Friday, April 20, 2018

Guangzhou, passing through

Ahoy,

Everybody was incredibly pleased with the modern comforts of the train ride to Guangzhou compared to the refugee bus we took to get to HK. We took a taxi from the train station where my parents were almost duped. Right after you get out of immigration and customs is a counter with official-looking signs for taxi service. They quoted us RMB220. I, of course, am not interested. My mom, of course, is ever so gullible. They go as low as RMB180 before I convince my mom otherwise and we into the not so far distance where the regular taxis that are not trying so hard to swindle you line up. The final taxi bill was RMB45.

After wandering around our adjacent pedestrian shopping street, a cultural park, and Shamian Island - where expats once lived, so there's a lot of western style architecture - my parents insist on eating at this big restaurant that calls out your ticket number like bingo cues. It was good. My initial reluctance for waiting in line here subsides as I settle into my impending reality that we will be back in the morning for dim sum. Fortunately, the hotel pool here has later hours and a stellar view, also ping pong and a sauna. A is more than happy to play with my dad. He is surprised when my dad gives him the run around. Dad is spritely as ever.

Our next and only full day in Guangzhou finds me leading us on a blustery and lightly rainy day on the subway to Yuexiu Park. It is surprisingly large and extensive. We wander through many parts of it eventually making our way to Dr. Sun Yat-sen memorial hall and museum. I wait in long lines here with other adult humans to get stamps in my book. I have seen nowhere else where they take their stamps so seriously. This gives A time to read everything, but probably still not enough time. My parents are hangry by the time we get out. We walk through Peoples' Park, where the beginning of revolutions take place. At an underground mall food court, we have a late meal before continuing back on the Zhongshan #6 Road to the Shangxiajiu pedestrian mall back to our hotel.

Our flight back stateside is the next morning and A has once again given us an unrealistic, if optimistic, bedtime. My parents go with us to the airport because a) their bus back to Taishan departs from the airport, and b) so they can parent us a little longer. They don't think we can check-in and get our plane tickets and want to feed us. I am grumpy, but they convince us to eat with them mostly because I deferred to A. A appreciates it more than I do at the moment, but it is a nice way to end our time together this trip.

Our flight home goes off without a problem. I watch so many movies and sit with my eyes closed for what feels like forever. I am relapsing on beating this jet-lag. My parents will be back in Chicago tomorrow and I wonder if we will ever see those places or people again.

safe travels,
jt





Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Hong Kong 2.0

Ahoy,

After almost leaving my dad at the rest stop, we got dropped off at the border to go through customs and immigration. There are tons and tons of buses doing this same thing. Everybody goes in line through the process getting pushed and tossed around. My mom likened it to the refugee experiences she's seen on tv and in newspapers. Although technically a part of China, entering HK still requires the same pleasantries of going from one country to another. We exited China and entered HK according to my passport stamps.

I booked our hotel in the shopping district of Mong Kok on the Kowloon side of HK. Fortunately, we were able to walk to our hotel from where the bus dropped us off, requisite complaining from my mom. We dropped our things and went out to look at the street markets and food. My parents praised the food we had been eating since leaving Beijing, and it would be no different here. We sent my parents home after dinner and A and I wandered a bit more.

Our first day, being led by a friend, we started off to Hong Kong Island at a dim sum place that was truly a unique experience. You have to hover to get your seats. And then you have to harass the cart lady to get food. This restaurant is an example of the epitome of Chinese manners. Pushing, shouting, sharp elbows are a must for getting fed here. My mom was appalled, my dad seemed to be having fun - their usual dynamic respectively. We went on to walk around Hong Kong Central to the Mid-levels. We passed the Botanic Gardens and Zoo again, surprised at how much A and I had seen our last visit. We found the expat neighborhood, eventually getting on a bus up to Victoria Peak. At the top, we had our 3rd McDonald's of the trip, this time sampling the McWings, available only briefly in the States, and the red bean pie. We mostly retraced one of the days from our last time in HK, but my parents had not been so it was worth it.

