A bit of closure

If it weren’t obvious by the time I’d gotten back to the States, I’ve clearly been MIA for these past four (going on five) weeks. Life caught up to me, including moving into a new house (alongside my devoted, hard-working, and interior-savvy mother) and starting my third year of grad school.

Still, I couldn’t leave it at that — I needed closure.

Our last few days in St. Albans were spent entirely in St. Albans, which was a blessing — it was just low-key enough to be able to take a deep breath after almost a month straight of traveling, and yet busy enough to still be filled with new and exciting discoveries. Our evenings, now free after Evensong, became something of a Tour de Albans Cuisine, beginning with a group outing to The Waffle House at Kingsbury Mill.

No, I’m not talking about ye olde Waffle House / Huddle House / Kitchen House / whatever knock-off yellow-block-lettered-sign restaurant you’re thinking of…although I wouldn’t say no to an order of bacon cheese grits and chocolate chip waffle from my dear American Waffle House.

Its British equivalent was simply a flour mill from the 1500s that, although still in use, had largely been converted into a restaurant specializing in sweet and savory waffles. The outdoor patio sat over the water rushing from the churning mills, and a quick tour of the inside showed working parts of the mill behind glass and molding beams of wood.

If you’re having a hard time envisioning what savory waffles might entail, you’re in dire need of a traditional Dutch pancake, because even the thought of one of those things can make my mouth water.

But as for savory English pancakes, picture this: A large, soft, doughy waffle topped with pulled pork barbecue, homemade cole slaw, and some spices for decoration, drizzled with an optional (pure — we ain’t talking Aunt Jemima) maple syrup.

Dear Lord.

By the time we left the mill, the sun was beginning to set, casting a beautiful pink glow on Verulamium Park as we headed back toward the abbey and our hotel…but not before making a two-hour pit stop at Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, the oldest pub in Britain ca. 793. We were joined by close to a dozen others from the choir, and we spread out in this ancient building with its creaking floors, low-beamed ceilings, and marbled glass windows.

The next day, Ryan and I walked to the Hypocaust Roman mosaic, the remains of a second-century Roman mansion that dwelt largely untampered with until the 700s, when monks stole the bricks of this building to construct…yes, none other than the abbey itself. Miraculously, the large mosaic (I would guestimate 300 square feet) remains quite beautiful, even after almost 2,000 years. A hypocaust was discovered in this same mansion, which is a Roman system of underfloor heating (hypo meaning “under”, caust meaning “burnt”). As unbelievable as this still seems to me, some Roman dude moved to the middle of this little island off the coast of Europe and set up a central heating system in 100 A.D. Carolina still struggles with central heating in our ca. 1800 dorms. This oxymoron baffles me.

From there, we trekked northward to the Roman Theatre — yes, the same Roman Theatre I’d originally set out to find the day I got so hopelessly lost. Thankfully, we made it during open hours, and were able to stroll around its perimeter to read various plaques explaining the purposes of each area. A winery here, forgery there, smithy there, barley keep here, stadium where gladiators might have fought over there. Before it was burned to the ground in around 200 A.D., it must have been a center of commerce and entertainment…not unlike Times Square, Roman Edition.

Yes, I did just equate Broadway to a gladiator stadium.

After that evening’s Evensong, we enjoyed our first English Thai food on a lovely back patio that was removed from the surrounding streets (and, truthfully, might once have been a backyard). We caught up with our group to enjoy an informative tour of the town, from facts and buildings to juicy 13th-century gossip, and concluded the night with drinks while picnicking by Vintry Garden, a vast expanse of beautiful green that separates the abbey from Verulamium Park, Verulamium River, and Ye Olde Fighting Cocks.

Saturday morning was spent exploring the well-known St. Albans Street Market, which was resembled something akin to a flea-market-meets-Raleigh’s-Artsplosure-meets-Dollar-Tree, and I say this with the utmost fondness. A few paces could lead you by a fresh fish stand and dollar-office-supply booth, but also by a stand of hand-stitched leather bags and lovely printed scarves. We wandered up, down, and back up the stalls, pointing and touching and gazing at novelties as we passed.

And lunch — be still, my heart — comprised my favorite British food: pasties.

Oh pasties, how I miss you…or more specifically, West Cornwall Pasty Co. I would trade two pairs of pumps for a chicken and spicy chorizo pasty right now.

That night marked a rather special moment in my life: I enjoyed my first meal at an Indian restaurant that didn’t end in disaster. (For those who don’t know, I’m deathly allergic to a few choice nuts that are great delicacies in China, India, and American hipster culture.) I’ve had two not-too-bad-but-let-me-take-a-Benadryl-just-in-case encounters in Raleigh, but this was my first full meal without need of three Benadryl (or a quarter cup, whichever is most readily available) or an ambulance. Our food was delicious, and particularly special given the skylights overhead that revealed first a beautiful golden sunset, followed by a cozy thunderstorm.

Of course, thunderstorms are only cozy when you don’t have to leave the comfort of a covered building, so our walk to The Farmer’s Boy — a local (divey) pub — was pretty damn wet. We finished up the night at the White Hart, an old Tudor-style inn next to our hotel that must have once been a house. Upon entering, you weave through room after narrow room, ducking under door frames and rounding odd corners to get to the bar, and then to a seat. Laughing, singing locals took turns playing the piano, and a few suits of armor stood sentry to listen.

And then dawned our last full day in St. Albans, beginning with Sunday mass (performed by our lovely choir) and then with drinks at the Deanery just down the cobbled path and into what might have appeared to be gardens from the other side of the crumbling brick walls.

We had lunch at The Snug, a pub in the heart of St. Albans, and dedicated our afternoon to feverish packing and frantic answering of e-mails. Our final dinner together could not have been more perfect: All 40-something of us dined at Loch Fyne, a “seafood & grill” restaurant that boasted delicious courses throughout the night (and equally delicious wine, although I shouldn’t give that fact as much weight as I probably do). I’m delighted to announce that the choir was invited back for a possible residency in five years, which is exciting news for Trinity and the many connections it has already made “across the pond”.

And Monday was spent in utter insanity, as should be expected with my luck with public transportation. Regardless, I was home by 5 p.m. Arizona time, and passed out in bed by 5:15. It took more than a week to get over my jet lag, by which point I was beginning a new life in Mesa, Arizona. Weeks later, I still glance through old photos and memories from our time in Europe, and wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. I’m incredibly lucky to have seen and done so much in so little time, and even more lucky to have met incredible people along the way. Thanks to everyone for reading and taking part in my adventures! Au revoir, afscheid, and cheers!


Royalty, intellect, and red telephone booths

I mentioned in my previous post that several Trinity members organized daily excursions from our locus in St. Albans. The general set-up was to start the morning with a “full English” (breakfast) in the hotel, which was far fancier than my expected Yoplait and bagel, before setting off for our morning destination. We would have a few hours for a tour and our own free explorations, grab lunch, and board the bus to return by our scheduled rehearsal and evensong.

Our first stop was Windsor Castle, one (of what I presume to be many) official residence of the queen and the largest occupied castle in the world. What sets Windsor apart from many other castles in Europe, let alone in England, is that it forms the center of a small village -- small shops, restaurants, cafés, and homes (of, say, castle employees) are clustered within, along, and outside the castle walls, which creates a sense of community around an otherwise austere building.

The castle itself is beautiful, our digital tours informative, and we were even able to see the changing of the guard (which takes approximately 45 minutes; we stuck around for maybe five of those minutes to see the band and listen to some unintelligible shouting, stomping, and gun-angling).

In the heart of the village is St. George’s Chapel, one of many central points of royal burial around London. (Westminster Abbey, for example, is another; but St. George’s houses monarchs from Henry VIII and George III to Edward VII and the Queen Mother.

And no, the queen was not in residence when we visited. Hopes dashed.

The next day was a full-day excursion to London, beginning with a two-hour tour of Westminster Abbey. I’ll go ahead and confess that I knew very little of Westminster Abbey, which is apparently deserving of at least one of Dante’s circles, although I had a nagging suspicion that the royal wedding was held there. (Ding ding ding, although I should have known about it for many other reasons besides.)

Westminster is the site of royal coronations in the UK, many weddings (but not all -- St. Paul’s just across the Thames reserves its right to quite a few), an incredible history across many monarchs, uprises, and changes in the Church, and the burial site of more famous individuals than I could have imagined, ranging from Charles Darwin and C.S. Lewis to Elizabeth I and Handel.

The history of this church was absolutely phenomenal, and if anyone is interested, I highly recommend Wikipedia as a substitute resource for what exactly this colossal building has seen over the last millennium.

We passed the Sherlock Holmes museum, which is based out of his fictitious residence on Baker Street, and although I was dragged kicking and screaming away from the line that trailed down the sidewalk (not really, but if I cared even a hair less about social norms I might have), this museum will remain among my Top 10 dream destinations in the UK should (or when) I ever return.

We revealed our inner tourists outside Buckingham Palace, taking photo after photo before moving on to Trafalgar Square, which has since become little more than a tourist- and street performer-ridden plaza. St. Martin-in-the-Fields was a pivotal stop for the singers among us, as it symbolizes something of a musical Mecca in the Church.

We had the pleasure of having wine with a PR representative of Phoenix Chorale’s record label in Charring Cross Hotel, a hotel created for the sole historic purpose of housing travelers who arrived in Charring Cross train station just below the building. Many of these travelers were French, which led the hotel to be known for its extravagant French balls on weekends. Its first and second floors were grand, and offered a great view of the areas around it; however, our guide pointed out the hotel’s flat, uneventful roof, result of a bombshell in WWII. London lacked the funds to repair it, necessitating what must (to Londoners) seem to be an ugly replacement.

This was a shocking theme in our time in London: the damages incurred in WWII. Anyone who has read Narnia (let alone history textbooks) knows this to be the case, and even Hayao Miyazaki draws heavily on the fears of bomb shells among (pseudo-)London residents in his animated films.

So as we made our way down a narrow street adjacent Charring Cross Hotel, our guide asked where else I’d been in Europe. At the mention of Paris, he scoffed and replied that London must seem an ugly city compared with the likes of Paris. I was surprised, and responded with complete honesty that even considering how little I’d seen of London, that wasn’t the case at all -- that I found Paris quite dirty, the architecture almost identical throughout, and many famous landmarks overrated.

Our guide shrugged and said that London had once been beautiful, perhaps, but had been damaged so heavily by the war that new “atrocities” were built -- buildings from the 1960s that were reminiscent of communism, perhaps, or an architect’s bold attempt at creativity by raising a solid glass claw of a structure that shadowed the historic buildings around it.

But I think it was these hints at London’s past -- both the good and particularly the terrible -- that I loved most.

Our group shared another bottle of wine in Gordon’s, a wine bar open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week that features a wine cave narrow and low enough to send anyone into a claustrophobic fit. (I found it awesome, but I also don’t mind small spaces.) The walls and curved ceilings were charred black from centuries of candle smoke, groundwater trickled down the stone and toward the uneven cobbled floors, and the occasional rumble of wine glasses signaled a passing subway car.

I mentioned in my last post that I’m a sucker for ruins; I’m also a sucker for awesome pubs, wine bars, and beer gardens. The older and quirkier, the better.

The rest of our trip was something of a blur simply from how fast we had to move to fit our to-visit list into a daylight-limited day. We saw Shakespeare’s Globe, Millennium Bridge (featured in the sixth Harry Potter), the Tower Bridge (featured in Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr.), and London Bridge (nothing special). In the distance, we saw the turrets of the Tower of London, home of the Crown Jewels and a historic prison and medieval execution site. Also on the horizon loomed St. Paul’s, another famous church within the confines of the Church of England.

After a ridiculously cheap dinner at an underground pub (which involved curry pie…oh my gosh), we gave a last visit to Big Ben, Parliament, and the London Eye, all of which were lit up in the evening hours.

And it was just before leaving for St. Albans that night that I realized how close we were to King’s Cross Station.

Before I knew it, I was speed-walking toward the gates like a zombie, thoughts focused only on Platform 9 3/4. In retrospect, there were so many things I didn’t even pause to consider, the least of which was whether I would need a ticket to get onto the platforms; but incredibly, miraculously, I saw it. A polished black sign read Platform 9 3/4, accompanied by the characteristic Hogwarts trolley in the process of vanishing through the platform wall.

And now, after trying to picture this scene for 15 years after having no idea what a train platform might actually look like, I can.

Our last excursion was Cambridge, which was more of a treasure than I ever would have expected.

Cambridge, like Windsor Castle, has something of a small village around it. The university owns this village of carefully preserved cobbled streets, historic buildings, and beautiful rivers and grassy squares. The floors above shops house students during their three annual terms, and the university’s 31 colleges are spread throughout the village, ranging from the town centre to the far outskirts across the river.

We had a guided tour of Cambridge, which only sealed the deal in my eyes: By the time we left, I was head over heels for this place. I write this while on the plane to Dallas, an official University of Cambridge letter jacket (lined with fleece and with a royal lion embossed on the sleeve) draped across my lap.

Besides my Butterbeer glass, this is my only souvenir, and I will be wear it with pride in hopes of one day returning.

Because if I ended up as a professor in this place, I would die of happiness before I even saw my office.

A few fun facts, but I’ll keep them to a minimum -- I won’t outline 2.5 hours’ worth of details, and trust that if you’re interested, you’ll consult either Wikipedia or Cambridge’s website.

Isaac Newton invented the cat flap.

I know, I just revealed the secrets of English history in one sentence.

But really…this happened. Isaac Newton, a student of Trinity College (which would be my college of choice out of the 31, given its scientific prowess), was also a professor there. A graft of the apple tree that spurred his theory of gravity now sits outside the college gates, just below the bay window that marks his bedroom.

C.S. Lewis was a student there, as well as Jane Goodall, Rowan Williams, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking (who, again, went to St. Albans School before college), Princes Edward and Charles, Emma Thompson, Rosalind Franklin, Lords Aberdeen, Kelvin, and Byron, Oliver Cromwell (the irony), and Francis Bacon (who clearly kept cropping up during my time in England).

But this place isn’t just a prestigious university, it has spirit and culture. I hope no staunch Duke fans are reading this (and if so, please save your opinion of me by skipping the next two paragraphs

good), but Duke sends me into minor panic attacks just from walking around its campus. It’s too perfect, too quiet, too austere, too serious about itself. It seems a place that, for me at least, would staunch the flow of creativity before it even had a chance to grow.

If you’re a Dookie, you can start reading again.

Cambridge is nothing like this. Students are boisterous, funny, and come in all forms of diversity. Intelligence isn’t gauged by test scores, but by interviews and tests of character and motivation. Tuition, although steep in European standards, pales in comparison to even my own alma mater, and from the looks of their scholarship statistics, they actually carry out their promise of supporting students who can’t readily afford tuition, boarding, and fees.

If this weren’t already clear, I couldn’t get enough of this place.

