Sunday, 29 May 2016

europe 2016, day 10: athens (may 7)

It is 11am on Sunday, May 8, and I am sitting at a table outside on a balcony in our bed-and-breakfast in Santorini with what I am well aware is a view anyone might envy me. The view was new to us this morning - we arrived here from Athens late last night (our flight landed at midnight) so we couldn't see anything yesterday except some twinkling lights indicating to us where all the houses stood on the island. Our taxi ride from Santorini Airport in itself was quite the adventure, though. For one thing, the driver paid no heed to the double yellow lines on the road that I am fairly certain mean the same thing here as they do in America, and swerved around Santorini's winding roads and hills at a reckless pace. He also had any number of friends calling him every few minutes - what they had to talk about at midnight I can only imagine; all I could understand was "Hela!" and "Ciao ciao ciao." Halfway through the ride I saw Tiff reaching surreptitiously for her seatbelt. Wise decision, I thought.

When we arrived at our B&B (Ersi Villa), the reception was dark and the door locked, though our host Elias had told Judy he would be waiting for us. We stood there a little disconcerted for a few minutes wondering what to do when a little old lady with tightly curly hair emerged from around the corner in her pyjamas and wordlessly approached us, beckoning us to follow her. It turned out that she was Elias's mother, and that Elias himself wasn't there "because it is Saturday night." An understandable explanation.

She took us up to our room, cautioned us not to drink the tap water as it's salty, told us breakfast would be from 8:30am to 10:30am, and left us to collapse onto our beds. That was all last night (May 7) in the dark, so waking up today and going outside to actually see what our surroundings looked like was a load of fun, and sheer delight.


Break above represents Judy calling me to join her in going to talk to Elias, our host, about things to do today. And now I'm sitting and writing this on a rocky overhang on the edge of Oia watching a beautiful sunset -- but hang on a second here and let's back this up to yesterday's full day in Athens. Santorini will come in its proper place and time.

We started our day early, leaving our Airbnb (and our backpacks, which we would pick up later from our host George), and set off for Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Zeus in central Athens to meet our guide for the walking tour we'd booked, Bill-or-Jimmy. Ours ended up being the Jimmy half of Bill-or-Jimmy, and we started off on our tour with him in what might fairly be called the most eclectic group of tourists ever assembled. Jimmy himself was a rare gem. Born and raised in Australia to Greek immigrant parents who later moved back to Greece when he was in his early twenties. His story goes that not long after they moved, he flew out to Greece for a visit (after much urging from them) and apparently was seized when he landed at the airport - wanted for mandatory military service, as his parents had registered him as a dual Greek and Australian citizen. I imagine such a moment would have had a life-shattering shock, but it seems to have worked out well for him, as he's still living in Athens and settled with his own family twenty years later.

We started our tour with the background on Hadrian's Arch, built by - wouldn't you know it - the Roman emperor Hadrian when he came to rule. Hadrian was a philhellene - a friend/lover of the Greeks and Greek culture - and the one to take up again the task of finishing the Temple of Zeus after work on it had been halted. The temple was the first thing you would see through Hadrian's Arch upon entering the central city from the outskirts.

After Hadrian's Arch and the Temple of Zeus, we headed to Zappeion Hall, the first building to be built for the revival of the modern Olympics in the 19th century, and whose benefactor, Evangelos Zappas, is known as the founder of the modern Olympic Games. As the aristocrat who instructed the stadium to be refurbished in marble and the one to sponsor the costs for doing so, he is also where Greeks get the phrase "Who's going to pay for the marble?" - today used to ask someone how they plan to pay the price of an expensive purchase. For instance, a father might say to his son who has just told him he wants a new car, "And who's going to pay for the marble?"

I like this phrase. I think I will start incorporating it into my daily speech whenever I can.

From Zappeion we headed to the Olympic Stadium itself. It was a grand sight. The stadium seats 60,000 people, which is an insane number. I have trouble picturing what 600 people looks like, let alone 60,000. Tiff bought a giant spanakopita from a food stand there and shared it with us.

Next we headed to Syntagma Square. Syntagma means "constitution" - the square is a symbol/celebration of when the Greeks demanded and received their first constitution. Parliament buildings are there, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Got to see the interesting spectacle that was the changing of the guards at Syntagma, and Jimmy explained to us the symbolism behind all of the pieces of their uniforms, fantastically bizarre ensembles which would have gotten ripped to shreds by the judges on Project Runway. The red hat symbolizes the blood shed during the 400 years of oppressive Ottoman rule. The black dangly tassel type accessory hanging from their hats stands for the tears shed by mothers during this reign. The kilt has 400 curls, or pleats, or some such thing that you could fit 400 of onto the fabric, another representation of the 400 years, and the shoes have large pompoms, because everyone loves a good pompom. As a side bonus, these pompoms are also where soldiers could hide small daggers for hand to hand combat. Killer shoes.

Of course, there is a possibility that Jimmy just made all of this up to make the terrible fashion nightmare that was the soldiers' uniforms a little more justifiable. But that level of fabrication wouldn't even be worth the effort. At least their hats were slightly less ridiculous than those of the Buckingham Palace guards.

We were allowed to go up to stand next to the guards for pictures, Jimmy informed us, but strictly prohibited under any circumstances from doing any of the following things while we stood next to them:
  1. Touching them
  2. Throwing up a peace sign
  3. Giving a thumbs up
  4. Making any sort of gesture with our hands, really
  5. Taking a selfie with them
  6. Grabbing their noses and yelling "got yer nose!"
That last one might not have been stated explicitly as a forbidden activity. Easily inferred, though. Guard positions are highly respected in Greece and it's not just any old Joe who can become one. To qualify to become a guard you have to be over a certain height (I believe 180cm), at least fairly good looking, and able to pass a series of rigorous examinations. Tall, handsome, intelligent Joes only. As such, they must be afforded the highest respect. No selfie stick foolishness, or nonsensical hand gestures, please.

