2005 Europe trip

A week-long trip to England, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands with my French class. (personal, food)
created: 30 Dec 2010; modified: 08 Mar 2017; status: finished; confidence: log; importance: 1

May 24, 2005; London, England

My first view of foreign lands, all cloud-beshrouded! The jet lag is beginning to kick in, but Virgin Airlines’s accommodations are comfortable and I napped during the flight.

Impressions:

  • I found that Iowerth meant the Tories planning on holding the line on spending should Tories win the 2005 general elections.
  • Smoking! I thought Europe was healthier than America.
  • Prices - the places trading quality for price are American chains. A race to the top!
  • Newsies. Quite confusing. Men have little stalls that sell only one newspaper; bizarre!
  • London itself: very pedestrian friendly, but somehow both shabby-dirty & classy-clean.

    The emptiness of the city, especially the financial district, is quite uncanny and eerie later in the day. The arrangement of streets, buildings, and parks is quite complex and chaotic - but charming.
  • Best place: Tower of London. Awesome fortifications, and beautiful stonework. The grounds were pretty too.

    Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle books like Quicksilver were misleading viz. its size and confusing interior. Saw the Ravens and Crown Jewels; amused by former, disgusted and horrified by the greed and rapaciousness of the British monarchs, who ought to have been shot and the populace smacked for perpetuating that institution, even if the royal family brings in tourism.
  • Security! Are the British all paranoiacs‽

    I routinely saw police carrying what looked to be automatic assault rifles! Every building was barricaded with pointy iron! There were cameras and warnings of cameras everywhere! Twas the rare bird that lacked’em. The signs & ads posted were positively neurotic! The signs said (I paraphrase): ’unattended luggage is almost certainly a bomb! Call the police now! We no longer need any reason to investigate or ruin your life - fear us! Barmy, I tells you. What’s their excuse? The IRA is disbanding.

That said, in a few days I’d’ve had a tooting good accent. Too bad we left too soon, and too bad I lost my wallet in a fancy pizza place just before we went to Harrods. (I eventually got it back; a cheap cautionary lesson.)

26 March; Paris, France

Disappointed. Paris is dingy and dark. I hope Paris is nicer in the summer. Thoughts:

  • less security: an example being sloppy exit security at Versailles. Refreshing after London’s paranoia
  • See previous note about British Crown Jewels. Multiply by about a thousand to capture my dudgeon at Versailles.
  • lots o’ graffiti, and amazing number of African and Arabic-looking types around
  • The little shops have remarkably good food
  • So many people speak English! A pleasant surprise which saves me from inflicting my French on them.
  • Exclusively American video games in electronics shops, like World of Warcraft and Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Strange. (But when I think about it, who else would the French buy video games from? Ubisoft?)
  • Louis1 thinks everyone is unfriendly. I say it is the language barrier. We shall see in Belgium & Holland.
  • American songs are popular. I guess their complaints of cultural imperialism are somewhat justified.
  • The current issue of Newsweek, which in the States has a portrait of Jesus on the cover, here has a cover of President Mugabe of Zimbabwe. My advice to fledgling mystery cults: don’t foul your own nest.
  • Louvre: large, confusing, ridiculous amounts of art and very full.

    I expected the cashiers to have better English, though, no fun being yelled at in French for not having exact change. The Egyptian and ancient Mesopotamia collections are the best I’ve ever seen. The Mona Lisa was impressive: photos don’t really capture the haziness, the swirling smokiness, and greenness of the painting.
  • St. Michel’s square: the choked winding alleys have some of the best sorbet I’ve ever eaten. (I also remember fondly the Dijon mustard that exploded in my mouth and sinuses, and the orange-glazed duck. I don’t remember the hour-long wait in the tiny restaurant.)
  • Mont-martre: The artist’s square had around 20 starveling artists desperate to sketch or portray you. The shops were kitsch. Actually, as shops went, Paris was worse than London, except for food & clothing. (And even food wasn’t great; I begged to go into an enormous grocery store to see what teas they had, and came out disappointed with one small canister which turned out to be mediocre when I finally got home. It would seem Paris is justly known for its restaurants and not its groceries.)

29 March; Bruges, Belgium & Amsterdam, Holland

An excellent day. We had considerable sleep, and our feet were recovered nicely since we had a long night and a morning on the bus.

We left Paris, and I was not sorry to go; the food did not compensate enough for all the other problems. I was trepidatious about our visit to the Low countries, since they spoke Dutch and Flemish, and I (and everyone but our tour guide John, a knowledgeable man, learned in matters both high and low. To my shame, he knows American culture better than I) have not even the smattering of them I do of French.

