Rome

Italy took a few trips, but it’s finally growing on me. This trip took us to Rome, a history-rich city(or cities, depending on how you look at it), with more than enough to keep you busy for a few days, if not longer depending on which lines you want to wait in. That said, we got pretty lucky this trip.

I was a bit worried about travelling at 6+ months pregnant and hearing about all of the lines to get in to the Vatican and other Rome attractions, especially on the “Free” day we happened to be present for. We like to walk everywhere when on holiday, which was fine with me, but when you pair that with waiting in lines and being pregnant, I figured it would be a bit much. The free day ended up being a slew of people all over and a mess of lines waiting to get into the Colosseum, which ended up being a blessing in disguise. I ended up asking an employee what each line was for, and I was luckily still wearing my UK “Baby on Board” button. As soon as he noticed that, he sent us to the group entrance, which was absolutely empty. 3 hour wait for the other lines? Gone. Talk about luck of the Irish!

The Colosseum was one of the main sights I wanted to see, as I had previously build a styrofoam replica in grade school and wanted to see the real thing in person. It was very surreal standing inside of it and looking down into the basement chambers where the floor no longer existed. We were able to go up to the higher levels as well, and the view down was just amazing. You could almost hear the cheers from the crowds hundreds of years ago, still echoing throughout.

The Vatican was at the top of the list for Joe, and after this trip we can both officially say we’ve walked the entire perimeter of a city. Accidentally. And wow, is it a hilly walk. Workout for the day done after that, but there’s no rest for the wicked. That was just the beginning for us. By the time we got back to the entrance, we were several miles in for the day and too exhausted to consider waiting in the real line to get into the Sistine Chapel, so we got speedy-entry passes and walked right in. They’re really good at tricking you though. You think you’re going to walk right into the Sistine, but nope! You get the walk all. the. way. through. the. museum. Absolutely gorgeous, but one of the longest places I’ve walked through. Oh- and if you go through whilst pregnant, just don’t drink anything for a few hours prior or you’re going to regret it. Just saying… The whole baby sitting on your bladder thing doesn’t pair well with no toilets until the end of the museum.

Anyway! We finally managed to get to the Sistine, and spent a good bit of time siting and following the story drawn on the ceiling, including a bit of googling to verify just what everything meant. The level of detail was astounding and seeing it was very moving, even for someone who’s not religious like myself.

We also spent sometime walking around the Vatican City, but it was overrun with street tour dealers that just wouldn’t leave you alone. They were all over and I’m pretty sure “no” and “go away” don’t exist in their vocabularies. Needless to say, we got fed up pretty quickly and started walking back to towards the hotel taking the long route so we could see several of the other things on the list.

What about food, you ask? Of course, how could I possibly leave that out of a trip to Italy! Most of it was actually pretty basic, I’m sorry to report. We had to indulge in the pizza, pasta and gelato every day, but only one restaurant really stood out among the rest. The last night we were there, Joe found a diner-esque place that had Route 66 and American decor plastered on the walls and an energy to it that’s rivalled by none. A great pick for our last night there, with prices that meant we could share a bunch of dishes and still spend less than any other given dinner during that trip. I think we ate our weight that night. But, it’s Italy, right? And you can’t forget the huge gelato bowls that followed. It’s a good thing we walked 10+ miles that day!

3 days down, and time to head to Athens, Greece for the second leg of the adventure!

Paris


Paris, the City of Love. When it isn’t overcast and freezing cold out. That really puts a damper on the sightseeing when you’re an on-foot kind of travelling couple. That didn’t stop us from getting our 16+ miles in during the weekend though!

We’ve been wanting to take the Eurostar to Paris the entire time we’ve lived here, but just never got around to it. Now that we’re heading back to the US, we had the motivation to go, and quickly. So we booked ourselves in for a weekend getaway, leaving straight from work on Friday night so we’d have the whole day Saturday to see the sights.

The hotel was located in a very quiet area with not much around, but it was directly in the middle of all the sights we wanted to see, which made things much easier for walking. Stop one was the Eiffel Tower, one of the most iconic monuments of Europe. Sure, there are older, famous structures in Europe, but when we thought about it a bit in more detail, what are the first landmarks that come to mind when one thinks of Europe? Eiffel Tower! Maybe Big Ben or London Bridge, but you rarely hear anyone mention the Colosseum or Stonehenge or the Leaning Tower of Pisa first. They’re in the list, but almost never at the top.

The line for tickets and to get in wasn’t horrible, but given how cold it was, it felt like forever. By the time we got to the lifts, we were shivering and welcomed the lukewarm 5 minutes out of the wind. We got tickets to the top, which was well worth the extra few Euros. The view from the top is breathtaking, and Paris really is one of the most gorgeous cities, in it’s own way. It’s very uniform in style and has a classic look, which Joe absolutely loved. I, on the other hand, still hold Prague at the top of my list for the most gorgeous cities ever. The lack of uniformity and the old gothic styles are just breathtaking. But I digress…

We stopped for coffee to warm up before heading on to the Grand Palais, Pyramide du Louvre, and Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris, where apparently they were holding a free Italian service outside. The lines were several hours long to get in for both the Louve and Notre Dame, so we skipped going in. Instead, we took the long way home and stopped for dinner at a nice Italian restaurant along the way, people watching and talking about things we saw during the day.
Since we saw all of the main sights Saturday, we slept in Sunday and found a brunch buffet over by the Louve, where we spent the better part of the morning over a cuppa and delicious food. From there, we tried to walk off some of the stuffed feeling, before heading back to get the bags and head to the train. It’s such a short trip over to Paris, it’s no wonder people make the weekend trip all the time. A few days well spent with good company in the City of Love.

Oslo, Norway

– Why does Norwegian garbage trucks drive so fastly?
– The drivers are afraid of being robbed!

– How do you sink a Norwegian submarine?
– Dive down and knock at the door. Then they’ll open the door and ask what you want!
Don’t ask me where I got the brilliant idea to go to Oslo, Norway in late October when the weather was obviously going to be frigid and the sun limited. I know, smooth one. And as always, the trip was eventful starting from the get-go. After arriving a bit later than we were meant to, we grabbed the train into the city. It was already nearly midnight and we were exhausted, which doesn’t make the next part very surprising. We hopped off the train, only to realise that one of our backpacks was left on the train. Usually no problem, right? Until it’s the last train for the night with no running service for the remainder of the weekend and no way to retrieve it until Monday. Wait, doesn’t our train leave Sunday evening? CRAP. That said, the guys at the station(the ONLY ones…) were amazingly nice and helpful, which really set the tone for how the Norwegians were the entire trip. I’ve never met so many amazingly nice people before.

The hotel was nearby the station so we dropped off the remaining bags and headed to the only open shop nearby to grab a snack before passing out for the night. The next morning was a late one, but necessary after such a long and emotional prior night It turned out perfect though, as it seems everything there opens late and most people get a very late start. Must have something to do with the light and cold. It was as though nothing was open and ready to go until noon. We hit the breakfast buffet and then got ready to go out for the day.

There wasn’t anything specific we were in Oslo to see. Just a new country and culture that’s different from ours. We ended up spending the day walking around the palace, city centre, shops and markets just taking it all in. We managed to make our way over to the waterfront where the Opera house stands and walk up it, which gives an awesome view of the city from the top. It rivals the Sydney opera house in a lot of ways, especially since it’s completely open for the public to walk up the side of it and to the top viewing area on the roof. Brilliant architecture!

Dinner(how could we possibly forget dinner!) was at the only semi-reasonable place we could find in town, given the prices in Oslo are insane. An oriental-style make-your-own-dish buffet, where you could load up your plate with whatever meat and veg you wanted, hand it to the cook, and watch it being cooked on a griddle right in front of you. For the price, it was well worth it!

Day two was a lie-in, breakfast, and couple-hour stroll around the city again, this time exploring a slightly different area and more of the back streets to get an idea of what the neighbourhoods and daily life are like. Nothing seemed to open until at least 12 or 13:00, and even then, nearly nothing was actually open. Kind of surprising for a capital city, but then again the city only has approx 650k people. Small compared to the millions in our cities back home.

The train and flight out were mid-afternoon, although, as the usual with BA, we were delayed for about an hour. It’s almost expected with them anymore- almost like Spirit in the states. Get there by flight time, but expect to wait around an extra hour. The remainder of the trip was uneventful, and we even managed to get the backpack back during the week thanks to a colleague of Joe’s who just happened to be in Oslo for 24 hours and able to pick it up! Talk about amazing luck…

Tenerife

I love the challenge of finding a good deal on a holiday, as Joe can certainly attest to. It’s like a game. What are the best places to go, and how cheap can I get it for? This one is definitely a winner. 5 days in Tenerife for two people for a total of £500. Score!

We got here late Thursday night after work, arriving without any hiccups. A first in our book I think. And possibly one of the shortest immigration lines too, which tends to be a pain for us non-EU folk. 15 minutes to the resort and wow. The apartment is larger than our entire London flat and aside from the hilly climb up to the room, it’s perfect. Good thing we didn’t bring much with us or we’d have had a heck of a time. One of the upsides to travelling so much is that we’ve got packing down to a science and can do most getaways with just a backpack of things, or a shared carry-on.

The resort is rather large, with areas for kids activities, bands, a restaurant, pool, and so much more. Almost enough to make you not want to leave. And for the entire morning, we didn’t. Lounging by the pool for several hours was a much welcomed change from the hustle an bustle of London. We finally decided to venture out for a long walk along the beach in the afternoon though, heading down to Los Cristianos where all the restaurants, shops, and sand are. The walk down there gave us an idea of what the neighbourhoods are like in addition to the touristy areas.

For a remote island, the infrastructure here is very impressive. The roads all look new and in immaculate condition, the sidewalks clean, and the gardens are well-kept in most places. The architecture style is very Spanish, with a little Maltese and Moroccan thrown in. The restaurants have a feel of Thailand, with menu’s in over 5 languages and options for just about anyone from any country. And the people. That’s really the topper. Everyone is so friendly and welcoming. I think it has something to do with the sun, and if it doesn’t, I’m just going to pretend it does because I like the thought of it.

Another plus? The prices. Things are so much cheaper here. You know it’s sad when your basis for comparison is alcohol, but a litre of Jameson whiskey is at least a good £15 cheaper. Drink much?

So for day one in the sun, I’d call it a complete success and a good holiday pick. We’ll see what the next few days bring.

Edinburgh


Most people dislike travelling for work, but it’s quite the contrary for me. Especially when the reason is training on cool new technology and the trip backs up to a 3-day weekend. Perfect scenario to stay in Scotland and finally get over to Edinburgh. Since the training was a two-day course in Glasgow, a colleague and I flew up Wednesday night and were put up at a boutique hotel just next door to the office. Given the cold spell, this was ideal for avoiding the chill when walking to work.

Friday evening after training ended I hopped a bus to Edinburgh, where Joe was waiting for me after taking the train up. I had received a call several hours earlier that the room would not be ready for us and they were going to be moving us to another, nicer hotel for one night of the stay. Not the idea situation, but we did end up being upgraded for the following two nights along with free breakfast so I can’t complain. Most things were closed by the time I got there, so we made our way to dinner at Burgers and Beers Grillhouse, a rather hipster restaurant that had good food, a good atmosphere, and was nearby.

We managed to get a reasonably early start the next day, moving hotels and heading up to the castle just after they opened so we could beat the crowds. The castle is huge, enough to keep anyone busy for a couple hours easily. We wanted to stay until the 1pm gunfire, so we made our rounds to all of the buildings and displays, with time left to grab a coffee.

Managing to beat the crowds leaving after the gunfire, it was onwards and upwards. Literally. We climbed up to Arthurs Seat, which is no easy feat. We thought it would be a nice afternoon walk based on what concierge at the hotel suggested, but we were way off. That’s a straight upwards climb, and pure rock at the top. But the views were well worth it once we made it up. The next stop was the Holyrood palace and then back to the hotel for a much-needed rest. Dinner was at another hipster place nearby called The Whistle Stop Barber Shop which is a bar and restaurant upstairs, and literally has barber chairs downstairs.

After a good nights sleep, and rejuvenated legs, it was time for The Whisky Experience tour, and some perusing the other side of the city, New Town. That took us to Calton Hill & observatory, and Prices Street where all the shopping is. Basically the equivalent of Oxford Street in London and Michigan Avenue in Chicago. That evening we finally got around to doing a ghost tour of the city, as well as the underground vaults. Creepy to see but no ghosts on our tour there, sadly. The history of the city though…

It’s too bad Edinburgh is so far north and rarely much warmer than 70f/21c. It would be such an amazing summertime city. Overall, a huge success and trip we had been meaning to take for too long.

Irish Roots

Ireland is one of our favourite countries ever. The people are so warm and welcoming, it’s quiet, spacious, and most importantly, it just feels like home. We’ve been to Ireland several times but never to the towns our family ancestors came from. We had done that in Poland, and now we wanted to do the same in Ireland.

Three days, 1 car, 700km, resting our heads at the Doonbeg Trump International Hotel(more on this later)- we made the most of this trip. With research in-hand, we managed to get to both Tuam(Murphy/Fahy) and Claremorris(O’Malley), to see what we could find. Not much luck in terms of family, but we were able to see the towns at least. Not all was lost though. A stop into one of the local Church of Ireland Parishes in Tuam ended up in a conversation with the local Reverend Alistair Grimason who directed us to a few websites where we might be able to find additional information on our families.

Family history hunting wasn’t the only order of business on this trip though. The West coast of Ireland holds an incredible amount of history and sights to see, and we did our best to get to each and every one possible. Rather than list them all out- check out the map below for all the spots we hit.

As for the hotel- all politics aside regarding Trump, this place was amazing. Recently acquired by Trump to keep it from closing, it’s been completely renovated and several new buildings created. Our room was larger than our entire flat in London, and the staff were nicer than any 5-star hotel I’ve stayed at before. Because of the number of jobs and tourists the hotel has brought back to this area, the Irish here absolutely love Trump, or Mr. Trump as they refer to him. It’s interesting to hear their point of view on it as it’s certainly not what we’re used to hearing in the US or UK.