Also, apparently, if you broke any of those rules, the guard would have the right to bang his weapon on the ground loudly to a) let the supervisor guard know he was being disturbed and b) give the rule-breaker a heart attack. When Judy went and stood next to him to take a picture, half of me was hoping she would accidentally bump into him so I could see him bang his weapon and give her a scare. The other half of me was thinking, wow it's super hot and I could really go for a milkshake right now.

After Syntagma, we made a quick pit stop so we could all take a bathroom break, and also so we could get our second cup of frozen Greek yoghurt. We then headed back toward Monastiraki Square (heading back to Monastiraki was a recurring theme all throughout the day) but took a different fork, following the road that led up to the Areopagus, or Mars Hill. Along the way up we also got a nice view of the Agora, which was pretty dang cool. Seventh grade social studies vocab quizzes coming to life!

I spent a good portion of the hike up to Mars Hill lamenting my decision to wear jeans instead of shorts because it ended up being much hotter than I'd expected. Tiff's biggest regret on our trip is the time and money spent on Skansen in Stockholm (which she has brought up, I want to say, about once a day since then); mine is easily any time I don't dress correctly for the weather. Time spent doing something not super fun? All good, still a pleasant memory. Four euros on low quality, instant hot chocolate? Fine, at least it warmed me up when I was freezing in that forever-line waiting to get into the Anne Frank house. But skinny jeans when I could have worn shorts, and I am a duck dying in the rain. My usually sunny outlook on life turns dreary, dampened by the constant aggravation and despair over the fact that I could have been nice and cool but am sweating instead. It's somehow the one thing I can't be optimistic about. 

In spite of the heat, we reached the foot of Mars Hill soon enough. The first thing we saw upon arriving was a plaque embedded into the rock which had the message that the apostle Paul preached on that rock a couple of thousand years ago to the Greeks. Does it get more surreal than that?

We climbed up to the top and were greeted with breathtaking views of the city of Athens and a lovely view up to the Acropolis and Parthenon (unfortunately closed for admission because of the government strikes). The view of Athens itself was so pretty. Did I write last night that Athens wasn't pretty? Well, I was incredibly stupid. Athens is beautiful. There are no buildings higher than the Acropolis (there's a law to prevent any from being built in order to preserve the view), no skyscrapers blocking any horizons, and instead you can see everything for miles and miles of uninterrupted landscape. Or cityscape, whatever. 

And to be looking down at all this magnificence from Areopagus, where Paul preached to the Greeks about God the creator of the universe - his famous "to an unknown god" sermon - well, there aren't really any words to adequately describe what that feels like. Before sleeping last night I read Acts 17, the passage that details Paul's preaching on Areopagus, and tried to let it sink in that I had been able to stand on that very same hill just hours before. It didn't.

We spent a good deal of time up there, enjoying the view, walking around, taking pictures, reflecting, marveling. Said goodbye to and tipped Jimmy, who had been a really excellent tour guide, and he gave us a recommendation for dinner on Adrianou Street, giving us a business card for the restaurant and telling us to tell the owner that Jimmy had sent us, so we would get well taken care of. We thanked him and then left Mars Hill, headed to a popular hole in the wall place for gyros (again) called O Kostas.

We then took the increasingly familiar trek back to Monastiraki to hunt up the smoothie place we had found the day before for more Greek yoghurt and smoothies. Spent some more time popping in and out of the shops like so many whack-a-moles constantly appearing in different places, with a particularly long stop in one very colourful, very pretty shop full of scarves and tea towels. I think that was Tiff's heaven. 

Next stop was the Acropolis Museum, which was thankfully still open despite the strikes since it's a privately owned institution. The Acropolis Museum is fairly new - built in 2009 on the slopes of the Acropolis - and displays all of the statues, friezes, and artifacts that were found in the ruins. Super interesting stuff. The bottom floor had glass squares laid in so you could look down below into the archaeological site of the ruins of an ancient Athenian neighbourhood, and some random everyday artifacts on display. First floor was filled with statues that were around the Acropolis, and the top floor was the Parthenon Gallery. There was a reconstruction from all the salvaged parts of the massive frieze in the Parthenon of the entire frieze as it would have looked in the temple, with giant slabs of sculpted marble all hanging all around the gallery. Some panels were empty - the missing panels are on display in the British Museum, which bought them from Lord Elgin, who came and took them from Greece to take back to England. Something the Greeks are none too pleased about. I saw the missing sculptures when I went to the British Museum a few years earlier; I had thought that they looked very majestic and impressive. They would have looked even more majestic and impressive in their rightful place in the Parthenon Gallery.

But since they couldn't be on display there, I liked that the Acropolis Museum had those empty spaces instead with the signs saying those pieces were in the British Museum. Like a super passive aggressive dig at the British.

I also saw the remnants of the sculptures depicting the great contest between Athena and Poseidon for the patronage of Athens, and Athena's virgin birth from Zeus's head. I love Greek mythology because it makes so much sense.

We spent about an hour and a half at the museum, then headed where else but back to Monastiraki, which was quickly coming to feel like our home base in the city. Collectively decided to go to the restaurant Jimmy had recommended for dinner, which was at 9 Adrianou Street. After a bit of walking, I saw number 9 and exclaimed, "It's this one!" We were peering at the menu stand to see what the prices were like when the host, a bronze-skinned old man with an excellent white mustache popped up and greeted us effusively.

Wanting to confirm that this was indeed the place we were looking for, Judy asked him, "Do you know Jimmy?"

"Jimmy, yes!" he responded enthusiastically.

