From Paris, With Love

65 JPEG image-C60BC55FD250-1wmOne thing I was really grateful for when saying goodbye to London was that I didn’t have to say goodbye to Kirsten just yet… although we almost didn’t make it to Paris with a fairly annoying Eurostar experience (don’t let the smiles in the list photo fool you… they didn’t last much longer) and a last minute accommodation change, like all things when you travel, it all worked out in the end, with only a little bit of hassle… But now that we are at the end of our Paris adventure, our goodbyes have already been done… and then compounded by the discovery of house keys in my backpack for a house in London, somewhere now a little too far away… but instead of dwelling on goodbye, and stressing about whether or not those keys will make it back safely… let me tell you 5 reasons why we loved Paris…

1. Mona and her friends…
Dave and I aren’t big gallery people, we probably could be if we wanted to, we have really enjoyed exploring all kinds of galleries and museums all over Europe. It’s just something that we have never done at home… maybe we will when we get back? Anyway, you can’t really go to Paris for the first time and not go to the Louvre… that would just be silly.  And we would have missed the opportunity to get this cracker with Mona alone… an unexpected bonus of an early winter morning visit. But if I am honest even more impressive than Mona, is all the other pieces that call the Louvre home.  The size of the painting directly opposite The Mona Lisa was particularly impressive. Painting is something I have never been good at and imagining and creating a masterpiece of this size and scale is almost beyond comprehension.

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2. Seeing it all… in one day…
Ok so maybe we didn’t see it all, but we did manage to see a lot and tick off most of the big tourist items off the list. Today’s efforts covered 37 866steps… from the hotel to the Louvre, through the Tuileries Garden, down the Champs-Élysées, up to the top of the Arc de Triomphe then across to the Effiel Tower, before heading over to the catacombs via the most incredible supermarket of all time. So much seen, in such a short time and all of it beautiful in it’s own way. It doesn’t seem to matter where you go in Paris, you bump into something incredible.  Oh and a special mention also needs to be made of K and R matching Dave and I’s tourist step fitness and pace… which probably came as a bit of a surprise to them, as I am not usually known for either speed or fitness, but we were well and truly in tourist mode, something we had been practicing and working up to for the last month and they just went with us like they had also been walking like this for weeks.

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3. Disneyland…
Not just no. 7 on the list but also Kirsten’s first Disney experience. There are a lot of ‘Best Friend’ moments I have read about, seen in movies, dreamed of and many that I have already experienced, but this was another favourite, in fact a pretty close second, only weddings beating it to number one… I mean, how often do you get to share the your best friends first visit to the happiest place on earth, your favourite place?  Well just once… and even then you have to time it pretty well when you live in Australia. But yesterday that’s what happened… and it was magical.  As far as Disneyland’s go… I have to admit that “Have a magical day” doesn’t seem to come easily to the French, and going in winter was a new experience for me, but the castle, the music, the characters and the rides were all there and it was still a wonderful day.  I also got to flex my Disney expertise muscles with a solid ride plan to make sure that we got to go on all the fastest and scariest rides and none of the soft stuff, even if they are iconic. I have now topped up my need for the tower of terror for at least another year or so… hopefully it won’t be another 4 and a bit years before traveling in that ill-fated lift again.

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4. The Food…
Seriously… French food… amazing. Donut pretzels… or as they like to call them Bretzels, delicious deli meats and cheese, duck and so much delicious pastry. I feel like I didn’t tap into this anywhere near as much as I should have… Or take enough photos… There is so much I should have tried, and the food we did try never had a chance to be photographed, but I guess it just gives me a reason to return.  But we did give it one more crack last night after our Disneyland adventures, we ended our time together with a delicious dinner. A long evening of great food, wonderful company and delicious dessert and very French waiter.   It was a really nice way to say a long goodbye without it feeling like that. I have loved being able to hang out and explore Europe with Kirsten and Ryan, chat like they still live just around the corner and savour our time together before we parted. It was something I was already missing, but we just dinned the night away enjoying all that France and Paris had to offer.

