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an american girl in paris (and a bunch of other cities)

Somehow, I’m fortunate enough to be living my dream life. I just got home from the trip of a lifetime—three weeks visiting Cheltenham, England; Gijon, Spain;  Strasbourg, France and Kiel, Germany for work, as well as enjoying vacation time in Brussels and Bruges, Belgium; Amsterdam, Netherlands and Copenhagen Denmark—and I can’t even tell you how lucky I feel to have had such an amazing experience.  But that won’t stop me from trying to tell you all about it in this novel blog post.

Traveling is hard.
Nothing is familiar in a foreign city. The language is different. The culture and customs are different. Even the electrical outlets are different, for heaven’s sake.  When I arrived in the UK Sunday morning, I was so sleepy and out of sorts that I accidently went into the men’s bathroom in the airport—and not just into the bathroom and right back out. I walked in, saw the urinals and thought, “Huh, that’s weird.” But where I was didn’t register with me until I was all the way into the stall and I realized that there was a man in the stall next to me. Oops! I got out of there as fast as I could and hoped that nobody noticed.

For the first week of the trip, I was by myself. I had to navigate through unfamiliar airports in foreign cities on eight flights in less than a week, mostly going through Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. In each city, I was having meetings, lunches and dinners with my European colleagues, and making those connections and getting personal tours of each city was awesome. Then, I was working until at least midnight each night to type up meeting notes and answer emails from America because I couldn’t sleep anyway—stupid jet lag.  By Thursday, I felt very far away from my friends and family, and even though I’d been having lovely experiences with nice people, it’s not the same as being home. I had a tougher time adjusting to being away than I thought I would. At my hotel in Strasbourg, I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the shower, and I had a sobbing meltdown right there in the bathroom.

Traveling is wonderful.
That said, it was totally worth it. Tony met me in Brussels on Saturday, and I was really pleased to see him.  A couple of our BFFs who moved to Germany from Gainesville last year also met up with us in Brussels, and we had a blast. Belgian beer, shopping, absinth, sightseeing, chocolate and catching up with old friends—nothing could be better.

A few other favorite moments include riding on a Vespa-ish motorbike with one of my co-workers in Gijon (I felt so European); getting to see the gingerbread-like architecture in Strasbourg; climbing to the top of old buildings to get a panoramic view of the city in Bruges and Copenhagen; visiting Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam (it’s really sobering); biking in Amsterdam with the crazy-aggressive cyclers.

Traveling is delicious.
Nearly every.single.thing. I ate in Europe was outstanding. The yogurt and the coffee are about a million times better than their American equivalents. I ate more Danish cheese, Belgian chocolate and pommes frites and drank more fantastic beer and wine than I care to think about now.

And the meat—oh, my god, I ate every part of every animal (and fish) under the sun: beef cheeks, veal cheeks, pork cheeks, beef cooked in Belgian beer, wild boar, ham, ham, ham, pork knuckle, sausage, lamb, foie gras, chicken, chicken liver, ostrich, lobster, mussels, squid in squid ink, whole fish, fish fillet, clams, baccala, salmon, salmon roe, herring and I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting. I don’t typically eat a lot of meat unless I know where it comes from because factory farming practices are so bad in America, but that wasn’t my concern in Europe (obviously!). Plus, I knew that when I ordered a meat dish from a restaurant, it likely would be wheat-free and safe for me to eat.

The food was so amazing that it actually became harder and harder to impress me with restaurant meals. I ate some really good lobster in butter sauce in Brussels—food that would have blown me away at home—and I thought it was “meh.”

Some of the stand-out meals include fish and steak in a tiny restaurant in Gijon; deconstructed paella, salad with Serrano ham and blue cheese ice cream (much tastier than it sounds) and a ice cream sundae featuring a giant disk of chocolate with hot chocolate poured on top of it to melt down into the ice cream at a progressive restaurant in Bruges; a giant omelet at a pancake restaurant in Amsterdam (Tony got a banana and Nutella pancake, and I was so jealous);  a crispy-on-the-outside, tender-on-the-inside pork knuckle in Kiel and baccala cooked in tomato sauce along with a crème caramel at a restaurant in Copenhagen that served only three (amazing) dishes for each course on its menu.

For me, the best part of visiting new places is getting to experience the food culture, and what an experience it was. Just in case you’re wondering—my clothes still fit (barely!), but I haven’t wanted to eat anything but vegetables and fruit since I got home. Again—totally worth it.

Traveling is hilarious.
There also were several “what the hell” moments on this trip that made me laugh. On my first night in Brussels, I was eating alone in a restaurant, and an old French man sent flowers over to my table. Then he asked the waiter to buy me a drink. Then he got a guitar, walked over to my table and proceeded to serenade me in French. I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or creeped out, but I certainly was embarrassed.

In Amsterdam, of course we checked out the prostitutes in the windows at the Red Light district. In my mind, I’d pictured the Red Light district as a Prohibition-era brothel, and I kind of expected the women to be sporting pin curls, wearing silky robes and smoking from long cigarette holders. Imagine my surprise when the ladies looked more like Sopranos-style strippers than Boardwalk Empire-style working girls. “I thought they’d be wearing more clothes,” I said to Tony. He looked at me like I was crazy.

Tony and I did more partying during the last two weeks than we’ve probably done in the last two months at home. It was really funny to see how prevalent American music (especially ‘80s and ‘90s music) is in European bars and clubs. We went to hip-hop night at a club in Copenhagen, and they were playing really good, old school hip hop—Snoop Dog, Lauren Hill, Puff Daddy. It was rather early in the night and not many people were dancing. Then the DJ played Here Comes the Hotstepper and a whole bunch of people came on to the dance floor. Jokingly, I said to Tony, “Watch…he’s going to play Informer next.” And sure enough, the very next song was Snow’s Informer, and the dance floor was flooded with people getting “licky boom boom down.” Also, both of those songs have been stuck in my head ever since. Go ahead, click the links above, and you’ll need to wash them from your brain too.

Traveling is inspiring.
I came home with so many ideas from things that I saw in my travels, and I can’t wait to incorporate them into my life.

In fashion, I there were a few European looks that I’m eager to try—shorts with tights, ankle socks with sandals or loafers, super skinny jeans tucked into boots, higher-waisted, wide-leg jeans and scarves, scarves, scarves. The shopping in Europe (especially in Copenhagen) is beyond reproach, and all I’m going to say is that my suitcase was a lot heavier on the way home.

Amid all of the cheese, chocolate, meat and wine, we kept it a little healthy by going to a few very good juice bars, and the first thing I bought when I got home was a juicer. I’ve got so many ideas for fruit and vegetable juice combos that I can’t wait to try.

For work, my to-do list is very long, but I feel energized and ready to tackle it. I was so impressed with the multilingual nature of most Europeans, easily switching from Dutch to English or Danish to English or Spanish to English. It really made me want to get serious about learning another language. Spanish is most likely, since I’ve taken lots of Spanish classes, and I already know just enough Spanish to be dangerous. Time to hop to it!

Comments

Comment from Kathleen Waton
Time: April 20, 2011, 9:17 am

I loved, loved, loved reading this. I’ve had so many of these experiences, well except for the absinth, cheeks and blue cheese ice cream. And, yes, I’ve even had the exact same experience in the men’s bathroom! Was that Thea you met in Brussels?

Kathleen

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