Anywho! Another successful long weekend holiday bites the dust and it’s back to reality, but the break was more than worth it for both of us.

Easter in Chicago

Chicago! Finally! So much for the warm, comfortable weather we had in VA. It’s cold, wet, and dreary here, much like London. Maybe we never even left! Nah, couldn’t be. Cars are driving on the right side, take that however you like.

As most of you already know we’re planning a summer wedding for this year and that meant a trip back to help get things in order. A week off of pure planning, and a week working in the Chicago office. A good mix allowing for personal things to get done as well as some face-to-face time in the old office.

The week off was busier than I ever could have imagined. From the minute we arrived, we were on the go. We even made a few stops on the way home from the airport. With the wedding shower coming up over the weekend, there was food to buy, tables to set, a house to clean, and last minute issues to fret over. Never a dull moment when you’re a Murphy. We managed to get everything ready the day before, and spend some quality, albeit late, time with the family that night.

The shower was a huge success, and it was so wonderful being able to see everyone again. There wasn’t nearly enough time to get around and talk to everyone for long, but when you only get a short trip home, any time with them is better than no time at all. You can see a bunch of the shower pictures below in case you missed it. One day of recovery wasn’t nearly enough, but that’s all there was before heading back to work on Monday.

I love Chicago and working downtown, but after being spoiled with a 12 minute commute in London, I can’t handle the hour and a half it takes to get in anymore. It’s the biggest waste of time and productivity. Thankfully it was a holiday weekend for Easter in the UK, which meant a 4 day workweek and one less commute into the city.

Our final few days in Chicago were crammed but we managed to finally get to the Volo Auto Museum, which has been on the list of things to do for several years. That’s a dangerous place for those of us who love cars. So many options and so little money to work with!

Although it’s been a couple weeks, this trip home has felt so short. I can’t wait to get back to our own flat and daily routine, but there are always things I miss and most importantly, people! Not having to live out of a suitcase will certainly be nice, but you can bet we’ll both be counting the days until we’re back again. Only 82 days, 3 hours, 45 minutes and 23 seconds left. Not that we’re keeping track or anything…

WAS, VA, MDW

You know it’s getting bad when you start referring to locations by the airport code.

ThoseDamnAmericans took on America the past couple of weeks and soaked up as much of the free land and all it has to offer. It’s been over a year since we’ve been back to Chicago and this trip was way overdue. For various reasons, Joe headed back a week early to fit in a few extra stops in Las Vegas and Houston before meeting me in Washington DC. If we didn’t have a reason to hate Spirit airlines already, this trip surely gave us one. My flight in was fine; British Airways to Dublin and United from there to Washington. Joe’s flight from Houston to Washington with Spirit was delayed nearby 4 hours because they couldn’t find the pilot, and when they did, he was past his maximum flying hours for the month. Yep, great planning for that one Spirit.

After 5 hours of waiting at BWI airport, Joe arrived with the car and we started the 4.5 hour journey south to Virginia to see my grandpa and uncles, at 9pm. Let the crabbiness begin.

We got in sometime around 1am with everyone still at the house and waiting for us to get there. Shit happens I guess. It was a wonderful way to arrive though, not to mention that it was nearly 75F degrees out(that’s 24C for those who don’t understand why the US needs to be different and use Fahrenheit ). We only had a couple of days in Virginia before heading back up to Washington to fly over to Chicago, but we made sure those couple of days was filled with fun and relaxing. We even managed to get a hike up to Macafees Knobb with Mark on a chilly but comfortable morning.

We left around midnight and drove all night to get to the airport for a red-eye flight into Chicago, but this time we flew with Southwest. Even though Southwest had grounded all the Chicago departures and arrivals up until exactly when our flight was meant to arrive, we left on time and arrived early. Southwest far surpassed our expectations on this one, especially given the price. Goodbye Spirit, hellooooooooo Southwest!

A trip isn’t a trip with ThoseDamnAmericans unless something goes wrong, get’s delayed, or causes issues.

Mumbai

India is quite the place to visit, and Mumbai of all places. The videos and photos do not do any justice to what it’s actually like here. The best one-word summary of the trip would have to be “humbling”. Stepping off the plane, I was greeted by a wave of warmth and sun, along with a haze surrounding everything. It was 11am Mumbai time, 5:30am London time (Yes, Mumbai is 5 and a half hours off…), and I hadn’t slept a wink on the plane. Not getting off to a good start.

After finally getting through border control and finding my hotel driver, I was on my way. The driver was kind enough to take me to a Pashmina shop as well as a general shop to pick up a couple things along the way. The hotel, a Marriott, is less a hotel than it is a fully enclosed campus on the lake, with hotel rooms, executive apartments, 4 restaurants and 2 bars, shopping, a spa & gym, pool, and walking trails. You could easily go without leaving the property for your entire stay and be just fine. But where’s the fun in that??

The hotel gave free transfers to and from the office, and I decided to make use of that upon arrival, even though it was a Sunday. I headed to the nearby office and walked around for a couple hours, shopping and exploring before heading back to get some much needed sleep. Known as one of the nicer areas of Mumbai, the streets were tree lined and pretty, but the contrast to Western countries was obvious.

The weekend is never a good indication of the true feel of a city, as you miss the daily routine most people face, and Monday-Wednesday proved to be a reality check in that department. Because India tend to align themselves with US and EU working hours, their day begins much later than most of us are used to, around 10:30/11am. Of course, they also work significantly later, and shop hours reflect that with few opening before that time of day. My car was arranged to pick me up at 9:30am, and upon arriving at the office around 10:30, it was still nearly empty.

Monday evening was also my first introduction to Mumbai traffic, and when I say traffic I actually mean free-for-all honking on semi-paved paths that go in the general direction that you need to head. But what actually surprised me more was that it WORKS. It’s organised chaos that keeps the city moving because everyone understands how it operates and go along with it. They have more cars and traffic than just about any city, and they have found a way to cope by using any and all available space on roads. That just so happens to mean that they don’t use road lanes or follow traffic lights, but somehow it seemed a lot better than sitting on I-90 or the M5 trying to get home. They could definitely benefit from some rail lines for more mass-transit, but that also only caters to a specific class of people and would exclude probably 90% of the population. Idea = squashed. So until that changes, the organised chaos of the road ensues.

The trips to and from the office may have been long but they were incredibly eye opening. We drove through every different type of area possible, allowing me to see the stark contrast between the rich, poor, and proper slums. Although pictures and videos can introduce the situation that many of these people live in, you cannot fully understand until you experience it first-hand. Our poorest people in the US and UK are rich in comparison. Many of these people eat, sleep, work, and live all in the space of an average US sedan car, and I’m not talking Toyota Avalon size. I’m talking a cross between the Honda Civic size, and the windowless, doorless jeep wrangler. A tarp over some sticks is living the high life.

But, I digress.

On Thursday, I was based back in the office I had gone to on Sunday, which was much easier to get to. The day was packed with meetings and meeting new people, as well as a long lunch break to have the most amazing new friend help me power shop for everything I needed to bring home as gifts. She managed to help me get everything purchased in 2 hours, that would have taken me 2 days had I gone by myself.

In terms of work, this trip was probably the most productive and worthwhile investment on both the company’s part, as well as in terms of my time. As for personal time, I think another trip(s) to India is a must, with extra time for sightseeing and enjoying all that the country has to offer with the new friends made there.

Excursions in Thailand

This holiday was intended to be an adventure away from the norm and so far, it hasn’t let us down. The first half was meant to be the most relaxing and laid back, with little activities or plans. The second half, while still relaxing, was meant to be a bit more on the adventurous side.

The resorts on Lanta all have pamphlets on display advertising the various trips available to guests, which range from diving to ATV’ing to hiking in the jungle. We had grabbed a handful of those which looked interesting and took them to dinner to look over and pick out which ones we wanted to try and do. We landed on two of them.

First thing to note- neither of us have ever ridden an elephant. I know you’re probably wondering why Imention this. Well, the first trip we decided to go on was a trek in the jungle to see some bat caves, waterfall, and wildlife, then head over to go on an hour-long elephant ride. It was certainly an experience to say the least. We wore sandals, which was a huge mistake with the jungle trek. Not remembering that this was Thailand and not the UK/US, the trails were…less than lacking. There basically were none and we were at the mercy of the guide to get us to and from each sight. The climbing and manoeuvring made me wish I had stayed in gymnastics just a little bit longer in life.

We went with a german couple that appeared to be about 40, and in pretty good shape, although not necessarily on the venturesome side when it comes to nature and critters. Now, I’m no fan of spiders or anything with more legs than a two year old can count, but when in a cave in Thailand…c’mon! Our first stop was the bat cave, which had a few bats to be seen up close and personal, as well as a few spiders that might have been large enough to take a finger off, but far enough away that we didn’t mind stepping further into the cave. The next stop was a gorgeous waterfall in the middle of nothing and offered a cool resting point for a few minutes. With the kind of climbing required during this hike, the break was much welcomed too.

The guide pointed out a few things along the way too, one being a lizard and another being magic mushrooms. There’s a mix for you right there. The guy was actually really nice and tried his best with english and German, chatting about sports and Football(Soccer) for a while. And then he tried to sell some of the magic mushrooms… Thank god it was time for the elephants!

We actually felt bad for the animals after seeing the seats on top of them, but they appeared to be well looked after and cared for, for the most part. They were well fed and plenty of water was available to them to sit under and cool off. We got on and followed a path through the woods for about an hour, seeing a few monkeys along the way and stopping for photos a couple of times as well. As we neared level ground again, they let us ride on the elephant itself rather than the seat too, in a fashion similar to riding a horse, but not quite. Fact- Elephants have hard, prickly hair.

Overall, the experience was a lot of fun and not something we commonly get the chance to go, especially in the UK. The entire trip, including resort transportation, for two people cost the equivalent of about £35.
Our next experience was an all-day trip. We decided against diving, as I wasn’t completely sold on it and Joe’s been before. So we chose to try something a bit different instead. We kept hearing about a couple of islands and places that were a must-see, so we booked a 4-island boat tour that took us all around to snorkel, then to see a hidden cove called the Emerald Cove which requires swimming through an 80-metre long pitch-black tunnel to get to. The cove was beautiful inside, and really made us wonder- who was the first person to discover it? Who would think- “Hey, I see a tunnel that’s completely dark and filled with water. Let’s see where it goes.” Not really something that comes to my mind everyday.

After the cove, we headed to lunch on another island for an hour before heading back to Lanta to be transferred back to our resorts.

Along the way we met some awesome people too. An American from Oregon, and a couple from Glasgow, Scotland, all who made the whole experience that much more fun. After hearing about their adventures leading up to Thailand, it made me realise how much I still want to do. So many things, such little time!

Koh Lanta

Leg 2 of our Thai adventure and so far so good! We made our way from Phi Phi over to Koh Lanta today via ferry, arriving at the Lanta pier late afternoon. We went straight to the resort rather than check out the area, since they arranged for a transfer car to take us there as soon as we got in.

The resort is about 20 minutes drive from the pier, and the scenery along the way is rather humbling. The poverty, by our standards, was seen everywhere, but it doesn’t seem to be considered “poverty” by their standards. Given the climate of Lanta, and being located on an island with few resources, life seems to be a lot simpler. While it’s still a tourist destination, it isn’t a party spot and the type of people who visit here are much different from the young university-age kids we saw in Phi Phi. It’s obvious there aren’t as many bars, clubs, or party areas, but the island still has a lively feel.

We pulled into the resort and the beach was right in front of us, just asking for us to jump in. We checked in and got to our room, which is much larger than the last place, and has solid floors! As much as I loved the bamboo hut, 5 days of an uneven floor was enough. The bathroom was very different, with the toilet on one side, the shower in the middle, and the sink on the other, with the only way to the toilet being by walking across the shower. This resort has TV, but no wifi in the rooms, a complete difference from the last place but when in Thailand…right?

The room is right on the beach again, with a porch in front and sling-back chairs. The hotel has it’s own restaurant and bar, with a discount given to resort guests. Next to the bar is a fresh-water pool, a nice change from the salty sea water swimming.IMG_7927

The first order of business, just like every holiday, is to scope out the area and find somewhere for drinks and dinner. After a full day of travelling, it was about that time anyway. We left the resort and started walking down the road to see what was nearby and found a large shopping area with various other resorts and restaurants.

We ended up stopping at a bar that had happy hour drinks for 100Baht and a huge menu to choose from, with some free entertainment in the spelling we came across. After some satay, tacos(yes, they have “Maxican” food there!) and a salad, we were exhausted and headed back to the resort to relax on the porch a bit. 6 days here and a lot to see and do coming up!

Krabi

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The cost of taxi’s here is incredible. A trip 45 minutes out of Bangkok to the smaller airport, Don Heung, cost us all of £5, give or take a few pence. We took Air Asia, which is the regional equivalent of Europe’s Ryan Air and EasyJet; Cheap flights that are as basic as it gets, but get you where you need to go. Exactly what we needed to get us from Bangkok to Krabi so we could catch the ferry to Koh Phi Phi.

We had an hour to explore the small town of Krabi before the ferry left, which wasn’t too exciting. The ferry was about an hour and a half to Phi Phi pier, which was a madhouse when we arrived. Our resort was about a 15 minute ride from the pier, and although they provided a free trip there, we couldn’t locate them when we first got off the boat, so we walked the island a bit before coming back to the now-quieter pier to figure out where we needed to be.

It was easy to see that Phi Phi was a major tourist destination and a hot party spot, so it was welcome nice to know we were staying a bit away from the main area. The point of this holiday was to relax, not party. Turns out, the only way to get to our resort was by boat taxi, which took us halfway around the island to a small row of beachfront huts. It was absolutely gorgeous looking. The taxi dropped us off in the water. Literally. It was knee deep where we disembarked, and one of the resort staff came to gather the bags for us so we didn’t drop them in the water.