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5. The Eiffel Tower…
I know this already got a mention before, but it deserves another one. I had completely underestimated how big the tower was… it is flipping huge… It was so surreal to stand underneath it and look up at the complex steel works that held it together. My fear of heights did not enjoy the funicular rides to the top, although I was thankful that I didn’t have to walk the stairs of see-through steel mesh… because I think I would have ended up stuck somewhere on the stairs in a shaking mess. But we also got see it in some fairly solid fog and in glorious sunshine… It also gave Dave and I the opportunity to take some of my favourite photos from the trip so far… it turns out my spatial awareness is even more terrible then I ever thought…

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Today was also a really nice way to end our Europe adventure. Even after the tears of goodbye the night before and then again this morning, we finished it the way we started, internetlessly navigating our way around a foreign city where we don’t speak the language and then lugging all our stuff onto a train and back to the airport. But as we wandered around the gardens near the Eiffel Tower, taking silly photos it was hard to believe that this was it. We had seen and done so much and now we were soaking up our last bits of European sun and fun. It has been an incredible journey… but now it is time to go home.

The Last Little bit of London

 Ok… it’s official I am made for London. This is our last day here… well it’s only really a half day as this afternoon we are jumping on the Eurostar and heading to Paris… but the last 3 days have just been a delight.

img_1546I have decided that I was made to be in London, and to a monarchist, as we waited for the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace I imagined that I could do this fairly regularly and because my head fits perfectly in the fence I am quite happy to hangout, just hoping to see something royal! I love being surrounded by royal things, castles, gardens, even just looking at things with royal decorations… I could use royal looking teacups and saucers for the rest of my life and love every minute of it. I don’t know why I love royal things so much, maybe it’s my Disney obsession, or my royal blood (thanks to Jesus), it doesn’t really matter, I just really love being here and being able to indulge the not so secret monarchist in me.  We have walked the Mall, checked out Westminster Abbey and Kensington Palace, visited and toured Royal Albert hall and finally checked out the Tower of London, complete with crown jewels and a photo with the junior royal guard (yep… you guessed it, that was no. 64 on this year’s list) and I have wished I could some how get all of the wonderful royal souvenirs I’ve seen home… but alas I have left them here… for now anyway.  Seriously if Australia ever leaves the Commonwealth… I might have to leave Australia.

img_1547London is also home to some other pretty neat things, we visited the Blind Beggar to tick the Salvo box in my heart and popped into the original London Langham Hotel, just to see how our dream home away home in Melbourne compares… which it does. Oh and we couldn’t have visited London without seeing at least one Harry Potter thing… even if I am still trying to work my way through the books… so we stopped at platform 9 and 3/4 which lent it’s self quite nicely to a super cheesy tourist photo for no. 11 on the list… thanks to the lady who stands there all day just to make my scarf fly… using magic, and not her hands, of course.

I think this has been the hardest place to say goodbye to, maybe it’s because of the length of time we have spent, or because of what else is here, but I am really sad to be leaving London… I really hope it isn’t too long until we return.

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London Calling

London1wmAfter my journey to London yesterday I can’t tell you how glad I am to be here. Last night when we got off the tube and headed up to Notting Hill I was greeted with the best hug I have ever had. So much can be said in a hug like that, I’ve missed you, I’m glad to be here, It’s actually you… Nothings changed… all at once. And even though Dave and I have been back out exploring today while K and R have been at work it has been so nice to know that I when I get home they would still be there. They have almost completely filled the hole that has been unexpectantly left by our tour group and our ‘what’s on sheet.’

After a false start this morning… turns out today is the one day they are close the Tower of London for ‘training’,… we have walked all over London… in the sunshine for lots of it too… who would have thought. There was so much that I wanted to see while I was here in London, so many things I had been planning, it’s really the only country that I knew enough about to have actually have an opinion. I suppose that given this was our first unguided stop it was good for me to know what I wanted, but it also meant that I had pretty high expectations and limited time. But so far today we have already crossed off some pretty big ticks, we have strolled the London streets, caught multiple tubes, climbed to the top of St Paul’s Cathedral, stopped for a spot of tea and some scones in a beautiful and massive bookstore looking out over the city… seriously how much more British can you get? We’ve spotted some monopoly sites, posed in a telephone booth and then explored the Churchill War Rooms for some Allies perspective on WWII. All before sitting down to my second home cooked meal in a month and then heading out again to catch up with my Cousin Bec, who also lives in London, in a swanky little pub with the most gorgeous desserts.