The following day, my mom very willingly opted out of the adventure of ten thousand steps with me. My dad joined us to the UNESCO Geopark in Lantau Island. It was very sunny. I think we all were a shade of lobster somewhere by the end of the day. One of the 'hikes' was a taxi ride to a reservoir that had some rad looking volcanic geometric rocks. The awe of those stones were eclipsed by my desire to get out of the sun. I wouldn't call that a hike. Our second destination was more what I was looking for. We took a short water taxi ride to an island with a tombolo - a strip of rocks between beaches/land that become submerged during high tide making the adjacent beaches inaccessible by foot from each other. We scrambled around on the beaches and tidal zones. My dad is so rad. A and I went for a dip in the hotel pool that evening. We also discovered the sauna.

Our final full day in HK, we went up to the big buddha. A had been before with his family, but this time we rode the cable car up. It afforded really great views of the buddha on the hill as we approached the top. My parents were starving, so we got lunch at the vegetarian restaurant. It was apparently free that day because of some holiday. My mom thought it was good. After lunch, we walked up the stairs to the buddha. My parents aren't much for religion, so they blasted through the displays and just hung out in the shade. My mom, ever eager to get the physical activity out of the way, led the pack up the stairs (not understanding pacing) so as to get it over with quicker. The RRS, bringing up the rear, per usual, in his quest to read everything. Back at the little town below, we walked along the wisdom path - my mom complaining the whole way, my dad embracing the adventure. It is easy to see how I am a product of both my parents. We got a snack at the little town. A wanted to get one of everything.

Our next stop was Tai O, a historic fishing village where the houses sit on sticks in the water. After walking around the streets/markets for a bit, we hopped on a little boat to go out and see the houses and look for pink dolphins. No pink dolphins that day, but we did see a helicopter make multiple trips to get buckets of water from the ocean to put out fires on the mountains.

The next morning, we went to see the apartment building where my dad used to live with his grandpa in Yau Ma Tei. He lived there before immigrating to Chicago. We had our last HK meal of dim sum before taking a train to Guangzhou. Some of the best don tots of my life live in HK.

safe travels,
jt







Monday, April 16, 2018

Taishan, our familial hometown

Ahoy,

My mom had told her friend in LA that we would be in Taishan, and he contacted his friend with a giant van to drive us all to our hotel in Taishan 2 hours south from the airport in Guangzhou. It felt like a long ride. This part of China was so different from the northern side. It was tropical, lush, and endlessly farmland. The wealth of the area definitely seemed to be in agriculture. The air quality was much better but also dictated by mountains and ocean. Whereas in Beijing, it was so polluted from factories. I will say it wasn't as bad as that time we were in India, which is really now our benchmark to weigh all others against, but it was pretty close. Had we been in India any other time, Beijing would take the cake for worst air quality. When I was a child, my mom would comment her reluctance to return to China was in part due to how it is so much dirtier than what she had grown accustomed to in the States. That opinion has not changed.

Straight upon arrival, we went to my mom's friend's son's place of employ where she had ordered a whole roast young pig. My mom had been building our anticipation for this for months. Later, her and dad would comment their favorite food on the trip was the young pigs, which we had on more than one occasion.

It seemed like everyone was a friend, because in the States - if this person is speaking Toisan, then they must know us. For the first time in my life, I was in a place where everyone spoke our native language. It was strange and familiar. I wasn't racking my brain to convert to Cantonese, a more commonly spoken iterative. I found it easier than I was expecting to think and speak in Chinese with my parents and the people around me. Folks were often surprised when I was able to say something coherent. A could not understand anything, but you can often tell when they are talking about you - and it was mostly to note how handsome he is (what else is there to say?). He would smile and wave.

Outside our hotel was the Pearl River and a large park. At night, it came alive with karaoke and folks playing basketball, ping pong, or other sports. We were also near a pedestrian shopping street. Our first day, we went out to my dad's dad's house in the village. It was pretty cool to see this style of old Chinese architecture. The bricks have weathered well over the years. Aside from humidity, there is not much else in terms of weather or natural disaster to consider. There is typically a large room in the center of the building that serves as a living room, kitchen, dining area. This is also where you have an altar devoted to the deceased patriarch/ancestors. To either side of the 'great room' are bedrooms. There is sometimes one side of the house for the eldest and his family, and another symmetrical side for a younger and his family. Lots of life in every house. The houses have wood burning stoves of stone construction with a hole to have the wok sit in. They looked similar to what I had seen in New Orleans.