We finished up with a tour of King’s College Chapel, famous -- among many reasons -- for its prominent BBC feature every Christmas Eve, as well as for its internationally renowned boys choir.

Of all the churches, abbeys, cathedrals, and temples we visited over the course of this past month -- and trust me, I’ve seen more than I ever would have believed possible in this span of time -- I found the history of King’s College Chapel the most fascinating by far.

I suggested earlier that anyone interested in Westminster Abbey’s history consult Wikipedia, because yes, it’s fascinating.




King’s College is even more rich in its historical presence. From king to tyrant to conqueror, from war to peace to Reformation, from various stages of beautiful construction to near destruction, this place is just phenomenal.

Okay, I’m done.

Go read Wikipedia…like, yesterday.

And before I wrap up this post about our excursions, I want to tell a bit about the Abbey and Cathedral of St. Albans. (Tourists refer to it as the Cathedral; locals know better, and refer to it as the Abbey. The official title marries both.)

The Abbey boasts the seventh longest nave in the world, and is split into many smaller chapels and worship spaces. The name of the Abbey and town stems from Alban, who hid a Christian priest inside his home during a time when it was illegal to be a Christian in the late 200s, while living in the Roman city of Verulamium. Within a short period of time, he converted to Christianity and was later captured for it; however, even at the threat of death he didn’t renounce his faith to the Romans, and lost his head for it.

The first stone was laid in 1077 following the Norman invasion; however, the true date of completion wasn’t until the 1800s due to constant additions, destruction, changes, and expansion. As a result, its many sections stand at stark contrast to their surroundings as you move from, for example, grandiose Gothic arches to the simple, humble styles of the 1100s. There are ornately carved altars with dozens of perfectly contoured stone servants reaching dozens of feet high, and there are also medieval paintings on the walls of two-dimensional saints with snippets of script made illegible over the centuries.

It goes without saying that we were incredibly honored to be invited to sing at the Abbey, and that we (read: the choir; I sat with my hands folded somewhere behind the altos) did an excellent job throughout the week.

So enough of excursions.

One more post about our time in England, which will discuss a bit more about St. Albans and its many charms and treasures.

All who wander are probably lost

Note: I’ve gotten a few questions of how on earth I got back from HP Studios. It continued to rain throughout my three-hour tour of the studios, so I was expecting the worst: at least a 40-minute walk to Watson Junction, a major bus junction in Hertfordshire, and a 15- or 20-minute bus ride back to St. Albans. Luckily, I left Leavesden right as a double-decker Harry Potter bus (sounds magical, right?) pulled up to the entrance. This was my first double-decker experience, which was particularly fun as they had a TV screen at the front of the second story that showed interviews with Warwick Davis as well as Warner Bros. previews.

As I’ve only vaguely mentioned before, I spent the last eight days in St. Albans with Trinity Cathedral’s choir, which was invited for a week-long residency at the Abbey and Cathedral of St. Albans. Some incredible Trinity members helped plan daily excursions and sight-seeing tours, which I’ll be discussing in the posts to follow (accompanied, of course, with pictures). Because I don’t sing -- or perhaps shouldn’t sing, for the good of many around me -- I was left during rehearsal times and a few evensongs to do whatever I wished. And of course, being in a country that was completely alien to me, I spent that time exploring.

I’m addicted to exploring. Regardless of my familiarity with my surroundings, there’s always more to be learned through wandering aimlessly around, preferably while armed with either a map or a smartphone. I love seeing new things, and in unknown places in particular, I love experiencing new cultures from beyond the confines of tourist traps and beaten paths.

Years ago, when I was an employee at Kanuga Conference Center in the mountains of North Carolina, I had a habit of exploring at least once a day. It’s a hard temptation to ignore when in the heart of at least 16 mountain trails, each one more unique than the last. I also had a habit of getting lost while exploring, once being brought back to Kanuga by a police officer after winding up six miles away at Camp David, and twice being led back by locals who were stunned that I’d walked to Hendersonville or some unknown mountain town.

So the day after my Harry Potter experience, I decided to go exploring. I had a plan, of course: Armed with a map of St. Albans, I wanted to see the Roman theatre and Roman mosaic, both artifacts of the Roman city of Verulamium (100s-200s AD), where St. Albans now resides.

I set off while the choir was rehearsing for that day’s evensong, heading past the abbey and St. Albans School (the latter of which educated Pope Adrian IV, the only English pope, in the 1100s as well as Stephen Hawking). I crossed through a beautiful green field spotted with trees that lay just beyond the abbey’s reach, and followed the sound of running water to a series of small waterfalls that emptied into a shallow creek. People waded through the creek, pants rolled to their shins, often accompanied by an overeager dog; and just beyond the creek sat the kind of building that first comes to mind when an American envisions a stereotypical British pub.

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, which looks so nestled in its green, leafy surroundings that it might have grown there, is the oldest pub in the UK -- stretching all the way back to 793. Its name hints at its original purpose in the early 800s: It was once a cock-fighting pit, and after weaving over crooked, creaking floors through a series of low-ceilinged rooms, you can still find a smaller chamber several steps below the rest called Ye Cock Fighting Pit. Around back is a patio that could double as a convincing garden.

I crossed a low stone bridge and found myself in an expansive green field with low, rolling hills in the distance, which were spotted with the occasional family, baby stroller, or dog. But most fascinating were the two ponds that stretched toward the north, with paths running at equal height to the ponds so that it felt as if you were almost walking on water. Ducks, swans, and geese swam around the edges of the water, nearing any human that might have food, and in the middle of the larger pond I saw an island completely covered by weeping willows whose branches dipped down into the water.

One path took me to a low Roman wall, perhaps ten feet tall -- the remains of a Roman castle and keep in the early 200s. Rounded stone pits hinted at ancient turrets and towers. I followed a different path that cut through Verulamium Park, passed another low stone bridge that led up to the remains of a Roman mansion from the late 100s, and finally emerged onto a narrow street that might have come out of a BBC show.

To one side, a curved bridge led to a cluster of weeping willows and a narrow creek, which met the Kingsbury Watermill from the 500s AD. The building is still left intact, and is now used as a waffle restaurant with outdoor seating perched over the water, tucked away into the trees.

To the other side, a cobbled street led through a series of Bavarian-style cottages, another stereotypical British pub (the Rose and Crown), and more flower-filled window boxes than I could count.

It was the latter direction that I followed in the direction of distant stone towers. These were the towers of St. Michael’s Church, where Francis Bacon was buried in an unmarked grave. (As I later found out, his wife hated him.) The graveyard stretches long before that of the abbey, which between 1077 and the 1500s followed the tradition of the time and buried its parishioners under the stone floor tiles throughout the church.

I’ll say here that even after seeing this tradition in Reims, Paris, Amsterdam, Haarlem, and now St. Albans, London, Cambridge, and Berkshire, I still haven’t gotten used to walking over graves. Winston Churchill seemed to have a similar misgiving: When offered a spot of highest honor at the central entrance to Westminster Abbey for his grave, he remarked that he’d been stepped over enough in his life, thank you.

Just across the street lay my ultimate destination: the Roman theatre, the last vestiges of what might have been a gladiator arena or a dramatic venue, surrounded by wineries, carpenters, blacksmiths, and other shops in the late first and early second centuries.

But it was closed.

Like much of the rest of St. Albans, it had closed at 5 p.m., and it was now 5:10.

I tried my best to circle the theatre, standing on tiptoe to catch whatever glimpse I could over the high hedges, and finally gave up.

And then I heard the low baa of a sheep.

One glance over my shoulder revealed a long, lone path that looked like something out of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, or even Emma. One on side of the path, beyond the low, crooked wooden fence, stretched rolling hill after rolling hill. On the other lay a pasture dotted with sheep.

It was too perfect a picture opportunity to pass up.

In one of my first posts, I confessed a true shortcoming about my love for exploring when I admitted that:

although I tend to have quite a reasonable attention span when it matters, I also tend to be easily distracted in novel situations. If the typical joke is “Ooh, shiny!”, mine would be something along the lines of “Ooh, cobblestones! Baguettes! Statues! Basilicas! Vespas! French words! Macarons! Cute outfits!”

In other words, it took me all of three minutes to find myself completely separated from those damned tram tracks, and without the aid of a map, each and every winding street looked like a replica of the last. "

Unfortunately, this was just another example of this ease of distraction in new surroundings.

The sheep led me to the longhorns, which led me to a cute cottage, to a shaded lane, to a dirt path into the hills, to a sunlit meadow flecked with wildflowers.

And suddenly, after taking one too many turns onto different paths, I didn’t have a clue where I was.

It’s funny how a map of St. Albans doesn’t help too much when you wind up outside the city, because there was one thing of which I was certain: We weren’t in St. Albans anymore.

I continued on, and within a few minutes saw what looked like either a Roman temple or a Georgian plantation -- the columns confound the two. Either way, it looked better suited for a government building than for the Hertfordshire countryside.

And it looked vaguely familiar.

I wound my way to it, and discovered the New Gorhambury Estate -- the mansion of none other than Francis Bacon, which had since become a mansion. I peered into the gardens, stared out at the perfectly cut, bright green lawns and rounded shrubs, and nodded approvingly toward the only Subaru I’d seen in Europe -- a cobalt Impreza hatchback parked near the employee’s entrance.

In case this wasn’t obvious before, I didn’t have cellular data while abroad, and relied exclusively on Wi-Fi.

There’s about as many Wi-Fi networks in the English countryside as there are Starbucks. And let’s just say that Starbucks are so rare that even glimpsing one close to the hotel had Ryan in hysterics of happiness.

So I continued on my way, chose a route at random when I reached a five-point intersection of paths far too narrow for even a European car, and plowed on.

My next sight was one that I had expected -- and greatly hoped -- to find close by: the Old Gorhambury Estate, the mansion of Francis’s father, Sir Nicholas Bacon. It once stood in grandeur, with multiple wings, turrets, and courtyards. But 500 years takes its toll on buildings, and this one was left to ruin. What remained were crumbling bricks and stones, stairways that led to thin air, and large windows -- panes still intact -- that gazed out on the wilderness beyond. What most hinted at its former glory was the home’s original back entrance, which must have been trivial compared to its front façade, but which still stood 20 feet tall in sculpted stone, archways, and pillars.

If this weren’t already clear, I’m a sucker for ruins. More so than museum or History Channel documentaries, I’ll travel for hours to find a good set of ruins. How lucky I am to have wound up in Arizona, which boasts some incredible ones on the way to Flagstaff and Four Corners. My Southwest bucket list, which outlines everything I’d like to see in and around Arizona before I finish grad school, is something like this:

  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • The original London Bridge in Lake Havasu
  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • Aspen
  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • Kartchner Caverns
  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • Havasupai
  • Ruin
  • Durango
  • Ruin
  • Ruin

I should probably be concerned about just how happy a pile of stones can make me.

Beyond this point, however, my exploration became more of a nuisance than an uplifting experience. Two hours later, I was still to be found wandering aimlessly somewhere between Redbournbury and Hemel Hempstead (if you consult a map, you’ll see that neither of these are even remotely close to St. Albans), and although I was perfectly aware of my surroundings and didn’t once feel in danger, I was ready for a meal, a toilet, and a rest.

Before anyone asks, no, there were no taxis, buses, or police officers for miles and miles around. These were back roads and footpaths that passed by the occasional bed and breakfast or cottage with a cheerful woman in the garden, watering her peonies.

By the time I started seeing signs of life beyond sheep and cattle, however, there was no point in asking directions: After seeing an old sign for Prae Wood, a forest on the crest of a distant hill, I could bring to mind a rough map of the area that I’d consulted before leaving for Leavesden the previous day. A glance at the sky confirmed the direction I needed to follow, and it’s not like I would have accepted offers for a ride back to the village.

No, the most dangerous thing I encountered on my walk was a particularly pesky bee that followed me so closely that it got stuck in my hair until I was able to shake it free.

Thanks to the compass app that Apple won’t let you delete, I was able to find my way back to St. Albans. When I reached the top of a hill, I could see far in the distance the towers of the abbey and a series of cottages comprising the town’s centre.

I met up with the choir for dinner at the Peahen, still nursing my aching feet, and we ended the night with darts at Garibaldi, a small pub close to the Sopwell Nunnery that featured its very own pub cats.

Pub cats should be my life mascot. In both Amsterdam and St. Albans, you’re likely to find a resident feline in pubs, bars, restaurants, and cafés, strutting around like they own the place (and they probably do).

In all, I had a wonderful day. I was sore, exhausted, and in need of a shower and nap, but throughout the rest of my time in St. Albans there were more than half a dozen occasions where these travels became not just relevant, but important. Whether it was pointing tourists (or choir members) in the right direction when in search of ruins or a good place to eat or drinks, or giving more background information on the Bacon family and surrounding county of Hertfordshire, those four hours (and 9.51 miles, according to my phone) were some of the best during my time there…and that’s saying a lot.

Harry Potter Studios, Leavesden

I'm one of those weird people whose emotions are most loudly expressed when they range between a 4 and 7 on a 10-point Likert-type scale, meaning that if something is vaguely unfortunate (a 4 out of 10) or relatively exciting (a 7 out of 10), chances are I'll react as if I'm the most miserable or most ecstatic person on earth.

I know it's weird. Enthusiasm, animation, craziness, I don't know what to call it. But because about 19 out of 20 days necessitate emotions in the 4-to-7 range, it keeps life exciting.

As a kid, I was infatuated with Barney.

Yeah, one of those kids.

And when my parents took me to see a life-size Barney (i.e., man in a Barney suit) at a local fair, they expected the reaction that even at three years of age was expected from little Jessica: over-the-top bubbly excitement.

But I stood there, lips pressed together, eyebrows furrowed, staring up at this six-foot Barney with wide eyes.

I wasn't scared. Mannequins could send me screaming out of JC Penney's (and let's not even talk about escalators), but right then, this creepy-ass Barney suit wasn't even remotely scary.

I was elated. It was like an out-of-body Barney experience. Absolutely an 8 out of my 10-point emotion scale.

And when my happiness gets to the 8 or 9 range, I shut down. The world cannot understand my elation, and for risk of exploding from feverish exhilaration, my mind knows no better way to control myself than to just stand as if petrified.

Before I explain the relevance of those last few paragraphs, let me backtrack a bit.

So as some of you may know from my Facebook photos, I had the insanely lucky chance to tour the Harry Potter (Warner Bros.) Studios in Leavesden, Hertfordshire. Cora, bless her soul, refreshed the ticket page between 40 and 50 times a day to score tickets.

For those who may not know, scoring tickets to this studio tour is near impossible if within a one-month window. I write this on August 6, and the soonest available single adult ticket is August 25.

And so at 2:00 in the afternoon I was to be found standing at a bus stop off London Road (a misleading name; it's smack-dab in the middle of St. Albans and, from what I can tell, certainly wouldn't be a good route for the London-bound among us). I was waiting for a 2:22 bus -- the 724 Greenline -- that would take me to Watford, not far from Leavesden.

