Friday, February 28, 2014

Jolly good time in London ~ England

"There'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Just you wait and see

I'll never forget the people I met
Braving those angry skies
I remember well as the shadows fell
The light of hope in their eyes

And though I'm far away
I still can hear them say
Bombs up...
But when the dawn comes up

there'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Just you wait and see

there'll be love and laughter
And peace ever after
When the world is free

The shepherd will tend his sheep
The valley will bloom again
And Jimmy will go to sleep
In his own little room again

there'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Just you wait and see

there'll be bluebirds over
The white cliffs of Dover
Just you wait and see... " . . . Vera Lynn

We landed in the port city of Dover, England . . known for their famous "white cliffs."  They were beautiful indeed, but I had to look up the significance to understand them.  I knew there was a song written about them . . . I had heard "The White Cliffs of Dover" somewhere, thought I cannot remember where . . . buy why were they so important?
"The cliffs have great symbolic value in Britain because they face towards Continental Europe across the narrowest part of the English Channel, where invasions have historically threatened and against which the cliffs form a symbolic guard. Because crossing at Dover was the primary route to the continent before the advent of air travel, the white line of cliffs also formed the first or last sight of England for travelers." (Wikipedia)
Other than the famous cliffs Dover did not have much to offer us with all of the shops being closed . . we promptly made our way to Dover Priory Station and proceeded with the hour long ride into downtown London.  It was surprisingly easier to figure out the train system that I had thought and only cost us around 30 pounds for the roundtrip.  Not bad at all! 
Underground!! (Mind the Gap)

Once we arrived in London we, being the great tourists we are, had to first make a stop at Buckingham Palace (the official London residence of the British monarch).  We did not stay for the changing of the guards as we only had a limited time in the city and many things to see.  We then made our way to Kensington Palace, the once royal residence of Diana, Princess of Wales and the current residence of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.  The front gates of the Palace still held a memorial for Princess Diana . . . she will never be forgotten. We spent some time wandering through the rooms were we enjoyed viewing some famous, and fabulous, royal gowns as well as other displays throughout the residence.

Having a custom suit designer brother on the trip mandated that we take a visit to Savile Row, known for it's tailoring of men's clothing and has had such customers as Jude Law, Winston Churchill and Lord Nelson.  We also hit up Big Ben before heading back to the train station for our return journey to Dover.  We did not have enough time in London as it is one of my favorite European cities.  Clayton and I are planning on returning . . . and soon. I had spent a week in London back in 2006 and have come to love this city.  The underground train system makes traveling throughout the city a breeze and it always helps to know the language.  The people seem nice enough and the city appears clean and easy to navigate.  It also holds many attractions for the tourist; numerous theater houses, the London Eye, Natural History Museum, Westminster, Tower of London, great food, St. Paul's Cathedral and Tower Bridge to name a few.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Le Mont St. Michel ~ France

The main attraction of our stop in France, Cherbourg Port, was Le Mont St. Michel . . . we tried to find a cheaper way of getting to it rather than paying the overpriced cruise excursion, but failed.  We attempted renting a car (unfortunately the day we were to be there was a holiday and most of the rental offices were closed), a train (the schedules were not working out to give us enough time at St. Michel and then get us back to the ship in time) and a private tour (was even more expensive).  We ended up booking the ship excursion just like 99% of our fellow cruisers . . . sigh . . .

Le Mont St. Michel is an island commune in France and is named after the monastery of St. Michel that sits atop of the island. It is constructed as a feudal society where the top of the island, the monastery, exemplifies God followed by the great halls, stores and at last the housing.  Outside of the walls were the fishermen and farmer's housing.  This, I believe, was my first encounter first hand with a feudal society.  As we entered the citadel we noted how narrow the store lined streets were.  It made the society seem quaint . . . a true step back into medieval times.  The streets seemed to wrap around the island in an assent to the top where the monastery of St. Michel was located.