Our hut was beach facing, not more than a couple of feet from the sandy beach and water. The scenery stunning, and the setting was quiet and serene. Just what we needed after a long year. All of the buildings were made from bamboo, including the floors which weren’t the easiest to walk on. The bathrooms in Thailand are a whole other story too, and the one here was actually probably one of the nicest ones we saw. Unstable and small, the shower was made up of a plastic bin with a drain and a shower sprayer, but after a long swim in the salty water, it felt amazing.

The resort served a free breakfast and the restaurant was open all day until 22:00, which was handy seeing as the only other option was the mini mart that had chips and suntan lotion. Everything else was a boat ride back to the main pier, which we weren’t too inclined to do after dark most evenings.

The staff at Rantee were so nice and accommodating too. Even with the lack of english, we were able to communicate without many issues. They had free snorkelling and kayaking which we made use of, and spent the rest of the time in the ocean or relaxing with our books on the beach. One of the evenings we even had a visitor to our hut, a cute little kitten we named Felix. She decided to stick around for a few days and came by each night to lay on our laps and keep us company whilst we read or talked the evening away.

We spend the majority of the time at the resort, but went into the main pier one of the days, making use of the free taxi from the resort that runs twice daily. There are hundreds of stalls lining the area, all selling the same or similar sorts of clothing, nick-knacks, diving equipment, etc. For an island that has to ship everything in, it had quite a bit of stuff. It reiterated why we liked our resorts remoteness, and after a few hours there we were more than happy to head back to the peacefulness of our private beach.

5 days of this, a resort staff that knew our restaurant orders before we sat down, and one kitten later, it’s time to move on to the next place – Koh Lanta. Let’s see what the next 6 days have in store for us!

Headed to Thailand

It’s been a long year, and an even longer month or two. We anticipated that though, and booked a trip to Thailand for the couple of weeks leading up to Christmas. Code for Good was the weekend before the trip, so we planned the flight for the second day of the event, leaving towards the end of it so I could be present for as much of it as possible. Knowing how long the flight was going to be, I managed about 3 hours of sleep and hoped that would let me sleep on the plane. (Nope! It was a nice hope though)

This first leg of the flight was to Beijing, where we had a 2 hour layover. It was just enough time to clear through security again and make it to the terminal with about 30 minutes to peruse before boarding again. China is definitely a different kind of place, if the airport was any sense of it. It almost felt like how I would expect Russia to be, although I’ve never been there either. We did some browsing and then hopped on the second leg of the trip, a 5 hour flight to Bangkok.

Both flights went incredibly smoothly, and it was definitely nice to be on the ground after the second one, knowing we could finally go lay down shortly. After clearing customs, we got a cab and headed for the city, which cost us all of £4 or £5 for the 40 minute journey. Incredibly cheap compared to the £80 that probably would have cost in London.

The hotel for 2 nights ended up costing near to nothing, although it’s very basic and doesn’t even have a window. But in a city such as this, that may just be a blessing in disguise. No noise, light, or smells, we slept incredibly soundly after 18 hours of travelling.

First day in Thailand, and after a good night sleep, we headed out to explore the city. In many ways, Bangkok is much like any other big city. Tall buildings, busy streets, the usual. But there are also some marked differences. There are street stalls to be found everywhere, and lets just say, the regulations around cleanliness could be better. The living standards are definitely far from those of most Western countries, but then again, that’s just in the main city.

By our standards, there’s poverty to be seen all over. Next door to gorgeous shopping malls and offices there are small stalls and tents of people sleeping, there’s litter piled everywhere, and public transit busses look to be from the 70’s. But in many ways, this isn’t poverty to many of them. Those sleeping on the streets, maybe, but for the rest, that seems to be the “middle-class”.

We had one full day in Bangkok before flying over to Krabi, so we made the most of it, walking along the
main road and visiting all of the malls along the way. MKB was the final destination for shopping though, a multi-floor centre with a huge market area in the back filled with knockoffs at incredible prices. A bagload of items and a carryon suitcase later, we had spent about £50 and were ready for the next two weeks of beach and sun.

That night’s hunger took us to Robin Hood, a local bar that was filled with Americans, Brits, and Aussies, all of whom were taking part in a pub quiz. We happened to stroll in at the middle of it, and settled down for dinner whilst listening in to the questions and seeing how many of the answers we knew. A little taste of Western culture in the middle of Asia.

An early flight the next morning meant crashing early, and we did just that. Next stop, warm, sunny beach!

Emerald Isle


We love Ireland. It’s such a beautiful, friendly country. I first fell in love with it there when I studied abroad in Cork, on the south coast. A smaller city than Dublin, but still sizeable with it’s own main shopping area and university. By Irish standards, it’s a large city. By Chicagoan standards, it’s a cute, quiant town. But that’s all a matter of opinion. While studying there, we tried to make the most of what the town had to offer, checking out the different neighbourhoods and going to various events they had on. One of those events was the Cork Jazz Festival, a week-long festival featuring jazz musicians from all over the world playing at various venues across the city.

Back in 2008 when I lived there, I had two flatmates. One from Colorado, who was also studying abroad in the same courses as I, and one who was Irish and attended the Cork School of Music. He’s the one who clued us in to the festival and wow, am I glad he did! We attended 2 or 3 venues a day for that week seeing as much as we possibly could between classes. So this year, when it came time to figure out where to go for an extended weekend in Oct, I knew just the place to go! Cork Jazz Festival.

We arrived in the morning on Thursday morning, and since we weren’t able to meet our airbnb host until the evening, we had to stay occupied for the day. Joe has never been to Cork before, so we grabbed a quick breakfast at Drake’s and made our way up to the university campus to check out my old stomping grounds. By the time we made it back to the city centre, we were cold, tired, and needed a rest. As it hit evening, we knew we needed to find somewhere for dinner.

Irish Italian was the pick of the evening and a good one at that. Luigi Malone’s across from the Cork Opera House ended up being very reasonably priced with good portions and a great atmosphere. We ended up sitting across from two couples on holiday from Texas, and spent the better part of the evening in conversation with them.

The next day was full of adventure around the city, but the highlight of the afternoon was heading over to the Cork School of Music to listen to the Grace Kelly Group perform as well as listen to Peter King, one of the great jazz legends, speak. We headed back to the city centre to SoHo Bar & Restaurant for dinner, and then downstairs to listen to a bit of the live music before hopping around a few other bars to see what was on.

Our last full day in Cork ended up being the best of them all. We checked out my old flat and neighbourhood before heading back downtown for lunch with an old acquaintance from Uni there. After lunch we walked around the main road and shops a bit before running into a parade for the festival. It reminded be of a 4th of July parade, made up only of jazz groups representing each type of jazz out there, and dressed to match. Some groups even had dancers showing the style that went alongside the music. The entire thing seemed so nonchalant, right down the middle of the city.

Dinner was at the brilliantly named Bull & Coq, where a selection of creatively named steak and chicken dishes are served. The wait for a table was a but longer than desired but given we forgot to call in advance, I guess we deserved it. Oh, and note for the future- when giving the guy at reception your name to add to the waiting list, don’t tell him Murphy if you’re in Ireland. Just trust me on that one.

Post supper took us to several different bars again, but this time around we swung by the Old Oak too. One of the largest pubs in Cork, the Old Oak is known for it’s huge performances and nightlife, and we definitely got a great show! See the videos below, as words can’t even begin to describe what we got to experience!

Sunday left just enough time for brunch before heading off to the airport, so we went to the most appropriate place in town- Captain America’s. Some nachos and loaded chips to fill up on before the flight, and we were on our way!

Just a few short days back in Cork and I’m already itching to go back again. Only next time it’ll be warm and nice out…

Polish Eats

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Polish food. Where to begin…

It really wasn’t all that different from any other place we’ve been. It’s becoming quite apparent that no matter where you travel, there is a variety of places to choose from, ranging from Chinese to Italian to none other than….American! We tried to reach a variety of places whilst there, and I think we did pretty well!

Evening #1 landed us at a place called Sphinx, right in the heart of Bydgoszcz. Although it’s a chain, it’s onlyIMG_7036 located throughout Poland so we didn’t feel quite so bad about it. The menu was extensive, with just about anything you could want available. Steaks, salads, burgers, pasta, etc. They have English versions of the menu available, which was appreciated, as neither of us know a lick of Polish. The waiter spoke English too, and was very accommodating. Apparently we got there just in time too. Just as our food was about to arrive, a large party of at least 15 people walked through the door. The decor inside was that of a jungle, and quite appropriate for the style of restaurant. It almost reminded me of a low-key Rainforest Cafe. Overall though, I’d say this was a successful dinner for our first night in Poland.

IMG_7050The next day was Joe’s birthday, which called for some celebration! We found a local restaurant around the corner and headed there for breakfast. Walking in, it looks like a country-style place, with wood floors and walls, and a mish-mash of decorations. The tables and chairs mismatched in a way that went perfectly together, and the ceiling was high, creating an open and inviting area. Service was first class, and the total bill for it all? No more than $24. Oh, and when we tried to tip, the machine wouldn’t take more that the equivalent of $4. Thankfully we had some cash on us as well.

Birthday dinner couldn’t come soon enough after brunch, with plans to go to Diner 52, an American style IMG_7060diner in the city centre. This place was decked out in American decor. American flags, confederate flags, a baseball-covered wall, Route 66 memorabilia, license plates, etc! The menu was too big to choose from, featuring burgers, Mexican fare, ribs, steaks, milkshakes…you name it and they had it! Joe had a birthday milkshake and a burger called the Diablo burger, meant to be very hot. Now since we’ve been living in London, we’ve learned that “hot” here means very mildly warm, and you might, if lucky, feel a little bite. So naturally, that was what he expected from this burger. Nope! That thing was spicy to top all spiciness. All the drinks in the world weren’t going to help the watering eyes and burning mouth that this burger caused. Even the McFlurry we got on the way back to the hotel made a minimal dent in the residual burn.

A few other notable places—

IMG_7129Bobby Burger. A great little place in the main square that features various burgers and salads that are large and come at very reasonable prices. The atmosphere in the restaurant is great, with a minimal warehouse-feel style. And on the last night, we went to Pizzeria Piratto, a local pizza place featuring a large outside seating area with tv’s for football and rugby games, and two entrances- one for the bar area and one with seating for the restaurant. Great food and very affordable by Poland standards, seeing as everything there was cheap to anyone coming from London.

Overall? A massive win.

Roots

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The main point of this holiday was to discover where Joe’s ancestors came from, so we spent a full day doing that. We hired a car, and after an eventful adventure trying to find the car rental location, we managed to get on the road! As an aside- Europcar in Bydgoszcz could definitely use a sign. Any sign, but at LEAST a sign!

Finally around late morning, we were on the road and driving on the right side, which came as a big relief to Joe. Bydgoszcz is a large city of approximately 350k, but we were outside of the city and into the country roads within minutes. The town is about 30 minutes north of Bydgoszcz, and surprisingly it was all paved. Even the rural roads, with the exception of one that we ventured down. Reminder of driving in Italy. Eeeek!

Wudzyn was first on the list, which is where the family church is located and the weddings would take place. The church itself was closed, unfortunately, but we were able to walk through the cemetery surrounding the building, as well as the one a few minutes down the road. We weren’t able to find any relatives there, and Joe noted that nearly all of the headstones there are from the mid-1900’s to today, making us curious as to what the burial practices were prior to 1900.

We decided to walk the town afterwards, all 10 blocks of it. At least it was big enough to have a fork in the road, and a roundabout! Of which had a really cool actually. A stone in the centre of it said 1307-2007. Amazing how old some of these towns and villages are. There is a school, which I can only guess services the surrounding farms and villages too, as it is highly unlikely that many kids live in Wudzyn itself. There was an even split of what appeared to be low income housing, as well as some very cute, large and well-kept homes. I can only guess that many people who have made their money already, or whom work in the city, live out here as it is cheap, quiet, and relaxing.

Next up was Brzezno, where the family was born and raised, according to family records. This was even smaller than Wudzyn, although it appeared to have a fire station? Still not quite understanding that one. Anyway! There wasn’t much to stop for, so we drove slowly through, taking in what there was before moving on to the next town. Serock appears to be the main local hub for nearby towns such as Wudzyn and Brzezno, with 2 slightly larger grocers that carry the basics, as well as boutique shops with toys, secondhand clothes, and basic hardware supplies. There was another cemetary in town , so we stopped to see if we could locate anyone again. No luck. It also seems there is a tradition of lighting candles and placing them in glass lanterns on the graves. It was actually surprising to see how many of these were lit!

By this time it was late afternoon and we were exhausted. It was wonderful being able to see all of the history and heritage of these small towns though, and I’m really glad we were able to make the trip.

Bydgoszcz



Bydgoszcz is a pretty neat city. It’s not touristy at all, which makes it a lot more enjoyable to walk around. There aren’t hoards of people that you have to dodge, and the city has been completely overridden with chain shops on every corner. Of course the occasional international brands can be found, like McDonalds, Starbucks, etc. But it isn’t as easy to find.
We spent the afternoon, post-nap, walking around the city centre and square checking things out. The city is split in two by a river, where there appeared to be a large crew competition going on. The music and announcers could be heard from all around, and the energy in the area was great. Past the race was the main square, a large open area surrounded with restaurants. The off-shoot roads were filled with shops, or ‘sklep’s as they’re called in Polish. We carried on down the river a bit, turning around to come back when there appeared to be little life left.

Hanging high over the water, parallel with the main bridge is a statue of what
 looks like a tight rope walker almost. Called Crossing the River and unveiled on the night of Poland’s accession to European Union, it’s one of the must-see sights in Bydgoszcz. We made note of several restaurants as we walked around, with plans to research when we got back to the hotel. (Check out Food in Poland here for what we chose!)