This first village visit was one of three we would visit to make the rounds and offerings to our ancestors. My dad's dad's was the most barren and empty of all the houses we would see. It felt the least lived in, almost abandoned. And although, there was no one living in any of the houses we would visit, we would notice later my mom's parents' houses felt warmer - as if someone could be living there. We also noted the neighboring chickens and rice patties, an idyllic image of rural China.

Our next visit was to my mom's mom's house of origin. My grandpa, contrary to tradition at the time, moved into the household of his wife's lineage because his family structure was nearly nonexistent with his parents having been executed by the government. My mom told me this recently like it was no big deal. So my mom's mom's mom, having two daughters, came upon the fortunate circumstance of being able to keep her daughter and gaining a sought after son in the household. My grandpa and grandma and my mom and her siblings grew up here. My mom showed us her old bed, an old bike that probably belonged to my grandpa, etc. We dug up some disintegrating photos and attempted to wrap them up to bring home to digitize. Here, it was like the village came to greet us. We walked around outside, and my mom ran into people that remembered her from when she and her sisters kids running around. My mom showed us the well that she fell into and almost died (haha). It was interesting to think about my grandpa milling around the neighborhood, going to work, riding his motorcycle etc. He had a motorcycle before it was common for everyone to have one. Their house felt like it was still being used, like maybe no one lived there, but people were still hanging out and there was still laughter and conversation passing through.

The last house we visited, more than any of the others was the most crowded and felt the most alive. And all the people that came through were related to us. It was also probably the one to have most recently been inhabited. It belonged to my mom's dad's older brothers. My grandpa was 1 of 6  boys. This house belonged to the eldest who stayed in China and is still buried there. So all this family was our extended family of my grandpa's older brother. All the family was coming through before going to visit the cemetery for him. His wife is still alive, and seemed so happy to meet us. Old Asian ladies will never die.

There were people our age and kids running around. This could have been another life that was mine. Our family has 3 unoccupied houses in these villages. Everybody in Taishan knows somebody in the States. Apparently a life of leisure is common because someone is sending money back to Taishan from overseas. But the pattern of migration seems only to be that of an exodus. A lot of early Chinese immigrants came from Taishan. Walking through those villages, I wondered if they will become a thing of the past. If eventually, everyone will have a kid immigrate and then their kid will bring them to a Chinatown in some new city, and then abandon their house in the village. Maybe making the occasional pilgrimage, but eventually those visits will be up to their kid - who might or might not know the way, and their grandkids - who might or might not know the language. Eventually, will these houses show up on google maps?  Would it even matter to see them on google maps if they belong to no one? I can't say how I would figure out my way back there. My parents had to call other people to lead them to their villages.

I do, however, remember the way to this great Taiwanese style cafe that is in a property my dad owns. We tried a lot of their menu items - Asian desserts of grass jelly, mochi, condensed milk, egg pudding, boba, fried rice, noodles, popcorn chicken, etc. We also ate at an outdoor restaurant unlike anywhere I've been. You can barely call it a shack, but it has electricity to run ceiling fans. Their specialty was fresh fish; we watched them kill and prep it. It was really good, probably the best I've ever had at a restaurant. This was where we had McDonald's #2. I was so amazed to see they have congee - I had to try it. We also got driven to a little seaside town where A had the best seafood he's ever had in his life. His only regret was that he doesn't have the skill to eat it faster so he could eat more. A lot of fishing ports in the States seem novel and neat in comparison, but this fishing port was really something else. There were all sorts of dried goods and live prep happening. In the States, it's easy to hide the labor and mess of seafood - it looks very ready to consume in packaging on a shelf, but I think presentation is not so much a concern as freshness. If there are no blood, guts, shells, etc. strewn about - that must mean you've had the time to clean up, and if you've had the time to clean up, it is no longer fresh enough.

We also got to see where my dad used to live in the city of Taishan. It looked like it was now a health supplement store. He said he lived in the city from when he was 10 on, so he's a proper city kid. He used to go down to the river outside our hotel to take a bath. My mom lived in the village until she was 18. She showed us where she used to live in the city with my grandpa and aunt. It is still apartment buildings.