The island held strategic fortifications since ancient times and the location of the island made these fortifications key.  During low tide the island was easily accessible to many of the pilgrims which would visit it's abbey, but during high tide any would-be assailants would be stranded or drowned.  The Mont if famous for being unconquered during the Hundred Years' War because of this key location.

Le Mont St. Michel is one of France's most recognizable landmarks and is part of UNESCO World Heritage Sites with more than 3 million visitors each year . . . it felt as if most of these 3 million visited on the same day we did  . . . .

After visiting the monastery we spent the rest of our time meandering about the shops, buying crepes, a croque monsieur (basically a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with cheese on the outside of the bread as well), cookies, cakes and other French goodies.  By the end of the day the rain had started . . . hard, pelting rain.  Despite our umbrellas we were soaked.  Due to the increased gale force winds (felt like) many of the umbrellas were discarded along the road back to the buses.  Yes, mine indeed broke as well and had to be discarded in the proper receptacle.  I had just bought it the day before in Amsterdam . . . good thing it was cheap.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Corrie Ten Boom House ~ Haarlem, Netherlands

Back to our cruise last September . . . . first stop was Amsterdam.  Having been to Amsterdam once before, and not that impressed, we decided to take a short jaunt over to Haarlem to visit the Ten Boom house.  It was a short and pretty uncomplicated train ride from the center of Amsterdam into Haarlem.

The Ten Boom family is well known for their efforts in hiding Jews during WW2 in a hidden room on the top floor of their small little "beje" in Haarlem.  Mr. Ten Boom was a clockmaker and his shop was on the bottom floor of their little house. Corrie Ten Boom, the youngest of four children, lived in the house with her older sister Betsie and their father during the years of the Nazi invasion of the Netherlands.  They initially started out hiding their Jewish neighbors from persecution until they were able to connect with an underground network to find them a more secure, permanent residence.  As word spread more and more Jewish people started showing up at their doorstep looking for a safe place to escape.  They were able to move most of them out to homes in the country that were safe but some of the others that were harder to find safe houses ended up staying with them in their small home.  At one point they had 30 people in their house at one time. . . I did not realize the significance of this until I visited the house. . . it is truly a "tiny" place and a household of 3-4 people would be cramped in our standards much less having over 30 people at one time.  They eventually had the "hiding place" built in the top floor in case of a raid which would allow their 6 permanent Jewish guests a place of safety for at least a week if need be.  There was a small vent in the room and was stocked with water in the event it needed to be used for an extended period of time.  The room was behind a false wall in Corrie's bedroom and could only be accessed through a sliding panel in the plastered brick wall under the built in bookshelf.  It required you to crawl through to the other side on your hands and knees and had to be done within 1-2 minutes after the alarm the Ten Boom's had installed in their house had sounded.  All remnants of these guests must be removed with them and taken to the hiding place in a short amount of time.  They had practiced this routine over and over again until they had it perfected.  On February 28, 1944 it was no longer a drill.  The 6 guests were able to make it to the hiding place and avoid detection but the Ten Boom family was no so lucky.  They were taken into imprisonment where Mr. Ten Boom had died within a matter of 10 days and Betsie died later in Ravensbruck concentration camp.  Corrie was able to make it through the concentration camps and was released on a clerical error on December 28th 1944 to find out that all of their guests in the hiding place had made it out alive.  Corrie went on to set up rehabilitation centers in the Netherlands for refuges that had survived the concentration camps.  She became a public speaker and a writer of many books, her best selling book being The Hiding Place which recounted the story of the Nazi invasion, concentration camps and their work in sheltering the Jewish people.  I had read the book several months prior to the trip making this visit especially meaningful to me.  We were able to walk through the house, see first hand some items that were mentioned in the book and even crawl through the bookshelf to the "hidding place" behind the wall.  It was astonishing how small it really was.  The room is only 30 inches deep . . . unbelievable!  It was a touching visit and I am so very thankful we were able to see this first hand . . the memories
will last forever.
The Hiding Place