Unless you're Ryan or my father, you might be wondering why on earth I arrived at that bus stop 22 minutes early. As unparanoid as I am about typical arrival times (I have no problem arriving 5 minutes early, rather than 30), this was my only chance at getting to the studios in time for my 4 p.m. tour. If I missed this bus, I was either missing the tour or forking up £20 ($27) for a one-way taxi.

Let me tell you the way my mind works:

$27 is a week's worth of groceries, two meals out, a pair of nice heels from Target, or two dresses and a blouse from Ross.

It's a helluva lot of money.

At 2:20, a young woman sprinted up to me, asked if I could hold the bus, and ran into a nearby convenience store.

If you think I'm going to run the risk of being left behind because the bus driver doesn't want to wait for your miniature shopping spree, you have no idea what you're dealing with.

But even as I called after her that the bus would be here any minute, she vanished into the Morrison Local.


Despite the early hour, it started to grow dark -- the bright skies clouded over, and I felt the slightest hint of raindrops on my shoulders and feet.

The young woman reappeared.

It was 2:25.

The bus was late.

We started to talk -- a conversation first spurred on by her blatant statement that I "looked Celtic", and question of whether I was visiting from Scotland for the week.

And then our topic switched to America, jobs, St. Albans, research, and the downsides of living in a technology dependent society.

And then it was 2:45.

The young woman shook her head, let out a tsk of woe, and informed me that I must be unlucky -- because after taking this bus twice a day every day for the last two years, it had never been so late.

In all seriousness, is there a saint for travel and what did I do to piss him off so badly?

By 2:55, I knew that the 2:22 bus simply wasn't going to come, which left only the 3:22 bus -- a bus that would get me to the studios a full 45 minutes late.

I didn't have time to find a taxi (because even after a week here, I haven't seen a single taxi in the town). So that left me standing at a bus stop more than five miles away from the studios -- a trek that didn't guarantee sidewalks, cut through neighborhoods and bike paths, and would require an hour of speed-walking (almost jogging) to get me there in time.

With a goodbye and not a single glance back, I left the bus stop and just started walking. I'd taken a series of screenshots of the bus route, which became my sole reference point as I made my way through Hertfordshire. I had barely made it out of St. Albans city limits before the slight sprinkle became a downright pour. And because I've grown accustomed to desert climates, I sometimes assume that the rest of the world experiences three days of rain a year, too.

Umbrella? Sure. A nice Heineken green one.

In my backpack...in my hotel room.

And so my jog turned into an outright run for much of that trek as I darted from tree to tree, trying to stay out of the rain as I made my way to Leavesden.

If you think I was going to give up my nonrefundable $75 tickets to see the -- the -- Harry Potter studios because of rain and nonexistent taxis, you clearly don't know me very well.

I arrived on the far north side of the studio compound with 10 minutes to spare, and because Leavesden was once an aircraft production compound during WWII, you can imagine how large this place is.

The studio tour entrance?

South side.

Which had me trekking in knee-high weeds along the side of an eight-foot barbed wire-topped fence, staring wistfully at the compound so close and yet so far.

By the time I arrived at the studio gate, I must have looked like an alley cat that had weathered at least two hurricanes and a mudslide. One of the security guards at the front gate gave me an incredulous look and moved around the line of cars waiting for entrance to walk toward me. He gave me a once-over and asked in a nonplussed voice, "Where did you walk here from?"

Still huffing and puffing from my run, I managed a hoarse, "St. Albans."

"St. -- St. Albans? You walked here from St. Albans?"

By this point I had neither the time nor the patience to dwell on my stupidity and staunch hatred of the Greenline bus system. I'd started to rummage through my purse for my entrance ticket, but the guard stopped me with a mumbled "I don't need to see your ticket, just get inside."

And thus began my tour of the place where the book series that utterly shaped my childhood and teenage years became a reality, where page was transformed to screen. Leavesden Studios houses virtually every interior you see in the movies, including Gryffindor common room, Gryffindor dormitories, the Ministry of Magic, the Burrow, Dumbledore's office, Hogwarts classrooms, the Great Hall, Hagrid's Hut, #4 Privet Drive, the Knight Bus, Alfonso Cuarón's crooked bridge to the distant Hogwarts grounds, the Potters' cottage in Godric's Hollow, the Leaky Cauldron, Gringott's, Diagon Alley, and so many more.

And then there are props, costumes, characters, masks, animatronic creatures, concept sketches, white card models, and everything else needed to construct what we now know of as the Harry Potter films.

So let's get back to that Barney experience.

I think I -- and everyone else -- expected me to be bouncing off the walls for the three hours that I spent there. Never in my life have I met a more avid Potter fan (and I won't go into details to prove this for fear of embarrassing myself, but let's just say the evidence is extensive)...so shouldn't it be the case that such a momentous day would necessitate an insanely bubbly, enthusiastic, overwhelmingly happy response?

If Barney was an 8-out-of-10 experience, this was a 9.5.

And I don't think I so much as cracked a smile during my whole time there. I was too happy for that. My lips were again pursed, my eyebrows furrowed, and my mind resolutely focused on each and every detail around me. It was an unforgettable experience.

I think I unnerved Ryan when he asked me how it went, being the guy who knows my overly enthusiastic responses (to pretty much everything) better than anyone. So when I looked him in the eye and said in an emotionless voice that it was an incredible experience, he truly knew that it was everything anyone could have dreamed.

A question I've received from many people: Was the walk worth it?

You have no idea.


Wanted: a saint for travel

Growing up, I always associated early waking times with excitement. If the alarm clock went off at 5 a.m., it was probably because it was our annual family outing to the NC State Fair. Or maybe a predawn departure to the Blue Ridge in the fall, or to Carolina Beach for the Fourth of July. Maybe even an early flight to Disney World, or a train to New York.

In more recent years, however, early waking times have been growingly associated with trepidation. A cross-country flight for a grad school interview, perhaps, or a crack-of-dawn flight to an international conference. Or maybe a moving day before Phoenix temperatures reach 110º, or to prepare for a 7:30 a.m. final graduate exam.

So after more tangibly recent years of classical conditioning, I’ve come to associate early waking times with dislike. And when our alarm went off at 4 a.m. Sunday morning, I was pissed.

It should be against human nature to rise before the sun.

But we were out of the apartment by 4:20, 30-pound backpacks strapped at waist and chest, making our way along the dark canals to the bus stop. It took us several attempts to find the right bus stop, and to make matters worse (or at least more annoying), the streets were crawling with drunk teens recently shooed from closing bars.

So there we stood, having overcorrected our arrival time by 35 minutes, enduring our aching feet and backs while shouting, singing, laughing kids jostled around us, stepped in front of buses, or just fell off of curbs.

Side note: Amsterdam is a beautifully clean city. It’s rare to find trash on the stone streets or gunk on the brick sidewalks, both of which could easily house litter in their grooves. Amsterdam’s secret? An army of street-sweepers that converge upon the city each and every morning to correct for the monstrosities that clearly occur throughout the night.

If that’s where taxes are going, I’d support that.

Our bus arrived at 5 a.m., so packed that Ryan stood sandwiched between people of every age while I perched like a pigeon on a luggage rack, still half-asleep and hating the world.

We got to the airport just in time for Starbucks to open, as if the Red Sea had parted just for us to reveal a glorious land of caffeinated perfection -- and because Amsterdam only allows people to leave the main waiting area for their gate 40 minutes before departure (i.e., 10 minutes before boarding).

And of course it would be the case that the moment I sat down with my grande coffee, our gate was assigned.

Ryan can chug a venti iced Americano like a man dying of thirst, so as the other hundred or so London-bound passengers surged past us for the gate, he looked down at me with an expectant raised eyebrow.

My choice was between a grande coffee, which I couldn’t bring past the gate entrance, and my chances of boarding an absurdly early flight to London.

An obvious choice: I stuck with the coffee.

So there I sat, alone and chugging my still-burning-hot coffee until I felt nauseous (coffee, like Southern Comfort, should never be chugged) before sprinting for the security gate. After being pulled aside and thoroughly frisked as a consequence of my fascination with metal-ridden accent necklaces, I made it down to the plane.

After a short, uneventful flight, we arrived in Gatwick, London’s redheaded stepchild of an airport in the absolute middle of nowhere. The view as we were landing was perfectly reminiscent of the intro to The Vicar of Dibley, and the infamously sprawling London was nowhere to be seen.

This, friends, is the downside of flying the cheapest airline possible. Easyjet compensates for its absurdly low prices by charging, for example, 50€ ($67) if your carry-on is even two centimeters larger than their briefcase-sized standards. Want water? That’ll cost you. Didn’t print your ticket? Hope you have 20€ ($27).

Thanks be to God for CapitalOne’s Travel Eraser, which paid for my pre-checked bag…and doesn’t charge a penny for international spending.

So there we were, in the middle-of-nowhere Gatwick Airport, standing at the end of a customs line to rival a new Harry Potter midnight release. Because naturally the customs line for EU passports deserves five customs agents, while the twice-as-long line for all other passports deserves just one.

One grumpy ginger man who didn’t want to let us into this country.

Gingerism is a thing, y’all -- and especially in England, where 40% of the world’s gingers reside. In the last decade, gingers have endured many hardships in the workplace and particularly in society.

So whenever I see a fellow ginger here, I feel this special sense of brotherly connection that probably seems psychotic to passersby, including the ginger of focus. It’s the same way I feel toward anyone who drives a Subaru, wears a U2 t-shirt, or listens to Loreena McKennitt.

After close to an hour of waiting without Wi-Fi to distract us, I finally strolled up to the ginger behind the desk, feeling that significant Ginger Connection that I immediately realized was not reciprocated.

That man questioned me as if I’d come bearing automatic weapons and a swastika on my forehead.

When I’d gone through a similar procedure in the Tel Aviv airport, I’d known what to expect. I was prepared. I had answers ready, and a will of steel. London customs was the last place I would have expected to need similar preparation.

So after stuttering and stammering my way through a few questions, even going so far as to confuse England and Europe (which certainly didn’t help my case), he gave me a disdainful look and asked if I was traveling with anyone. Who. How did I know that guy 10 feet behind me who was watching with worried eyes. What was he doing here. Oh, singing? Was he being paid. Why was he staying so long. Why was I with him if I wasn’t singing. Where was our proof that he was singing. Where was our proof that Trinity Cathedral was a church at all.

At long last, he seemed to mentally mark us as insufficient threats, or possibly even as lost causes, and our passports were violently stamped before we were allowed to pass through.

But even though we’d crossed the border into the UK, our trip still wasn’t over. Now we needed a train from an airport far south of London to a small village far north of it. After paying a small fortune, we rushed through Gatwick to the train station far beneath, tracked down our platform, and waited…for a train that never came.

Cancelled. Of course.

Next one to Bedford, during which St. Albans was a stop? Pending.

Let’s just say that by the time our train finally came, and we were safely aboard, we were so exhausted that we passed out almost immediately.

It was during our 15-minute walk from the train station to our hotel that we -- having been thoroughly spoiled by living in a desert so flat that I could probably have seen Disneyland from almost six hours away if not for the buildings -- remembered just how many hills the rest of the world must have.

I’m willing to bet we encountered a majority of those hills that day, because that walk didn’t once lie flat.

And after three solid weeks in hostels and AirBnBs, I arrived in a beautiful hotel right in the heart of St. Albans, which looks out toward the very abbey where the Trinity choir has been commissioned to perform. Even Ryan, who had been traveling for 1.5 weeks, ran from window to private bathroom with a look of sheer delight on his face. We could even open a window, place a fan on the sill, and pretend we had A/C to combat the humidity and high temperatures outside.

And the first thing we did with this room five times larger than my Reims abode?


In the bathtub.

Without going into details, I can assure you that by the time we’d finished, the water was a dark, murky gray-brown.

We spent the afternoon exploring, first to track down a grocery store before we ended up lost enough to stumble upon the ruins of Sopwell Priory, a nunnery from 1140. A park had been established around it, and people were running, walking dogs, pushing baby strollers, or simply sitting in the shade of towering trees.

A stroll through St. Albans itself only solidified this sense of a laid-back lifestyle, which has been a beautiful and much-needed thing. The culture is the closest to that of America that I’d yet seen, and yet it’s so very different. England has been wonderful.

That evening, the hotel treated a group of our recent arrivals to a lovely dinner in their dining room, which looks out at one of St. Albans’s main streets and, in the distance, the east end of the abbey. This street would be a stereotypical sight on a BBC show, endorsing so many qualities that I’d come to assume were just as true of British village life as the assumption that all Californian homes look similar to what we see in Hollywood movies. In some ways, there are certainly differences -- no glowing-eyed robots, for example (and kudos to whoever gets that reference) -- but for the most part, it’s everything I’d hoped it would be.

This was only the beginning of our time in England. In the days that have followed, we’ve explored the area, encountered some incredible bits of history, visited the Harry Potter Leavesden Studios, and seen Windsor Castle, Cambridge, King’s College Chapel, London, Hatfield House, and much more.

A morning in Haarlem, an evening in Heineken

Originally, we’d planned on spending four days in Amsterdam and one day in Bruges, Belgium. After realizing how much it would cost (in both time and, more importantly for grad students, money) to get to Bruge, we abandoned that idea for a substitute medieval town only 45 minutes from Amsterdam: Haarlem.

Note: if your first thought was Harlem, the New York City borough, you're not far off: America's Harlem was once called Nieuw Haarlem (New Harlem), named after this medieval Dutch town. New York was originally called New Amsterdam, and was primarily a Dutch colony before being seized by the English, who renamed it in honor of the Duke of York.

There are many other similarities, including Greenwich Village (present in both), Manhattan (present in both), 't Lange Eiland (Long Island), de Brede Weg (Broadway), Heemstede (Hempstead), Konijneneiland (means "rabbits island", translated Coney Island), Kromme Zee ("crooked lake", now Gramercy), Staten Land (Staten Island), and even Walstraat (Wall Street).

Although it was nothing like what we knew about Bruges, we had a good time exploring the town for a few hours that morning, albeit under the first overcast skies I’d seen since my first few days in Reims almost three weeks before.

We started with one of the most cliched scenes you would expect from Holland, sans the rows of multicolored tulips: the Molen de Adriaan, a working windmill on the outskirts of the town. We strolled through Amsterdamse Poort (ca. 1274), which was the original city gate complete with a picturesque moat for extra protection. Teylers Hofje offered a pretty view of a plant-ridden courtyard and the distant towers of the Grote Sint-Bavokerk (St. Bavo’s Church, ca. 1400).

