You got hit on incessantly and I sat in a corner feeling like crap. But I soon felt better when the entertainment started. Two guys who were doing an unintentional imitation of Milli Vanilli hit the stage and I was in heaven.

Bree: I do remember when we decided to let our hair down and go out to the clubs.  I can't remember why we decided to go to The Bulldog, but I felt extremely uncomfortable as soon as we entered.  I don't remember being hit on incessantly. And that Milli Vanilli cover band? Priceless.  So should have taken video of that.

Hally: We ended up befriending a really nice guy who took us to a much cooler bar just down the street, the name of which is escaping me. I remember I really had to pee, so I ran to the bathroom and the attendant informed me that I needed to pay in order to use the facilities. So I sprinted back to the table and got some money and made it to the toilet just in time to avoid an accident. Our friend turned out to be a hot dog vendor, which I found hilarious. I think I hurt his feelings by laughing as much as I did, but c’mon! He was a young, relatively attractive guy; I guess I just did not expect him to say he sold hot dogs for a living. Apparently it was a family business. We finally called it a night and stumbled drunkenly back to our hotel, sans hot dog guy.

Bree: I do remember that really nice guy who came over and hung out with us. I wish I could remember his name. I want to say Tony for some reason. He was very sweet.  I don't remember him being a hot dog vendor, but I do remember him telling us how expensive gas was over there, and I couldn't believe it.  It was like $13.00 a gallon!  No wonder everyone rode bikes.  I don't remember hitting a second bar that night but, there's a lot I don't remember about that night. I'm sure I over-served myself though.

Hally: Ha! You said “remember” a lot in that paragraph! Yes, I think I over-served myself, too, but my memory persists, even when I’m drunk. (Note well, all who dare to drink in my presence!)

Old Navy colors! And blurry digital camera pictures.
This is a good place to wrap up the first installment. We will pick up with our journey to Paris and the Great Train Station Scam!

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