Our next destination would be Hong Kong. We boarded a bus across from my dad's centrally located cafe property to take us to Hong Kong. My mom was appalled at the conditions of the ride. We would go on to call it the refugee bus. She has clearly gotten accustomed to the luxuries of an American level of extravagance.

safe travels,
jt





Friday, April 13, 2018

Beijing, a first for all

Ahoy,

We recently came back from China and Hong Kong. My parents wanted to take us to show us their former homes in Taishan, but also for touristing. Our first destination was Beijing, which they had never been to either. My brother and his fiance were with us here and in Taishan. After their departure, my parents and A and I went on to Hong Kong and Guangzhou.

There was a pick-up debacle in which my mom improperly communicated the logistics of our arrival. A and I flew in a day earlier than everyone else, and I was told there would be a driver holding a sign with our names. I looked through the crowd several times before we gave up and got on the subway to what I thought was our hotel. After arriving at the hotel and accessing wi-fi, lo and behold - we were not at the correct hotel. The driver and tour guide had been waiting at the airport for us for 3 hours now. We waited in the lobby for them to come pick us up and take us to our actual hotel, which my mom so willingly communicated to me ahead of time (not). A person with a red flag that read 'chinatours.com' walked up to us and we brushed him away thinking he was trying to sell something. We called him back and realized he was our guy! It was not a sign with our names, but a logo for the tour company. My mom so willingly communicated that info to us (not).

The following day we got to explore on our own. The hotel offers a breakfast unlike any other hotel breakfast we'd ever had. There were full American, continental offerings, but also Japanese, Korean, and Chinese offerings. The hotel breakfast was probably the best food we had in Beijing.

A looked up some hipster/trendy neighborhoods for us to wander. The subway is easy to navigate, but probably also one of the most complex and extensive networks out there. We did not get on the wrong train once. It took over an hour to get to our first destination - the 798 district, a former industrial warehouse area that now houses art studios and museums. There's something like this in every metropolis. We got off the train and didn't quite know where to go, so we just followed the hipster-looking people to their mecca. Yahtzee!

We saw a Hyundai exhibit where I watched a whole video of Chicago. A got the most expensive cappuccino of his life. It was pretty hot and humid as we wandered around looking at art. I have a pretty low tolerance for art and heat. This day we stopped at McDonald's and got things they don't have here: popcorn chicken, black bun chili chicken, taro pie, and boba.

On the way back we stopped to look for another trendy shopping district near the Forbidden City. We ran into what is known as the bar street and watched some paddle boats play chicken with each other. For dinner, we walked through the giant mall near our hotel and got noodles. I navigated ordering miraculously with nearly no grasp of Mandarin. As we walked into the hotel, the rest of the group arrived.

Our first day being tour guided found us on a trip to the Great Wall, the Mutianyu section. It was probably about an hour drive, but didn't feel like it because the landscape was interesting and our tour guide was feeding us facts. We stopped at a jade factory. My mom was clear right away that we were not buying, only looking. Our guide was trying hard to sell the lift ride up to the Wall. The alternative was stairs. You can guess which option we went with. My mom was probably regretting that decision instantly, but our guide comes here 4+ times every month. The stairs were a shorter jaunt than he had made it out to be. Once on the wall, there were more steps at varying angles of incline and decline. My mom pooped out at the first rest stop, and my dad proclaimed himself one of the 'young guys' to continue on with us. There was a stopping point, beyond which was unmaintained, where we literally ran into a wall and turned back. It was not a very long stretch of Great Wall (not long enough for us to tire of it), but probably once you've seen a bit - you've seen it all. Really quite a remarkable feat of architecture and manpower. There's really nothing that old and storied Stateside.

We stopped for lunch near the Great Wall. It was underwhelming, but we didn't expect much. I drew some parallels of this experience to our Taj Mahal venture. We drive out for the spectacle, see the spectacle, eat at a sub-par tourist place where every tourist goes, etc. It was fine. That evening we went to watch a show near the Happy Valley theme park. There were waterworks, acrobatics, dancing, etc. It was entertaining. I thought it was a low-budget version of something you might find in Vegas. We got deposited back at our hotel where we got dinner at the grocery store nearby. I think it's a pretty fun thing to option the local snacks and instant noodles abroad.