But to my amazement, we soon learned that just about everybody speaks remarkably good English! They were easier than the thicker British accents, believe it or not. We discovered this at Bruges (Brugge locally).

  • Random note: When traveling, bring at least two disposable cameras for each city

Brugge was in a word, awesome, my favorite place. (I believe most of the girls agreed with me.) It is a remarkably picturesque place to live, and an absolute tourist mecca, partially because as I have said, it seems everyone in the Low Lands speak English (is it similar to the Asian enthusiasm for learning English? I noticed many Dutch spoke in a polyglot of Dutch, German, and especially English, and many TV channels featured American shows and movies - often unsubtitled, including an old episode of Gilmore Girls; all of which is abetted by effective public foreign-language instruction.) and are extremely friendly. Bruges especially is a friendly-to-tourist town, and not in a ton-of-kitschy-overpriced-crap-shops way (like the ones in New York City around Times Square or Paris on the Champs Elysee); Brugge felt genuine. I had a Belgium waffle with French vanilla (of course) ice cream. (Excellent. Their reputation is well-deserved. I also bought some really dark Belgian chocolate2, and found a coffee & tea store that had several dozen varieties of quality loose leaf tea! I bought some green tea and Formosa oolong. All of which I have high hopes for.)

  • Note to self: After trip, ask Sandy whether the jasmine tea turned out well
  • Random note: Sandy was one of the girls I was complaining of earlier about profligacy and an inordinate love of tourist-trap shops; eg. one day in Paris, Sandy, that foolish, tall, young blonde, spent over €100 - before 5 PM!

My regrets for Brugge are as follows:

  1. We didn’t spend much time there. I would gladly have cut the Champs d’Elysees from the schedule, especially considering the incident, for a full day in Brugge.
  2. I did not get to climb the clock tower, or see the relic in the church (a phial of Jesus of Nazareth’s blood).
  3. We passed a gallery/shop devoted to the Belgian comics master Hergé, and to Tin-Tin - a show which aired on Nickelodeon and of which I have fuzzy yet fond memories. (But not enough to really look.)
  • Note to self: return to Brugge one day
  • Random note: In London, the hotel bathroom’s faucets were activated by stepping on a button on the floor. That is an efficient and sanitary method.
  • Random note: In the Low Countries, the hotel newspapers were English ones like The International Tribune

All too soon we left Brugge and arrived in Amsterdam.

  • Random note: As I write this, approaching St. John’s Island on my transcontinental airplane flight (back to the US), I am struck by the beauty of how the clouds shadow the water, the beautiful water, when they are separated enough to see the Atlantic. Why have I never seen this before?

Amsterdam (Dam-on-the-Amster) seemed like a more real city than Paris or Brugge. My initial impression was a feeling of at-home-ness. What local paper I read definitely seemed far more in accord with my own current political and social views than most places. The marijuana and sex reports of Amsterdam are greatly exaggerated. Not once did I see the redlight district (aside from more brazen displays of sexually-oriented merchandise than usual in large cities) or witness someone lighting up.

I might have, had I gone to one of the smart shops, which seemed rather interesting. Apparently smart shops vend mind-altering (in some way, not necessarily hallucinogenic; caffeine or theobromine I would classify as mind-altering, for example) substances such as (obviously) marijuana, ketamine, salvia something, and an array of supplements. I should have liked to go in and buy a few of the safest ones for importing and experimenting with at home (obviously no scheduled drugs! Even if I wanted to risk the drug itself, we were warned in no uncertain terms that customs were especially strict about young people coming from Holland, which I could believe since I’ve read of many foolish visitors to the Netherlands being later arrested) such as hydergine. Unfortunately, our free shopping times, locations, and the locations of the smart shops never quite conspired to allow it.

Ah well. Next time. A cheap supply of melatonin would have been nice.3

  • Random regret: That in London I foolishly lost my wallet at that gourmet pizza place, just before we all went to Harrods. Gott ver dammt!

We visited Anne Frank’s house, which used Anne’s diary in deeply affecting ways: the place was a triumph of multimedia presentation and a tooting good propaganda piece.

Also visited a diamond factory where Buehler’s sister bought a ring. Foolish American! The tour was considerably better than the tour at the Fragonard Perfume outlet in Paris, in that we received a decent explanation and could watch two employees polish some small 1-karat stones. It was amusing to see how the women would press the tiny diamond to the rotating diamond-dusted flywheel and an instant later whip it up to inspect it with a jeweler’s loupe. And like Fragonard’s, it ended with a sampling of their more lucrative wares, but before that we could see some of the more remarkable gems, thanks to the magic of their pneumatic tube system. Alas, my request to see a blue diamond was impossible to fulfill - none were in stock. The girls enjoyed looking at all the loose stones and earrings; Louis and I were simply bored. (I do not understand the appeal of white diamond - they look like sparkling clear glass.)