We then wandered the streets of Amsterdam and I have to say the weather makes all the difference in the world!!!  The Amsterdam we had experienced in the past was kinda creepy . . . inappropriate views at every turn . . . this time we avoided the bad and spent our time wandering the streets in mostly sunlight and ending the day on a canal cruise through the city.  It was a lot of fun!  The city of bikes made it's way up in my opinion after this trip.  I wouldn't mind going back . . it has a certain charm to it with many Renaissance styled buildings and old city houses lining the canals.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

My day in Metz: The story of a rainy saturday in France

Today I traveled to a different country . . . why not?  Clayton is still in the states visiting family and I didn't want to get stuck home alone on another rainy day in Germany, so I wen to France.  I joined a group going from the base so I wasn't completely alone for most of the time.  We started off with the Metz antique/flea market . . it was fun but it was also a wake up call.  I was definitely not in California!  The prices were off the charts!  Some cute, red, little, metal chairs caught my attention and after figuring out how to ask how much they were I found out they were 80 euro for the set . . I only wanted one! . . and I only wanted it for 5-10 dollars!  LOL! (mom raised me right)  The flea market was an inside one (thank goodness!) and it was massive!!  When I first walked in I thought "how in the world and I going to get through all of this goodness in 2.5 hours??" but I sure nuff did!!  I was excited!  I was smiling!  I was wishing mom was there with me! . . . after asking "how much" for the first several items, however, my enthusiasm waned.  I was striking out big time!  I ended up meandering around the whole place a few times over just to waste the time . . . and then I saw him!! 

OH! It was love at first site!  I just had to have him!  He was about 1 foot tall, grey hair and beard, clad in red and blue and playing the accordion . . . Jacques!! Unfortunately his price tag was not so attractive and I quickly replaced him onto his mat . . . but I kept thinking about him.  I passed by another few times to see if he was still there . . he was . . . about 15 minutes before we had to board the bus I had to walk by again just to check.  There he was.  I couldn't decide . . . the cuteness (I have also wanted one of these little guys since moving to Europe . . and original, antique one) or the ridiculous price tag??  which would win??  I finally decided that I would offer 20 euro less than the asking price (we were told the French do not haggle) and if he accepted I would take him home . . if not he would be lost to me forever.  I left carrying little Jacques in my arms :-)  He would make the perfect "traveling gnome" if not for his 14 pounds of cast iron . . . but I did manage to get a few pics out and about in Metz before leaving for the day. 

We then continued on into the city center of Metz for a walking tour and then some free time.  About half was through our walking tour the rain started in.  It was still an enjoyable day, even if I was all alone and soaked.  The city has some pretty ancient history dating back some 3,000 years! Metz has always been a strategic city and a historic garrison town.  The city has been sacked numerous times throughout the years as far back as Julius Cesar to Attila the Hun to the German occupation during
WW2.  We were able to see three of the hundreds of Asian statues left behind by Attila the Hun that had once surrounded the city.  All but three had been destroyed by the citizens of Metz when they had regained their city and the three and now on display 20 feet below ground level with a grate covering them allowing them to bee viewed from above.

We also visited the magnificent cathedral of Saint-Étienne de Metz completed in 1520 ad.  The cathedral is nicknamed Good Lord's Lantern as it displays the largest expanse of stained glass in the world.  We were told that at night the windows light up just like a lantern of many beautiful colors and shapes.  Some of the stained glass that is found within the cathedral is the original from the 13th century!  It was beautiful indeed and I ended up spending a good 30 minutes at the end of the day sitting inside the cathedral and enjoying the beauty surrounding me.

Most of my free time was spent browsing through the shopping district and creating blisters on my pinkie toes.  For all the shopping that I did I was able to make it through the day with only one purchase . . a couple pairs of tights from Bonnie Doon Sockery . . they were too cute to pass up!

