First Expat Christmas

Let’s first start with a new-to-me word:

Expatriate: (noun) often shortened to expat; A person who lives outside their native country.
I had never heard this word before moving to England. And based on our patriotic-ness, I definitely thought it referred only to Americans. Yes, I know that I am typical American, where everything literally revolves around us. I am wrong; the world doesn’t revolve around Americans. Because I lived in Nebraska for almost 30 years and never truly adventured too far from home, I never thought globally before moving abroad or adventuring away from home. I’m still learning about new cultures, foods, and words.

Now it is firmly the summer months in England, where the weather varies week-to-week or day-to-day. The temperature ranges from roughly 50°F (10°C) to nearly 90°F (32°C). The sun is either out in full-force or hiding behind a blanket of clouds. Yesterday was a new one for us: it literally rained all day.

A few weeks ago when the sun was always around (from 5 a.m. until 10 p.m.), I had some nostalgia for winter! When the sun is never really out but the mood is bright and warm; full of holiday festivals and welcoming pubs. Winter, but specifically Christmas time, always warms my heart regardless of the temperature outside.

However, this past Christmas was difficult for me. At the time, we had only lived in the UK for 6 months, and I had only been at my job for 5. I felt like I couldn’t ask to take more than a few days off work to go home for Christmas. Any time less than a week just isn’t worth the cost of the plane tickets nor the intense jet lag. And to be honest, El also couldn’t take that kind of time off work. Instead, we made the best of our time over here! We put up the [fake] Christmas tree that sprinkles needles everywhere, adorned it with our favorite ornaments, and blared Christmas classics on Spotify (because Pandora doesn’t work in the UK). After a trip to B&Q (the British version of Home Depot – with the orange aprons and friendly smiles), we decided to use our American lights plugged in a transformer – at the time, we couldn’t justify buying new lights for the tree – they’re so expensive here.
Christmas Tree

O’ Christmas Tree!

In the UK, the winter season comes with Christmas markets and decorations throughout the city and country. Cambridge was beautifully lit up and the daily market and stores had Christmas-themed items. A specific kind of cheese that El now loves made its first appearance, but we learned that it is only available during the winter season. There was also a special Christmas Market Day along Mill Road in Cambridge; the street was closed down for the day and evening, vendors were outdoors  on the street selling everything from decorations to gift items, antiques to clothing, and of course food and drinks were available everywhere. Just thinking about the mulled wine that was available makes me almost wish for winter Christmas to return soon. But could I please request a bit more sunshine during winter this year?
Let’s discuss what mulled wine is exactly. First of all, when said aloud it sort of sounds like you’re saying “mold wine.” I promise it isn’t moldy at all! Composed of red wine, sugar, orange juice, and seasonal spices (e.g., cinnamon, star anise, and cloves), mulled wine is another reason, or maybe THE reason, that I can’t wait for Christmas this year. It’s warm and spicy, cozy and spirited! Some recipes I’ve seen call for the addition of bay leaves and brandy. I think it is just wonderful, especially on cold, dark, rainy days. One of my co-workers even has spice bags (think tea bags) that she used to prepare homemade mulled wine while we baked Christmas cookies for our workplace. I also learned how to say Merry Christmas in German from another co-worker and found imported Christmas tins of cookies and liquor that could possibly help me get through a British winter.
Christmas cookies, German: Merry Christmas, Spice sachet, Christmas goodies at Lakenheath Commissary, German Apple Liquor

Christmas cookies, Merry Christmas (in German), spice sachet, imported Christmas goodies, German Apple Liquor

I partook in a ladies-only trip down to London to explore the Christmas Markets. We visited the markets in Hyde Park and near the Tate Modern Museum. More mulled wine. More food. More Christmas goodies and gifts. Next year, I wish to visit Christmas Markets in both Germany and in other parts of the UK besides Cambridge and London.
Hyde Park Christmas Market

Hyde Park Christmas Market

El and I also had to make other tough decisions regarding celebrating Christmas. Both of our workplaces had fancy Christmas Parties, which happened to be on the same night, so we compromised. We chose to attend the Postdocs Of Cambridge (PdOC) Society’s Christmas Party this year; next year we will attend El’s work Christmas party. The Christmas Party for the PdOC was held at St. John’s College, one of the 31 colleges associated with the University of Cambridge. There were drinks, speeches, Christmas crackers, and a fancy dinner in the formal hall that made me think we were in a Harry Potter film. The dining hall was decorated for Christmas, complete with a gigantic Christmas tree.
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At our first British Christmas Party.

We took a short holiday just after Christmas. There are so many choices of where to go and what to see, but we opted for going skiing in the southern part of Germany. We made our travel plans very simple; we flew from Stansted Airport to München (Munich) then hopped on a train to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Neither of us speak much German (please and thank get you far though in any language). We found that traveling to, from, and within Germany easy to figure out and extremely on schedule.
Mountain view from lunch

Oh, the Alps! The view from one of the ski slopes.