Grote Markt was next on our list: a former meat (vleeshal) and fish market (verweyhal), now used as a central town square. The stadhuis, or Town Hall, opens off of Grote Markt, and looming far overhead was the grandiose gothic St. Bavo. Although its interior looks strikingly similar to the Old and New Churches of Amsterdam, St. Bavo is a particular beauty with its 165-foot steeple and 5,000-pipe Müller Organ. This organ, which is considered one of the most magnificent in the world, has been played by the likes of Handel and a 10-year-old Mozart. And unsurprisingly, we visited toward the tail end of an international organ festival, which was a cool sight.

Last, we swung by Kaashuis Tromp (Tromp cheese house), one of the most famous cheese shops in the country that is based in Haarlem, and picked up blocks of cheese we couldn’t pronounce. We grabbed loaves of bread from a nearby bakery and sat in the middle of Grote Markt, eating our spoils until we never wanted to see cheese again.

We got back to Amsterdam just after lunch and headed immediately for the Rijksmuseum, a famous art museum in the Museumplein district.

And as our 21st museum, the last thing I wanted to see was a towering palace of a building, roughly the same size as the Musée d’Orsay. If my feet could talk, they would’ve been screaming.

We hobbled through the museum at the speed of tortoises, sitting on every bench we passed and feigning fascination with whatever work of art sat immediately in front of us. The part that stands out most in my mind was a library that would have put the Beast’s (i.e., from Beauty and the Beast) to shame. I never wanted to leave…and no, not because I’d found a bench there.

To our defense, we covered almost every inch of that place -- all four floors, and almost every hall within. Ryan grabbed an informative museum guide separated by century that we’ve been looking through ever since when we’ve had a moment, which slightly quenches our guilt at not enjoying the place as much as we might have a week before.

I do, however, want to make a skeptical note about artwork in general: Social psychological research has so often looked at social influence in naturalistic settings when it comes to, say, crossing streets. If ten people are standing on a street corner and one strides confidently into the road, chances are, the other nine will follow blindly without bothering to look in either direction.

And speaking of crossing streets, if I make it through these last several days in England alive, it will be a miracle. I was overjoyed to see that London has painted ten-foot-long “LOOK RIGHT” and “LOOK LEFT” warnings on every street crossing, possibly to cover their own butts when tourists are run over by raging double-decker buses.

I’ve seen the same form of social influence in every art museum we’ve visited: If several people are standing in front of a work and simply gazing in quiet reverence, many, many more will follow suit, as if they think they’re missing some sort of underground masterpiece. When we strode into a room that held Rembrandt’s massive The Night Watch, at least 50 people were staring, pointing, and completely oblivious to the fact that half of their peers were part of a guided tour that just so happened to stop in front of it. Unfortunately for me, mademoiselle skeptical social psychologist, I muttered “What’s so special about it?” in a voice just loud enough for a guard to hear, which earned me a particularly acute death glare.

That evening marked the most traditional Dutch meal we had in Amsterdam, which was also my favorite meal of all: Our AirBnB host directed us to the Restaurant ’t Zwaantje (the Swan), a dark pub that might have been pulled straight from a small village in Ireland. We enjoyed a beef stew that exploded with flavors, along with mash, Brussels sprouts, carrots, cabbage, and a few unknown vegetables, all sprinkled lightly with cinnamon to cut the spice of the stew.

Our last stop for the night was the famous Het Concert-gebouw, where we saw Bruut! -- a jazz group -- as part of their Robeco Summer Nights. The show was excellent, and the venue intimate: a round, black-box theatre with small tables, candles, and free wine.

Side note about seeing concerts in Amsterdam: Although English is spoken almost equally, Dutch is the chosen language among all locals. It reminds me of Japan, where Kanji characters are used for advertisements and commercial purposes -- in this case, English is used in professional settings, and Dutch elsewhere.

So when performers take a break to chat with the crowd, chances are, it will be in Dutch. And it took us less than 30 seconds to realize that when the crowd laughed jovially, we should laugh, too. By the end, we were cracking up with our neighboring tables without having a clue of what was being said.

If this sounds funny, it was ten times funnier in person. By the end, I was simply laughing at the fact that I was laughing at jokes I didn’t understand.

In Amsterdam, the Louvre of Paris is the Anne Frank House. This house was her father’s jam factory and her family’s ultimate hiding place -- secret staircase door and all -- in the years before their capture. Over the course of our previous four days in Amsterdam, we’d passed by many a time while on our way to Yan’s apartment…and with every passing, we’d look at each other and laugh at the sheer length of the lines stretching from the front stoop along the side of the building to the next canal, around the corner and to a distant bridge, around another corner and back town toward Prinsengracht.

Absolute insanity.

And at 8:30 the next morning, this was precisely the line we joined.

Even though we arrived half an hour before it opened, we stood in line for more than an hour and a half before we even made it into the building. And even though we’d heard that the museum was overrated, we were pleasantly surprised at its size and depth of information.

Out of the eight in hiding, Otto Frank was the only survivor.

He returned to that very house, hoping to find his daughters there, and instead received Anne’s many notebooks and writings. After a few years, he published them in Amsterdam; several years later, he opened his factory and home as a museum in remembrance of the violence of the Holocaust.

We really enjoyed the experience, and it was well worth the wait. Although the museum wasn’t as interactive as many we’d seen, it was carefully and tastefully done, considering the seriousness of its subject matter.

Thanks to Taylor’s recommendation, we had lunch at the Upstairs Pannenkoekenhuis (pancake house), the smallest restaurant in Europe. It boasts only four tables and one griddle, and is squeezed on a street that feels closer to an alley than an actual thoroughfare.

We split a salami-cheese and a bacon-apple pancake (the apples had a sprinkling of cinnamon, which should remind Dad of Finch’s)…and yes, the Dutch add syrup tho these savory masterpieces. We’re only talking the lightest of drizzles, not even enough to see after a few seconds, but syrup in Amsterdam is also quite different from your average Aunt Jemima: it’s thicker, has more molasses, and is less sickeningly sweet. So if you’re cringing at the thought of an Elf-like reference to syrup- and chocolate-covered spaghetti, never fear -- it was actually delicious.

Our last stop in Amsterdam was the Heineken Experience brewery tour, and I have no shame in admitting that it was one of my favorite museums out of the 21 we’d seen. Heineken, which personally isn’t my jam, was one of the first breweries to take a scientific approach to brewing beer: The director appointed in the early 1900s was a chemist, and formed laboratories, set up bottom fermentation methods, and used new strains of yeast to achieve the perfect beer.

The tour was incredibly interactive, beginning with beer brewing “lessons”, tours of the equipment needed, and opportunities to stir and taste various stages of the process. They’ve also embraced technological advances to give guests many opportunities to play. Each tour provided a chance to learn how to pour and taste beer, as well as two glasses of Heineken and a souvenir glass to take home.

And this brought us to the end of our time in Amsterdam, which I already miss. We spent the rainy afternoon packing and resting our feet, and were up at 4:00 the next morning to make our way to London.

And of course, many things went wrong. Clearly the gods of transportation despise us.

But for now, that story can wait until my snarkiness level reaches its minimum required threshold.


Beneath the cobbled surface

Because our I Amsterdam cards gave us exactly 48 hours -- beginning with the very first swipe -- our first two full days in Amsterdam can be succinctly described as “museum hopping”. We started our morning in the Museumplein (“Museum square”) with the Van Gogh Museum and, right next door, the Stedelijk Museum, which was my first ever contemporary/modern art experience. It’s also the largest museum in the Netherlands, which became readily apparent when -- about 75% of the way through -- we had to fight to keep our legs moving.

The Van Gogh Museum, however, was absolutely stellar. One particular portion of the third or fourth floor described the science behind art examination, taking apart exactly what archaeologists look for to determine years, origins, and even the history of a painting. Van Gogh’s original Bedroom in Arles, one of his more famous works, was almost destroyed when Van Gogh’s house flooded. How do we know this? There are a few backwards letters, less than a centimeter in size, that suggest he wrapped up a wet canvas with print newspaper to preserve its paint. I was fascinated; it was like exploring People of the Book in a real-life setting.

By that point, we’d walked at least three miles and were starving. (Story of our lives these past few weeks.)

I mentioned earlier that due to Reims’s proximity to the German border but its obvious location in France, much of its food stems from the marriage of both cultures, such as pork-filled baguette sandwiches (croques) and pork-laden flammekueche. and French wines with a Riesling (i.e., German grape) twist.

Amsterdam is exactly what you would expect of the Netherlands and its surrounding regions: Its cheapest grub is sausage, bratwurst (the actual, moldy bratwurst), every kind of homemade roll of cheese the size of my torso, and Heineken.


So after a 3€ chicken hot dog with (what is either popular in Amsterdam or we had our legs supremely pulled by this guy) Sriracha sauce, curry sauce, onions, and tempura flakes, we headed up into the Plantage district for the Joods Historisch (Jewish History) Museum. This museum was constructed throughout four interconnected synagogues stretching back into the 1600s, and tells the story of the Jewish populations who have originated in, moved through, or remained in the Netherlands.

We then headed north to the NEMO Science Center, pictured in my previous post, where it sits along the shores of the IJ harbor. By that point our feet were aching so badly that we had to explore its many areas in five-minute segments, taking frequent breaks to moan and commiserate. It was a kid-oriented museum, very heavy on the interactive front, and just before we left we were able to catch a Rube Goldberg Machine demonstration that took up most of the entrance area and stretched almost two stories high.

That evening, we strolled through the Jordaan neighborhood, twisting through alleys and across canals, and by the time morning rolled around, our feet had mostly (sort of) healed. Before the rest of the city had woken, we walked to the bloemenmarkt (literally, “blooming market”), the largest floating flower market in the world.

When I read superlatives -- and there have been many on this trip (e.g., among the tallest cathedrals in the world, the largest museum in the world, the best-known landmark in Europe) -- I always giggle when the superlative is clearly a stretch. “The basilica with the most steps to reach it” is an example -- clearly something that an employee sat around pondering just to stick some hint of a claim to fame on their Wikipedia page.

In this case, I couldn’t help but giggle. Read it again:

The largest floating flower market in the world.

Since when have flower markets floated.

Forget “largest” -- are there any more out there, and if so, who thought that was a good idea?

Regardless, it was a cool sight. We stopped for Starbucks at one end of the market and took our time making our way through, looking through more kinds of tulips than I knew existed (after all, Holland is known as The Land of Tulips…they’re everywhere).

Just around the corner was the Rembrandt House Museum, which was a fun take on art exhibitions when exploring a rickety but grandiose 17th-century home. We wandered through Nieuwmarkt, an old square that once housed Amsterdam’s city gate, De Waag. The square sits in Amsterdam’s Chinatown, just around the corner from the Red Light District.

A few more turns, and we were standing before what might have been any other house in Amsterdam: a narrow (perhaps 15-foot facade), five- or six-story building attached to its neighbors, with a crooked stoop to invite guests inside.

No one would guess that the topmost three stories of this home conceal a hidden Catholic church known as Our Lord in the Attic (Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder).

In 1663, a Catholic man bought a home in the newly Protestant Amsterdam, which had outlawed the Catholic faith. Although city officials weren’t dim enough to ignore the wave of 150 parishioners filing into an inconspicuous home every Sunday morning, they were willing to turn a blind eye as long as they didn’t revolt against the Protestant churches nearby.

Next, we explored two Protestant churches (formerly Catholic), the Oude Kerk (Old Church) and De Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), built in 1203 and 1385, respectively. Although the styles of each are very similar, I much prefer wood-and-stone interiors to the common French designs of marble, wrought gold and iron, and other grandiose accents. (Maybe that’s just me. I might have been walking through the Chapel of the Cross, if I hadn’t known better.) De Nieuwe Kerk, right off Dam Square, is particularly important even in agnostic Amsterdam due to its political importance: It’s the site of royal inaugurations, royal weddings, and the burials of national heroes.

We wandered through two upscale shopping plazas (Magna Plaza and De Bijenkorf) that opened off Dam Square, I caved in and bought two small Holland-designed tins of stroopwafels (new favorite guilt), and we made our way to a southern reach of Centruum. I was in search of Begijnhof (not to be confused with Bijenkorf), a square lined with the oldest homes still standing in Amsterdam circa the 1150s…but after meandering around the busy streets, I had all but given up. It wasn’t until a woman emerged from what had previously been a locked doorway in a crumbling stone wall that I saw a snippet of sunlight behind her, and dove to catch the door before it closed.

Beyond it was the hidden Begijnhof, a slice of serenity in an otherwise bustling part of town. The homes, not quite as tall nor as narrow as homes from later centuries, seemed to block out all sound so that we might as well have been in another village entirely. A status of Jesus stood in the center of the square, his arms opened in welcome, framed by two churches on either side of the square. One, the Chapel of the Beguinage, was the result of Beguine retaliation against the newly Protestant rule in the 1660s. It, like Our Lord of the Attic, became a hidden church -- just as difficult to find as the houses around it. The other church, Begijnhof Chapel (ca. 1397), is a former Roman Catholic church that is now considered an English Reformed Church. Not sure what that means, but the Queen has visited in the last decade or so, and that’s pretty darn awesome.

Right around the corner of the square stands Amsterdam Museum, which is surprisingly interactive considering the nature of its content. (It’s easier to play with electricity in the NEMO Science Center than to play with snippets of the city’s history.) I can say that I learned one particularly interesting fact about Amsterdam: It was the first European country to establish an Internet connection, and was the first country in the world to set up a functional (and widely used) online community, which was called De Digitale Stad (The Digital City).

That evening, thoroughly museumed-out after making a half-hearted attempt at the renowned Biblical Museum, we wandered and haggled our way through Waterloopleinmarkt (and I scored a cute blouse and harem pants), gave into our sore need for Asian food (in my case, after more than a month without it) at an inexpensive Thai restaurant close by, and finished the night with free Wi-Fi at Café P 96, where we sat out by the canal and people-watched until the sun had set.

I’m going to end with the simple statement that Amsterdam residents have incredible calves. They have to: Each and every staircase is as steep as a ladder, with steps as narrow as rungs. (I have to descend them sideways, and my feet are only a size 7.) Each step is the height of two steps in America, and each turn -- which are inevitable in tall homes as narrow as these -- is a death wish.

I write this from St. Albans (Hertfordshire, a 45-minute drive from London), which is riddled with enough hills to highlight just how much the flat desert has spoiled both of us. With every ascent, our calves still ache from so many encounters with these Amsterdam stairs.

Mokum, Safe Haven, Venice of the North

My embarrassing superpower is rattling off random and pointless inspirational quotes I’ve picked up from my Pinterest surfings while riding the lightrail to and from campus. Since I was a kid I’ve always loved inspirational quotes; the invention of Pinterest has only fueled this unhealthy use of brain cells.

One such quote is as follows: “What screws us up most in life is the picture in our heads of how it’s supposed to be.”

I could mimic this saying with the simple substitution, “What screws us up most while traveling is the picture in our heads of how it’s supposed to go.”

Because travel never goes as planned.