Overall, the town seems like a good pick for a holiday, regardless of the ancestral roots. A much needed break from the buzz and craziness called London.

Sto Lat!

HAPPY BIRTHDAY JOE!

He had no idea about this trip or anything it involved. Just that we were going somewhere. He’s been talking about seeing where his family is from since as long as I can remember, so I decided to take him there as a birthday present. Well, one side at least. We have yet to hunt down and go to the town that the Irish side is from. Good idea for a future gift?

We’ve made it to Poland in one piece with no major incidents. That has to be a miracle given our track record. And especially since we had to leave at 3:45am. Yuck. Thankfully we had Uber for this one. Trains don’t start until at least 5am, so we would have been out of luck otherwise.

Stansted airport has quite a bit of construction going on, and a major part of it is
blocked off right now. I’m sure the number of people there was normal for any given Saturday, or possibly even lower since high travel season is over now that school is back in. Past security, it was packed and nearly impossible to move, so we found coffee and breakfast and staked out a spot to sit and wait until our flight.

The flight itself was about an hour and 45 minutes, and quite uneventful. Arriving in Bydgoszcz though…wow. What a world of difference. We were the only plane. Literally the ONLY one. See, my reasoning went as such- Ryanair flies there, and the city is meant to have a population around 350k not including the surrounding area, so it must be a decent size. HAH! Boy was I wrong. On the tarmac, the runway and airport is surrounded by trees that you would expect to see in a WWII movie. You know, tall
with just a bit of green at the top and a long, bare trunk. Kind of eerie actually.
Our taxi driver was nice, but didn’t speak a word of English, which was quite an experience. The only common word in the car was “Whiskey”. How appropriate. About 10 minutes later (Yes, only 10 minutes!) we were at the hotel, checked in, and passed out cold for a few hours.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzz

Do nastepnego razu…

Headed to Virginia

I’ve been a bad Damn American the past several weeks and haven’t spent the time to update everyone, so here goes.

After all of the excitement a few weeks back, I had a couple of days of work before leaving to go back to the US for a few weeks. The first week was pleasure, and the second, work.

I flew out early Sunday morning, arriving mid-day Sunday in New York. I headed directly to Avis to get my reserved car and started the 7 hour drive south to Virginia. As I hit the door to go outside, the beating sun and heat was a welcome change from the chill and overcast I left behind. Such a welcome change! I can finally wear shorts for a few weeks!

The drive was uneventful, with the exception of stopping for gas(or petrol for you UK readers), which was$1.95/gallon. Mind. Blown. I haven’t seen prices below $2 in years! More than years, probably at least a decade! That made my day. I arrived late evening, with time for dinner and then grab some shut eye to make up for the travel and lack of sleep the last few days.

My parents, aunt, and uncle were planning on joining us on Friday and staying for the weekend. I fully intended to make the most of the days before they arrived, spending plenty of time with grandpa as well as some relaxing, not to mention shopping to stock up on the essentials that are cheaper there.

The week was pretty uneventful until Friday morning, when I finally got to meet the highly-spoken-about Becky Matthew and go for a hike with her and Uncle Mark up to McAfee Knob on the Appalachian Trail. We left early, around 6:30/7am, while the weather was still cool and the sun wasn’t glaring down. There were few people on the trail, which made it a very enjoyable and quite hike. We made it to the overlook around 10:30am, where Becky brought out a wonderful spread of breakfast and wine to dine on before making our way back down for a full brunch(check out the food post of the week here).

And then the family fun began. Stay tuned…

 

Bournemouth

Everyone thinks of London when they think UK, but the UK has so much to offer outside of the city! For the last couple of days I have been working in Bournemouth, which is located along the southern coast. Arriving on Sunday when the weather was absolutely gorgeous, I tried to make the most of it by heading straight outside to walk about and explore.

We have a large office in Bournemouth, with prior and current teams of mine located here, so I wanted to make sure I was able to say hi to a few whilst here. I travelled in mid-afternoon on Sunday to leave ample time for one of those colleagues. Arriving at the station, the weather was still sunny and warm, so I walked over to the hotel I was staying at for the first evening. A small boutique hotel on a hill overlooking the park in the Centre of Bournemouth. It was an old building with an original lift to take you to your floor. The room was tiny and very basic, but it did the job.

I managed to catch up with a ex-Chicago, now-Bournemouth based JP colleague for the evening, walking along the beach and grabbing dinner, which was much appreciated and enjoyed.

The next day was training with the new group of graduates joining the company. It’s a great group they have, and very talented! Everything was hosted at the Marriott, a gorgeous beachfront hotel with the most
amazing views. When the day was over, I headed back down to the beach to grab dinner and enjoy the sounds of the waves crashing on the beach. A detoured walk back to the hotel took me through some wooded trails and quiet that was much needed. I could definitely live this life.

Day two was much the same, although shortened in order to get back to London at a reasonable hour. I think Bournemouth will definitely require another visit someday.

Portsmouth

Summer has finally hit the UK, with this past week having a day that hit 91f/32c. Unheard of in our part of the world. The trains were delayed, surprise surprise, and the newspapers were warning people to stay inside mid-day, which I find quite entertaining. Knowing all of this was coming last weekend, we decided to book a last minute weekend getaway to Portsmouth for the weekend in the hopes that the weather would still be as nice and we could see a bit of what else the UK has to offer.

We left after work on Friday straight from the office, arriving in Portsmouth around 8pm with plenty of time left before it got dark out. Right outside the station was a small square with a building that looked like City Hall and a group sitting outside watching opera singers on a large screen, much like our movies in the park back in Chicago. The peacefulness of the city was a much welcome change from the London parks that are brimming with people trying to soak up the sun and warmth before it disappears.

The hotel is less than a mile from the station and it was still nice out, so we decided to walk there, which allowed us to see some of the town along the way. After checking in and getting settled, we headed back out to the pier to walk along the water a bit, running into a restaurant called Mozzarella Joe’s along the way. We dipped our feet in the freezing water and called it a night, heading in to catch some Zzzz’s.

Davidoff in Morocco

You never know who you’ll run into, and this holiday was no different than the rest. Returning to the hotel after a few hours out exploring, I had made my way to the lobby to get some ice for my knee, which was aggravated by some recent running. Now, in Casablanca, smoking inside is still legal and widely accepted, which explains the start of my story a bit.

I made my way over to the bar where I had gotten ice the other day. Walking up to the bar, there was a man sitting there smoking a cigar. For those of you who know me, you know I love cigars. As I made my way up to the bar, he immediately made a gesture of moving the cigar away or putting it out. I motioned no, and said I love cigars, forgetting the likelihood of him knowing English was 1 in 1000. Turns out, he did. A little anyway.

A middle-aged french salesman, Noel was thoroughly surprised to find a girl who liked cigars, let alone anyone who liked cigars there. Morocco isn’t much of a cigar country, as I found out. They don’t exist in most shops either, just as alcohol seems extremely difficult to find there too. Cultural differences.

He had another on him; A Davidoff Grand Cru No. 5, about a half-hour smoke time. Enough time to chat on the back hotel terrace before he had to go for an appointment. He was due back in an hours time and wanted to bring a few more down to the terrace to enjoy during the afternoon. Plans were made to meet by the pool and we did just that a few hours later, spending the remainder of the afternoon sitting by the pool discussing work, politics, religion and all sorts of things, with most of them somehow tying in with the differences between Europe, Africa, and the US.

A salesman from Paris, France, he travels western Africa regularly, with a second home in Senegal. He gave me several tips for visiting Paris, which we hope to do in the next couple of months, and we traded emails so we can meet sometime while there. His english wasn’t the best, but it’s amazing how universal so many things are and how we were still able to keep up a conversation for so long. As much as I hate the “travel” part of travelling, the destinations and people are more than worth it.

Hassan II Mosque

Casablanca isn’t as well known as Marrakech and Rabat due to its more limited number of tourist attractions, which is one of the reasons I chose it as a holiday destination. I wanted to get away where I didn’t have the lure of too many things to jam into too short of a trip. I also wanted somewhere with at least a few things to see and do, and Casablanca was the perfect choice.

Casablanca’s main attraction is the Hassan II Mosque. It is the largest mosque in Morocco and Africa and the 7th largest in the world. I decided to take a walk down to the Mosque today to check it out, partially because it was sunny and gorgeous, and partially to actually see it.

The Mosque is about 3 miles from the hotel, but with the walk there being mainly along the seafront, it feels half as far, but takes twice as long because of the photo stops. By the time I got there, it was midday, but there were a surprisingly limited number of people there. Not to say it was empty, but for a well-known tourist attraction, there weren’t too many people there. The grounds are huge, and right along a rocky beach where kids were climbing around and jumping in the water. One thing I’ve really noticed here is the lack of rules around where you can swim or access the beach. Everywhere seems free-for-all, swim at your own risk. Quite different from what most of us are used to.

Anyway, the Mosque is gorgeous. The grounds are all stone and marble, with intricate inlaid designs. Surrounding the main building is a walkway with arches, and the temple itself has a tower that can be seen for miles around. Tourists weren’t allowed inside today, but I could see in the main entrance which looked just as ornate and beautiful. The plaza surrounding seems to go on forever, and there is little development nearby making the views incredible.

After a long day of walking, some time back at the hotel next to the pool was much needed and a great way to end the day.

Gatwick Express

Gatwick_ExpressI’ve just gotten on the Gatwick Express to the airport, headed to Morocco for nearly a week. A much needed break after a whirlwind first half of the year. Can you believe that it’s already June? And mid-June at that! Crazy how fast time flies.

Joe has been in Prague the last few weeks for surgery, which is incredibly cheap there. Not because the doctors aren’t educated or the work is bad, but the market there for it just isn’t the same. Many of their doctors are educated at the same schools and return home, not to mention that the cost of living in the Czech Republic is just significantly cheaer overall, hence making the cost of medical treatment seem that much more affordable to those of us who live in extortionarily expensive cities.

But I digress. He just got back last night, and here I am leaving the next day for a holiday. Bad timing, but a lot cheaper and the timing for work was the best it was going to get. So I took the opportunity and ran with it.

As many of you know, our track records for holidays aren’t necessarily the best. Something always manages to go wrong, but it looks like we might be on the uptick finally! Joe’s Prague trip went smoothly, and thus far (knock on wood) so has mine.

Next stop, Gatwick. Time to fly!

Here’s Looking at you, Kid

First day in Casablanca and it’s already been an adventure. I slept in a bit since I had gotten to the hotel and to bed quite late last night, and woke up to the sun shining in the room and the waves crashing on the beach. Just how life should be.

Venturing downstairs and over to the spa, I discovered just how different the standards here are from the US, UK, and what few parts of Europe I’ve ventured to thus far. My hotel was meant to be one of the nicer places in town, with a spa and pool club connected, located right along the beach. And by Moroccan standards, it probably is. But there was a bird. In the gym. Yep, you read that right. Oh and the machines had special deliveries on them from the birds too. Ew.

8456372995_3a01f17705_bAfter a shower and rest, I made my way out to check out the area. There’s a new mall right around the corner that seemed to have everything in it; supermarket, retail, restaurants, you name it, they’ve got it. Not that I expected anything different, as I really didn’t know what to expect at all, but the shops there were surprisingly Americanised. And British, to be fair. As I walked in, I was greeted with American Eagle, H&M, Accessorize, and more.

Given the culture of the area, the fashion displayed in the shop windows surprised me too. For a country that values covered skin and modesty, the short-shorts, skirts, tops and other articles anfa-placeon display were rather surprising. That said, it’s a major city on a beach, and it’s a hot climate, so it’s understandable that these fashions would still hold. Just a bit surprising.

I spent a bit of the afternoon relaxing by the pool before heading back out to walk the promenade and watch the sun set over the ocean. The beach front is lined with clubs and restaurants, each one with a play space for kids and poolside lounging area for the adults. A gorgeous end to a warm, relaxing day.

Bath & Stonehenge

DSC_0231Holiday is nearly over, sadly, and it’s time to head back to London today. Back to reality, work, noise, and getting up early. Ew. But I guess those necessary evils are what make holidays so much more enjoyable.

To break up the drive home, we decided to make stops at Bath and Stonehenge, especially since we had a car and the freedom to do both on our own terms rather than around a tour coach schedule. And with the 18 degree(65ish Fahrenheit), sunny weather, it was the first glimpse of summer we had and all the more reason to spend the day outside. First up- Bath.

Home of the Roman Baths, as the name suggests, Bath’s City Centre is full of shopping, restaurants, and street entertainers. And with the ridiculous weather today, the streets were absolutely filled with people. It made the atmosphere that much better, too. Cheerful people walking around and enjoying an ice cream cone, kids laughing and playing…maybe summer isn’t all that far off after all! I better shut up about that before mother nature decides to change her mind.

Lunch was in Bath at the Real Italian Pizza Co., down a small street near the Cathedral. It was 13:30, and prime lunchtime as the place was packed. With full stomachs and rejuvenated legs, or as rejuvenated as they were going to get in my case, we made our way back towards the car, perusing the shops, streets and parks along the way.

Stop 2- Stonehenge. One of the most historic, puzzling, and famous landmarks in the UK. It’s a must-see for anyone living or visiting here it seems. And rightfully so, given the size of the stones on site, and the year in which it was formed. It would take some pretty heavy-duty cranes in this day and age to construct something like that, and they did it with bare hands back then.

My qualm with the place is that they take advantage of the demand, charging £17 per person for a quick bus ride up to the site and back. Oh, and an audio tour handheld, which they’re going to be charging extra for from next month. At least parking and toilets were free, for now at least. Anyways, rant over! The site was amazing, and the history behind how and why it was constructed took me back to my high school English course that had me write a full research paper on Celtic Mythology and Druid history. The topic was my choice, of course, as no high school teacher in their right mind would choose that topic for a full class to write on. That topic is one of my interests though, and I really enjoyed learning a bit more about it.