It dawned on me today that this is the first country in a couple, and sometimes even compared to home, that I actually feel at home. In so many places I have felt horrible about being white and middle class, but here for the first time I feel like this is all I need to be. That I don’t need to apologise or feel ashamed, I can just actually be me. London also seems to be filled with all the things I love, the royal family, beautiful churches and houses, fancy and pokey little shops, and tea, oh and for the time being, my bestie.

If I had to be relocated anywhere in the world, this is where I would go. Of all the cities I have seen so far in my life this is the one where I feel I belong… it actually feels like home even though it is not. My identity has been something that I have been struggling with for a while. Not… who is Emma, but more… how can I be satisfied being a white, middle class person when the whole world seems to hate me. Apart from the fact that I am a female, I am in the privileged category for almost everything… which is a huge blessing, but I am constantly feeling guilty for being born into the family and lifestyle I was… and I kind of hate it. I hate that I can’t just be what I am without also being classed as oppressive, racist, ignorant and exclusive… I am not any of these things… in fact I am constantly trying to not be these things, but even at home this is how I am taught to feel… and then when I say it out loud like I am here, I am sure someone is rolling there eyes thinking I have no idea. It’s not fair. But here… even within the diversity I feel like I am ok, like its ok to be white… Like I am just one of the rest… it’s probably actually that no one even cares that I am there… but it’s such a strange feeling and I really could get used to it.

Getting Some Perspective on the Bus

Today has been a challenging day, before we started on our European adventure getting to London was my main goal. I was excited about seeing Europe and ticking off some lifelong bucket list items, but I was really excited about getting to London… why? Because in June last year my best friend moved there so it had been a long six months since I had seen her face to face. It was the reason we chose to go now, rather than waiting another 12 months and something that I had been counting down to since the moment she left. Yet the journey to get here has been an incredible to say the least we had a jammed pack end to 2015 and the last 3 weeks has completely over shadowed my initial excitement. But today is the day we have finally arrived in London, and even though I am super excited to tell you all about being here and being reunited, today’s travel’s have been quite overwhelming and emotional and I think I need to stop and let it out… Today has not just been our last bus day, but it has included so much more. One last day stop, some confronting scenery, a ferry across the channel and a long drive through peak hour traffic and saying goodbye to our remaining tour friends one last time before we part ways for the first time in just under a month and get on the tube to our home for a week in Notting Hill.

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We stopped in Bruges, Belgium, the home of fries, chocolate and waffles and indulged, longed for more time once again to take it all in and then jumped back on the bus and headed across the country and down through France towards Calais where we would catch our ferry across the English Channel. On our drive to Calais we were confronted by just a glimpse of the thousands of refugees who are currently living in what can only be described as squalor, outside Calais port. Many hoping to make the same journey we did, across the English Channel into the UK. This moment of reality thrown into our dream trip was jarring. I had never seen anything like this before, I had completely underestimated what a refugee camp would look like and how I would be affected just by seeing it. I was also completely embarrassed by the constant political squabble of Australia and Australians in response to refugees. I had previously been disappointed in our response to people seeking asylum, but now I just feel angry, frustrated and completely powerless. I just don’t understand, why we, the lucky country, have so much difficulty processing peoples requests for refuge, why it takes so long and why the conditions for people who wait need to be so poor.

I know there are a number of issues that impact this, but I am convinced there has to be a better way. When I think about the relatively small number of people who seek asylum in Australia, and then see the camp that I saw today, we must be joking when we talk about a ‘refugee problem’. When I see how these people have ‘chosen’ to live rather than stay where they were, my heart breaks and wonders what more I can do… I don’t really know what the answer to that is yet, but it is something that I need to think more about. Something that I can not… and like so many of the other lessons I have learnt on this trip… I should not forget… Australia does not have a refugee problem… it just needs to re-read the question and try some different answers because we have to be able to do better than what we are doing right now.