After living in Germany for over a year going to France for the day sure messed up my vocabulary!  I don't know much German but I do know how to get along in a store, say hi, bye, etc.  The French must have thought I was extra special . . . I was saying hello when leaving the stores, goodbye when entering . . and then giving the ol'blank stare routine.  I just want to communicate with people!

Sunday, February 16, 2014

SAD. . . . but true . . .

In the words of John Denver . . .

      "Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy . . . . sunshine in my eyes can make me cry . .
        Sunshine on the water looks so lovely . . .  sunshine almost always makes me high . . ."

SAD. . . . what is it??  According to Wikipedia, "Seasonal affective disorder (SAD), also known as winter depression, winter blues, summer depression, summer blues, or seasonal depression, was considered a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter or summer.  It is no longer classified as a unique mood disorder but is now a specifier called With seasonal pattern for recurrent major depressive disorder that occurs at a specific time of the year and fully remits otherwise. Although experts were initially skeptical, this condition is now recognized as a common disorder."

With the weather here in Germany being 99% cloudy and rainy (or so it seems through my experience), SAD is actually quite common here and should be recognized and remedied early to avoid the unpleasant feelings that accompany it.  There was recently an article published in the military newspaper here dealing with this issue . . . I guess I hadn't realized that it had already affected both Clayton and I until I read the article.

*random fact . . . there are about 188 days of sunshine in California compared to 69 days of sunshine in my village in Germany . . . it seems more drastic than that living here*

The U.S. National Library of Medicine notes that "some people experience a serious mood change when the seasons change. They may sleep too much, have little energy, and may also feel depressed. Though symptoms can be severe, they usually clear up." The condition in the summer can include heightened anxiety.

There are several ways to combat this disorder such as light therapy (actual lights you buy for your house and sit in front of them a couple times a day), medication, vitamin D and melatonin supplementation.  So far we have tried to remedy our symptoms with vitamin D and catching every little bit of sunlight we can get.  Today I was actually able to take the pups out for a 20 minute walk in the sunshine in between moments of pouring down rain.  It made my heart smile to enjoy that 20 minutes of bliss . . . . California how I miss your sunny, blue skies . . .

Warning: to all of my friends and family, I shall be returning in November with pale skin . . . I will look sickly, no color to brighten my cheeks . . please give me time to reclaim my Californian looks :-)

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Cruising Costa . . . ummm, quite a different experience . . . .

This last September (yes, I know . . I am extremely late on this post and the ones to follow) my brother and his wife came out to Europe for a little visit with us.  We all decided that since our last cruise was so fabulous another cruise would be the best way to see a good amount of Europe in small amount of time.  Our grave mistake??  We booked a European owned cruise line (Italy specifically) instead of a cruise line based out of the United States.  We set sail on the Costa Pacifica bound for France, United Kingdom, Portugal, Spain and Italy . . . the stops were fabulous but the cruise itself, not so much.

The first thing I noticed about the ship was that the interior was not quite as roomy.  It seems as if the walls were a little closer to one another, the ceilings a little lower and the furniture a little more cluttered.  The great promenade of the Royal Caribbean ship was long gone and replaced with a small piano, stairs, and a bar.  The outdoor activities were limited to several pools and hot tubs . . no mini golf, ping pong, basketball, etc. The food was decent . . . we ate when we were hungry . . not really something I looked forward to each night.  I have the say the cruise director was pretty amazing . . . she spoke at least 5 languages fluently and would have to say the same announcement five times in five different languages!  She didn't miss a beat!  The biggest disappointment of the ship, however, was the entertainment!  It consisted of the same group of thong-clad dancers and two singers every single night!!  We kept trying . . and kept being disappointed.  Night after night we left from the shows early . . . they were terrible!