The next day we went to see the local tourist attraction of the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Our tour guide walked us through at a slower pace than I would have liked. You can really start to see me itching to get out of my skin when you make me amble through at a snail's pace. It was fine. It was also crowded and sunny, which contributed to my impatience. We negotiated a release from the touristing after popping out of the Forbidden City. A and I led the group to a recommendation from his sister to a dumpling place. And then we wandered around the pedestrian shopping street, stopping for dessert. We discovered the public bathrooms don't always have stall doors. We stopped at the lakes we had been on our first day to rent a pedal boat. It was a welcome respite for my parents certainly. The kids pedaled around for a bit before heading back. A and I led everyone back on the subway to the hotel. My mom remarked how it's cleaner than Chicago. We investigated more food options in the mall for dinner.

Our last day of touristing included the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, an institute for Chinese medicine, and a pearl factory. A has so much more patience than me. Bless his soul. The tourist places are fine. They are old and ornate and not practical in ways that I can't imagine. It still seems like a lifetime of fantasy and story. I'd seen these things in old tv or movies when I was a kid when my parents or grandparents watched shows - and now to see the real life versions from ages ago - it still seems fictional, like a movie set. Our last dinner was Peking duck. It did not disappoint. I think we were all worried given the pattern thus far, but it was a good ending. A was so relieved because his last time in Beijing - he did have bad duck.

The next morning we were off and onto our next destination. The airplane ride down to Guangzhou was about 3 hours. From there, we depart 2 hours by car to Taishan - my parents' hometown.

safe travels,
jt




Thursday, March 1, 2018

main event

Ahoy,

Bike the Drive

We're so looking forward to going on a bike ride with our friends and family! Mark your calendars for May 27, 2018.

best,
jt

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

in Amsterdam

Ahoy,

I was not entirely surprised, but maybe a little. He seemed pensive, with something on his mind. He proposed in Amsterdam on a canal bridge. In retrospect, we went wandering around a residential part of town looking for a bridge that checked off everything on his list of requirements.

We walked into a store for me to buy a duck umbrella. He sat down with all the other men. Every smart store knows to provide seating for the disgruntled and ever patient men in your life. I thought this meant he was tired and we would probably head back to our accommodations after this stop. I really thought this was it for the night. So when I came back to get him, I was totally surprised when he said he wanted to continue to a different part of town to see the bridges there. The end of the energy and excitement of nightlife in Amsterdam was instantaneous. It was very residential without a lot going on. I did not regard this leg of the tour very highly. Once you've seen one bridge, you've seen them all. I had been preparing mentally to call it a night and my patience was waning as he continued coaxing me across more bridges. At some point he told me there was a good view on a bridge somewhere in the distance, to which I responded skeptically that neither of us had been here before so he could not know what the view was like. My steps quickened. We walked across a good one too quickly, he later told me, so he decided in his mind it had to be the next one. As he stopped on the next bridge, I continued on and was down the block before he noticed I was well on my way back to our hotel. It wasn't happening tonight. It seemed like we were just wandering around without a clear destination or goal - maybe the goal was to walk across every bridge in Amsterdam.

Later I would learn, he had stopped on that bridge to think about what he would say to propose to me. He realized he had not thought about what to say in his scramble to find a bridge. His newfound energy after sitting in that store came from a determination to find THE bridge to propose on because this was our last night. He had thought he would ask on this trip, but the days were winding down, and he figured the canal bridges would be romantic. The qualifiers: not so windy that vespas were blowing over, not so much rain that umbrellas were being wrangled, no delivery trucks on the bridge, not a million tourists around, nice view... The perfect bridge was harder to come by than anticipated, he said. 

The next morning, we had some time to wander around before our train to the airport. We went to another different part of the canal bridges, and he seemed determined again to walk across every bridge in Amsterdam. This game again, "Can we go across that one? Uhh, and that one? And this one over here? Okay, now this one?...." He knew to hold me in place so I wouldn't get away this time. In two sentences, he asked on one knee- short and sweet. I said 'duh' in my head. What came out of my mouth 'uhh ya.' We walked away, it was misting slightly. And then we realized we should get a picture so we can remember which bridge it was. Or else we will have to walk across every bridge next time to try to find it again. 