Once we were done there, it was time to start heading back to London. Which brings me to now, sitting in traffic on the M4, writing this post. See what we go through to experience these things and write about them for ya’ll? Oh wait, that’s right. We love it. Come join us on some of them! We love visitors!

Until the next adventure,
TDA

Happy Easter!

HAPPY EASTER!

My legs hurt. A lot. More than after my last marathon. I know, you can only imagine. Getting out of bed today found me nearly crumpled on the floor when I realised my legs had officially gone on strike. After some exercise, stretching, and a hot shower, they had finally decided to at least move, albeit very slowly. The sun was shining bright and the temperature was a comfortable 16 degrees(that’s about 60F). Perfect for spending some time discovering Swansea and the coast.

The coast is a straight shot walk from the hotel, and we made our way, slowly, that direction. Along the way was the maritime museum along a small pier and harbour, where there just so happens to be a place called USA Nails. Cute.

Past this area and some new-build high-rise flats, we found the beach. Not warm enough to swim or get in the water, it was perfect weather for walking, picking up seashells and watching all the people with their dogs running amok. About halfway down there was a tall set of stairs where we stopped to take in the view and give my calves a bit of a rest. Some of our observations:

1) Jack, a little, appropriately-named, Jack Russell Terrier, is a very disobedient dog that refuses to come when his owner calls. Yet his owner seems to refuse to use a leash. Hmmm….

2) The man of the couple racing towards the water got schooled by his girlfriend/wife. Sucker. 🙂

3) The guy with the metal-detector didn’t have a very successful day

We started making our way back after the break, taking side streets throughout neighbourhoods this time. Swansea appears to be a rather blue-collar town, although it’s very neat and clean, and everywhere we went including the tiny run-down corner shop was full of very nice people. Once back to the centre square, we stopped by Swansea Castle, which we had seen from afar on our way out earlier. A very small building in the town centre, it was quite intact and made for the perfect backdrop for some Easter family FaceTime. We got a hold of a few people, which was really nice. Being away from family on holidays isn’t always the easiest, even when we’re in beautiful far-off places.

By now, my legs have had it and we headed back to the hotel for the sauna and a nap. And blogging, which you’re reading. That said, looks like it’s about time for dinner! More on that to come later!

TDA

Oxwich

Today was our day to do a bit of Welsh coast exploration. Picking a place on the map, we headed for Oxwich, a small castle town about 30 minutes drive west/south-west of Swansea. The drive there led us through some of the most gorgeous homes of Swansea, right along the edge of the university and golf course. Once past the town limits, we had some of the best views of the coast and welsh countryside.

Once in Oxwich, it was a straight shot to the castle, which is located up a (painfully steep) hill. Thankfully we had the car to get us up there. The castle was from the 14th and 15th centuries, in ruins, but with enough left to be able to see how everyday life was there and what each area of the castle was used for.

Inside was a small exhibit on how the upper class and royalty there lived, with beds much like they would have had, and costumes similar to their everyday clothes that we tried on. For a tiny place in the middle of nowhere, the castle and exhibit were well kept.

Since parking there was free, we left the car and made our way down the hill. (Mistake of the day!) There was a walking trail about halfway down the hill, which wound through a nature preserve and forest area. On the map, the park went all the way through to the coast. We made it about halfway and decided to turn back, as it was nearly all uphill that direction, and still muddy from the previous days rain. The beach was visible from the forest, and we decided to make our way down there instead. (Another mistake.)

I shouldn’t call those mistakes, as they were amazing experiences. The beach was gorgeous and sunny, with a little cafe we stopped at for drinks, a sandwich, and some small talk. The mistake was walking down the hill. Because now it was time to go back UP. Whhhyyyyy?

We made it, and it wasn’t that horrible at the time, but only a few hours later and my calves are already in a lot of pain. This might be a long weekend ahead. But just wait until dinner tonight. Joe has no idea what he’s in store for yet…

TDA

Easter Weekend

This weekend was a 4-day weekend for us here in the UK for the Easter holidays and we decided to make full use of it. Hiring a car, we decided to drive out to Swansea, Wales, with a few stops planned for the way there and back. Leaving this morning, later than planned, left us with a huge line at the rental place, which is alongside City Airport. They were the only ones with open hours over the holidays, but that also meant fighting the holiday crowds of people flying in and out of London.

By the time we got out of there, it was two hours past when we had originally planned, which for two planners, is a problem. And the traffic getting through, and eventually out of, London was just as bad. But we finally made it, and headed for Castle Combe, our lunch pit-stop.

Castle Combe is exactly what you would picture when you think of a British country town. Quaint little cottage homes, overgrown english gardens, and a huge, old stately home that’s since been made into a fancy hotel. Which, of course, is where we stopped for afternoon high tea. The inside of the hotel has been kept in much the same style as it would have historically been kept, with modern conveniences added but hidden from plain sight. Tea and sandwiches were at our table of choice, located anywhere throughout the common areas of the home on the ground floor. We chose a table next to the fire in the bar room, which also, appropriately so, housed the whisky cabinet.

An overcast day, we got what few minutes of sun there was to walk around the town before it started to drizzle and then rain. Our queue to head back to the car and make our way to Swansea, we did just that.

The remainder of the drive was much more enjoyable than that getting to Castle Combe, with little traffic and gorgeous views of the countryside. We finally arrived to the hotel around 7 tonight, bags in hand and ready to relax.

The Dragon Hotel, our home for the next few days, is in the centre of the town and within walking distance of nearly everything; the beach, restaurants, shopping, and more. Not to mention it has a gym, pool and sauna. Perfect for a long weekend getaway. I’m looking forward to the next couple days here.

Signing off for now,
TDA

Meet Argentina

Ever go to a restaurant, look at a menu and want it all?  That happens nearly every time to me, but hold the fish.  Well, Bri surprised me with a place for dinner that accommodated my desire for copious amounts of meat and varieties galore – with no requirement of fish.  Scanning over the menu there were so many ‘I must consume that’ moments.  

Then, there is was.  If Im not mistaken I believe I saw a light shine on the menu pointing to a particular point on the menu, angels began to sing, I weeped.  What heavenly option was set before me?   One that consisted of a full steak, full pork loin, chicken breast, chorizo, and half rack of ribs.  There may have been a vegetable worked in there somewhere – but I can be bothered to remember it. I ordered, and believe the waiter gave me a ‘are you sure’ kind of look.  

Not only was I sure – I was 2 steps away from slapping him for doubting me and single handedly going into the kitchen and overseeing the operation.  I let it slide, and waited patiently at my table.  While talking to Bri, complimenting her on the venue selection and impressive ability to guess what I would order before even going to the place, I performed mental and physical exercises to prepare myself for what lie in my near future.  I see the waiter come towards the table with a tray.  My heart races as if on a roller coaster – the sound of the mans shoes to the floor mimicking the clicking sound of the coaster as it nears the peak.  

What happened over the next 20-30 minutes can only be described in simple words and adjectives – confused, ravenous, anger, sin, pleasure, satisfaction, bloating, crying, joy, sorrow.  The restaurant and especially the meal brought about emotional change within me at a spiritual level.  

Bravo Meet Argentina.  Bravo.

Holiday’s Almost Over

IMG_5137It’s our last full day here and the motivation to do anything is low. We woke up to the sun shining, relatively warm weather(a balmy 15C/60F), and exhausted legs from walking all over yesterday. So the plan was to stick around the immediate area, check out the nearby shopping centre, and relax as much as possible.

The shopping nearby is just past the local clubs and restaurants that we spent the last few nights at. It’s a neat covered outside area consisting of 3 stories with restaurants and coffee shops dispersed inbetween shops. We walked through some of the shops and grabbed some lunch before starting back towards the hotel.

IMG_5136Given the prices in Malta compared to those in London, it only made sense to make the most of it. So on the way back, I stopped for a massage while Joe went to the beach and then back to the hotel. An hour for only €35? Sure!

Today was a lazy do-nothing day, with only a nap planned for after I got back to the hotel. A great relaxing day before the end of a much-needed holiday.

B

Malta Round 2

 

IMG_5098Malta is gorgeous. I don’t think I can say that enough. Just waking up to the sunlight and sound of the beach will make just about anyone want to move here. Our second morning just reiterated that further

IMG_5053Today was another full day of exploring and one heck of a long walk around the island. We ended up walking all throughout the residential area, finding back alleys and areas to walk around. The little shops on the side streets were a reminder of Italy and the towns we discovered there. The main difference I saw, however, was that the economy here is much better off. There’s spending money amongst the locals that Italians don’t seem to have, and the shops are much less touristy. There’s more construction and upgrade work than I expected to see, and the building standards are quite a bit higher. It seemed as though every street had some building being renovated or built.

The island is quite hilly and we ended up in a neighbourhood on top of a hill with amazing views of the sea. Housing prices seemed reasonable, but that’s coming from London where it’s ridiculously overpriced. There were some corner meat markets in the area that reminded me of a tiny Whole Foods Market too.

When we finally decided to turn around, we had just hit one of the major commercialised shopping and tourist areas just along the beach. Here it became quite obvious that this used to be a British country. All the same stores as we find on Oxford Street were there, along with the standard international ones like Nike. And even in off-peak season, the streets were packed with people. Not Oxford Circus packed, but still quite crowded.

We took some time to nap and recoup from the walk before heading back out for dinner at Badass Burgers, which Joe can elaborate on later. By the time we finished there, it was nearly half 9 and the night life was DSC_0138just getting started in town, so we headed back to the central area near our hotel to check things out a bit more. And things went from there.

I didn’t elaborate too much before, so I will now. I mentioned clubs and restaurants in the area, but by that I actually meant strip clubs, and lots of them. Basically every “club” here doubles as a strip club, and the streets are filled with…you guessed it! Mainly men. And of the women who are in attendance, let’s just say there’s no shortage of super-short black skin-tight dresses. Reminds me of my college days. Modesty? What’s that??

Most of the clubs charge a cover, and rightfully so. We decided at the start of the trip that we’d check one out, and on our walk around we came across a club that didn’t charge cover AND was offering 2 for 1 on drinks. SOLD. Of course, anybody that’s thinking straight knows there must be a reason there’s no cover and cheap drinks. But it’s holiday and considering it was free, why not? *shudder* Bad idea. Double whisky neat for Joe for E3 was great. The “dancers”/girls? Well, given that they were literally lined up sitting at the bar smoking and each taking turns going up on the stage and pole… Enough said. They were unattractive and literally just walked in circles. Must explain why we were the only ones in there. Seriously. The only ones.

IMG_5077As soon as the drink was drank, we were out of there. Right up the street was the same bar we had been to the night before with outside seating and shisha, so we headed there to do some more people watching and chatting. The weather was significantly better tonight than last night, and we made full use of it while we could. A few hours there and then back to the hotel to sink into bed for another lovely nights sleep.

Even with another day and a half left, I’m already dreading the return home. This place is simply amazing.

B

DSC_0141 IMG_5095

First Malta Day

Morning one in Malta, the sun is shining and there’s not a cloud in the sky. We’ve made it to heaven. Sure, it isn’t beach and bikini weather, but that’s certainly OK. The hotel is absolutely gorgeous and the room is huge, not to mention that is has a large porch with a table and chairs too. Must be a huge hit in summer time when the weather is warm.DSC_0132

Per our usual routine, we made our way down to the fitness room and pool, which fit the style of the hotel perfectly. The gym had multiple rooms and machines for many. There was even a separate spin studio and open room for classes that looked as though it could hold about 30 people. The pool was sized to match, with a dip pool across from the sauna and steam rooms when you walk in. The pool itself had a large area for anyone to swim and relax in, and dedicated space for those doing laps towards the back. The water was especially warm and inviting too.

IMG_5052Heading out for the day, we went back to the area we walked around a bit the night before looking for a shop and the way to the hotel. There were restaurants, bars, strip clubs, and everything in between there with cobblestone roads between. An area we decided to come back to that night to see what the nightlife was like. The plan for the day was to walk around the shoreline and see what was nearby. And off we went.

First stop was a little restaurant on the pavement overlooking the beach. With a menu containing all things British and American, and with British road signs on the walls, we had found the perfect little lunch spot to grab a quick bite before moving along. Nachos on the beach anyone?IMG_5059IMG_5056

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Continuing along, there really wasn’t a large amount of commercial shopping or things to do where we were, but there were plenty of gorgeous coastline sights and little streets to explore. After a few hours, we decided it was time to head back and actually try the pool we had seen earlier before heading out for dinner reservations I had made. And throw a short nap in there too.

Even without super warm weather, Malta is growing on us by the minute. This island is absolutely beautiful and the people are incredibly nice. Let’s just hope tonights dinner is up to par too.

Until later…

Headed to Malta

Seriously, Murphy’s Law and holidays have it out for us. Either that or karma decided that we’ve done some things worth punishing. Although I would have to ask on the latter. We’re on our way to Malta for the weekend, and being the planners that we are, most everything was packed and planned out well in advance. Except one thing. There’s always something.

We didn’t think to check that we had our two-together rail card for the train to the airport. That card means that any trips we take together, we get 1/3 off the price. Whilst not the end of the world, we booked the tickets online and were meant to arrive at London Bridge station with the idea of grabbing our tickets at the kiosk and going. But no. Now we had to go to the desk and talk to them about it, providing proof of the card receipt.

Not a huge deal, except that this was realised as Joe was getting on the DLR, and I was already at work with no way to look around at home for it. And of course the overarching concern of being late in case god forbid, anything else went wrong. And knowing our luck, something probably would. I did my best to describe all the various places the card might be, but no bananas. Ohhhhh well.

He finally leaves home to meet me on the Wharf, and I get stuck on a phone call, making us even later than we already were. But given how the last adventures have gone, we’ve learned to leave with plenty of time so that when these things happen, we still make it there OK.

Thankfully there was no line at London Bridge and the clerk was friendly, otherwise we may have lost it. Tickets in hand, we found the train and settled in for the short 30-minute journey. Yeah, that’s it. 30 minutes! If only there were more flights and routes out of Gatwick Airport.