Not even in 2014, with the aid of tools like Google Maps, online ticket purchases, and extensive planning over the last month.

We woke up Tuesday morning knowing that we had to do the following:

  1. Walk from our AirBnB through a neighborhood still showing clear signs of the recent (and very close) Pro-Palestinian riots to Gare du Nord, one of Paris’s main train stations;
  2. buy overly expensive tickets to one of the airport terminals at Charles de Gaulle (which one? we had no clue);
  3. check into a flight with non-European-sized baggage (what is it with European efficiency?);
  4. make it through a security line without any knowledge of non-TSA flight regulations; and
  5. figure out the line-up and boarding process for European flights.

And as the unpredictable nature of travel would have it, something went wrong at every step of the way -- including:

  1. Broken entrances to our needed train area and trying to find a roundabout way solely from French directions;
  2. not having enough Euro coins to pay for two one-way train tickets to the airport (who outside of a nonexistent Parisian casino has 20€s worth of coins?);
  3. having to wait awkwardly around for a Frenchman to accept our cash and use his/her chip-graced credit card because of American Magnetic Strip Discrimination (let's call this AMSD)...but alas, this Frenchman never came;
  4. making a 50/50 decision on which far-spread stop to disembark when arriving at Charles de Gaulle because we sure as hell didn’t know what was going on or where to go;

  5. finding out that trying to carry an American-recognized “carry-on” onto a European flight is like trying to sneak an elephant into a dog shelter;
  6. realizing too late that the French don’t like it when you push, shove, and sit on your backpack to make it fit in the briefcase-sized carry-on restrictions, gesture with a grandiose sense of success, and declare that it does in fact fit;
  7. getting snapped at multiple times for blundering through security; and
  8. waiting around for an announcement of the boarding process and ending up last in line for a major AirFrance flight.

If you’ve seen Argo with Ben Affleck, you might remember the emotional scene where, after 90 minutes worth of planning and strategizing to get onto an America-bound plane, the characters finally succeed. There are hugs, tears, ear-to-ear smiles…all of the things I would have shown when we finally boarded our flight, had I not realized early on that I’m far too expressive for the Europeans as it is.


When we arrived in Amsterdam, even the airport felt more welcoming. The people smiled, they greeted, they welcomed, they offered assistance.

They even had a Starbucks.

A real Starbucks.

Forget American expressiveness; I thought Ryan was going to cry from ecstasy.

We hopped on a quick train to Amsterdam’s Centraal Station, buckled our bags around our waists and chests, and headed out into the humid sunshine outside.

Extensive research suggests that redheads are not only missing a gene that results in their fair complexions and ginger-hued hair: they are also missing (or perhaps have) a gene that dictates pain threshold. We’re more sensitive to heat, but require 25% more alcohol and/or substances compared with non-ginger equivalents. We also register pain in a stunted manner.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t complain when we’re uncomfortable.

And when you’re carrying a 30-pound large backpack and 10-pound smaller backpack, your feet are throbbing and making clicking sounds with every footfall, you’re thirsty and hungry and smelly and gross and don’t know where you are, and the 91% humidity reminds you that you’ve adapted to desert climates -- whether redheaded or not, you need a babysitter.

Poor Ryan.

I griped, grumbled, and groaned our way through several blocks of Amsterdam’s most touristy streets, until we finally turned into a narrow (and thankfully shaded) alley to avoid the crowds and direct sunlight.

And glory be, we found some luggage lockers just waiting to be put to use by a pair of grumpy, complaining Americans.

And just as Reims transformed into a completely different city when armed with a map and sunny skies, so too did Amsterdam transform as we made our way down the alleys, maps in hand.

Earlier I mentioned the Paris Museum Pass, which saved us quite a bit of money on admissions around the city, as well as time that would otherwise have been spent in line.

Well, Amsterdam’s got Paris beat.

The I Amsterdam card was our first purchase in The Netherlands. It not only afforded us unlimited admissions into any (with the exception of the Anne Frank House) museum in Amsterdam, but also free public transportation, a free canal cruise, and dozens of 25% off deals and free gifts from participating restaurants and organizations. (Read: We now have Amsterdam house-shaped metal tins filled with Dutch sweets and four Heineken glasses, and that’s not even the tip of the iceberg.)

So after sitting outside at The Five Bells pub while planning our five-day stay and enjoying the breeze that played off the nearby canals, we set off for the IJ -- a waterway that runs along the north of the city and provides access to many of its hundreds of canals.

The cruise was a perfect way to orient ourselves to the city as we wound under arched bridges; sailed past serene cobbled streets filled with bicycles and thin, spindly trees; and looked up at the five-story buildings sandwiched between one another, stemming from as early as the 1500s. We admired the architectural juxtaposition of medieval cathedrals against the NEMO Science Museum’s far-reaching copper exterior, and marveled at the sheer history of the city around us, which was established in 1306 but occupied much earlier still.

The rest of the day was spent wandering, which in all seriousness is my favorite way to travel. Each street is so closely bordered by a canal on one side and a series of towering homes on the other that it’s easy to get lost: there is no Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, or Sacré Cœur on the horizon to point you in the right direction.

And so when we emerged onto a large square bordered by the Royal Palace on one side and De Nieuwe Kerk (The New Church…because 1408 is, after all, quite new) on another, as well as a WWII national monument, two upscale shopping centers not unlike Galleries Lafayette, and -- just because it’s Amsterdam -- Madame Tussaud’s wax museum.

This was Dam Square, first mentioned in records in 1270, and as roll-your-eyes funny as the name might sound (indeed, the shops lining the square have played along, such as Dam Good Ice), its history is quite solemn. It has seen much destruction, fire, and murder in the past, the most recent of which occurred two days after the German surrender in 1945, when German soldiers began firing machine guns into the cheering crowds from a balcony above.

But although its history does include much solemnity from the German occupation during WWII, Amsterdam is rarely known for its history. So I’ll go ahead and answer two questions now that I’ve been getting from friends since I arrived:

Yes, certain substances are legal here, and yes, some streets reek of it. We learned very quickly which streets to avoid. All too often I’ve headed toward a coffeeshop before remembering that the last thing an Amsterdam coffeeshop would sell is coffee.

And second, yes, there is a Red Light District. It’s overrated, tourist-ridden, and filled with equal parts men and women, all of whom are quite nonplussed as they make their way through the streets. Would I want to bring a small child down those streets? Probably not, unless I was willing to answer a few questions that would probably deserve accurate answers.

Sure, these two factors draw unwanted tourists just as Vegas, N’awlins, and Colorado might. But the Amsterdam we’ve come to know over these past five days is so, so much more.

We had a first taste of this fact that evening, when we picked up two small pies with gravy and mash from a Bristol-based restaurant and carried our goods to the edge of an adjacent canal. We sat on the worn stones, legs dangling toward the water, and watched ducks circle hopefully beneath us as boats passed by. There were friendly waves and welcoming smiles, and with one turn of the head we could take in the view of the arched, bike-laden bridge to our left and the rows of slanted brick homes as far as we could see to our right. The sun was setting somewhere beyond the many rows of buildings, and we watched as the sliver of light trailed its way up the many floors of distant homes before vanishing into the evening sky.

Because Yan, our AirBnB host, wouldn’t arrive until midnight, we killed some time that evening by strolling down Prinsengracht, regarded as one of the most beautiful streets of Amsterdam. Not only does Prinsengracht house Anne Frank’s hiding place, but it’s also the dividing line between Amsterdam’s city centre (Centruum) and Jordaan, one of Amsterdam’s “most romantic” neighborhoods with its quaint streets, sunny corners, sidewalk cafés, and leafy trees. And luckily for us, our AirBnB was located right on Prinsengracht, overlooking a lovely stretch of canal three stories below.

Several blocks north, we found Café P 96 (Prinsengracht 96), which quickly became our favorite haunt: It boasted an almost Scottish pub feel, fun and laid-back people, unbelievably low prices, and the city’s only boatside terrace.

Our AirBnB is just astounding. A lovely, old building with a CD/record shop on the first floor and only one resident per floor above, it sits in a quaint, serene part of the city. Lazy guitar chords and airy runs on a flute drift out of the houseboat (one out of more than 2,500 in the city) that sits out front. And the apartment itself is large, with creaking hardwood floors, great interior decoration, large windows to let in the sunlight, and a great sense of character.

My next two posts will be about Amsterdam -- our shenanigans, our explorations, our love for this place, my adoration of traditional Dutch food (who would’ve known?), and our day trip to the medieval town of Haarlem. We've very much enjoyed our time in Mokum ("Safe Haven" and nickname of this city), our Venice of the North.

The bells of Notre Dame

Quick side note: I’ve uploaded three videos relevant to my last post. The first is of the Eiffel Tower lit up at night; the second is of an accordion player in the streets of Montmartre; and the third is of Nadia’s wonderful apartment…just in case a picture can’t speak quite as many words as I’d like.

While at dinner with a few professors from Hungary and Beijing during the IACCP conference, one asked my specific plans for Paris. I pulled up a PDF of our rough itinerary, handed it to her, and sat back, expecting yays or nays as she scrolled down the list. Instead, she sat back, tossed back her head, and let out a bark of laughter.

One of the plazas I specifically wanted to visit was the Place de la Concorde, next to which I had written, “place where they execute people -- yay!”

Face palm. Sometimes I assume my humor is easily understood by the broader population. And then I remember that it's not.

In any case, this was our first stop the next morning: We emerged from the metro station into a large roundabout dotted with gilded statues, grand fountains, and ornate streetlamps. It was the age-old site of the executions of Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI, Maximilien Robespierre, and many others.

A little anticlimactic when it now stands as a roundabout for little French cars the size of Great Danes.

Sufficient research through TripAdvisor, Rick Steves, and many other resources pointed us to something called a Paris Museum Pass, which gave us a full 48 hours to visit as many museums and similar landmarks as we possibly could for a flat rate. (Spoiler alert: it was worth every Euro -- not only did we visit seven museums in those 48 hours, but we skipped to the front of every single one- or two-hour-long line.

We started off with the Musée de l'Orangerie, a small museum when compared with d’Orsay and the Louvre, but which features Monet’s Water Lilies and many other famous works from Rousseau, Renoir, Modigliani, Utrillo (my surprising new top-5 favorite artists), and many others.

Side note: l’Orangerie was featured in Midnight in Paris. If I had access to a Redbox right now, I’d give that film another watch just for nostalgia’s sake, right here in front of our new favorite Amsterdam pub hangout (i.e., where I write this).

Our next stop was the Rodin museum, which featured hundreds of Rodin’s sculptures as well as a photography exhibit by Robert Mapplethorpe. If anyone knows anything about either artist, let’s just say that Ryan didn’t prepare me for what to expect here. I walked in in a caffeine-deprived haze, and within a few seconds I was wide awake. Even now, so close to Amsterdam’s Red Light District, very little fazes me anymore.

We enjoyed our first espressos of the day outside in the museum’s gardens, which were positively lovely. We sat under a line of arching trees, espressos and baguettes in hand, enjoying the perfect morning breeze.

From there, we headed to the Musée d’Orsay, one of the most renowned museums in France. The entrance looked like Grand Central Station with its curved glass ceilings and dozens of arched entrances along every wall, and hundreds -- hundreds -- of milling visitors. It was split by era and type of art, and we took our time exploring the collections and discussing what we saw in undertones.

A stroll through Tuileries Garden, which looks exactly like what you’d expect from an expansive garden in the middle of Paris, led us straight to the Louvre.

And before I discuss the Louvre, let me show a picture of the sight we faced:

We paused for pictures, took a few selfies, and then I turned Ryan and asked, in all seriousness, whether we could finish the Louvre in 30 minutes.

He looked down at me with the look he gives when he’s trying not to laugh and, in a constrained voice, asked if I realized how large the Louvre was.

What I remembered from Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code was a pyramid, and from what we could see only hundreds of feet away, the pyramid looked pretty damn small.

It also looked oddly empty -- no works of art visible through the glass at all.


And it was only then that I found out that the 652,300-square-foot palace extending on three sides of the pyramid and far beyond it was not, in fact, a palace.

I knew the Louvre was a big deal. I didn’t realize it was the big deal -- a big enough deal to attract 9.7 million visitors each year, making it the most visited (and the largest) museum in the world.

Needless to say, after two full hours we’d only seen about 30% of the museum, and that was moving at a fast pace. The Mona Lisa, which is only 30”x20” and sits alone on a massive two-story-high white wall, drew at least a hundred visitors into that one small room, so that it became a survival of the fittest to reach the front of the line.

And once our feet were throbbing too much to continue, we descended into the Carrousel du Louvre beneath the pyramid, where we saw…

…an Apple Store. An Apple Store in the Louvre. It was like finding out that Wendy’s has a Poptart ice cream sandwich: two perfect things, served in a single heavenly place.

And so we collapsed on the floor and enjoyed our first Wi-Fi connection in a very, very long time for two tech-dependent people such as ourselves, and there we remained until security shooed us away.

After enjoying a macaron (rose for Ryan, salted caramel for me) at Ladurée, we made our way out of the Louvre and back into sunlight.

I’ll note here that I’m not a huge fan of French food.

Correction: I’m not a huge fan of cheap French food. And because I’m a grad student, I can only afford cheap French food.

We’re not talking French sweets or pastries -- I can tolerate virtually any kind of sweet or pastry, from a five-star crème brûlée to the trashiest of Moon Pies.

When in Reims for a week and a half, I thought I liked French food. Turns out that Reims, due to its proximity to Germany, boasts more German-based food than it does French food.

And as much as I hate to admit it, I really like pork products.

So after two days in Paris, I was missing German food…and within an hour of leaving the Louvre, we found ourselves in a flammekueche (read: German flatbread) restaurant, where I held my fork like a hammer while trying to hack away at my meal until giving up, wrapping my flatbread into a burrito, and gnawing at it like a cavewoman while Ryan covered his face with his hands.

That night, we met up with Ayse -- a good friend from summer school -- and her husband, John. We found a Route 66-themed restaurant with cheap meals and drinks and enjoyed the Parisian night, tree-lined street, and hilarious restaurant décor. (Let’s just say that it resembled Arizona…sixty years ago.)

We began the next morning with a visit to the oldest public square in Paris, the Place des Vosges, circa 1605. We took a leisurely stroll around the historic buildings that looked down on the small square of grass and fountains before winding our way to the Conciergerie, which was one of those museums you don’t really think you need to see but afterward consider one of the coolest museums you ended up seeing. (There have been a few of those in Amsterdam, too. I might also just be a skeptic.) The Conciergerie boasted Marie Antoinette’s cell prior to her execution, the cells of many other prominent Parisian figures, and a historic part of the French royal palace. It stems from the 11th century, when it was used as the seat of France’s medieval kings.

Next door, surrounded by government buildings and the Palace of Justice, was Sainte-Chapelle -- yet another example of a severely underrated site.