He said he was nervous. And then he told me he had first thought about asking a full year ago in Eureka on this ocean side hike. "I thought that was a great place to ask, but I didn't have a ring." he confessed. And then he thought maybe on one of our camping trips, but we went with all our friends because I have a tendency to invite everyone and their mom, but also - still no ring. What an interesting limiting factor in this game of life. There is this whole ordeal to contend with after someone's decided they're ready to ask. No one is going to pre-emptively get a ring before they are ready to ask. And sometimes it takes months to go ring shopping, design it, change it, etc. There is just a period where someone wants to ask and then having to wait and shop until they can finally ask. Seems like an antiquated formality. Or maybe I'm just impatient, as you can clearly tell from this story.

best,
jt




Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Copenhagen direct

Ahoy,

Our last and final city was Copenhagen! I booked us into a hotel type place figuring we'd be over talking to hosts. It was nice to have some more privacy. Immediately I forced my PR (permanent roommate) to go get pasta with me. We brought it back to our room and watched tv while we scarfed it down with wine. Both of us were surprised how good it was. We had come to expect little of the food here.

The next day we awoke to some rain and ventured out for pastries. This was a big walking day. We walked to the Royal Palace and saw the changing of the guards, the botanic gardens, museums, another royal palace, design museum. At the little mermaid statue, my PR refused to take a tourist picture with me. We discussed the popularity of the little mermaid pre and post Disney. He wanted to see the lakes, which were unimpressive. I wanted to stop in a Flying Tiger, similar to Daiso or Miniso, but Scandinavian, and the PR was happy to buy so much candy. We bought so much candy that day. I dragged us into an REI-like shop, where we overheard an American purchasing climbing shoes. We walked into an indoor market with stalls that later we would come back to for Vietnamese dinner.

The most unique thing we found was probably this little informal autonomous anarchist artist squatter community, Christiania. Some of the buildings looked like really nice real estate. There were a lot of vendors and businesses of all sorts. Remarkable.

Our last morning in Copenhagen, it snowed briefly. Wet and heavy, so nothing stuck, and it turned back into rain right away. We departed for the airport in no hurry. A and I lost each other in the 2 blocks to the train station because he thought I wanted to go the efficient route and I thought he'd like the scenic route. The train ride was so simple. Little did we know, we'd have more than a day left in Copenhagen.

best,
jt

Thursday, January 18, 2018

all the canal bridges in Amsterdam

Ahoy,

No one had checked our tickets on the train ride. We arrived to Amsterdam and gawked for a bit at the clean, modern-looking train station. It was on the edge of raining all day. I hurried us over to our airbnb to connect to the wifi so I could figure out how to meet up with K and M. Our tiny room was up the stairs from a souvenir shop. The stairs were so steep- we were practically climbing up a ladder.

We found each other outside Hema at the train station. We began our pilgrimage towards the I Amsterdam sign - that was surprisingly far from the train station. Task #1 was to get an umbrella for A because we had been using our hosts' umbrellas and he was holding out for a specific fancy umbrella (of course, cue eyeroll). But at this point, he just needed an umbrella. Our first food stop was at this health food place that took so long to make a sandwich - I imagined they were raising the cows to make the cheese in the panini. Poor A was starving. We walked for what seemed like a while to get to a brewery that M had been to a few times before. Despite the crowds, we found seating for a few rounds. It was great catching up with K and M. Our next stop for dinner would be Indonesian food at a bar. Yum! It was pretty rainy by now, but we weren't far from where we needed to be to send K and M off back to Groningen.

Our next day started off incredibly windy. Motorcycles were blowing over. Managing the wind made the rain seem like a breeze. It was raining a little, but so windy it would come sideways at us. We opened and closed our umbrellas a bunch of times; mine finally snapped. After wandering around for an acceptable ATM, we got some cash and went into a diner-like place where we watched people get blown around from inside. It was really quite entertaining.