We looked at each other and shrugged; this must be the place, we acknowledged. Before we had a chance to hesitate, we found ourselves being seated at one of the many outdoor tables with a nice view of the Parthenon, our host pushing together two tables to give us the best view and most comfortable seating - "for Jimmy's guests!"

It was only after we were thus seated that we questioned whether this actually was the right place, as the name didn't look quite like the one we had on the business card, though the address matched. Judy decided she was curious and wanted to check, so up she got to investigate. She came back to our table a moment later, laughing, "Guys, this isn't the place. It's the one right next door."

Tiff's and my responses to this discovery were typically characteristic. She immediately became somewhat disgruntled, assuming our host had lied to us about knowing Jimmy just to get butts on seats. I wasn't convinced this was the case - he had responded so surely and easily - he could very well know Jimmy too, he was just next door - innocent until proven guilty, I pleaded. Either way, we'd already sat down and Jimmy's-friend-or-not-friend had brought us water, so it was too late to back out. It didn't really matter, though. The food was delicious - tzatziki and stuffed tomatoes and pork gyros - the view still beautiful and surreal, and the atmosphere simultaneously lively and mellow.

As we were paying our bill, our host came and brought us a platter of fruit for dessert, free of charge. "For Jimmy's guests!" he said happily. This seemed to change Tiff's mind about him.

"I guess maybe he does know Jimmy, then," she said amiably, spearing a strawberry on her fork.

Strangely enough, this free dessert had the opposite effect on me, and the doubt crept into my mind that perhaps Tiff had been right and he had only pretended to know Jimmy to get us to sit down. It seems we'll never know for certain, but regardless of whether or not he actually knew Jimmy, he treated us as if he did, which is what counts, I suppose.

After we polished off our fruit, we headed back to Monastiraki Square for the final time, this time to meet George, our Airbnb host to pick up our backpacks, which he had very kindly stored for us while we were sightseeing and driven to bring to us. We met him and his pretty fiancee, whom Panos had told us he'd been with for nine - nine! - years. Even at a first look, George seemed the polar opposite of Panos - steadier, perhaps inclined to a quieter, more stable lifestyle than Panos, who seems much more a friend-of-all-the-world-adventure-is-out-there type of guy. But George and his fiancee were both lovely, and we were touched once again by the kindness of everyone we'd met in Athens.

I think that is one of the biggest reasons I loved Athens as much as I did - so much more than I had been expecting to. At every turn, we were met with unfailing warmth: Panos, Maria, Steph, Jimmy, Jimmy's-friend-or-not-friend-we'll-never-know, George. There was not a moment of any hour while we were in Athens that some kind soul was not taking care of us, or instructing someone else to take care of us, and it made all the difference in the world.

Thank you, Athens.

Friday, 27 May 2016

europe 2016, day 9: athens (may 6)

Today was a highlight day. One for the books. I'm in Athens right now (what a thing to be able to say!) in another lovely Airbnb - not as delightful as the Brussels one, but still nice - and it's difficult to realize that I was just in Belgium this morning. But I was, and there you have it - the (insane) nature of traveling around Europe.

We had another early start in Brussels today, but not as early as it was supposed to be, seeing as all of us overslept and woke up at 6:45am, which is when we had intended to leave the apartment. With some noteworthy hustling on everyone's part, we were ready and out the door to Gare du Nord in 20 minutes. Once we got there we played my favourite game of Pick the Shortest Line and failed spectacularly, choosing the one line with the lady who took the same amount of time to buy her tickets as five people in the line next to us. It took an eternity but we finally got our tickets, and made it to Brussels Airport in a timely fashion.

At the airport we saw evidence of heightened security in light of the recent attacks - lots of armed soldiers everywhere, for one thing, though I'm not sure how much safer that made us feel. Got through to our gate without too much trouble. Judy set off the metal detector and got a patdown, which made me feel safe - you never know, with Judy - and Tiff got her juice confiscated, which made her feel sad. On the plane at 9:30am and all three of us immediately knocked out, waking up three hours later in Greece.

We'd originally planned to take the metro from the airport to our Airbnb, but our host, George, contacted me the night before our flight and told us that there were strikes planned on pretty much all forms of public transportation for the weekend that we would be there. So the metro was a no go, but on the bright side, we got to have the true Greek experience of not being able to take public transport anywhere thanks to strikes.

Thankfully, George arranged for his friend, Panos, also an Airbnb host, to come and pick us up from the airport and take us to our apartment for 40 euros, which was cheaper than a taxi. The main problem was how to get in touch with this Panos, of whom I knew nothing besides his name and the fact that he was going to meet us at exit five. This turned out not to be that big of a problem, however, as we did have a cell phone number, and we realized Tiff could use international data to iMessage him.

Tiff texted him and he immediately called; she handed the phone to me and our conversation went something like this:

"Hi, this is Panos!!!!!!"

"Hi Panos! This is Yurie. Are you here at the airport? We're outside exit five right now."

"I'm on my way - I will be there in two minutes! Exit five, yes??"


"Okay very good. And you have to cross the street since it's a taxi line right outside; I will pick you up in the middle lane."

"Got it. We'll cross and wait for you there."

"Great, I will see you girls soon! Also, can you take a picture of yourself and send it to me so I can recognize you?"

No, actually, I can't, because I look like I just walked through a hedge backwards and haven't showered in five days, I wanted to tell him.

Instead I said, "Oh!....Sure." And hung up.

"What did he say?" Tiff immediately asked once I handed back her phone. She had been - I won't say paranoid - extremely cautious about texting the number and giving away too many details about ourselves before we could verify it was actually the person we were supposed to get in touch with. I had tried to argue that this caution was unnecessary given that it was the number George gave us directly and short of someone ambushing Panos on his way to the airport and stealing his phone and posing as him, there was no reason it wouldn't be the right guy. To no avail. But it's always good to have one paranoid person in the group.