Hands down, Sainte-Chapelle was more beautiful than the Notre Dame. Did it make me cry? No -- but it also wasn’t the site of one of my top two favorite Disney movies of all time. (I had this song stuck in my head for days, by the way.)

No, Sainte-Chapelle (video here) boasts some of the most beautiful stretches of stained glass I saw in France.

Next was the Notre Dame, which -- as I’ve just said without any trace of regret -- brought me to tears. We were lucky enough to arrive just before a service, and I happened to stand within feet of the procession (and the pope) as they made their way out of the sacristy and into the cathedral.

And our last evening in Paris was spent in a leisurely manner, strolling through the student-filled Latin Quartier and the expansive Luxembourg Gardens (video here). Had we known that Paris all but shuts down on Mondays, we would have had a much busier day -- but alas, Versailles and the Hunchback of Notre Dame-featured Catacombs will have to wait for Visit #2, hopefully in the not-terribly-far future.

However, that isn't to say our visit didn't end with a bang: I haggled a 45€ bottle of champagne down to 10€, which we shared while sitting on the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower for one last time. We'd just finished our only sit-down dinner in France -- which was perfectly French in nature and still very affordable -- before forking over 2€ for banana-Nutella crêpes and making our way over to one of France's most well-known landmarks. We joined hundreds of other viewers for another sunset, another light show, and another beautiful end to a full day.

And thus concluded our lovely three days in Paris. In retrospect, as much as we loved this city (and as much as I loved my two weeks in France), we are head over heels in love with Amsterdam.

We love -- love -- this city.

And that will be a tale for another day.

Note: more pictures below


Notre Dame

Place des Vosges, Paris's oldest public square

The medieval portion of the Conciergerie


One of the neatest bookstores I've ever seen, Shakespeare & Co.

Luxembourg Gardens (or perhaps 5% of it)

Twilight in Paris

Wi-Fi in Paris is as hard to come by as bathrooms in Reims (…and in Paris, for that matter). I write this in Amsterdam, which is covered in both Wi-Fi hotspots and (thank God) bathrooms, now marveling at any Internet connection speed greater than 1 Mbps. (To give an anchor, y’all, average connection speeds are around 25 Mbps. I was pulling my hair out.)

So here I am, Wi-Fi and all.

When I first stepped off the (early, early, early) train into Gare de l’est, my first feeling was one of relief: Whereas Charles de Gaulle -- Paris’s airport -- felt overwhelming when I’d first arrived a week and a half before, nothing felt new now. In the absence of more than basic French, I was used to scanning signs for illustrations to point me in the right direction; I’d picked up the right pace and mannerisms to keep my head down as I pushed my way through the crowds; I’d learned that Americans say “sorry” (désolée) and “excuse me” (pardon) far too unnecessarily.

And so it was that after five minutes of journeying through one of Paris’s largest train stations, I emerged onto a boulevard and felt another wave of relief. As though it had prepared me for what to expect in the coming days, Reims now seemed nothing more than a miniature Paris. The streets, architecture, signs, and people seemed almost identical, but on different scales -- and armed with at least three maps of Paris, I was ready to handle a super-sized Reims.

Meanwhile, Ryan was going through absolute torture to reach the same neighborhood of Paris. After taking a red-eye flight from Phoenix to London (without sleep) and a red-eye bus from London to Paris (with two hours of sleep), he was ready to curl up on the pavement and use his backpack as a pillow. Nevertheless, we met each other at the doorstep of our AirBnB in Montmartre, one of Paris’s more artistic neighborhoods perhaps a 10-minute metro ride from the Seine.

Nadia’s apartment was as Parisian as could be expected: After climbing eight sets of curling stairs (with luck, the elevator might have held one person), we walked into a single room with large windows that opened onto a large, sunny courtyard far below. The space was just as efficient as the rest of Europe -- Murphy bed, two small chairs and a table, a square-foot-sized kitchen area with a single stove eye and mini-fridge, and a tiny bathroom with a shower so small that I had to step out to turn around.

And it was lovely. So lovely, in fact, that we couldn’t resist leaving the windows wide open while we were there to tempt in a cool breeze and listen to the sounds of the neighborhood around us.

We stayed close to the apartment that first day and explored Montmartre in all its historic, cobblestoned glory. Unlike many parts of the city, these streets were narrow -- only fitting one car and a sidewalk at a time (and the French love their lane-sized sidewalks and lane-sized bike paths that take up half of any given road). Balconies were lined with flowers and ivy, iron patio tables clustered around corner bistros, and we could hear the distinct sound of an accordion far off in the distance. It might have been a set for “Midnight in Paris”.

After grabbing some much-needed caffeine from Coquelicot, we visited the Wall of Love -- a tile wall that features words of love from more than 300 languages around the world -- and hiked our way up the 270-stair climb to Sacré-Cœur, France’s most famous basilica that boasts one of the largest bells in the world (i.e., 19 tons). From the summit, we could look out over Paris where it stretched into the far distance…and as the days passed, many times we could look toward the horizon and see Sacré-Coeur where it sat overlooking the city below.

We wandered into Saint Pierre de Montmartre, which was first built as an abbey in 1133, and strolled through the artist-filled Place du Tetre where it lay nestled in a tree-covered plaza. A narrow alley led us past Erik Satie’s house, where a young man sat playing a cello with loving tenderness, before we headed up to Picasso’s studio around the corner and wound our way back down the hill to gaze up at Moulin de la Galette, a windmill and restaurant that served as the site of Renoir’s famous painting.

That afternoon, we visited one of Ryan’s only non-museum requests: Galleries Lafayette, a six-story department as ornate as many churches I’d seen in France. If Barney’s is known for its fancy designers (few of which I’d ever heard), Galleries Lafayette would be known for its fancy…everything. Instead of separating between stores within the mall, each store was given a booth -- a Ralph Lauren booth (swoon), a Gucci booth, a Prada booth, even a Starbucks booth that had the nerve to sell 16.9-oz bottles of water for more than $4. Best of all, you could climb to the sixth floor and look out over the mall around you as it lay sprawling beneath a massive skylight.

Because we’re so far north, Paris doesn’t grow dark until 9:15 or 9:30 p.m. (I write this from Amsterdam, of course, where it’s 10 p.m. right now and I’m working only from natural light outside, which will be the case until around 10:30.) So even after dinner, there was plenty of light to take the metro to the Arc de Triomphe, symbol of Napoleon’s 1806 victory over Austerlitz, before strolling down the Champs-Élysées -- regarded as one of the most famous streets in the world.

Side note: I’m not entirely sure why Champs-Élysées (SHON-sell-e-say) still boasts so much fame when the history that made it famous isn’t even recognizable today. On the one hand, it does connect the Arc with the Obelisk of Luxor (originally located in the entrance to Egypt’s Luxor temple) and on to the Place de la Concorde, site of many public executions including that of Marie Antoinette. So yes, much history -- very little of which is actually conveyed during that walk. On the other hand, it now feels similar to Rodeo Drive, or maybe an upscale commercial street with many Westernized shops and chains. 

Then again, never in my life have I complained about upscale commercial streets with Westernized shopping options.

I’m missing my point.

And then, when we’d reached the obelisk and began to wind our way past the royal palace and toward the Seine, we saw it. It loomed over the five-story buildings, vanishing gradually as we drew closer. We made one turn after the next, tripping over cobblestones as we kept our gazes fixed on the sky, and then -- after making one chance turn -- we saw it.

The Eiffel Tower stood, as regal as the pictures have made it seem, beyond a long stretch of perfectly green lawns and manicured shrubs. These lawns were dotted with picnickers, couples, and selfie-taking teens, all of whom seemed to be waiting for something to happen.

Within moments, it became clear that the Eiffel Tower is just as tall as I’d hoped it might be -- and it’s beautiful. More beautiful than Google portrayed, and more special than I thought I would find such a cliché world landmark. And just as we’d taken a round of selfies only dozens of feet from where it stood, we heard gasps, applause, and cheers.

The sky was, at that point, beginning to darken into a deep violet, and the Eiffel Tower now stood out as clearly as day: It was lit up from top to four-footed bottom and sparkling with flashing lights. We passed under the structure and climbed Trocadéro Gardens to gaze out at this spectacle as the Fountain of Warsaw played out its timed water show. Nothing could have been more perfect.

And then, thoroughly exhausted (in Ryan’s case, with only a few hours’ sleep in three days), we made our way back to the apartment, opened the windows to let in the night breeze, and started planning our next day.

A cross-cultural world

Note: This post will be the only post about the academic portion of my travels -- namely, four days of summer school and four days of the IACCP congress. There are explorations and photos mixed in, but no unfortunate misunderstandings or awkward bathroom experiences. I type this while on the train to Paris, so rest assured the explorations will continue! I ended my last post with a brief mention of the main reason why I'm gallivanting across Europe for a month: I was accepted to co-chair and give an oral symposium at the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology congress, which has been going on for more than 40 years, and was later accepted to attend IACCP's pre-conference "Ph.D. Summer School" for grad students and recent Ph.D. graduates.

After my crash-landing nap at the hostel, I made a vague attempt to look like I hadn't just crawled out of bed and headed downstairs to meet my fellow summer schoolers over local rosé and champagne. I was one of three students from the U.S. out of 43 students total, who represented 21 countries from six continents around the world.

To give a brief run-down of its set-up, over the previous two months we chose a "stream" related to cross-cultural psychology -- namely, Acculturation (the psychological process of encountering a new culture), Culture & Genomics, and Culture & Development. I chose the first, which was then subdivided into three groups -- one on applied implications (i.e., for applied research with a particularly concrete focus that results in real change in the world; my research is theoretical in nature), one on acculturation in context (individuals within groups, groups within societies), and one on the cognitive (mental) and affective (emotional) processes of acculturation.

I chose the third, and was happy to be placed into a group of five others from China, Poland, Turkey, and (x2) Canada. After familiarizing ourselves with the articles we'd been assigned to read and critique, we spent the following three and a half days assessing any holes in the literature, developing research questions and broader theoretical frameworks (i.e., why we would expect certain answers to our questions based on established theories), and developing a research plan to carry out studies to test that central question.

It was intense. Imagine squeezing a semester-long crash-course on research into only three and a half days. We worked 14-hour days in close-knit social situations, and because we came from such different research backgrounds, finding solutions that interested and fit every member felt nearly impossible at times. We gave presentations every day, first for 15 minutes and then for 30 and 40 minutes -- and as might be expected, this kept stress levels quite high. However, I had great group members, and over the course of this experience was so, so grateful to be able to meet so many incredible people.

It might have been the single most important decision of this trip, to apply for a summer school about which I knew very little -- because if I'd started to feel an odd affection for Reims when exploring it alone, it was nothing to exploring when with friends.

We made a point of sharing every meal together -- always within small groups out of our large number, but also switching up the people with whom we ate and spent time. Whether it was having drinks at a nearby pub or pizzas on Place Drouet d'Erlon (our frequent haunt), or even watching the World Cup final (with several German friends in attendance) first in a public plaza and later in a ritzy restaurant off the main square of the Notre-Dame de Reims, our "off" time away from summer school was just as sacred.

On our last full day, we went to a champagne tasting at Charles de Casanove in north Reims, just across from the Porte de Mars (i.e., Roman gate from previous post). We learned about the champagne-making process from vine to glass, which was far more fascinating than I'd expected, and tasted three varieties including one -- my favorite -- that had been aged seven years in their cellars.

On our last day, each of our nine groups (three within each of the three streams) presented their final research proposal in a professional presentation in front of the larger summer school, as well as a few professors who had arrived early for the conference. Each and every one was a success, and engendered interesting discussion for the hours afterward while we had a picnic in a nearby park.

And then began the conference.

Regardless of how glad I was to participate in summer school, it was nothing to the feeling of relief and gratitude once the conference began. IACCP kicked off with a welcome reception in the courtyard of Palais du Tau (I know, super fancy, right?), where almost 900 cultural psychologists stood talking, hugging, greeting old friends and meeting new colleagues. There was free unlimited champagne from Reims, and waiters wound their way through the crowd with fancy hors d'oeuvres filled with things I couldn't pronounce.

And not only did I arrive with two friends from summer school, but as overwhelming as the number "900" seemed, I already knew one out of every 20 people I saw thanks purely to summer school. After greeting and chatting with Virginia and Oliver, it was easy to wind my way through the crowds to hug friends, meet their own friends and advisors, and pass through the evening with company, rather than struggling to stay with a single person or group.

This difference was also quite marked at the congress dinner the following night, which was held in Halles du Boulingrin, a covered market in north Reims. The 900 chairs and many long tables fit perfectly in the space, and even as I walked in alone (and accepted the first glass of champagne that was handed to me at the door -- oh my goodness, this conference), I immediately saw friends standing by the tables piled with meats, cheeses, and breads, or sitting at tables within reach of bottles of local Bordeaux, or greeting professors and big-wigs in cross-cultural psychology.

I'd also like to throw in here that I handed a slice of apple pie to John Berry -- the John Berry, Michael Jackson of acculturation research.

And somewhere, on someone's camera from summer school, exists a photo with Geert Hofstede -- the Geert Hofstede, Elvis of nation-level data -- standing in the background and looking vaguely in the camera's direction while I stand there, mouth open in a look of silent excitement, wishing I had a better reason to introduce myself than mere adoration.

In any case.

The conference was set up as most psychology conferences are, with a series of 1.5-hour symposia held from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., one or two keynote speakers who are big deals in the field, maybe 60 posters sprinkled throughout the halls with their authors standing close by, one or two 15-minute coffee (and croissant) breaks, and lunch. Each symposium comprised four to six interrelated presentations (e.g., in content, theory, approach), and within any given symposium session there were as few as four and up to eight possible symposia to choose from.

And in case anyone had even the slightest doubt of my nerdiness, I have no shame in confessing that one of my favorite parts of conferences is sitting down with a highlighter and attacking the program of symposia to decide what to see and when.

Throughout the conference, summer school attendees did a great job of showing their support by attending each other's presentations. It was a great opportunity, linking the professional side of these individuals we met at summer school, the fun side we met in the evenings, and the academic researcher side that made itself known at the front of a classroom.

As such, it became a common question to ask the day and time of each friend's presentation and to show up at that time, camera and smile ready, to hear more about their research.

But when I was asked, and when I replied that mine was Thursday at 8 in the morning, I would get blank stares, slightly open mouths, and a slow, "Good luck! You'll be great!"

To borrow the vocabulary of a summer schooler from London, who in their right minds goes to symposia at 8 in the bloody morning.

I end this statement with a period because it's not a question; I already know the answer.

No one goes to symposia at 8 in the bloody morning.

And so I was delighted to show up for my talk early Thursday morning and see several summer school friends who had braved the late night (i.e., after dancing at the congress dinner until past midnight), the early morning, and the broken tram to reach Campus Croix Rouge. Regardless of the hour, I had a good-sized audience that mixed familiar and non-familiar faces, and had the opportunity to greet and chat with many as they walked in and took their seats.