After all that, we went out to a museum village [Zaanse Schans?] and a fishing town (the latter of which was a gaping waste of time). At the village, we learned how they make cheese (pretty much as you’d expect) and also saw how their famous wooden shoes are made (through an ingenuous lathe copier as I dubbed it, in which a rod traced out the original on the copy, that is simultaneously being cut/bored by the drill.) I bought some herbal cheese and an excellently fitting pair of unpainted clogs. I plan to sand them, shape the bottom, and maybe put in orthopedic soles to cushion the wood; after which I will paint them. Precisely what is uncertain (I am thinking that a tiger’s head on the front, in the manner of fighter jets, and a tiger strip scheme on the rest),

But Weinutz (Dean of Discipline, who I formerly hated, but turned out to be good-natured and genial outside of school) has said he would give me a dress code exemption when I wore the painted clogs to school… if I dared.

Other than that, we went on a canal boat ride (spoiled by the damned girls, who in the last days went more than a little daft and noisy. Too much excitement, no doubt.), slept, and flew home without issue.

All in all, a remarkably satisfactory trip.

Aftermath: the tiger clogs

Junior year of high school, I went on a trip to Europe - London, Paris, Bruges, Amsterdam. Quite excellent, even though I was 1 of 2 guys on it, and the girls insisted on shopping and on eating at McDonald’s on the Champs-Élysées; but that’s a different story.

In Amsterdam, we took an excursion out to a model Dutch farm. It was muddy. And very flat.

While there, I bought some Dutch cheese which was really fantastic and which I later wolfed down and thoughtlessly discarded the wrappers so I have no idea what kind it was and so can never have it again4, and some wooden clogs. The machine which carves them out of wood was interesting, I thought, and I’m of Dutch descent myself, so I sort of had an obligation to get some wooden shoes while in Holland.

The shoes were pretty freshly carved, and quite wet (while the machine is carving a shoe, you can see the water gush out, that’s how wet the wood is), so I was standing around outside at the end with them in a bag. I began to ponder aloud how to paint them. I ultimately decided to paint them neon orange, with vivid black and white tiger stripes. (Don’t laugh; we were all young upon a time.)

Standing with me, in his black Franciscan robes, was Brother Joshua. He was then, and still is so far as I know, the Dean of Discipline. He handled a lot of student infractions or detentions, and was an object of fear to everyone except his choir classes.

He heard my plans with bemusement, and much to my surprise, said that if I actually carried out my plan and didn’t just put the shoes on a shelf in the attic, he would personally give me permission to violate the school dress code and wear the clogs to classes.

I was thrilled, and many days later, after flying to London and back home, I went to Home Depot, bought the spray paints and lacquers, and began work…

I had given Brother Joshua no warning; just showed up in the main office one morning and found him in his office, proffered the bright orange (they were not neon, but a more satisfyingly tiger-y orange) clogs, and grinned. He shook his head - he remembered full well his promise - and wrote out a small note for me.

I immediately put on the wooden shoes and stomped quietly out. I made a point in class of crossing my legs and sticking them out of my desk, and using my free period to walk down the stairs and up the hallways. Some of my consoeurs from the trip remembered the bargain and congratulated me on filling it. I was stopped by a teacher only once (which at the time struck me as surprising, and has since been a lesson in audacity - people generally assume that if you look like you know what you are doing, you must have permission or a good reason of some sort). That was, I think, my single best day at St. Anthony’s.

Photos

The clogs, in pairs (note the shiny lacquer):

wooden shoes, pair shot: left wooden shoes, pair shot: right wooden shoes, pair shot: from above, shoes down wooden shoes, pair shot: from above, shoes up

Individually:

left wooden shoe, from left left wooden shoe, from right right clog, from left right clog, from right


  1. Louis is the only other boy on the trip; he’s shorter than me, but more outgoing.

  2. One odd thing I noticed coming back was that when I happened to eat some Hershey’s chocolate, I found it sour and bad-tasting. Turns out that Hershey bars contain butyric acid as a preservative.

  3. Melatonin turns out to be very cheap online in the US.

  4. In 2010, after several hours going through cheese resources, I figured out that the cheese had to have been a kind of gouda cheese called Graskaas; in 2011, a Dutchman told me that official graskaas was only sold in a 2-3 week period in spring because then the spring grass ages. How fortunate that was when we went!