"He said he's on his way. He sounds nice. And you need to take a picture of me."


"He asked me to send him a picture so he can recognize us. Judy, do you want to be in this picture with me please." It wasn't really a question.

"Nope," Judy said promptly, and sidled away from me.

So I proceeded to pose awkwardly for a terrible photo which Tiff took and sent to Panos, after which we stood outside and looked out for a grey Kia. After several minutes, we saw him approaching, and as he pulled up to the curb the first thing he said was, "I liked your selfie!"

Panos turned out to be a big Greek guy, I guessed late twenties, with a broad and easy smile and a cheerful, welcoming manner that made all three of us feel at home in this country at once. A gift, that. We all piled into his car cosily and had a very enjoyable forty minute drive into the city. Panos is one of those naturally great, comfortable conversationalists in whose company it's impossible to feel ill at ease. The ride passed cheerfully with him cracking jokes, singing along loudly to the radio, asking us about ourselves, airing his thoughts and opinions freely, and telling us his own endless supply of travel stories. He's a full time Airbnb host with several listings that he manages at once, and also runs his own business in hospitality that involves helping and coaching other hosts to provide the best experiences for their guests. In the past two years, he has met nine hundred people, and in the past six months, visited twelve countries. Let's put this in perspective. In the past two years, I would guess that I've met about seventy new people, and in the past six months, I've visited five countries (but for most of the year, that number is zero or one).

When we got to our Airbnb, Panos let us in (he and George are best friends, and he helps George out with his guests quite frequently when George is unable to meet them, it seems) and gave us the quick walk through. He also invited us to a dinner he was planning for that evening, an invitation we readily accepted.

This settled, Panos went on his way, and we three got cleaned up and ready to hit the city. We called an Uber - since the strikes ruled out every other option - which, amazingly, or perhaps not so amazingly, which is the amazing thing, cost only five euros for a fifteen-or-so minute ride into the city center. Tiff was particularly excited about this - I could tell because she kept reminding us of it every twenty minutes for the rest of the afternoon.

We got dropped off at Monastiraki Flea Market, a giant flea market surrounding a central square that we had wanted to explore today. We immediately picked a street to disappear down, and wandered leisurely around, exclaiming all the while the surrealness of being there. This, we would say to each other, this is unreal. Amsterdam and Stockholm and Brussels were unreal but this is the unreal-est unreal. From the central square where we started out, you could see the Acropolis in the distance, and that alone was cause for all of us to really freaking flip out about where we were.

After not too much time meandering, we decided we wanted gyros and stopped at a little gyros shop to eat. It was upon taking our first bites that we all three simultaneously fell deeply, irrevocably in love with Greece. Heaven inside a pita for the too-good-to-be-true price of 2.50 euros. Every bite after the first one reaffirmed for us the fantastic decision we had made to add Greece to our trip.

Following the best three dollar meal we'd ever eaten, we resumed our wandering through the market streets, stopping occasionally to look around cute or interesting shops. The narrow side streets that all lead into each other and that are all lined with little shops reminded me very much of Seoul, especially Myeongdong. Right down to the persistent shop and cafe/restaurant owners who walk alongside you and try to coax you inside - though here it's mostly men, not women, and they are more charming and jolly than aggressive. The cafes and restaurants were especially pleasant to pass by - outdoor tables galore, live music, delicious looking food, clinking of glasses, a lot of laughing.

Athens doesn't strike me as a very pretty city the way Amsterdam was, or even particularly clean, but what you do get here is the distinct awareness of how ancient the city is. And largely because of this it has a flavour that the other cities we've visited don't have. Also - maybe because of the grubbiness and degree of non-perfection here - I felt oddly at home today walking the streets. It really did feel like Seoul in a lot of places.

Stops we made included a smoothie place for a strawberry smoothie that had Greek yoghurt in it - deliciously fresh - and one of the many shops selling about a thousand varieties of olive oil so Tiff and Judy could pick some up for their mums and so I could pick up some gifts as well. By the time we were done at these places, it was approaching late afternoon, so we started making our way toward the area we were supposed to meet Panos for dinner, near the Acropolis.

We stopped once again near the Acropolis Museum, this time for some frozen Greek yoghurt with nuts and honey which caught our eye. One spoonful and I was convinced that this was what the ancient Greek gods subsisted on. Bye bye forever, Chobani. Bye bye forever, Yogurtland. Bye bye forever, any other yoghurt of any kind, Greek or otherwise, that is not actually eaten in Greece.

After this perfect little rest stop, during which we all lamented that we would never be able to eat yoghurt in America again, we explored the surrounding area for about another hour and then headed to the restaurant Panos had picked for dinner. He was already there before us, and once we arrived he introduced us to his friend Steph, who had recently moved to Athens from London, where she'd been working in product management in the tech scene. She told us she had quit her job to go traveling, fallen in love with Greece last October, and decided to come back to live here for a spell. She now works with Panos as a host as well - he seems to have a talent for drawing people to him and sparking enthusiasm and energy for the things he's enthusiastic and energetic about.

Once the introductions were made, Panos put us in the care of Maria, the restaurant host/server, while he and Steph finished up some work. Maria ties with Panos for my favourite person that we've met so far on our trip. She was a petite blonde woman, wearing tightly fitting overalls that looked fantastic on her, talkative in the same way as Panos which made us all feel instantly taken care of, and bossy in a delightfully motherly manner.

We went ahead and ordered while we waited for Panos and Steph to finish working. Tzatziki, lamb, and moussaka (which took Maria a few minutes to teach us successfully how to pronounce with the correct emphasis). Again, could find fault with nothing - the tzatziki and bread in particular were perfect.