Jen mountain top post lunch 2

Lunch on the ski slopes.

Kindergarten 2

Learning on the “Kingergarten” slope.

Prior to this ski trip, El and I had only ever skied once. In Iowa. For those of you keeping track, Mt Crescent, Iowa is not a mountain range. It is barely a bunny hill. Let’s just say that the ski instructions in Garmish-Partenkirchen were well worth the money spent. We skied for several days at Zugspitze on the Garmisch-Classic. We picked up the sport quickly and have plans to return! El has even proclaimed that skiing is his new favorite sport. By the end of a ski-cation (our fourth day of the trip), El went down the face of the entire mountain with our ski instructor, Jon-O. I gleefully took the ski lift down the mountain with my eyes tightly shut most of the way down, humming songs to myself to preoccupy my brain. Heights are scary for me. And I was alone in the cable car with no one to distract me.

Jen and El skiing

Selfie on the slopes

We were told that our timing for our vacation was impeccable. The schools would be starting on our second day on the slopes, so the ski lifts would be relatively empty. They couldn’t be more right! On that second day, the weather was perfect and there were very few people on the mountain. It was blissful. Being able to see the whole town and Munich from the ski slopes and lift was priceless. The next time we go to Garmisch-Partenkirchen, we’ll try to stay for a full week and book it just after kids are back in school.

I can see for miles!

I can see for miles!

After the ski-cation was over, the rest of the time we spent in München. We stayed near the Marienplatz and Viktualienmarkt in a wonderful bed and breakfast. The lady who ran the B&B was so inviting and made some of the best breakfast platters on our travel adventures so far. If you’re ever in the München area, contact us and we’ll give you the name of this cute B&B.

In München, we did plenty without having a real agenda or itinerary. This El’s style of vacation, not mine. However, we agreed to it prior to going, so I made due without knowing where we’d be going (wherever the wind blew us that day), what we’d be doing, or when (and what) we’d be eating that day. Overall, it was great! Even without knowing, we essentially saw most of the city. The first night we were in München, we stopped by the Haufbrähaus for an “obligatory” brezeln und biers (pretzels and beer).

The outside of Haufbrahaus.

The outside of Haufbrahaus.

We also toured the Schloss Nymphenburg (Nymphenburg Palace) and strolled through the Englicsher Garten (English Garden) complete with watching crazy surfers on the river.

Nymphenburg Palace

Nymphenburg Palace

We also toured the Residenz München (Munich Residence) and Neus Rathaus (New Town Hall) – with the Glockenspiel am Rathausturm. We climbed the tower of St. Peter’s Church to get a bird’s eye view of the Glockenspiel and plaza.

Inside the Neus Rathaus, there is an American stained glass window.

Inside the Neus Rathaus, there is an American stained glass window.

Bird's eye view of Neus Rathaus.

Bird’s eye view of Neus Rathaus.

I smiling even though terrified.

I’m smiling even though I’m terrified.

We also visited München’s Botanical Gardens and ventured over to the BMW Museum and Welt. Somehow, Elliott was able to talk me into going up the Olympic Tower in the Olympiapark. The top of the Tower a great view of the city and the stadium while having some really awesome pictures and signatures from famous artists.

The view from the Olympia Tower.

The view from the Olympia Tower.

Sign2

How far is Garmisch?

Olympia Tower at dusk.

Olympia Tower at dusk.

BMW Welt.

Outside the BMW Museum and Welt.

Dear Santa,
Below is my Christmas list for this year. I promise that I’m on the nice list!
1. A real Christmas tree to decorate
2. A week in Garmisch-Partenkirchen to refine my skiing skills
3. Attend Christmas markets in Germany
4. More sunshine during the British winter
5. World peace
Love,
Jen

London: the one day tour guide

This is my “tour guide” of how to see the best touristy things in London in only one busy day. As this is my opinion, the list is not all-inclusive but represents what I think are the most fantastic tourist things to do and see in London.

I would recommend this for those who do not generally like cities (but wants to see some British history and is forced to be in London for a day), are passing through London (with a one night stay-over) on their way to the rest of Europe, or for those who recently arrived in England and now live within a short train ride from London. This is a jam-packed full day trip, requiring the following: at least 12 hours, a positive attitude (that you’re trying to see an amazing city in only one day), and a great pair of walking shoes. And maybe a nice weatherproof layering jacket.

We usually buy an “open return” train ticket from Cambridge that includes using the London Underground during off-peak times for the entire day. Off-peak is before 6:30 a.m. and after 9:30 a.m. The open return part of the ticket allows for the user to return to their origin of destination any time after 7 p.m. on the same day.

Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross Train Station
Generally speaking, El and I take an express train into Kings Cross Station when going to London. Therefore, this area is a fun stopping point for us. There is a cart to take pictures with (including a scarf representing your favorite house) and a store for all of your needed Harry Potter accessories, including wands, tasty treats, and clothing.
Time: 5 minutes, unless you really do want your picture taken with the cart that is “going into” the Platform area. There’s always a queue for that. I honestly believe that the British do enjoy a good queue.

Platform 9 3:4

Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station

The British Museum
This Museum contains global antiquities, including Greek, Roman, and Egyptian artifacts. On occasion, The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai is supposedly on display. We keep stopping by to see if it is being displayed – not only is it our favorite piece of artwork, it is never on display in museums when we are there. We missed it in Paris by a few days.
The other reason why the British Museum has become our normal first stop is because our commuting underground tickets don’t work until off peak hours, and we are usually aiming to get into London before 9 a.m. for a day trip. Therefore, El and I think it is an easy way for us to spend at least a half hour before being able to use the Underground. And after riding the train for 45 minutes, we think it is nice to walk about a mile from the train station to the museum. Bonus is that you get the luxury to walk through Russell Square (a lovely park) and the University College London campus on your journey from the station. The British Museum also has a nice selection of teas in their cafe area.
Cost: Donation suggestion of £5
Time: I could spend most of a day inside the museum. We generally only spend 30 minutes or 1 hour in this one because it is part of our normal London routine.
Closest Underground Stations: Russell Square, Holborn, Tottenham Court Road, and Godge Street

Trafalgar Square and The National Gallery Museum
This is a public space in central London that is used for many ceremonies (New Year’s Eve, Christmas, Silence in the Square (Remembrance Day),  St. Patrick’s Day Parade goes around it, etc) in addition to a place for protests and a general meeting or gathering point. Because I particularly like people watching (sorry, I know it sounds a little creepy), Trafalgar Square is a place for me to sit, relax, and watch the world go by. I particularly like watching how people interact with each other and their reaction to street performers.
There are four plinths within the square, which are home to three statues: General Sir Charles James Napier, Major-General Sir Henry Havelock, and an equestrian statue of King George IV. The fourth plinth is used to showcase commissioned artworks. At the time of posting this (and unveiled at the beginning of March 2015), the current piece of artwork is Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse, is a skeletal and riderless horse. Tied to one of the horse’s front leg is an electronic ribbon that displays a live ticker of the London Stock Exchange. It is said to link money, power, and history together in one piece. You can see and read more about this display and past displays here.
Next to Trafalgar Square is The National Gallery Museum, which contains many fantastic pieces of artwork. The website boasts 30 highlighted paintings that are a must-see. I personally believe that the two most popular works housed in this museum are The Virgin of the Rocks by Leonardo da Vinci and Sunflowers by Vincent van Gogh.
Cost: Donation suggestion of £5
Time: I could also spend a lot of time inside this museum as well. I try to limit my time to only an hour in this museum too.
Closest Underground Station: Charing Cross

The fourth plinth was the Hahn/Cock by Katharina Fritsch from July 2013 until February 2015.

The fourth plinth was the Hahn/Cock (blue rooster shown at the far left side of the picture) by Katharina Fritsch and was on display in Trafalgar Square from July 2013 until February 2015.

Horse Guards Parade at Whitehall
From Trafalgar Square, the Horse Guards Parade is a large parade ground less than a 10 minutes walk. Many people (crowds!) take pictures of the two guardsmen on horses outside of the area. If you time it correctly, you can watch the Changing of the Guard ceremony.
Time: Ceremony occurs at 11 a.m. daily, except Sundays at 10 a.m.
Closest Underground Station: Charing Cross

St. James’s Park
Behind the Horse Guards Parade is this wonderful park. In addition to the pelicans (given by a Russian ambassador over 350 years ago), there are wonderful fauna and flora here. I recently learned that the pelicans are fed fish at 2:30-3 p.m. on Duck Island within the park. The walk through the park leads up to Buckingham Palace. There is also a Princess Diana Memorial in the park.
Time: Under an hour
Closest Underground Stations: Westminster and Charing Cross

St. James Park Lake with the London Eye in the background. Photo taken by Gloria Borgstahl.

St. James Park Lake with the London Eye in the background. Photo taken by Gloria Borgstahl.