I had gotten us tickets to the Anne Frank house for noon, which was right when they opened. This was a good time because it gave us a place to be inside until the wind died down and there wasn't a line yet. When we came out, there was a big queue around the building. The museum was sad, but still such an important part of history to get perspective on. I was rereading her diary and it was cool to be able to imagine her writing in her diary in this secret annex. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the canal bridges, me peeking in too many shops, A being anxious about walking in and buying nothing. What a hufflepuff! I had to make daily stops in to Dille & Kamille, a housewares and gardening store.

The next morning we got Dutch pancakes, which are more crepelike, and continued our pedestrian tour of the City. We went into the Royal Palace Museum where we learned a bit about Dutch history. They have this self-guided tour over personal speaker thingers. Such a great way to see a museum. A gawked at the Royal dishware. Also, we picked up sandwiches from Hema - an Ikea-like store.

After a few more canal bridges, we took the train to the airport. I was excited to get to our last destination before going home. It was nice to be almost home.

best,
jt




Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Brussels, finally

Ahoy,

Some of our faithful readers may recall the endless protests of winter 2011 that prevented us from getting to Brussels. We were so excited every step closer we got to Brussels this time. The airplane landed on Belgian ground! We are on the train into the City! We got off the train into the City! We are walking on the streets! We are in our airbnb! We made it to Brussels! There was no one protesting this time around. We were so pleased to finally get there. 

Our Airbnb was close to the midi station in a diverse neighborhood. We dropped our things and departed to walk into the central area. It started to rain. It would not stop for the rest of this trip. We got a waffle, fries, gluhwein, and beer this night- essentially checking off all our boxes before going back to tuck in early. We got stopped to pick up some Moroccan street food, that was really quite yummy. 

The next day we headed off early into bruges, an hour train away. It was quite rainy this day as we wandered around the old medieval city. Really, I was just looking for places for respite from the rain. I came upon some shops that I would quickly become intensely obsessed with (Hema, Dille & Kamille). The old cobblestone streets were fun and more challenging to walk along than I anticipated. I tried to be so careful about how I stepped because my footprint covered barely 2 stones, so my feet could easily roll or fall between stones. Interesting problem to have for tiny feet. 

It felt like we spent the day walking around and waiting for A to feel like having a beer. The much anticipated Belgian beer we are both fond of. The weather was really not appropriate to consume copious amounts of Belgian beer. I think he would have had a lot more if we were here during more favorable weather. We stopped into the Frites Museum, which was probably one of my highlights for the trip. We learned about the history of potatoes, and the evolution of fries. It was a unique experience, and so delightful. I came upon a chocolate place Rick Steves had referenced and went inside to some impatient and almost grumpy chocolatiers. After leaving with a few pieces, we wandered around some more until my patience wore thin. I was ready to go back, and we couldn't go back until A had a beer. We went to a brewery to get a flight. It was still pouring outside. Finally, we made the rainy walk back to the train station. A slept the entire train ride, so I had to stay awake otherwise we'd miss our stop. 

We picked up some take-out from a Mediterranean place to bring back to our place. Our host was not home so it was like we had the whole place to ourselves. I found Love, Actually to watch on Netflix, and much to my surprise we made it to midnight for New Year's. The weather cleared up and stopped raining for maybe 2 hours, perhaps so that everyone could light off their fireworks. We were able to watch some risky maneuvers from our balcony. We were both happy to stay in. 

The next day we anticipated everything to be closed. And most places were. We wandered for most of the day, walking into the old part again.We stopped for coffee, food, bathrooms, chocolate, etc. We walked and window shopped a lot. I made notes of places to look for in our future stops because they would be open. This night, we got instant noodles and oranges from the grocery store for dinner. Cuisine here had not been super impressive, and I was not in the mood to seek out anything specific. Honestly, we would get sleepy pretty early and not be so hungry in the evening anyway. It's a silly thing, but I enjoyed the easy nights in.