Panos and Steph joined us soon after, and ordered their own food, which they readily put on our plates as well. With their added company, an already lovely dinner became even more enjoyable. After having been only with each other in our little bubble of a trio for the past week, it was refreshing to have outside company and really interact with new people beyond casual conversations in shops and hostel shuttles. Both Panos and Steph are easygoing and open, and have traveled extensively, and consequently both had a lot of stories to share. Dinner flew by in a pleasing blur of great conversation and delicious food, with Maria checking on us periodically to admonish us to give her empty plates.

We finally parted at around 10pm, saying bye to Panos, Steph, and Maria - who gave us all hearty kisses on both cheeks as she hugged us bye - and hopping into another Uber back to our Airbnb. Feel like I got to experience a lot of the famed Greek hospitality firsthand today, and was very blessed by that. I'm inspired by people like Panos and Maria and how easily they welcome others - hoping to carry some of that spirit back with me to California and into my own life.

Athens, I'm in love.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

europe 2016, day 8: brussels (may 5)

All a little laggy this morning after our late night last night and definitely overslept past our planned 10am departure time. Impressively enough, we made it out the door at 10:30am, and walked a way into the city to catch a bus to the Royal Greenhouses of Laeken. We ran into the minor problem along the way of not being able to find the bus stop anywhere, though, despite the best efforts of the concierge - whose name was Edwin - at the Sheraton Hotel to help us. Such lost tourists as us cannot be helped, I suppose.

Eventually we gave up looking for the bus stop that would not be found, and opted for the metro instead. We jumped on the first train that pulled into our platform, but Tiff, who'd been examining the metro map, decided that it wasn't, in fact, the right train (for the record: we later confirmed that it was), and walked off it and back onto the platform, saying over her shoulder, "I don't think this is the right train." Judy and I didn't follow her fast enough, however, and the doors shut between us, leaving Tiff alone on the platform and Judy and I still on the train.

On the second day of our trip, while we were on the metro in Stockholm, I had half-seriously, half-jokingly proposed that we come up with a plan for what to do if we ever got separated on public transport, which Judy and Tiff had agreed to. What nobody had been expecting was for this to actually happen, so when the doors shut between us on that platform in Brussels, we looked at each other with something akin to amused consternation, and, emergency plan clean forgotten, Judy and I gestured wildly to Tiff to stay put, since we would come back to get her. Tiff gestured wildly back that she would stay right where she was, so we could go back and meet her there. At least, this is what I was going for with my vigorous pointing and waving, and how Judy and I interpreted Tiff's gesticulations in response.

Fortunately, we all seemed to have been on the same page with our sign language, as Judy and I got off at the next stop, crossed the platform for the opposite train, and returned and met up with Tiff without any problem. After that little misadventure, we got on the next train toward Bockstael, and from there took a bus to the greenhouses without any further hiccups.

The Royal Greenhouses of Laeken are within the park of the Royal Palace of Laeken, and are usually not open for visitors, being a private garden. They are made open to the public for two weeks out of the year, however, and today was the second-to-last day of that two week period, so we were incredibly lucky.

The gardens date back to the 18th century, but a new complex of greenhouses was commissioned by King Leopold II in the late 19th century, changing the architecture of the gardens entirely and giving us what we saw today. Apparently they're world-famous (although if they are, how come I'd never heard of them before?), which makes me even more appreciative that we got to see them.

Once we entered onto the main grounds, we found ourselves starting on the one set path marked off through the greenhouses which ensures that everyone sees everything and in a somewhat orderly fashion - great for people like me who want to make sure they've seen everything and are prone to panicking if they feel like they've missed something.

We followed an adorably stylish family with a precious little girl and boy for the first half hour, hoping they wouldn't notice or find it odd that the same three Asian girls were somehow always just behind them. (Almost unnecessary to record, but Judy took multiple pictures of the children the whole time we were behind them - without getting caught, for once.)

The greenhouses were huge, warm, and just soaked in sunlight. There were any number of serene landscapes on all sides: a big blue lake, huge fluffy pink blossoms, and softly rolling greens which unfortunately I was prohibited from rolling down by signs forbidding people to walk on the grass and by my own moderate sense of decorum.

The walk through the greenhouses slowed down for a good while about halfway through because people moved slowly through the major ones that were filled to overflowing with flowers, so there was a lot of standing and waiting at one point.

"What's the bottleneck?" Tiff asked, after about half an hour of inching forward in a neverending line to get into the first of this complex of greenhouses. There was a little boy restlessly fidgeting and yowling to his mother a few places ahead of us. Expressing just what we were all feeling.

"Probably just everyone stopping for five seconds at each point to take pictures," I guessed - and I was right,  as we discovered once we finally stepped inside. But you couldn't blame everyone (including ourselves) for all the picture-taking - it really was stunning. Unbelievable array of flowers and plants they'd cultivated there, from all over the world. Pinks and whites and oranges and greens everywhere you looked, every corner you turned, a new explosion of colourful blossoms and baskets flowing over with petals.

We traveled through pleasantly and just as slowly as the people before us, and emerged back at the entrance to the greenhouses at around 2 something. The bus back to the city center wasn't coming for a while, so we passed the time with some waffles and ice cream from nearby vans, and arrived back in central Brussels a little after 3. Headed promptly for the restaurant recommended to us by Mariano, Fin de Siecle, as a popular Belgian restaurant, and there we had what I consider to be the best meal of the trip so far. Some kind of special magical sausages with mashed potatoes made with leeks, and their salade maison, which had fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, prosciutto, parmesan, lettuce and olives - both dishes which sound deceivingly ordinary but were anything but. And it was lovely to just sit and talk for such a long time as well, take it easy for a short period after a whirlwind past week during which we were constantly on the go.