Finding our way at the airport, getting checked in and through security, and then to the gate was surprisingly easy. I say this as we’re in the air; somethings bound to go awry now. Great.

Walking through to the gate though, the hallway lights flickered and went out for a brief 30 seconds, and flashbacks of Stansted Airport’s flight delays when travelling to Berlin started going through my mind. Power outage here too? At least we were already through security and all the major technical bits of the journey. Minus a faulty plane, that is. Oh no…

I’m going to stop while ahead. We’re well past halfway there, the sun is shining in the plane windows, andthings are going smoothly so far. Let’s just hope I didn’t jinx the trip by saying all of this.

Signing off,

The View from our Hotel

B

Cambridge

I managed to drive on the wrong side of the road on the wrong side of the car around countless roundabouts, and tiny streets without getting in an accident.  So, automatic win for me!  Its no wonder why smart people come out of Cambridge.  It has a setting that promotes studying.  It’s a really large campus in a fairly vast city.  It’s amazingly picturesque with its narrow cobblestone streets, centuries old buildings, and hidden passageways to hole in the wall café’s. 

If it wasn’t for all of the college aged kids walking around, on their bikes, or on the field playing lacrosse, you wouldn’t actually know that is was a college town.  The classrooms were tucked away, out of site, sometimes requiring a walk through a quiet park to an alley that led you to a stone building and a spiral staircase to get to the room.  At one point, I was scared to say that it actually creates an atmosphere that encourages you to study. 

A sad point though, at least from our perspective, is that the town seemed tainted.  On all of those cobblestone streets, down those passageways, we were hoping to see mom and pop shops, family owned cafes, a classic pub.  What we got was Starbucks, TKMaxx, Boots.  It’s not that we are super cultured or that we put our noses up to such conformity and commercialization.  It actually makes a whole lot of sense for corporations to take advantage of the concentrated wealth that exists in that town.  However, it gives you a different appreciation for the history of the buildings, of the environment, of the culture when you can experience it first hand in all aspects – including the avoidance of commercialization.  All of the old cities, like Canterbury, Dublin, Prague, Florence, and especially London have the heavy commercial areas, but are complimented nicely by “old Town” areas.  In all fairness, we may have simply not had enough time to see all the sites given the size of the place.  Commercial or not, Cambridge is amazing and will be worth a revisit.  If you can find a town slightly outside of the city, that may be best though 200 Pound per night for a basic room will leave you with little money to spend on all those commercial shops.  After walking about, it was time for me to get some lunch.

After much searching, we found a non-chain restaurant.  The setting was as picturesque as you could ask for.  It was a cozy place that had a limited but straightforward menu.  Unfortunately, the points they gained in setting and service were quickly lost with food.  The Potato skins were pretty good but the featured Sunday Roast was of equal taste as that of rubber.  That’s quite all right.  The experience allowed us to find Jesus (Jesus St, that is), which lead us back to the car park and thus we were on our way back to London.

 

Bletchley

The Imitation Game. Anyone who’s seen it, or know the history of Alan Turing, know the importance he and his invention had during the 20th century and into today. Having learned all about it during my MSc studies, The Imitation Game was a movie I had to see. The groundbreaking science and maths that took place during the war, and the significance it had on history are simply amazing. Had none of that taken place, we very well may all be speaking German right now.

Anywho, that isn’t the only influence all of that had on history. Looking at the technological advancements that have taken place since then, it’s hard to imagine a time when the foundations of it were just being discovered. 8k memory was considered massive? We can barely store one document on that. And a hard disk that has a 4ft diameter? The technology in that entire building still failed to match that of the tiny iPhone in our pockets.

 

The place went in order from oldest to newest, starting with the machines built there during the war to today, including all the game consoles, calculators, and other things that rely on the same technologies. It was a throwback being able to sit down and play the first versions of the Commodore 64, Pac Man, and more.

All set in the same building as everything took place in, it was a really neat experience. Apparently there’s an awesome park there as well but given the time of year and weather, another trip for that will be in order sometime.

Valentines Day Getaway

Murphy’s Original Law-If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, then someone will do it.
Murphy’s Law-If anything can go wrong — it will.
Murphy’s First Corollary-Left to themselves, things tend to go from bad to worse.
Murphy’s Second Corollary-It is impossible to make anything foolproof because fools are so ingenious.
Quantized Revision of Murphy’s Law-Everything goes wrong all at once.
Murphy’s Constant-Matter will be damaged in direct proportion to its value.
The Murphy Philosophy Smile… tomorrow will be worse.

Conclusions

  1. If there is a possibility of several things going wrong, the one that will cause the most damage will be the first one to go wrong.
    Corollary – If there is a worse time for something to go wrong, it will happen then.
  2. If several things that could have gone wrong have not gone wrong, it would have been ultimately beneficial for them to have gone wrong.
  3. Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
  4. If anything can’t go wrong, it will anyway.
  5. If you perceive that there are four possible ways in which something can go wrong, and circumvent these, then a fifth way, unprepared for, will promptly develop.
  6. If everything seems to be going well, you have obviously overlooked something.
  7. Everything takes longer than you think.
  8. You never find a lost article until you replace it.
  9. If nobody uses it, there’s a reason.
  10. You get the most of what you need the least.
  11. Nature always sides with the hidden flaw.
  12. Mother nature is a bitch.

The law that will get you whenever, wherever, regardless of the situation. Holiday and travelling are no exception. Actually, I’m beginning to think that they’re specialty cases where the probability exponentially increases.

Why do I bring this up? A last minute trip booked to Bedford for Valentines Day weekend started going wrong before we even managed to get out of London. Surprise surprise. I booked a hotel and car the night before, with plans to leave right after work yesterday. I had Joe booked as the driver, so he could pick the car up before I got home and we could leave right away. Well, I’ve learned my lesson with that one now. The entire booking, payment, and everything had to be under his name, or Hertz wouldn’t let him pick up the car. And you have to have your passport in addition to the 2 other kinds of ID he brought with him. And we both had to be drivers, even though I wasn’t driving. Just because my name was on the credit card. Because that makes sense…

4 hours later, 2 trips to Hertz for Joe, and one trip to meet him there for me, we had a car and were headed home to get our things and go. Finally, outside of London by 11pm. Not ideal, but hey, we made it. Arriving at the Park Inn Hotel in Bradford, we made our way back to the car park. But, as we turned the car around the corner, we hear a load hissing noise. Uh oh. You guessed it- flat tyre. This just isn’t our day.

Getting to reception at the hotel, they didn’t seem very receptive or friendly, but then again it was 1am and I wouldn’t be too cheerful working that shift either. Not to mention that it said online there was free parking (£5/day), and the wifi only allows one person at 512mb/s. And I forgot how slow that is with current websites. Apparently we’re still in the dark ages when you leave the Greater London area.

But, we’re here. Away from reality for a few days. Finally.

Dublin Does Food

My first love, food. I can’t get enough of it. The thought of going to a restaurant is a similar feeling to that of a child on Christmas Eve night, imagining what treasures await him. The Irish are not known for their food. I suppose that once you drink as much as they do, by that time, anything tastes good. If you are looking for a city that is a mecca for great restaurants, Dublin is likely not your place.

However, of all the places I went, two of them surely stood out. A simple man with a simple pallet, they are themselves simple – burgers and barbeque. Bunsen is the first place I went to, and by far my favorite. I chose it because it had great reviews on Google, with respectable prices. I was the first to arrive. I was amazed to be greeted by a welcoming wait staff. This seems to not be the norm in Europe at all. I sit down, looking for a menu. Oh! There it is! It’s not so much a menu as it is a business card listing their extremely basic menu. Burger, double burger, cheese, sides. I actually found the menu quite charming and straight to the point. It gives the sense of ‘this is who we are. If you don’t like it, get out.’ I respect that.

They do not do much, but what they do – they do well. I of course ordered a double cheeseburger with Chips. They actually asked how I wanted it cooked; I haven’t heard that in a long time. When they brought it out, I was impressed with the size and the quality. The patties were very large (also not a norm for the UK) and seemed to be freshly prepared, not frozen pre-packed burgers. I had to force myself to slowly eat the burger, so I can enjoy it. The fries were very good; nothing special besides that they are deep fried potatoes…you don’t need much more than that.

The second place worth mentioning is somewhere I didn’t expect to see in Dublin…a BBQ place. Bri knows that when I see a sign for bbq, there will be little chance for me to choose anything else. I actually saw the place while on my morning run. It’s a good thing that I got in a good run because what I decided to order was what my mother would call “sinful.” BBQ places aren’t fair. They have all the best stuff that it makes it incredibly difficult to not order the entire menu. Fortunately at this place, they had a meat platter! Choose 3 out of 5 meats for 19 Euro, which comes with 2 sides. When each meat by itself costs about 14Euro, I believe that I made a wise financial decision in ordering the meat platter. Brisket, Ribs, and Pulled Pork were my meaty choices and mac and cheese and fries were my sides.

They brought the platter out in no time. Each meat stacked upon each other, like a mound of sexiness waiting to be ravished – and ravish I did. I started with the sides first, to get them out of the way so I can focus appropriately. Sides were fine, nothing to write home about – to be honest I wasn’t really paying attention and saw the sides as more of an obstacle to get to the meat. Each meat was perfectly cooked. BBQ can be tough to prepare. A lot of times I find that ribs aren’t tender enough, pulled pork too fatty, and brisket too dry. That was ot the case at Pitt Bro’s. Each of the meats were better than the last. All were accompanied by a really nice sauce. If there were room for improvement, it would be the ribs. The ribs themselves were great. However, the menu didn’t list choices of ribs. A lot of other places would list different sauces, rubs, etc. I am a rib snob, enjoy a really good dry rub. I didn’t see an option for this at Pitt Bro’s. Nonetheless it was a fantastic place with really good prices.

Dublin Drinks

“Whiskey, like a beautiful woman, demands appreciation. You gaze first, then its time to drink.” I enjoy myself a glass/bottle of whiskey. Ireland is a great place to experience both whiskey and beer. Dublin is a place that prides itself not only on their ability to drink, but also on how alcohol is central to their heritage, social, and economic pillars.

Though Whiskey is my preferred drink, I will start by discussing Guinness. I’m not a beer drinker overall. However, if I do drink beer, I do prefer a stout – specifically Guinness. When you arrive in Dublin, you are overtaken by the brand of Guinness. They truly pride themselves on Guinness and how the company themselves essentially financed much of Dublin since their inception. That said, I learned a lot. I had planned to go to the Guinness Storehouse before vising Dublin. Originally this was due to the fact that it was something that you are supposed to do as a tourist. However, after visiting St Peters Green, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin Castle my interest morphed from tourist checklist to more genuine interest on what Guinness was all about.

These other attractions demonstrated a different perspective on a company that has made money off the vices of others. They demonstrated the truly philanthropic history of Guinness which impressed me quite a bit. The Guinness family has provided thousands of jobs not only in their company, but supporting industry. It can be argued that this alone is enough. However. Guinness has a long history in city investment, including the creation and donation of Dublin parks and the restoration of St Patrick’s Cathedral.

Though they touch on this slightly in the Guinness storehouse tour, it is not the focal point, which is refreshing. Though I have an increased appreciation for Guinness and their history, their tour was quite disappointing. I have been to a few brewery tours in the US, both small and large. They were all personal, with dedicated tour guides and detailed explanations. The Guinness Storehouse tour was like watching a high-tech documentary on the History channel. However, there were a few good points that are lacking in other brewery tours. They provided interactive exhibits that show you how to pour a proper Guinness, as well as explanation of how to best smell and drink a Guinness. Though their brewing demonstration was not that great, I think their tour was more useful to the normal everyday person. They may not show you all the details of how to brew a beer, but come on – its not like you are going to go start your own brewery. What they do demonstrate is how to appreciate your beer, which speaks volumes on the pride they have in their product.

Okay, enough of the beer. Lets spend a short bit of time on Whiskey. Though Dublin is a great place to experience whiskey, its also a ridiculously expensive place to experience whiskey. It boggles my mind how a bottle of Jameson, Bushmills, Redbreast, etc in Ireland can cost so much more than in the UK or US. This actually bothers me quite a bit. It gies you the impression that they are trying to capitalize on the tourist industry just that much more. Everyone will by a Jameson in Dublin, why do you need to gouge them for 5 more Euro a bottle? Shame on you Jameson. That said, I still drank Whiskey while here. ☹ I cant be stopped simply by higher prices, though Bri may not be too happy about that. In protest, I did buy a cheaper though arguably equivalent bottle of Bushmills. This bottle was my warm up each night so I didn’t spend ridiculous amounts at local pubs. The local pubs though add so much to the experience though. It is easy to capitalize on the tourist industry in Dublin. Open a bar, paint it green or red, and add some live and/or traditional music and you got all you need to be successful.

I went to two pubs, The Auld Dubliner and the Norseman. Both of these pubs were really enjoyable. Yes, they were painted red/green, they had live music, etc. However, the most attractive point of both is that they were not ass to nuts busy. You could walk in, not be overcrowded and actually find a seat and enjoy the live music. The Dubliner had a very relaxed atmosphere to where you can hear the person next to you but had a limited whiskey selection. The staff was nice and attentive, provided a very hospitable and relaxed environment. The Norseman was much busier though this might have been due to being there on a Friday night versus Thursday night. I preferred the environment of the Dubliner, but the Whiskey selection in the Norseman where rare Taliskerr and Middleton offerings were on the menu.

Before moving on to my Redbreast and Talisker servings, The Norseman offered a Jameson Tasting Tray for a reasonable price. They offered 3 25Ml glasses filled with Jameson 12 Year, Reserve, and Gold. Limited to Jameson, it would be great if a pub offered tastings well beyond that of just the most well known brand of Whiskey in the world. Perhaps when we trek to Scotland, we may have better luck for variety and price.