Sharon, my co-chair, gave the audience a lovely introduction to my background and research, and then it was my turn to take the stage, introduce each presenter and his or her research, and finally to present my own.

The very first hint that I wanted to pursue a career in academia is my love of teaching. There are few things on earth that don't make me enthusiastic -- anything can be exciting if construed in the right way -- but there are many fewer things on earth that make me "come alive". As much as I love shopping, for example, it doesn't make me "come alive".

But when standing in front of a classroom and teaching something near and dear to my heart -- which in the past has ranged from entire sections of introductory psychology to a guest lecture on emission and reflection nebulae -- I come alive. In those precious moments, there are few places I would rather be.

As I started speaking, I realized that this wasn't necessarily a one-way road: I wasn't sharing research with a blank wall (although I'd done plenty of that while pacing in my hostel room), I was engaging in a discussion with individuals who were either interested in what I do or happened to wake up early that morning and couldn't think of anything better to do than to listen to presentations on sources and modalities of cross-cultural social support for an hour and a half while the rest of France kept sleeping.

Either way, I was teaching. No notes, no nerves, no hesitations -- simply having an intellectual discussion with the audience in front of me. And I loved every second of it.

The following two nights were spent in celebration of the successful completion of our presentations, whether they be oral or poster, and of yet another IACCP. Our group of summer schoolers sat in the plaza outside our hostel with local wine, champagne, and beer, talking and laughing until the early hours of the morning. We explored the town, explored the local (cheap) cuisine, compared conference experiences, and discussed travel plans for next year's IACCP, which will be in San Cristóbal.

One of my favorite experiences was the Notre-Dame light show that played at 11 and 11:30 p.m. each night and resembled Disney's World of Color: Elaborate images and colors were projected onto the face of the cathedral while set to music, showing the many stages of its construction over the centuries. By that point in the evening, the weather was perfect -- all memories of the day's 95º heat, 90% humidity, and total lack of A/C at the conference -- and we simply sat and enjoyed the incredible sights and sounds around us.


Okay. Academic spiel over, and two and a half weeks of explorations ahead. Even as I type this while traveling somewhere through Île-de-France, I can't help but truly miss Reims. My aching feet and new ergonomic shoes are proof of our daily six-mile treks throughout the city, but those treks were what truly made the city feel like a temporary home. I know most streets and alleys, recognize most sights and sounds, and have come to love everything that made Reims the little jewel that it was.

A room with a view

While my parents were staying at my apartment over the past spring break, I woke up one morning to see a picture my dad had uploaded to Facebook of the view from my balcony. It looked almost alien -- beautiful, yes, with its mix of mountain ranges and sea of palm trees, but certainly not what I'd woken up to every morning for the past two years. When I asked him about it, he shrugged and said he'd cropped the rest out -- that is, the ugliness of my neighborhood that separated my apartment from the paradise of northern mountains.

Sounds legit. I'll admit that I crop a fair amount in my own photos.

I could have gotten a better view from my apartment -- there were plenty of studio lofts that faced the pool far below, with its lovely greenery, hot tub, grills, and lounges. But to have a room with a view would cost me an extra $100 per month, which would easily translate to one triple-shot caramel latte every Saturday morning, brunch with a mimosa every Sunday afternoon, and at least four dresses at Ross.

Priorities, y'all.

Rooms with a view come at a price, which is simply something I've come to expect. And after living in Reims for almost a week, I can say that the entire town resembles something of a "village with a view".

Note: I say "village" to appease the government of France; Reims is still just as sprawling as the drive from Phoenix to Disneyland, but without the windmills. I type this while giving my feet a rest after a 30-minute walk to our conference center, which on the map seemed quite close.

It shouldn't come as a surprise when I say that Reims is a historic town; all of Europe is a network of historic towns. But in this case, I'm not talking medieval times -- I'm talking 80 BC. Reims was actually founded by the Romans 30 years before Julius Caesar's conquest of Gaul. Its previous inhabitants formed the tribe of Remi, hence its name.

Having spent time in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and surrounding areas, 80 BC shouldn't sound quite as impressive as it does; but the Holy Land, or at least what we see of it today, is quite new. After decades, centuries, millennia of raids, conquests, fires, and destruction, each city is built on the shadow of the last, so that a staircase stretching 50 feet underground is one of the only ways to see a snippet of the ancient Roman viae linking parts of the city with the central trading routes around it.

France has done a pretty good job of steering clear of warfare. I'll add a mental asterisk to that statement, because Reims was a central point of attack during both World Wars, but even so -- the ability to walk three minutes from the town's train station and stand before an 1,800-year-old, 40-foot-high Roman gate into the ancient city just blows my mind.

And what's more, it's no big deal.

I repeat: Reims is a room -- a mansion -- with a view.

So on that very first day, I walked only a few blocks north of Guillaume's apartment to visit the Basilique St. Remi, one of the most important Romanesque abbeys in France. It was built in 1050 to house relics of Saint Remi, who baptized Clovis (i.e., first king of the Franks) in 498.

After a slightly longer trek into the southernmost tip of the city's centre, I came to the Carnegie Library (Bibliothèque Carnegie), donated to the city after its substantial destruction in WWI. It is in this area that Reims feels like the stereotypical network of perfect French streets, narrow alleys of cobblestones and window baskets overflowing with flowers, small courtyards with chirping birds, and the smell of freshly baked bread around ever corner.

By this point, I was famished -- and I followed my nose to a patisserie in a small square surrounded by the Palais du Justice and Opéra house. The 125-year-old patisserie, simply called Paul, not only boasted a window full of baguette sandwiches, pastries, and salads, but also prices fit for any grad student.

France, in case anyone was wondering, makes Disneyland prices seem reasonable.

Armed with a salami-pickle baguette, Evian, and three chocolate-stuffed beignets, I found a table in the square outside and sat, like a little French woman, to enjoy my food and my surroundings. My table afforded a great view of the open windows directly above the patisserie, where the chefs -- both men and women -- rolled and baked bread while chatting happily and waving to customers in the street below.

The Palais du Tau, which sat directly across the street, was the former palace of the archbishops from medieval times. It has since been turned into a museum, and is where the conference will be hosting a welcome reception (and drinks...let's not forget the free drinks) this evening.

And only a few blocks away stood the magnificent, regal Notre-Dame de Reims, which functioned as my landmark (much as A-Mountain functions while in Tempe) as I made my way around the city centre. It loomed up from above the rooftops, casting many of the houses and shops below in shadow even at noon.

Before I discuss Notre-Dame, I wanted to make a side note about public toilettes in Reims and, as I hear, in Paris as well.

Toilets should not be hard to come by.

Walmart has toilets.

Target has toilets.

Grocery stores have toilets.

But the French treat toilets like the most obscure pair of gardening gloves that only one out of ten Home Depots actually holds.

When I first arrived at the Paris airport, I was parched. Arizona girls equate "parched" with "early death", and regardless of the 94% humidity, I was determined to find a water fountain.

But after butchering my way through a few sentences in French, I was told that the airport didn't have water fountains.

Not gardening gloves -- for all I know, and with the number of Guccis, Pradas, and Louis Vuittons in that airport, they might have had some designer gardening gloves sitting on a shelf for 4.500€. No, they didn't have water fountains.

At the look on my face, the woman behind the information desk held a finger to her lips, ducked beneath the desk, and reemerged with a bottle of cold water. Bless her soul.

But the story has remained the same in the days since: France just doesn't drink a lot of water. Even their coffees are 4 ounces, tops.

And now we know why: No one can afford to experience a full bladder when outside their own homes.

So let's talk a bit about my experience with public toilettes.

After practically dancing from Paul to the tourism office outside Notre-Dame, three women each pointed me in different directions to find a public restroom. I danced my way around the block, into a few museums, into (what I later found out was) a government building from which I was promptly shooed out, and finally -- in a state of desperation -- I happened to see a small blue sign on the side of a stone wall that read Toilettes / WC.

Thank God almighty.

I rushed down the stairs into a small basement space, and almost ran headlong into a desk at the entrance. A woman, who was flipping casually through what seemed to be the French version of People, looked up, popped her bubble gum in my direction, and watched me...because I'd frozen in my steps.

In uncertain situations, I get really socially awkward. I mean, like, painfully socially awkward.

And when I saw the small container of Euros sitting in front of this bubble-popping, magazine-reading Guardian of the Toilet, my first reaction was incredulity. Certainly -- certainly -- it didn't cost money to use the bathroom when there were none else available in the town.

But then, people don't sit at bathroom desks reading magazines with Euro-filled containers just lying around.

So I pointed at the container, mouth hanging slightly open in a question I didn't know how to articulate in French, and then looked back up at the Guardian. She was still staring. I pointed vaguely at her, mouth still open, then pointed back to the container. My gaze -- and my finger -- drifted to the bathroom stalls to the left, then back to the container.

And, still facing the Guardian, finger still extended, I side-stepped like a crab into the nearest bathroom stall and locked the door.

Even now, days later, my super-ego is shaking its head in shame. When I rushed out the door several minutes later, the Guardian was shaking her head, as well -- although I imagine for a different reason.

Immediately outside was the tourism office directly responsible for Notre Dame-specific information. It is, after all, a major Catholic destination and sees more than one million visitors each year. It was built on the site of Roman baths in the third and fourth centuries, and has since flourished into a massive 1,000-year-old cathedral. It is currently one of the top 10 largest, and longest, holy sites in the world.

But its tourism office was a disappointment. It sat, crumbling and ruined, missing half the iron letters in its title, in the center of what was otherwise a beautiful plaza. My first thought was one of tackiness at trying to achieve a symbol of history, when its towering neighbor didn't even have to try.

Oh, how little I knew.

The tourism office was one of tens of thousands of sites destroyed by German bombing in WWI. I mentioned in a previous post that Reims boasts close proximity to Germany, hence a wide variety of German foods; well, in times of war, there are downsides to this proximity. Other than to replace the roof, it has since remained untouched and yet fully functional.

The inside of the Notre Dame is simply incredible, and I've seen a fair share of cathedrals and basilicas. On the inside, they've set up a series of historical images and descriptions (thankfully translated in English and German) describing the cathedral's near destruction during World Wars I and II. From 1914 to 1917, for example, Reims was almost constantly under attack. In just 10 days in April of 1917, more than 37,000 shells fell on Reims -- which caused such terror that the mayor moved the town hall to the cellars of a nearby winery. (A priceless picture showed a table full of men, surrounded by bottles of champagne.)

Out of 13,806 houses in Reims, by the end of WWI only 17 homes were left undamaged; and decades later, the post-WWII French-German reconciliation occurred right in the heart of the cathedral.

Truthfully, an incredible place.

I made my way to the Plaza du Forum in north Reims, which -- unlike all other plazas I'd yet seen -- was sunk into the ground. A large stage for summer concerts was erected at the bottom of the plaza, farthest from the surrounding streets, and along the back stone wall were several arched wooden doors.

No one would have known that those doors hid an 1,800-year-old Gallo-Roman crypt, the cryptoportique. (It's unclear whether it was originally meant for grain or bodies because, you know, the two are pretty similar.) The inside was a little underwhelming -- local student artists had set up a series of galleries relating food to four-dimensional touch, and it might just be me, but I'm a little more interested in ancient crypts than I am in a dish of pasta made out of aluminum foil.

Even so, the element that struck me most was the smell that hit me in the face as I walked into the crypt. If my eyes had been closed, I might have sworn that I was back in some of the underground crypts in Nazareth or Jerusalem -- the smell of ancient history (read: dust, rock, and stale air, which just doesn't sound as romantic) was discernible immediately.

My last stops comprised la Porte de Mars, a gate built in the early 200s AD that led directly into the Gallo-Roman city, followed by an expansive and incredibly old and beautiful cemetery (circa the early 1700s), and Foujita Chapel, an Anglican chapel from the mid-1960s known for its wall-to-wall frescoes.

And then, thoroughly exhausted and aching from my walk, I took a tram to Comèdie in west Reims to check into summer school. For those who didn't know, I've just finished a four-day intensive summer school program through the International Association for Cross-Cultural Psychology, which brought together 43 students from 21 countries around the world. It was an intense few days, stretching between 12 and 14 hours each day and relying almost exclusively on interdisciplinary group work, but the experience was unbeatable.

I will explain a little more in the near future (nothing crazy, just a paragraph or so), but for now, I will say that the first thing I did upon arriving at the hostel was to set down my bags, climb into bed, and fall into a deep, jet-lagged sleep.

A tale of drainage grates

Every family has their fair share of embarrassing stories that, regardless of attempts to keep under wraps, have a tendency to spread to many ears in a short space of time. Most of my family's Jessica-specific stories involve red-headed temper tantrums and clear illustrations of common sense gone awry. Another favorite is a family trip to Washington, D.C. when I was in fifth grade. This marked the first time I'd ever experienced vending machine peanuts (which became a twice-daily staple during that trip) and, more importantly, my hatred for trekking through cities in cold, wet, miserable weather. There are many reasons why I now live in Arizona; this hatred is one of them.

In short, I was trying to catch up with my parents on stubby little 10-year-old legs, tripped over my own feet one too many times, and gravity took hold. My parents found me sitting on a drainage grate in the pouring rain with soaked peanuts scattered around me, crying with sufficient volume to let D.C. know precisely what I thought of it.

14 years later, my inner 10-year-old was threatening to pay another visit.

Google Images has a nasty tendency to lie. So do travel sites, travel blogs, and inspirational posters with the clichéd Eiffel Tower in the center. So let me tell all y'all the truth:

It actually rains in France.

I know, shocking. Google search "France" and scan through the images that pop up -- I can guarantee there isn't even the slightest hint that the Parisian skies have deviated from a glorious Carolina blue since the last ice age.

In retrospect, I now question each and every BBC series that depicts a bright and sunny London, because we should all know that's a lie. Even after devouring every episode of The Vicar of Dibley with the enthusiasm of a child on Halloween, it never really struck me that blue skies don't mean a hell of a lot when the actors are darting around puddles the size of baby whales.

So to avoid any crushed hopes and dreams, let's assume rain exists everywhere on earth. Except maybe Arizona.

So there I was, dressed in my cute little French outfit with wedge sandals, skinny jeans, a loose Ann Taylor blouse, and Camille's leopard-print scarf, standing in the middle of a gray and rainy Reims and looking for the closest drainage grate to cry.

But let me backtrack a bit.

Public transportation in France is as temperamental as curly hair in Florida. When trains are delayed by 30 minutes for no reason whatsoever and it's perfectly acceptable to park the bus down an alley, pull out your iPod Touch, and take a 15-minute-break (and be damned with the bus schedule posted outside), I think I'd rather chance Florida without hairspray.