After our afternoon lunch, we walked back to Grand Place to do some chocolate shopping (most important activity in Belgium, if we're being real). Found ourselves on one street leading into Grand Place that was just lined with chocolate shops, and we darted into one after the other, sampling and buying various chocolates, which totally sucked. Kidding. Hugely enjoyable, more like.

Spent a good bit of time at one shop called Elisabeth, where the packaging was just amazingly pretty. Bought a couple of small gifts there, then headed back to Neuhaus, which we had planned to do the bulk of our shopping at. After Elisabeth, though, we all unanimously decided that Neuhaus couldn't hold a candle to their presentation - and their actual chocolates were yummier too - so we turned heel and back we went, and the lady there laughed to see us back so soon. We assured her that it was her giving us free earl grey truffles on our first visit that had won our hearts completely. We then proceeded to collectively spend over $100 on chocolate, which is an appalling sum, but it's Belgium, so how can you blame us, and I argue it was acceptable given that it was mostly for other people.

One hundred dollars' worth of chocolate in hand, we went back to Grand Place again, and I discovered a Laduree, which sent me into fits of rapture.

Pit stop for a couple of macarons, and then we plopped ourselves down at an outdoor cafe/bar a couple of streets over for some more of Tiff's favourite activity, namely, sitting and eating. Tiff and Judy then proceeded to astonish me with their seemingly endless capacity for eating french fries (mine had been exhausted a few meals ago), while I contented myself with my second strawberry juice in two hours. This one arrived with a little kebab of gummy candies on a toothpick lying across the top of the cup, which was somewhat perplexing, but lovely and whimsical.

We sat and ate/drank very contentedly while people strolled around the little square area behind us, haggled at the market stands, and rolled past on skateboards. Left around 7 and headed in the vague direction of home, but the sunny weather was too good not to make some more of it, so we sat on the steps near the royal library with a nice view over the city skyline, joining various groups of friends and canoodling couples scattered about.

Once the sun moved down a bit we actually pointed ourselves toward home, stopping, miraculously, only one more time to buy snacks for tomorrow. Came back a little before 9, and packed up for the last leg of our trip in Greece, for which we are leaving tomorrow morning. All carefully rearranged our packs so it's all our warm clothes at the bottom and summer clothes on top, with our $100 worth of chocolate stored away safely as well. Precious cargo, as Judy refers to it. If I get stopped at the airport because my pack is too heavy, the last thing to go will be the chocolates. Will happily chuck half my clothes if need be, but I defy any TSA agent to throw out the chocolate.

Leaving our lovely Belgian vintage nest home at 6:45am tomorrow. Not looking forward to the early start, but can't wait to be in Greece, a country that's always been high on my wish list of countries to visit before I die.

Bye beautiful Belgium - thanks for having us!

Monday, 23 May 2016

europe 2016, day 7: ghent & bruges (may 4)

Second day in Belgium and the plan for today was to take a day trip into the nearby towns of Ghent (forty minutes away from Brussels) and Bruges (twenty minutes away from Ghent). All woke up around 8:40ish, and had the loveliest breakfast in our apartment. A pot of earl grey, cereal, toast, waffles. The feeling of contentment hanging in the air while we ate was palpable. Also, there's something so comforting about our apartment - but maybe it's just the stark comparison to our hostel, which, delightful though it was, did require going outside to a separate shower/bathroom to pee, wash up, etc., and staying huddled in one small room with a single, only mildly effective heater. Now we don't have to go outside to pee - what a luxury!

After we finished breakfast, all in angelic moods, we walked down to Gare du Nord and got tickets for our trip: Brussels --> Ghent --> Bruges --> Brussels. And only 18 euros each, since there's a discount deal for under-26s (which seems like a pretty arbitrary age to me, but I wasn't complaining). Train ride to Ghent was peaceful enough. Tiff slept (so far, she has, quite impressively, managed to sleep on every journey we've taken on public transportation, no matter how short), and Judy and I listened to a sermon by Matt Chandler.

The lady sitting across the aisle from us asked if any of us had an iPhone charger; we said no even though I knew for a fact Tiff had one in her bag and I did too. Does it make us bad people if we want to save our iPhone backup juice for our own phones instead of sharing it with a stranger in need? Possibly. It does make us excellently stereotypical millennials whose greatest fear is their phones dying, however.

When we got to Ghent I was immediately struck by the language difference - no more French or English signs; instead, entirely Dutch and Flemish. Hadn't realized how much I depended even on the French signs in Brussels and how helpful they had been in the absence of English ones. And it was bizarre that we could take a train for forty minutes and emerge in a totally different linguistic environment. Especially when you compare this against a giant country like the U.S., where you can drive across the country from coast to coast and everywhere you stop, people speak English. Europe is a fascinating patchwork, but I'm only just realizing now how tiny some of the patchwork pieces are.

We took a tram into the city center, where Tiff navigated us around (having been responsible for planning this particular day's itinerary), pointing out sundry notable sights she had marked on her map, which Judy and I obligingly stopped to look at. Unfortunately none of us had remembered the night before to do any reading up on Ghent (or Bruges, for that matter), so what exactly we were stopping to look at, we hadn't the faintest idea. Much of our conversation as we stopped at various sights went something like this:

Tiff: So there's a star on my map for this building right here, so we should take a look.

Yurie: What is it?

Judy: It looks like a... monastery?

Tiff: Something... religious.

Judy: Maybe there's a sign somewhere.

Tiff: Alright, let's take a picture.

Yurie: I think this is the Dutch word for "cloister," but I might be making that up.

In spite of our ignorance, it wasn't hard to appreciate Ghent. It's a quaint little town, with street after street lined with beautiful buildings with exquisitely designed rooftops. It's also a lot quieter and mellower than Brussels, and thankfully much flatter. We had a lovely lunch sitting outdoors at a Belgian restaurant called T'oud Clooster - formerly a cloister, although we couldn't actually confirm this given that we couldn't read any of the historical background written on the menu - and then spent some more time just roaming through the streets and window shopping in pretty boutiques that were far too expensive for us.