Overall it seems that Dublin is more about making money off of their whiskey industry than appreciating it like Guinness appreciates its beer.

Dublin Sites

I have been to Dublin before.  This time though, I wanted to be sure to participate in specific tours and IMG_0024detailed viewings of historic sites.  Specifically, I visited St Peters Green, St Patrick’s Cathedral, and Dublin Castle.  All three of these places had one thing in common, Guinness.  Its seems that Guinness in some way participated in the history of all three of these sites.  I visited St Stephens green on a run when I first arrived. It was a very peaceful setting, built in a way that provides silence and reflection in an otherwise busy city.  Two outer paths surround an inner pond and numerous statues.  It covers a large plot of land and provides a welcome shortcut for commuters and running area for tourists.

After catching my breath and a warm shower, I ventured off to St Patrick’s Cathedral.  This Cathedral is breathtaking.  Though not as physically impressive as the cathedral in Canterbury UK, it does demonstrate a rich history of faith in the local culture.  Built in the 12th century, it is said to be built on the same plot that St Patrick performed baptisms in the 6th century.

Initially I had planned to view the cathedral from the outside and perhaps view the inside for a brief amou nt of time.  However, given the weather and that I am not in Dublin everyday, I chose to cough up the 6 Euro to do the full self-guided tour.  Well, I spent nearly three
hours in St Patrick’s Cathedral.  I would recommend it to anyone that has any slice of in terest in history or Christianity.  Though self-guided, the exhibits, displays, provide a very independent viewon its history.   I read every word of the displays and was taken back on the beauty of thearchitecture.  I was interested to learn the rich history of its both Catholic and protestant moments, but humbled to know that it opened its chapel doors to faiths of all denominations.  It demonstrated the true meaning of what Christianity is supposed to be – acceptance of others.  I was less impressed by the Dublin Castle tour and question my payment of 6.50 Euro to view some old furniture and fancy recreated rooms.

Though the outside of the building/castle it doesn’t fulfill the stereotypical “castle” feeling.  Many of the rooms were not original, but recreations of pre-fire stages.  That said, it was quite a substantial feeling, standing in the same rooms that were and still are used for state events.  Standing in rooms that were used to welcome kings and queens, Presidents and military leaders.

However, beyond this feeling of royal nostalgia, there was not  much to be impressed with.

Classic Remise Berlin

Germany. The source of some of the best engineering the world is capable of producing. Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, VW…and the list carries on. Being the car lovers that we are, going to Germany also meant trying to see some of the beauties that the country produces, and we found the perfect place. Classic Remise Berlin. A center for vintage, classic and new cars alike. A museum, consignment shop, and storage facility all in one place. And it was amazing.

The variety of cars, boats, and motorcycles that this place had was amazing. As we walked in, we were immediately greeted by a few 1950’s luxury cars as well as current, high-end sports cars. We sudddenly had a problem though. There were 3 aisles to choose from, and we didn’t know where to start. So many choices! We decided to begin with the right aisle to work our way around the perimiter first, and it was immediately apparent that we made the appropriate decision.

Remise not only houses cars, but also has a series of workshops for hire and the first one we came across was the American classic car shop. Everything was closed today due to the holidays, but with everything being glass we could still see inside the garages and the vehicles being worked on or that were on display. Mustangs, Chevy’s and more. It was Joe’s ideal heaven.

Across from the American shop was another dream store: Ferrari. And this wasn’t just an affiliate shop setup by someone, this was a proper corporate Ferrari showcase.

Moving along, we found a motorcycle shop and several vintage car displays before getting to the main warehouse and showcase. Here there were cars lining one wall in glass cases, stacked two high on car lifts. Opposite these were a series of shops and club fronts, and more cars parked two deep that anyone could walk among. The cars in the cases were what appeared to be storage for many of the auto owners who could not or did not want to store them at home. Most of these appeared to be extremely high-value cars, ranging anywhere from vintage to new. There was a classic red 1960’s Chevy that reminded me of the diner we had just been to yesterday, as well as a very rare Bentley that is probably worth millions (Of $, that is).

This is only a snapshot of what was on display at Classic Remise too. The place was huge! Definitely somewhere worth returning on another trip to Berlin someday.

Christmas Eve

Christmas Eve. One of the nice differences between Berlin and London is that there are actually a few things that stay open. After having spent the last two years in London over Christmas, I’ve learned that the entire city shuts down. Nothing, not even a bus or train operates on Christmas day. Having a heart attack? Nahhh, call a cab. The ambulances probably won’t come either, as I witnessed first hand two years ago in a Starbucks on Christmas eve. The difference in Berlin? Well, there was plenty of public transport still on, and the markets and certain shops/restaurants were still open, albeit with limited hours.

Since the trains were still running, we decided to spend Christmas eve seeing a few sights in the city, namely the Berlin Victory Column. We then headed out to Sachsenhausen concentration camp about 35 miles outside of Berlin. More on that in another post, here. Not the most uplifting, per se, but given the cloudy, rainy and cold weather, it was one of the most eerie, realistic feeling trips I’ve taken in a long time.

 The Victory Column was meant to celebrate the Prussian victory in the Danish-Prussian war in 1864, but by the time it was actually inaugurated, Prussia had also defeated Austria in the Austro-Prussian War (1866) and France in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71). It’s a multi-purpose statue now, apparently!

Christmas eve dinner was another adventure, as we ended up going out a bit later than usual around 21:00. Almost everything had shut down for the evening, leaving us with two options in the mall next door to the hotel. A traditional restaurant that was about to close up for the evening, and a Chinese place that was pretty full, likely because it was all that was left open. Our decision was made for us, and Chinese it was! There’s a first for everything, right?

The firsts continued after our oriental experience and returning to the hotel too. Our hotel has a Smoker’s Lounge, which is really nice being that it’s cold out and we enjoy our cigars, especially on holidays and special occasions. We ventured down there after dinner and ended up spending the remainder of the evening, literally about 3 hours, talking to a group from the Saudi Arabian Military Attache Office of Berlin. Anything from politics to religion to travel was fair game, and the guys were really nice. Goes to show that you just never know who you’ll meet until you start talking.

Not the kind of Christmas eve I ever expected, but memorable and amazing none the less…

Berlin

Merry Christmas! Frohe Weihnachten! This year we decided that since we couldn’t celebrate the holidays back in the US with our families, we would get away to somewhere new and different, and what better place than the country best known for their Christmas markets? Not to mention that being away on holiday in a new place made it seem less like we were missing our families on a major holiday.

It seems like every holiday we go on, something goes wrong. Meeting in Dublin last New Years, Joe’s fight was cancelled and he was put on another flight several hours later, but with no phone or internet, I had no way to know what was going on. Then Prague over Easter time, we got stuck in traffic to the airport and should have missed the flight had it not been delayed for an hour and a half (lucky us!). So it was just a matter of time until something went wrong on this trip too. And sure enough, as we arrive at Stansted airport, we see a massive line for security. And when I say massive, I mean doubled out and back multiple times over the length of the entire airport.

Long story short, it turns out that Stansted security had a power failure for 2+ hours, and it was still out when we arrived. Thankfully, since everyone was delayed, they also had to delay the flights or else they all would have been empty. So as we ran to the gate, we caught the tail of the line being checked through to the plane and made the flight. Phew!

So here we are in Berlin, one taxi ride and several hours late and just getting to the hotel at nearly 1:30am. But the hotel is luscious and inviting, and the bed looks so inviting right now. And on that note, I think it’s time to catch some zZzz’s. Gute nacht!

Sachsenhausen

Its Christmas Eve in Berlin.  The Christmas markets are open, people outside singing carols, Santa sitting on his perch.  Bri and I thought it best to take this opportunity to travel 40 miles to see a concentration camp memorial.  Its rainy, cold, and windy, and we haven’t yet arrived at the train station – 3 miles away from the hotel.  Safely on the train, traveling to the camp, I can’t help but wonder if these are the same tracks that were used to transport prisoners to the camp 70 years ago.  After arriving at the station, we had a couple mile walk ahead of us to get to the camp.

Luckily at this point it was only cold and windy. We walked around and noticed holiday directions set up in peoples houses, taking special note of Hanukkah decorations so close to such tragedy.  When we arrived, it was one of the most eerie feelings that I have experienced.  It seemed abandoned in time out front.  The offices were closed due to the holiday, but we continued into the camp, which was open to the general public.  Walking along the outside walls, you can see hollowed out watch towers, looking in on the camp, towering above the already 10-15 foot walls.

We entered the main gates, and approached the main camp area.  I couldn’t help but imagine, looking around at the grounds, what it was like being surrounded by thousands of prisoners, violence, and death.  The emptiness of the facility reinforced the eeriness of the site, especially as you go around an inner prison wall and enter one of a few memorial buildings.  This memorial in particular shows the remnants/foundations of the building that housed the camps hospital and some execution rooms.  The diorama displays the function of each room.  From behind the barrier, you can visualise yourself walking through the narrow corridors of the building, as the room foundation structure is still intact.  The display discusses the extermination methods, and how the Nazi regime would transport the dead away from the site.  It wasn’t until a transport truck was involved in an accident within the village nearby, exposing corpses, that a local crematory was built.  

Most of the prisoner housing seemed to have been since removed, replaced with subtle memorials that demonstrated the immensity of the camp.  Most of the housing that did remain was specific for Russian prisoners of the state, separated from the general population.  It was a very powerful experience.  Even though it was not the most festive of Christmas Eve activities, it was one that made an impact on me personally.  It forces you to remember how your life is not always as bad as it seems – that someone has had or does have it much worse.  As we walked back to the train station, it began to rain heavier.  Combined with the wind and the plummeting temperatures, it seemed unbearable.  But then again….we had coats, hats, shoes, socks – a far cry from simple striped prisoner uniforms.

A Route 66 Christmas

Iconic Route 66. The drive everyone wants to make and so few ever complete. One of the original highways of the U.S. Highway system, and also known as the Main Street of America, Route 66 is home to hundreds of diner and restaurants that represent nearly every culture of America. I know you’re wondering why I’m talking about Rt. 66 when I should be talking about lunch in Berlin, but that’s precisely what I’m doing.

We always have our eyes open for interesting restaurants to go to, and being Christmas day, we didn’t expect much to be open. So as we walked to church that morning, we noted a few places that were open along the way so we could pick one to stop at on the way back. But as we arrived at the church, lo and behold, guess what was across the street? A Rt. 66 American 60’s diner. And it was OPEN! There was no decision left to be made. THAT was our place. THAT was going to be lunch after church. And it was tough waiting for the service to end knowing that we were going there afterwards. It’s like the adult version of waiting for Santa to come.

Walking up to the restaurant, there’s an old Cadillac El Dorado parked out front, and the building is covered in chrome with a flourescent lighted sign. Inside the walls were covered with 60’s memorbelia, there is a singing statue of Elvis on the bar, and each booth has a jukebox. We’re greeted by a man with pitch black hair and a style you could only imagine being from the movie Grease. He fit the role perfectly.

The theme is continued in the menu, and as we open it we’re greeted with more American style food choices than one could ever imagine having in one place.The food offered at Route 66 ranges everywhere from quesadillas to burgers, pizza to ribs, and more. The menu was longer than that I’ve seen in a long time, and we’ve been to a lot of restaurants over the past year. In keeping with true American Tex-Mex style, the order of the day was Nachos and a double burger. Although they looked delicious, the nachos left much to be desired, although this could be due to our extensive experience with proper US-style nachos. They had all the right toppings, but as we’ve seen throughout europe, nachos here tend to be heavy on the crisps, light on the toppings.

The burger, on the other hand, certainly met expectations, and possibly exceeded them but I hesitate to go that far. Smothered in sauce and cheese, it was a gooey delight. The crisps alongside the burger were also alright, but nothing special per se.

The only real downfall to the place, which was almost certainly due to it being Christmas, was the service. There was the man who greeted us and appeared to be working the bar, and one lone waitress who was left juggling the tables around the floor. And with this being one of the only places open, and directly across the street from the church, they were busy. By no means full, but for only two people to manage, they had too many customers and the service was slow. Given the situation, they did quite a good job at making sure everyone was tended to, even if it took longer than usual.

I hear this restaurant has multiple locations too. Sounds like our travel plans have been made for us coming up.

All You Can Eat Ribs

The words, “All You Can Eat Ribs” to men is the equivalent as “I Love You” to women.  Is it weird that when Bri told me that she booked all you can eat ribs for me, that my heart skipped a beat?  I don’t know if I was more excited that I found someone that knew me so well, or that I had all the ribs that I could process coming my way.  It was 23Dec and there I sat, like a kid on Christmas morning hoping that all his prayers would be answered.  I was skeptical, given the price of 21 Euro.  Was this experience going to be like the Lonestar disappointments of days past?  Would the staff take their sweet time bringingout the additional racks in management hopes of my growing impatience would result in early departure?  Wold the ribs be too fatty, too tough, over seasoned, undercooked?  No to all.  The robs were perfectly cooked, and the wait staff seemed eager to keep me going, even suggesting different types for my 2nd and 3rd round of 1.5 slab portions.  My favourite had to be the Texas Hot Chilli Ribs, the last of my servings.  Beyond being a bit greasy, they were simply magnificent, satisfying my need of balancing taste and heat.  

There was one downside to the establishment, however it is a downside of most of Berlin.  The prices of pop were ludicrous.  400mL of Diet Coke was 3.50 Euro – of course with no free refills.  For some reason, this is what fountain drinks cost.  If you go to a local store, you can buy a 2 Litre for 1 Euro.  This saddened me, but in no way put a damper on my rib festivities.

 

Berlin Food

As most everyone knows, our lives, holidays, nights out, just about everything revolves around food in some way. And with the various markets in Berlin and the Christmas spirit, what better time than now to experience some proper German beer and bratwurst? The fact that there is a Christmas market next to our hotel only supported this too. Perfect! Short walk, good food, great sights. Ahhh, this is the dream.