Thanks Amsterdam

Oh Amsterdam where do I start?   What a place… Thank you for teaching me the difference between Holland and the Netherlands and why you are called Dutch… Thank you for cheese of all flavours… mature, garlic, smoked, truffle, stinging nettle, whiskey and chili… and thank you for vacuum sealing my purchases so I could take them home and enjoy them later.  Thank you for clogs, tiny skinny houses, beautiful art and artists and thank you for actual Dutch pancakes… which are actually more like crapes and not like poffertjes like my local farmers market would have me believe.

Thank you for housing the free spirit that was Anne Frank and for making me understand her story even though I am ashamed I couldn’t get through her book. Thank you for tolerating both the catholic and protestant churches in the same place with your ‘out of site, out of mind’ approach. Thank you for facing some of the bigger issues of our world like drugs and prostitution and for re-facing it when your previous methods aren’t working as well as you had hoped.

Thank you for challenging my understanding of freedom… and Thank you for a beautiful weekend… but most of all thanks for getting me back on my bike without hurting my butt (that’s for another blog) and for letting me ride safely, even without my helmet…

Thanks Amsterdam!

Guten Tag from Berlin via Dresden!

Berlin1Yesterday as we drove to Berlin we stopped in at Dresden another incredibly beautiful city that I wish I had had more time to enjoy… 2hrs isn’t quite enough… but I did get to learn that not all things WWII are depressing.  Dresden… although its story is depressing, the ending… well at least of that chapter, is incredibly beautiful and proves that humans can actually work together… even if they are trying to make good for horrible things they have done. Dresden is a wonderful mixture of the old, restored to perfection. Beauty from ashes… I think I need to go back and spend some more time there.

Now we are in Berlin and after not really being confident I would like Berlin last night, I have been totally turned around today. I have absolutely loved learning about Berlin, and Germany both during and after WWII… Germany is incredible, truly.

Seeing the Berlin Wall is not just something that I have been able to cross of my list but something that I have wanted to do since I learned that it existed. It is something that I have struggled to understand, and even now find difficult to comprehend. It is something that, like Auschwitz, is so important to have as a reminder of what not to do again… to prevent a repeat. And it is something I am so glad I have been able to see, to touch, to experience, but something that I am so very glad is no longer the divide that it once was.

Last night at dinner I sat with our bus driver Zoli, who is Hungarian and he showed me some pictures of his family visiting East Berlin before the wall fell. They were sitting in front of ‘no man’s land’ with the Brandenburg Gate behind them and no one else around.  He pointed out the wall in the background and told me how he had come with his family to visit his Uncle who was working in East Berlin at the time. Today as I stood where his family had stood for their photo, I could imagine where the wall had been, how eerie it would have been to be right next to the ghost train stations of Berlin, but mixed with the excitement and joy of a family holiday. It has once again challenged the way I see what we have always called the ‘oppression of the east’, the things I have been told were awful.  There were lots of good things for those who lived on the other side, while they might not have been to the standard we have come to expect, a free car, a confirmed job, house and healthcare are all great things, and things that are greatly missed when suddenly taken away. While it probably wasn’t a great way to live, for many it was a good life. It just wasn’t our life… so we judge it. Now don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting we should all drop everything and change to communism, it has just made me question whether there is actually a lot more grey than black and white.

Ampelmann is probably the best example of this… an unofficial icon of Berlin… quietly showing where East Berlin once was, just by telling us whether to go or stop… he isn’t good, he isn’t bad… he is just different (thanks CGS) and to be honest, he just looks way better than our regular walk and stop man… its all about the hat. He has been kept because the people of Berlin like him, he is part of their history and he doesn’t need to be changed to the western alternative, just because the wall has fallen.

The other thing that has really struck me while I have been in Germany is the fact that the German’s have embraced their horrible (recent) history and learnt from it.  They have a memorial to those who they hunted and murdered and do not in anyway shy away from the cruel nature of the wars they have faced. They also respond differently to war now… they will not get involved violently… they will offer aid, medical assistance and support, but nothing to encourage destruction, separation or violence… I think we could all learn something from Germany.  They welcome the marginalised, support those around them and make really great chocolate.