Ghent is criss-crossed with a lot of waterways and canals, which were lovely, and we took a pleasant little boat tour on which we actually learned a little bit about the history behind various parts of the town. Tiff didn't sleep on this particular journey, for a wonder, but Judy took a nice nap, and Tiff took a nice picture of her taking a nice nap.

After the tour, more meandering, until we found our way to the central-central area, which was filled up by a giant food truck festival that was taking place right next to a giant cathedral, because apparently that's totally normal here. The atmosphere was amazing - carefree, loud, energetic, perfectly happy. Tons of people, which begged the question, "What are all these people doing here in the middle of the day on a Wednesday?" (Never got the answer to that question; it will remain one of the great unsolved mysteries from our trip.)

Walked around some more just enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells - the smells! - until my bladder cried out and we went into a McDonalds to use the bathroom. I climbed the three flights of stairs to reach it, and then stopped short when I walked through the bathroom door. There were three fat old ladies sitting in the tiny passageway between the main door and the separate entrances to the men's and women's restrooms, one on a stool to the side and two others facing each other across a table where they were seemingly playing a board game of some sort. My brain didn't know how to interpret this perplexing scene and I froze, unsure of how and whether or not I should proceed into the ladies' room when one of these women said something to me in Dutch, and then, seeing my confusion, translated, "Forty cents." It slowly registered that the two women at the table were not, as I had thought, playing an ancient game of checkers, but had organized neat piles of coins to give as change for the people passing through and paying this forty cent pee toll. They reminded me of nothing so much as the trolls in fairy tales that live under bridges and collect payment from unsuspecting travelers trying to cross. Possibly the fact that there was not one but three of them, and the fact that they were all so equally squat and large, and parked in such an uncomfortable little space - all of it threw me completely. Judy, who had arrived on my heels, was especially puzzled.

"Did they just set up shop here to make money off of people trying to pee? They don't even look like they're with McDonalds at all..."

After a minute of standing there foolishly, we paid our pee tolls, peed, and came out, still a little dazed by the strange encounter. We then wandered around some more and eventually around 3pm, hopped on a tram back to the train station to go to Bruges. Only a twenty minute ride but Tiff managed to work in another nap - she is a champion napper. It's really quite impressive, her dogged determination to squeeze in sleep at every opportunity she gets, and her success. It reminds me of all those productivity articles you read online, the ones that tell you to use the tiny chunks of free time in your day to accomplish little tasks to maximize productivity - Tiff does that, only with napping.

Bruges looked different from both Ghent and Brussels. Less water, even flatter, somehow, and older-looking buildings. A lot of cathedrals, and rows and rows of quiet streets of pretty little brick houses.

We didn't do too much in Bruges, but I think that suited us all fine as we were rather tired from Ghent. We darted into a chocolate shop, where Judy (and I) finally got her chocolate-covered strawberries; walked around the main square and inspected the menu of every cafe we passed; prowled around a few shops; and then popped in for afternoon sweets at a nice-looking bakery/cafe. Tiff ordered a waffle anticipating another delicious Belgian waffle like those we had had yesterday, only to receive a totally underwhelming bland American waffle instead. She was not pleased. That particular cafe will not be receiving a positive Tripadvisor review from her any time soon.

We spent a good amount of time just talking at the cafe, and then started walking again through some streets we hadn't seen yet. Decided at some point to head back to the station, and just as we had made this decision, found ourselves within five minutes of it purely by accident. Hopped on a train back to Brussels, Tiff knocked out again - this time joined by Judy - and then we were back at Gare du Nord. On our way home we swung by Carrefour to pick up some long-craved cup noodles and other snacks, and Judy and Tiff stopped at a Turkish place to buy a to-go dinner platter that could have fed a small family. Got back at 9 - very impressive for us - settled in, ate our very late dinner, and then had a little movie night watching "The Holiday." It was Tiff's first time watching it, and subsequently her first time being exposed to the good looks and charm of Jude Law, so most of the movie was punctuated by her commentary on how hot he was - so I would say yes, overall a very successful evening.

Wish I had the time or energy to write more about Ghent and Bruges, but I am exhausted, and bed is beckoning. Last day in Brussels tomorrow before - finally - Greece!

Sunday, 22 May 2016

europe 2016, day 6: brussels (may 3)

Had to say goodbye to Amsterdam today. Quite sad, really. Think it was a really special three and a half days for all of us there. I was particularly moved by the simple kindness shown to us by all the people we met while we were there - our hostel hosts, various shopowners and food stand vendors, strangers on the street and people at Hillsong. All made it feel as though we were leaving people versus just a physical place.

This morning we grabbed a last breakfast at the breakfast bus - eggs, toast, and tea - before taking the metro one final time to our Megabus station. Megabus journey itself was largely uneventful (a good thing), but it did give me a good three hours to finally get into "The History of Love," after several failed attempts in the past. The first two or three times I tried to read it, I thought it a pretentious book. This time, though, the character of Alma pulled me in, and I gave myself over to the story in surrender.

Three hours, 125 pages, and one half a salmon sandwich later, we arrived in Brussels at the Gare du Nord. We slung our backpacks on and set off for the 15 minute walk to our Airbnb - mostly all uphill, which is no fun in heeled boots and a 20-pound pack in unexpectedly hot weather. It was a big relief all around when we arrived at Rue du Moulin and were let into our apartment by our host, Mariano. He led us up a few flights of stairs and opened the door to his "vintage nest" to a lot of oohs and aahs and wows from the three of us. It's just as the pictures showed - flooded with natural light (every Instagrammer's dream), with a tasteful purple colour scheme, a spacious kitchen, soft white curtains, a cosy dining table and living room, and most attractive of all, a large double bed with three piles of clean white towels and a wrapped Belgian waffle perched on top of each. Clearly, Mariano is one of Airbnb's finest hosts.