Overall we were happy to spend quality time with family even if it wasn't on the best ship in the seas.  We were also able to meet a pretty cool couple from Austria as they sat at our table every night.  We enjoyed Santiago de Compostela with Biannca and Klaus as well as some intense matches of table tennis, aggravation and foosball. I can say that I will never again cruise with Costa . . . and it makes me a little nervous to cruise with other European companies as well.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Beautiful but Brisk - Brussels, Belgium

A couple Saturdays ago Clayton and I decided on taking a USO trip to Brussels. . . I have wanted to go to this wonderful city in Belgium since we moved here and just haven't gotten up and gone.  The USO (United Service Organizations) on base here in Germany offers a variety of trips every weekend to service members and their families and we have gone on several of these trips before (Strasbourg, Wewelsburg Castle, Paris).  The bus ride is horrid . . . but the result of being dropped off downtown without having to find/pay for parking and usually having a tour guide is worth the 5-6 hour bus ride.  It also offers the traveler some much needed sleep roundtrip (not very restful sleep I might add) as the trips usually leave around 1 am and do not return back until 1 am the following morning.

Our latest USO trip took us to Brussels . . . the city of waffles, beautiful buildings and the all-too-famous fountain of Mannequin Pis.

The day was bitter cold . . . my feet were freezing through my not so insulated rain boots.  It was neither snowing or raining but the wind chill was biting! I have to admit, the first part of the day was utter misery.  We first stopped at the Atomium, a structure built for the 1958 World's Fair that took place in Brussels, to take some quick pictures before heading into the city.  Supposedly it was built to rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris which was built for the 1889 World's Fair . . . in my opinion they utterly failed . . but it still is pretty cool.  The Atomium is 335 feet tall and is made up of nine stainless steel spheres that are connected to form the shape of a unit cell of an iron crystal . . . magnified 165 billion times of course!

We then continued on into the heart of the city . . . our guide took us on a walking tour (the miserable part of the day) and we were grateful to finally make it to the Grand Place, or central market square, in Brussels.  From there we were given the rest of the day to enjoy in our own way (the fun and enjoyable part of the day).  Our first order of business  . . obtaining a delicious waffle to eat!  We found one first thing outside of the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. Gudula.  The Cathedral itself was pretty amazing with a neat history in that it is used for weddings/funerals of both the common man and of royalty . . . but the waffle was our main priority :-) 

Having settled the first order of business we then took our time strolling through the streets around the Grand Place.  We enjoyed looking at the beautiful tapestry shops, window shopping the fantastic displays of the chocolatier shops, browsing through a leather goods store that was completely out of our price range and hit up the Tin Tin store as well.  Throw all of that in with a couple more delicious Belgian Waffles and we had ourselves a time!  One street in particular beckoned to us with the delicious smells of chocolate and waffely goodness . . it was as if our noses arrived in their own personal heaven . . . Oh yes . . we also found the shopping district and enjoyed several expensive hours in it's depths.

Mannequin Pis . . . . what can I say about this little guy . . . he is the mascot of the city and one can find mugs, t-shirts, figurines, etc. etc. displaying this fellow.  I am sure most people have seen a picture of him and he has become a crucial piece of culture in Brussels . . . what I wasn't expecting was how small he actually is!  The fountain is tucked away in an alley way surrounding the Grand Place and if you weren't looking for him (and ignored the throngs of people surrounding him) you could very well miss him altogether.  Created and put into place in the early 1600's this sculpture of just over 24 inches tall has been repeatedly stolen throughout the years.  There are many tales and legends told about this fountain, thus adding to the mystery and intrigue behind him.  He is dressed in costumes several times a week and his wardrobe consists of over three hundred of these costumes.  He just so happened to be dressed as some sort of archer/robin hood on the day we met his acquaintance.