As a side note, France is great. I really like France. But that doesn't mean every idea is well executed. Public transportation is one, toilettes are another. There's a reason why we've invented those timed faucets you see in public places that gush water for five to ten seconds and immediately stop. Why are they important? They save water, and no one needs to spend more than five to ten seconds washing their hands.

Similarly, there's a reason why we do not generalize these timed faucets to showers. Why? Because no matter how environmentally conscious you might be, a five-second shower is realistic only for naked mole rats and other hairless critters with no real need to scrub, rinse, and repeat.

If you haven't noticed, I have a lot of hair. Trying to wash a frizzy mop of curls in five-second increments is like trying to wash a car with an eyedropper.

Another bad idea? French toilets.

Let's talk about what it's like for a woman to perch on a toilet bowl like a pigeon on a power line. If this battle for balance doesn't surpass underwater hockey as a valuable sport in our society, I don't know what does.


After I saw that my first train to Champagne-Ardenne was running 30 minutes late, I started to panic. My connecting train, after all, was scheduled to leave for Reims only 10 minutes after my initial arrival time, so the likelihood of getting to Reims at a reasonable hour was beginning to look doubtful, if not impossible. I rushed to a nearby SNCF employee to explain my situation, and received only pursed lips and a disdainful "It will be fine, it will be fine" and, within a second, a turned back.

Duolingo didn't prepare me for this, either.

To shorten a much longer journey than was necessary, I got there in the end...and was to be found wandering through the Gare de Reims (i.e., train station) with ringing ears from the 200-mph trip.

Reims is laid out at an awkwardly tilted slant of a grid system, with central streets stretching from NE to SW and every street in between zig-zagging whichever way the cobblestones wish to go. The gare is located conveniently at the northernmost tip of town, with the remainder stretching south and across a canal toward the west. That being said, it should have seemed simple to get from the gare to my AirBnB at the southernmost tip, particularly with the aid of public transportation. (Yes, at that point my level of jadedness toward public transportation was still in its infancy.)

So I pulled out my handy little step-by-step itinerary to see how best to get to Guillaume's apartment, which seemed relatively simple: Take Tram 4 from the train station to a bus stop only a few blocks from his apartment, make one turn, and you're there.

Well, this girl arrived only seconds after Tram 4 pulled away from the station, with no hint of its next return.

It was cold.

It was wet.

The drainage grates in Reims didn't look quite as comfortable as those in D.C.

So I stood there, considering my options, and decided it couldn't possibly be too bad of a walk. Although I didn't have a map (it would seem that Reims is too small to warrant map-making attention), I could easily follow the tram tracks to the correct bus stop and go from there.

So let's list all the things wrong with this naïve assumption.

First, I'll admit that I have a gut instinct to roll my eyes when someone says that Phoenix is a "sprawling" city. Phoenicians wouldn't know a sprawling city if it hit them in the face. The Valley of the Sun has the advantage of laying within, well, a Valley. Its natural boundaries force neighborhoods to grow on top of one another, and the result is that there are at least two Starbucks and two Taco Bells on each block. (Hint: these are indicative of my priorities in life.)

Reims, my friends, is a sprawling little town. It is officially classified by the French government as a village, but if this counts as a village, Phoenix should count as a state with at least 25 representatives.

Second, although I tend to have quite a reasonable attention span when it matters, I also tend to be easily distracted in novel situations. If the typical joke is "Ooh, shiny!", mine would be something along the lines of "Ooh, cobblestones! Baguettes! Statues! Basilicas! Vespas! French words! Macarons! Cute outfits!"

In other words, it took me all of three minutes to find myself completely separated from those damned tram tracks, and without the aid of a map, each and every winding street looked like a replica of the last.

Suddenly those drainage grates were looking quite comfortable, after all.

After two hours and more than five miles of wandering through Reims and asking intermittently for directions in broken French, I was soaked to the bone (yeah, guess who forgot her umbrella) and cold enough to miss the Arizona summer. I had no way of contacting Guillaume, no way of finding one of Reims' few Wi-Fi areas, and no way of using a compass to head in a vague direction if I didn't have a clue where I was in the first place. The streets I had written in my itinerary were unfortunately a collection of names no resident recognized, and therefore could only give me vague directions toward unknown landmarks.

To make matters worse, I stuck out like a sore thumb. In Paris, tourism is something to be expected; in a small town like Reims, where very few people speak English and even fewer people trek the streets with backpacks in tow, I was the subject of much attention. It was an odd conjunction in which I was surrounded by individuals, but with none of whom I could actually interact. It was a humbling, and incredibly lonely, experience.

Oh, and let's not forget the moment when, after only half an hour of slipping over wet cobblestones, my five-year-old Target sandals broke, leaving me with only a pair of stilettos (for summer school and the conference) and wedge sandals (which I most certainly wasn't going to wear in this setting).

If it was difficult finding directions toward southern Reims, imagine the difficulty of shoe shopping when you don't have a clue what European shoe size you wear, can't figure out European sale systems (price as-is, or an additional percentage off? where do you even find the price on a box covered in French and German?), and can only hold one-word sentences with the men and women attempting to help you find a pair.

But armed with a pair of 12€ sandals, I finally reached the far end of Reims and one of the last stops along a central bus line. In desperation and aching from my pointless travels, I sat down in the bus stop to wait out the rain, leaned my head against the glass behind me, and stared up at the wall behind me.

Instead, I caught sight of the first map of Reims I'd seen, posted conveniently only inches above my head.

And after a minute of searching, I was delighted to see that Guillaume's apartment was only a few turns away.

And so it was that I arrived three hours after my intended arrival thoroughly soaked, exhausted, and grumpy. Only minutes after Guillaume showed me to my room, I was to be found passed out on the bed with his cat, Mimoun, curled up beside me.

I woke four hours later to the sound of English.

Oh, what a sweet, sweet sound.

I had gone through so much in the last 12 hours that I tromped into the living room, all manners forgotten, and stared at the couple sitting on the couch, taking in everything from the woman's Americanized appearance to the man's Florida State University t-shirt.

The first thing that came out of my mouth was an incredibly intelligent, "I like FSU. I go to ASU."

And that's how I met Dawn and Chad.

They had flown to France for their first time to follow the Tour de France, which had passed by Reims earlier that very day. After staying a night with Guillaume, however, their train tickets to Paris fell through (shocking) and they went back to the only place they knew -- Guillaume's.

The four of us spent the rest of the night chatting together, sharing champagne from one of Reims's fancy wineries (Dawn's contribution), and trekking to the city centre for dinner at Brasserie Les 3 Brasseurs. It was a perfect end to a harrowing day.

The next morning was a slow one, which was precisely what I needed, given my still evident jet lag. Guillaume and I had a breakfast of English muffins, apple preserves, and Nescafé (surprisingly good, or maybe I was desperate) while watching World Cup coverage on the French news. (Given how little I understand soccer even in English, this made no difference.)

And then, without a thought of the itinerary in my pocket, I set off. The weather was warmer, the skies lighter, and my spirit of adventure reawakened. Fed, watered, caffeinated, and armed with Dawn's town map, Reims became an entirely different city: No longer did I feel alone, but rather one out of hundreds of people wandering the cobbled streets with baguettes under their arms, newspapers in hand, responsive to my smiles and murmured greetings.

And thus my day began, exploring a new world under a canopy of smoking chimneys, towering trees, and cathedral spires that stretched toward the sky.


a note on French gastronomy

North Carolina is the country's leading exporter of pork products. I grew up with a hell of a lot of pork. I'll quote shrimp-loving Bubba and say that from country ham and bacon to baked ham and sausage patties to sausage links and hot dogs to salami and barbecue to Slim Jims and pork skins to proscuitto and (my all-time childhood favorite if cooked by my father) SPAM, I know pork.

The French, it would seem, also know pork.

Pork is everywhere. I don't know to what extent this spreads to Paris and other parts of the country, but Reims also boasts close proximity to Germany...hence an onslaught of sauerkraut, home-brewed ales, and flammkuchen (read: flatbread pizza) covered in every kind of pork you can imagine.

When in Reims

I'm one of those people whose head is so far in the clouds when it comes to international transportation that a movie like "Flight Plan" (you've heard of it -- Jodie Foster, kidnap on the plane, ending didn't make a wink of sense) has totally altered what I expect of my cross-Atlantic 777. We're talking hopes of spiral staircases, two-story bars, and seats that actually recline more than 5º to ensure at least an hour of sleep during a red-eye flight. Not the case whatsoever. My 777 from Dallas/Fort Worth to Paris promised to be a deathtrap from the moment I sat down in my seat and an armrest broke on impact. Or maybe when the T.V. screen on the back of the seat in front of me fizzled out of commission before we'd flown over Oklahoma. Or maybe when the overhead compartment shifted downward after a bout of turbulence, popped open, and scared the living daylights out of the (previously sleeping) woman beside me.

But it's fine. A few highly unattainable expectations dashed, but that's what power outlets and Wi-Fi access are for, right? Not quite -- not when neither is available, even though both had been promised online.

Oh it's fine, American Airlines -- I have no problem taking notes on my summer school readings on a pad of paper like it's 1985.

But at least there was free wine. And I took advantage of that free wine.

As future-oriented as I tend to be, there is often a disconnect between the present and the immediate future if the latter is a big, big deal. (I consider a month in Europe a big deal, but that might just be me.) In the weeks leading up to my departure, friends and family would make passing comments like, "Oh, you must be so excited about your trip!" or "Are you getting nervous about your trip yet?" And as much as social norms would have me agree with enthusiasm, it wasn't really the case. It hadn't "hit" me that I was leaving the country -- not while planning, not while packing, not while losing a chunk of change while converting USD to Euro at the only Wells Fargo in Tempe who would do so.

No, it didn't truly "hit" me until I was eating airplane tortellini, drinking airplane cabernet sauvignon, and remembering just how much I hate taking notes on pads of paper that I sat back and enjoyed my first exciting, terrifying "aha!" moment of "Dear God, I'm flying to Paris right now."

Maybe it was the wine.

Maybe it was the surprisingly good tortellini.

But of course, I wouldn't know good tortellini unless I'm using frozen Trader Joe's meals as a benchmark.

I enjoyed a full hour of sleep that night, broken only by the man immediately across the aisle, whose impressive snores somehow made it through my (read: Ryan's) brand new Walmart earplugs. Because I should have expected that anything bought at Walmart would work as well as the packaging would have me believe.

And after an airplane croissant, airplane yogurt, and airplane coffee, I found myself standing at customs while staring out at a foggy, cold morning whose humidity rivaled even Tampa's in the summer (i.e., 94%; if you're reading this and would classify yourself as an Arizona native, yes, humidity really does exceed 20%).

Evolutionarily speaking, it would make a hell of a lot more sense if "aha!" moments were accompanied by a mental list of all the potential dangers, warnings, and considerations worth keeping in mind about, say, a trip abroad. My Tortellini Aha! moment comprised thoughts of only the most important elements of a trip to France, Amsterdam, and the U.K. -- namely, crêpes, stroopwafels, and the Harry Potter studio only seven miles from our St. Albans hotel to which I am bound and determined to walk if all else falls through.

It kinda slipped my mind that I should be thinking of train tickets, language barriers, and cultural boundaries that I probably could have foreseen with a few more Google searches.

In short, getting a roundtrip ticket to Reims (pronounced rance with the guttural "r" that took me three months to achieve) was a nightmare. I used every combination of Duolingo phrases to work out that no, I don't speak French, yes, I'm sorry that I don't speak French, yes, I'll admit that I'm an American, and yes, I need a train ticket to a place that I have a really hard time pronouncing, thanks.

Note: Do not trust Duolingo phrases. In my 24 hours in France, I haven't used "I am calm", "I am a cute little boy", "The red dress and the cat", or "I am holding wine and milk, friend" even once. I know, shocking. Shout-out to the free French Phrases app that taught me useful phrases like "Where is the toilet?", "How much does this cost?", "Do you speak English?", and "Please help me, I'm lost and don't know what I'm doing".

If I sound like I'm whining, I'm not. I might have been mentally whining yesterday, but now that my endeavors have proven successful (i.e., I'm writing this from a cozy bed in Reims that overlooks the Canal de l'Aisne à la Marne, and miraculously secured a return ticket for July 19th), I'm not really whining...just maybe grumbling a bit.

But there I was, sitting in the French airport with a ticket to Champagne-Ardelle and a connecting train to Reims, and realizing for the first time that I was hungry. It was these little things -- needing a train ticket, wanting to eat -- that got to me very quickly, as was proven while I stood staring at a glass display of baguette sandwiches filled with ingredients I couldn't understand except for the word "mayonnaise", which -- I'll have you believe -- is actually "mayonnaise" in French.

(Kidding, kidding -- I wasn't that ill-informed.)

I ended up with a baguette that was actually quite tasty in all its mysteriously filled glory, and to this moment have no clue what I was actually eating while pedaling to charge my phone (the Belgians are clever little cookies) and repeatedly telling every person who tried to engage me in conversation that I didn't have a clue what they were saying, and that I was holding wine and milk, friend.

There were many other mix-ups throughout the day, and my supposedly one-hour trip from Charles du Gaulle airport to my AirBnB in Reims took closer to five, but I'll leave that for another post. For now, I'm content to curl back up in this cozy bed and wait until the rain passes.

The elusive pre-check

There are many elusive things in life: the double-rainbow, the work-life balance, the Phoenix summer day under 105º. But most elusive of all is the TSA Pre-Check.

I've seen Sky Harbor as busy as Kohl's on Black Friday, as deserted as a Texas ghost town, and anywhere in between...but this morning was an exception. Imagine the Mall of America on Black Friday, Boxing Day, and New Year's Day, and add those images together. That, in a sentence, described Sky Harbor this morning.

When I caught sight of the security line out of Terminal 4's A concourse, I just stopped in my tracks. (Probably not a good idea, because in those three seconds another 10 people got a spot in line.) Even with an hour and a half before my plane took off, there was no way I could make it to the front in time. As I got closer, still a little dazed, a security officer pulled me aside and asked to see my ticket. I fumbled in my bag, dropped it on the floor, had to inch my way into an awkward squat so as not to let my golden retriever-sized backpack slide over my head, and struggle back up again. The officer took one look at my ticket and waved me off to the side, through a separate entrance -- an entrance without a single soul in it.

The elusive, mythical TSA Pre-Check.

Laptop and liquids remained zipped up, shoes and cheetah-print scarf still on. The officer on the other side of the metal detector held her hand up for a high-five, waved me on through, and I was in.

The line behind me hadn't moved.

I might have woken up nervous and already a little homesick, but this mythical encounter was just enough to turn my day around. It's the little things in life...although I wouldn't have said no to a double-rainbow.

Ready for take-off!

t minus 20 hours until I'm Paris-bound! I'm packed (in a backpack larger than I am) with Euros and passport in hand, and equipped with a step-by-step itinerary that would put Rick Steves to shame.



In case anyone was doubting that step-by-step, 27-day itinerary... bam.