He gave us a very thorough tour of the little place, and then sat down with us at the dining table to give us an even more thorough walk through of the best routes for sightseeing in the city, with highlights of the best restaurants, museums and sights, punctuated with funny little comments about Belgians and Brussels. All much, much appreciated, but also rather hard to sit through with an extremely full bladder.

Once Mariano left, with many profuse expressions of thanks on our side, we settled in, ran through the plan for the rest of the day, taking into account Mariano's tips, and headed out to explore the city.

Brussels is a very walkable city - in terms of size, that is, not terrain, being almost entirely cobbled streets - so we made our way pleasantly and quickly enough from Rue du Moulin to our first stop in central Brussels, the Cathedrale de St-Michel. Not particularly impressive to look at from the outside, especially if you've seen the Notre Dame in Paris, but once inside, I felt hit in the face by the grandeur. Not even necessarily that of the St-Michel itself, per se, but of all cathedrals. It struck me as I walked slowly down the main hall, just how magnificent cathedrals are in all that they represent. Looking at the gigantically tall stone pillars, and running my hand over them, I wondered how much human effort it took to build just one pillar. And to have been built in the 11th and 12th centuries, before we had construction cranes and vehicles and machines... it's staggering to think of it.

While I was standing around in the cathedral thinking about the sheer effort behind the building of it, my mind went randomly to a social studies project I had to do in seventh grade. The assignment was to use only natural materials - things found outdoors - to build a model of a human habitation or shelter. I was in a group with Kevin and Claire and it was all sorts of awkward because Kevin liked Claire but she didn't like him and he was all weird about it so overall it wasn't a very comfortable group for a project. Middle school is a weird time. Anyway, we ended up making some type of hut - or something that could reasonably be called a hut - from leaves, sticks, dirt, and some more leaves, and I remember thinking how difficult it was to build something (or something that wouldn't topple over, at least) out of practically nothing.

Now, to scale that puny seventh grade effort to what it takes to build a giant cathedral - well. One millionth of the effort, one billionth. It left me floored to just try and imagine it.

As I walked out, passing a couple of people who were praying, and many more people who were taking pictures and joking loudly with friends, I wondered what the 11th century Roman Catholic priests might think if they could see the St-Michel today and all the tourists - like myself - casually traipsing through. Would it signify, what they thought? Likely not. What force is powerful enough to grapple against the tide of the tourism industry and win?

We left the cathedral and headed next to the Parc de Bruxelles - pleasant enough, but again, my mind made the unfortunate comparison to the parks of Paris and Bruxelles emerged defeated. We strolled through to the other side and to the Royal Palace, which prompted the inevitable wistful daydreaming about what it would be like to be royal and live in a palace, and how exciting hide and seek would be, and didn't Prince William and Prince Harry live fairly normal lives growing up royal and but wasn't Harry a rebel and well I think he was when he was younger but he seems to be pretty solid now?

We then wended our way through more streets to the heart of the city, stopping at one of the famous Neuhaus chocolate shops for one truffle apiece. Also had our first Belgian waffle along the way - delicious, chewy, topped with a lovely light creme fraiche - which has ruined me for all other waffles for life.

From Neuhaus on to Grand Place, a square in the central city surrounded on all sides with beautiful, opulent buildings, including the city's Town Hall. Lots of tourists, lots of cameras, and lots of scattered groups of people sitting on the ground, eating and laughing.

Next stop was the Mannekin-Pis, or the statue of the little boy peeing - the "cultural symbol of Brussels," as the plaque in front of it described it. Not sure how I would feel if the cultural symbol of my city was a little boy peeing, but Belgians seem to be totally happy about it. Apparently it's become the "image of Brussels' folklore, the joy of the inhabitants. and their capacity for self-mockery," so there you go. More attractive to us than the statue, if I'm being very honest, were the many waffle and ice cream and chocolate shops in its immediate vicinity, where Judy got her first waffle and I polished off some very rusty French to order an ice cream.

Then a longer trek - involving more hills - until we arrived at the Palais de Justice, where we made the briefest of stops essentially just to be able to say we saw it, and then, finally, oh blessed heavens, we headed off to dinner.

Our first full meal in Brussels was at a lovely place with a great Tripadvisor rating bearing the simple name of Le Bistro. Lost no time in ordering two orders of mussels and fries, which Judy had not been able to stop talking about in the first five days of the trip. We were served by the friendliest and jolliest server imaginable, who told us we had come to the right place for mussels, explained the differences between the populations of Bruges and Brussels, showed us how to eat mussels "like a true Belgian," and offered to take a picture of all three of us and our mussels. We left very happy and very full. I felt not unlike the Walrus and the Carpenter from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" once they had eaten their fill of all the poor little trusting mussels, but with none of the guilt. Come to think of it, I don't think they felt all that guilty either.

After dinner we - for once - called it an early night - really, truly - and hopped on the metro to Botanique Kruidtuin, the station nearest our vintage nest home. Stopped at a convenience store to pick up snacks, and I gave a worker there a heart attack while he was in the middle of stocking shelves with my excited gasp upon catching sight of the Hula Hoops; he jumped about a foot and I meekly apologized and tried to explain that I got too excited by the excellent snack selection, which he seemed to understand.

Home by 9pm, a record for us, and it felt absolutely heavenly to come home to a place all our own, with an indoor bathroom, heating, and a large teapot and charming teacups perfect for an evening tea-and-journal session. Life, I think, would be hard pressed to get better than sitting around a table over cups of tea with friends, Judy's Spotify playlist, and Speculoos cookies.