A few things about the Grand Place . . . first of all it is absolutely beautiful!!  It is the most important tourist destination and landmark in Brussels and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  In 2010 it was voted as the most beautiful square in Europe.  It is unique in that all of the buildings that line this market square are all decorated/designed in the different styles of Gothic, Baroque and Louis XIV.  I couldn't take enough panoramic pictures with my Iphone to capture the beauty, but I sure tried!

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Perfectly Prague . . . . Christmas in the Czech Republic


Christmas this last year was an unexpected joyful one . . . my parents came to visit!!  This was not a planned occurrence as they had informed me they would not be back until next May . . . butttt . . . mom got to missing me :-)  I was at work one not-so-busy night and just happened to look at some airfare tickets from Sacramento to Frankfurt . . . no specific reason in mind . . just looking (muwhaha).  Happened to come across some really good prices!!  "Really???" I thought . . .couldn't believe it so I promptly texted dear ol'mom the results.  "Send it to Dad!!" was the response back.  Ended up calling dad and he purchased the tickets that very same night :-)  . . yes, I know . . I am spoiled . . .

I had informed mom (before we knew they were coming) that Clayton and I had planned on going to Prague for Christmas . . why not, right??  We have no friends, no family, no gifts (I did go ahead and decorate this year though) so why not head on down to a city/country we had heard so much about?  Many of my co-workers had told me that Prague was their very favorite city in Europe . . so the planning had begun.  When we found out that mom and dad were coming the planning just got more fun :-)
(Prague Castle)
Our first day in Prague was Christmas Eve . . . Christmas is celebrated on Christmas Eve in the Czech Republic so most of the store were closed . . . sure didn't keep us from exploring though!  We wore out our shoes, legs and frosted fingertips that day with a walking tour of the whole city!! Some of the places we enjoyed were the Prague castle (the official residence and office of the President of the Czech Republic and not your typical castle . . . it contains several churches, palaces, Halls and gardens . . . kinda a massive, sprawling complex), Charles Bridge (a famous, historic bridge lined with statues of saints), Petrin Hill (where we were able to ride the Petrin funicular railway to the top of the hill for some amazing views!  We also went to the top of the lookout tower, which
resembles the Eiffel Tower in Paris, for additional views of the city) and ended the days tour with a traditional Czech meal at U Kalicha restaurant.  The food was delish and our dinner consisted of potato pancakes (filled with smoked ham and cabbage) sausages, goulash, pork and potatoes.  We also enjoyed live music throughout the meal.  It was delightful!

(Charles Bridge)
(Street view in Prague)
Christmas day was just as wonderful as we strolled through the streets of Old Prague enjoying the Christmas markets, astronomical clock tower, candies, cookies and crepes.  Again we enjoyed a traditional Czech meal before heading off to the National Theatre in Prague for a showing of the Nutcracker ballet.  It turned out to be such a great Christmas and I am so thankful we did not have to spend it alone :-)

On our return journey to Germany the following day we went a little out of the way to visit the famous Sedlec Ossuary.  The Sedlec Ossuary is a small, Roman Catholic chapel just outside of Prague that was made famous by the skeletons of some 40,000-70,000 thousand people whose bones have been artistically arranged to form decorations for the chapel.  The Sedlec cemetery became a popular burial ground in Europe in the 1200's after an abbot was sent to the Holy Land and returned with a handful of dirt which he sprinkled throughout the cemetery.  In the 14th and 15th centuries a series of wars and the dreaded black death caused thousands more to be buried in the cemetery.  Around 1400 the chapel was built and as a result many of the graves were unearthed and later stacked into piles inside of the chapel.  In 1870, a woodcarver named František Rint was employed to put the bone heaps into order and the current decorations of the chapel were created.  I thought it was fantastic!!  Every bone of the human body is found in one gigantic chandelier!  It was definitely worth the short detour to see and as a bonus we were able to view St. Barbara's Church (one of the most famous gothic churches in central Europe and a UNESCO world heritage site).

St. Barbara's Church with my family! . . (it was freezing!)