We just left our last lunch in Berlin to head for the airport,and reflecting back on all the places we stopped to eat made me realise just how much we were able to fit in on such a short trip. A few of the places we went deserve their own space and posts, but the others below are just as noteworthy.

IMG_4570Day 1. Recovery. After such an eventful experience just getting to Berlin, we needed a day to recuperate. Since the market was next door to the hotel and we just wanted to explore and experience the town a bit, we decided to grab a bite of proper German food there. After perusing all of the stalls, we came across a 1/2 metre bratwurst. And the decision was made for us. That night also garnered some all-you-can-eat ribs, but that, as stated earlier, definitely deserves its own post here.

IMG_4629Day 2. Christmas Eve. As with most places that are predominantly Christian, the majority of stores and restaurants were either closed or closed early on Christmas eve. This was to be expected. But what wasn’t expected was the extent of this in a large tourist area. So our Christmas eve dinner consisted of the only place open in the immediate area; A Chinese restaurant. There’s a first for everything, right?

 

Day 3. SANTA CAME! SANTA CAME! Merrrrrrrry Christmas! There was more open ON Christmas than there was Christmas eve. Go figure! Even the market was open. Makes no sense to me. Anyway, we had found a church for mass and it ended up being across the street from an American 60’s style diner. How appropriate!The mass, which ended up being in German even though the website suggested English, was still going when we left after an hour and a half. I pity those who stayed for the entire thing. We made our way over to the diner and had a lunch never to be forgotten. So much so that it warrants it’s own post, which you can read more about here, in A Route 66 Christmas.
Day 4. Kababs and Hamburger Mary’s. We went out for the day and stopped back off at the market for a snack along the way. Simple pork kebabs with seasoning in a bun. The bun was about the length of your hand, whilst the kebab was about 4 times longer which led me to believe that the bun was merely there to make holding the kebab easier. The food highlight of the day was Hamburger Mary’s though. This place was quirky, eccentric, modern, fun, and the list goes on. The restaurant is in the lobby of a hotel, with a very modern, clean style about it. The colours are bright and numerous, and the decor was that of a pinup girl. The menu had all sorts of classic american goodies on it from quesadillas to mac & cheese fried bites to loaded fries, and the topper? All sorts of burgers. BBQ Bacon, Hawaiian, jalapeño spicy, and the list goes on. Choose the burger, choose the meat, and choose your side. Build-your-own-meal. And the kicker? (No pun intended here) The bill comes to your table in a stiletto heeled shoe.

IMG_4709Day 5. The final day. We had to leave for the airport early-mid afternoon which didn’t leave all that much time for anything today, but we were still able to get to the burger restaurant Joe has been eyeing since we first got to Berlin. Jim Block, “Das Hamburger Original”. At first we thought it was a full restaurant, but afterlooking at it for a few days every time we walked past, we realised it was closer to a fast food place than anything, but still worth trying out! We headed there before going back to the hotel to get our things and head to the airport. Similar to Hamburger Mary’s, Jim Block offers all kinds of burgers, including a pulled beef and bbq option. Yep, you guessed it. That was the choice of the day!IMG_4711

Overall, I’d say this trip was a foodie’s success. Dontcha agree?

Southbank Christmas Market

I love Christmastime. The decorations, festive parties, the atmosphere in the air. It’s all so cheerful. Minus the weather, that is. So…cold… *brrrrr*.

Anyway, there are so many things to see and do in London at Christmas time. Our most recent venture out was to the Christmas Market at Southbank. Every year they put together a Christkindlmarkt with stalls filled with delicious food, mulled wine, and crafty gifts.

Even though going to the market meant dodging people and rubbing hands together to stay warm, the festive feel of it was priceless. Everyone was walking about with their warm mulled wine, hot toddies, and dinner, taking in the views of the city and the goodies on offer in each stall.

We ended up stopping for a cheese sammie from Grill My Cheese, one of the stalls there. By that point it was beginning to get a bit too cold for comfort and we headed inside to find a seat. That’s the great thing about South Bank. They not only have space for concerts and events, but they have several cafes, shops, and seat areas for people. It’s one of the best places to go to people watch, catch some good music, and maybe even do a bit of work if you’re so inclined.

There was a charity shop market there as well, so after finishing up dinner we made our way downstairs to see what was on offer. And there wasn’t much. Although called a “market”, there were all of about 10 clothing racks that were very limited in selection, a table of books, and a few odds and ends scattered about. Disappointing to say the least.

After that we were cold, tired, and sick of fighting the crowds, so we made our way to the exit and headed home. Not before stopping and getting some roasted nuts for Joe for the ride home though.

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving. A time to give thanks for what we have and the people we have in our lives. Thankfully (no pun intended) we were able to stay through Thanksgiving while back in the states for Pat’s wedding. Since they had just celebrated the wedding, most of the out-of-town family had already gone back, but the wedding could almost be considered a pseudo-Thanksgiving. Everyone was still giving thanks for being together and celebrating such a great event. And those living in the area were still able to get together on Thanksgiving day, which was a lot of fun. Seeing all the kids running around and playing is so much fun. I miss seeing that in our own family now that everyone is grown up.

For my family, my Aunt and Uncle came in for a few days, and being that I hadn’t seen them in years, it’s been really nice to have a few days to catch up. Sure, we chat on Facebook, but that just isn’t the same as good old-fashioned face-to-face time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And of course we can’t forget friends. I didn’t get much chance to see anyone aside from family while back home, but I was at least able to make a 10 minute pit stop at Kai’s Thanksgiving Party for a few friends on Wednesday night, and swing by to see my favourite runners Thanksgiving morning. Every time I go home, I’m reminded of what great people are there and how much I miss them all, although I still wouldn’t change a thing with where we live right now.

Although Thanksgiving is over and we’ve moved on to leftovers and recovery today, I plan to make this a year full of Thanksgiving, rather than just a day of it.

B

Headed to Prague

Have you ever run in an airport?  Let me rephrase. Have you ever nearly lost your pants showing the world your glory while holding your sandals in your hands sprinting towards a security checkpoint with the slight suspicion that you will be shot by security?  Well, I have.  And so we begin our venture to Prague. It began weeks ago when I pushed Bri to choose a location of her choice for a holiday away.  I can trust Bri with those decisions because she does her homework.  She will research online, network with people in the know, investigate attractions, restaurants…the whole package at an incredibly good price.  We ordered our easyjet tickets, booked our hotel and started daydreaming of a four day Easter weekend away from work.  The flight was scheduled to leave at 620. We left the flat at 2:15. Surely four hours would be sufficient time to make the flight.  Well then, mistake number one for these Damn Americans. We arrived via dlr and district lines to Victoria bus station on time at 330. The bus left and so the fun begins. The national express driver announces that due to the excessive travel for the Easter weekend that traffice delays should be expected. We cringed at the thought of what this would mean for us, but they had decided to remove most of the stops to ensure the quickest service to the airport.  Well played NatExpress.  Two hours later and 50 minutes prior to our flight, we began shitting ourselves as the driver announced that we were still roughly 30 minutes away from the airport. We both tried to console each other, that we should simply be happy to be on holiday and together.  We tried, we failed. As Bri put it, ” I rather be on holiday in Prague.”  No argument there. being the crisis management a planning sort of people we are, we began to plan for next steps.  Assessing the situation by tracking traffic patterns via google maps and flight status via flight tracker we quickly determined that we be screwed.  The plan.  Joe to collect the bags from the bus while Bri runs into the airport and checks us in.  We would have 20 minutes to make it through checking in,  security and gate.   We knew in our heart of hearts that only an act of God would allow us to make this flight.  I won’t lie, I prayed for a flight delay.  I prayed that dozens of people would have to wait because of a delayed plane just so we could start our holiday on time.  Well played God.  We check flight tracker, 16 minutes delayed.  Our 20 minute challenge turned into a 36 minute challenge. Still nearly impossible.  I continued to pray, almost taunting…”come on God, is that all you got?  Anyone can make the red sea part, I want to see some real results!”. Recheck flight tracker….57 minutes delayed.  That’s better, God…you ” da man.”

Italy Day 1

Day 1 and we were off to a pretty bad start. Waking up to an empty stomach, an empty kitchen and a gym that charges a per-entrance fee was not what I had in mind for our Italian escape. But on to the better things. We stopped at the on-site shop after working out to pick up a few basic necessities for breakfast and went back to get ready for the day. We found out the hard way that the shower drain didn’t work too well, which meant a quick power shower before heading off to discover the nearby town.Legs

Figline Valdarno is the neighbouring town to our camp ground, and holds a major Coop shop location where we went to get everything we would need for the weeks stay. Whilst we were able to get the bare necessities at the on-site shop, the prices were outrageous there. The Coop is similar to a large Sainsburys in the UK or a Jewel-Osco/Kroger in the US. Not quite a Meijer or ASDA, but a good, broad selection of items at good prices with store-brand options as well. Stocked up and ready to go, we dropped everything back at the flat and made our way into Florence for the remainder of the day.

COOP

Did I mention it was Joe’s birthday today too? Happy Birthday babe! More on that in another post.

Buon Compleanno
Smile Break

The drive to Florence, or Firenze as the Italians call it, was pretty easy. I recognized the drive in from the A1 Autostrade exit from the last time I was there, and we found free, on-street parking within comfortable walking distance of the city centre. The remainder of the day was spent perusing and strolling the streets, taking in all the sights that Florence has to offer.

Florence River

Ponte Vecchio

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our first stop was the Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge, which is known for the jewellery shops that line it. By night, the shops close up with wooden shutters that make the fronts look like suitcases and chests, making it a great route for an evening passeggiata, or stroll. Our next stop crossed two sites off at once; the Duomo and the Florence Baptistery. Both located in the heart of Florence, the Duomo, or Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, is the main church of Florence and was begun in 1296, finished in Bri1436. It is one of the largest churches in Italy and the largest brick done to ever be constructed. Pretty darn impressive for the 1300-1400’s if you ask me!

 

The Baptistery is also located in the Piazza del Duomo, and was constructed even earlier than the Basilica, having been constructed between 1059 and 1128. It’s best known for its three bronze doors that are made up of relief sculptures done by Andrea Pisano and Lorenzo Ghiberti. Random fact: up until the end of the 19th century, all of the Catholic Florentines were baptised in The Baptistery.

By this time, we were rather worn out and ready for a good birthday dinner, thanks to Joe’s brother Michael and his family. But more about that in another post…

La Dolce Vita

Italy, la dolce vita. “The sweet life”, in the movies. But that wasn’t quite the case when we got into town at 11pm to start a week-long adventure in the country of wine and olives. It was more like “la vita stressato” or “the stressed life”.

Our holiday started with rushing though the tiny airport in Pisa to get to the car rental place before they closed, only to wait nearly two hours before finding out that we couldn’t get a car with them without an international driving license. We ran over to Hertz before they closed to get one of their last cars…at nearly 7 times the cost of the other place. Such is life. Tale è la vita.

Our mini, expensive car

Our mini, expensive car

Then our real journey began. The trek from Pisa, through Florence, and on to Norcenni Girasole Club where we had a week booked in a 2 bedroom apartment. To those at home thinking that they’ll activate international cell coverage before they come over, let me enlighten you. Don’t expect much…or anything. You’ll be lucky to get any coverage, and the 3G is slower than a snail crossing the Sahara. After plenty of turning around and stopping to look at the map(thank god there’s nobody on the road at 2am) we finally made it to the site.
Pisa to Florence Map

Florence to Camp
Being a campsite, there is no front desk to check in at, and especially not at that hour of the night. There was one security guard there who was expecting us, and was arguably one of the nicest people we met throughout the entire trip. He showed us three different flats, giving us the option of whichever we wanted. We ultimately chose the first one, a two bedroom place with a kitchen and patio area up on a hill. Then again, what isn’t on a hill there? This might possibly be the hilliest country I’ve ever been to, but I haven’t been to all that many countries either.

This also isn’t Chicago or London. Nothing is open at 2 am. I repeat, NOTHING. Not even a rest stop or convenience shop. Having not eaten since lunchtime, the security guard took us to the on-site “disco”, which consisted of 2 people dancing and a bartender, and also had small snacks. Dinner was served; Pringles.

Pringles

That was enough excitement for one night. It was off to bed to recover from the travel and get ready for a full day ahead.

Too bad the bed ended up being the least comfortable bed I’ve ever slept in. La dolce vita, right?

Little Venice Canalway Cavalcade

Canalway Cavalcade Boats

Canalway Cavalcade Boats

Little Venice is a tucked away slice of heaven amongst the craziness of London, with a tranquility matched by no other space in the city. The Little Venice area hasn’t always been so nice, originally being built to transport goods such as coal and timber and the neighbouring pathways used by horses to pull the boats along. After WWII and the destruction of much of London, the untouched canal area was ‘discovered’ and today the area has a much more leisurely feel whilst becoming one of the better-known tourist attractions in the city.

The Canal

The Canal

For most of the year, this area is one of the most charming, relaxing areas in London, but on the first bank holiday weekend in May the area transforms into a lively, vibrant festival. The Canalway Cavalcade(organised by Inland Waterways Association) brings approximately 150 beautifully decorated boats and several vendor stalls to the area, with food and activities to keep even the most disinterested people entertained. There’s events

Specialty Chocolates

Specialty Chocolates

spanning from music to dancing, food and drink stalls for any appetite, and childrens activities galore. Two of the main highlights of the event are the pageant of decorated boats on Saturday afternoon and the procession of illuminated boats Sunday evening, which show off the intricate detail and effort that has gone into decorating the boats in attendance.

Also in the area is The Bridge House (http://www.thebridgehouselittlevenice.co.uk/), a great little restaurant/pub along the canal. You can read about our experience at The Bridge House here.

Whiskey Stall Goodies

Whiskey Stall Goodies

Ice Cream and Sweet Treats

Ice Cream and Sweet Treats

Waterside Cafe

Waterside Cafe