We left pretty early the next morning for the train to Amsterdam. We had purchased an open ticket when we first arrived. The trains to Amsterdam are every hour; it was so easy. I am always so impressed with how close everything is in Europe, and how easy and convenient train travel is in the region. 

best,
jt





Sunday, January 14, 2018

London, more than half a day this time

Ahoy,

One of the primary reasons we arranged this trip was to see A's bestie, J. He's at uni in London. I chose an airbnb near his place, also near the Tower Bridge. Our plane left on Dec 26, and arrived Dec 27. I gave J a lot of details about our itinerary because I wasn't sure how we would find him. We arrived from the tube a little later than I guesstimated, but we happened to just run into J on our way to pick up our keys for the airbnb. What a fortunate circumstance! Honestly, I was nervous about finding him because A and J's typical protocol relies on a last minute phone call and I was really not confident that would work for us this time. I've learned to not always expect reliable wi-fi abroad. Picking up the keys was so simple. They have this thing called 'keynest' where the homeowner left her keys at a shop nearby for me to come pick up. I think it's because doors are too old to install those number keypad things that are so common here.

We dropped off our things and darted back out while it was still daylight. At a very brisk pace, our reluctant local tourist guide walked us to the Bermondsey arts district area. We got sub-par coffee and sub-par pizza. After munching our items at J's dorm kitchen, we went back out just as the sun was setting. We stumbled upon the tower bridge where we stopped for tourist pictures to commemorate our trip from 6 years ago when we had a massive row in that spot. It's funny how locations and moments in time are made more memorable from these spats. 

We walked by the borough market as it was closing, and then along the Thames all the way to the Tate. I stopped too often to look at the holiday market stalls, which I was honestly happy to stall time because if you know me, you know I don't like art museums. I was falling asleep at the museum and luckily it closed shortly after we arrived. We ended our day at a quiet pub where we had sub-par fish and chips. I was really starting to dread British cuisine. Apparently, my bar was not low enough.

A says I slept for 10 hours that night. He woke at 5am and watched 2 hours of food videos determined to satisfy his palette more than yesterday. We went to the greasy spoon, a term for a diner like place, across the street where he ordered a huge platter of a full English breakfast. We practically pulled J out of bed that morning when we crashed his flat. First stop, coffee at the borough market. I ogled a tomato bowl. We will see the theme of my desired souvenirs will be housewares. We walked all the way to the British museum where we stood in a massive queue. It's truly remarkable the scale of museums when you've had centuries of history and colonialism to accumulate stuff. They were able to just keep letting people in because it was so large- they would never reach capacity. 

I scurried us out of there when I got hungry, but also because the place I wanted was about to close. We didn't even see half of the first floor. You could really spend days in there. At roti king, a Malaysian place, there was a queue of folks who appeared to be Malaysian- good sign. We were among the last parties to receive admittance. Worth it. I was so happy to have food better than we had yesterday. Next we ventured to the British library where they had a display of important historical documents, i.e. original Beatles handwritten songs, religious things, maps, etc. the Harry Potter exhibit was sold out. Nearby at King's Cross, we ogled the massive queue for the platform 9 3/4 photo spot. We looked into the shopping districts at Oxford St and Covington gardens. 

We wanted pie and ales for dinner. At the tube station, an attendant found a location that would have us backtrack, ultimately adding over a mile extra to our walk that day. Later, I would notice they had a location across the street from this tube station. It did not show up in his search that night. This also was better than our abysmal food the day before, which we appreciated. 

Our final full day in London greeted us with a rainy morning. It stopped before noon. We got coffee and food at borough market again. A and J got the famous raclette and grilled cheese. We took the tube to the natural history museum where we stood in a massive queue again. The museum was ginormous. Once we were museumed out, we walked into Hyde park with the ultimate goal of an Indian street food place. We stopped at a cafe in the park for tea and I knew we were not getting to lunch anytime soon at this pace. I ordered real food here. We saw the princess Diana and Prince Albert memorials. Finally, our lunch spot turned into dinner. It was a good sign the place was packed with Indians. We zipped back to our hood to send J off at the Tate. Later that night, we met my college friend at a pub. We lamented over crummy British food. 

The next morning A went to the greasy spoon while I lazed in our cave bed. When he came back he noticed I was still in bed and took that as a cue to have another coffee. I changed in a jiffy and was ready to go before he poured his cup. I don't know why he is always surprised how quickly I can get ready. Let's put it on the record that I am not the one to hold us up. The tube ride was smooth and we got a whole car to ourselves. Our original plan to take the train was foiled when we saw tickets for $200 per person. Luckily we found a much more reasonable flight to Brussels at $150 total. 

best,
jt