Buckingham Palace
At the other end of St. James’s Park is the residence of HRM Queen Elizabeth II. Four foot guards indicated that Queen is in residence, two guards indicates she is not. The changing of the guards also occurs here at 11:30 a.m. and lasts approximately 45 minutes. During the spring and summer, this occurs daily. In autumn and winter, this occurs every other day. When it is wet or cold, the guards wear grey coats instead of red. From late July until late September, you can tour parts of Buckingham Palace.
Cost: Free if you stay outside of the palace. If touring the palace, prices vary from £20 up to £75, depending on what you see and if you get a private tour.
Closest Underground Station: Victoria, Green Park, Hyde Park Corner

E&J Buckingham Palace 2013 2

The Palace of Westminster – also known as the Houses of Parliament
This palace is the home to the Elizabeth Tower and is widely known for its iconic bell inside: Big Ben! This palace and its tower are well known to people outside of London. The parliament debates and hearings are open to all visitors to attend. Permanent UK residents can book tours of the Elizabeth Tower to see Big Ben up close and personal.
Cost: Free – for the tour, you must contact your MP
Closest Underground Station: Westminster

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The iconic Big Ben

Westminster Abbey
This is the church for weddings and coronations of the United Kingdom’s Royal Family. It has a lot of history within it and is the burial site for over 3,000 people – from monarchs to scientists to poets. No pictures can be taken inside the Abbey, but you can purchase a tour booklet with pictures of the abbey for £2 as you enter. There are also free audio guides in many languages available. On Sundays, Christmas, and Easter the abbey is only open for worship.
Cost: £20
Time: Expect to spend 2 hours touring with the audio guide.
Closest Underground Station: Westminster

Westminster Abbey

The London Eye
This attraction comes with a small disclaimer: I must admit that I love Ferris wheels! There is something that attracts me to them, almost like a magnet. I drag El into every single Ferris wheel that I possibly can. I’ve always found them to be fun even though I am slightly terrified of heights. The London Eye happens to be a giant Ferris wheel, so I’m a little biased on the importance of seeing and experiencing a ride on it. This gigantic wheel is located on the South Bank of the River Thames. It is also known as the Millennium Wheel, but I’ve never heard it called that.
When it was built in 1999, the structure (443 ft; 135 m) and wheel (diameter of 394 ft, 120 m) made it the tallest Ferris wheel in the world. Since then, the Star of Nanchang, the Singapore Flyer, and the High Roller (Las Vegas, Nevada; currently the tallest) have surpassed the height of the London Eye. Technically speaking though, the Eye is the tallest European Ferris wheel and “the world’s tallest cantilevered observation wheel” meaning it is supported by an A-frame from only one side (the non-river side). Until 2013, the Eye was the highest public viewpoint in London; the Shard opened in its observation decks on the 68th, 69th, and 72nd stories with the 72nd story to be much higher than the Eye.
In the London Eye, are 32 capsules; each one representing one of London’s boroughs, which can hold up to 25 people. Inside each air-conditioned passenger capsule is seating and room to walk around. When El and I went in spring 2013, there were tablets in 4 areas that provide the names and descriptions of buildings and landmarks that riders can see from inside the capsule.
Cost: ~£21, but discounted tickets of £19 can be purchased online. Additionally, private bookings, fast track tickets (skip the queue), and tour guides are available.
Time: One revolution in this Ferris wheel requires roughly 30 minutes. The rate of rotation is slow enough that it is easy to walk on and off of the moving capsules. However, the Ferris wheel is stopped when elderly or disabled passengers are embarking or disembarking the capsules for safety purposes.
Closest Underground Station: Waterloo

Jenny London Eye 2013

The Tower of London
History at its finest. This Tower was built in 1066 by William the Conqueror as both a palace and defense system. With its unique history (22 executions, prisoners galore, and many exotic animals), quirky superstitions (7 ravens are kept in the Tower of London and are fed a steady, daily diet of 170 g of raw meat and blood-soaked biscuits), fantastic jewelry display (the Crown Jewels are stored and displayed on site) and excellent on-site free tour guides (the Beefeaters), the Tower has so much to offer and is literally a piece of history that you can walk through. Throughout the year, there are different events (performances, talks, activities) that are available at the Tower. For example, if you are great at making plans 5-6 months in advance, you can have the opportunity to see exactly how the Beefeaters lock up the Tower at night with the Ceremony of the Keys!
Cost: £24.50, £23.10 if purchased online; £1 for the Ceremony of the Keys
Closest Underground Station: Tower Hill
Time: I believe the Tower can be an all-day tour. However, it can also be done in under 2 hours.

Poppies surrounding the Tower of London. Poppies were installed from August until November 2014. After Remembrance Day, the poppies were removed and mailed to those who had purchased them.

Poppies surrounding the Tower of London. Poppies were installed from August until November 2014. After Remembrance Day, the poppies were removed and mailed to those who had purchased them.

The Tower Bridge
The Tower Bridge was built in the 1880’s and is a combination of a bascule bridge and a suspension bridge. Like many other attractions on my list, the Tower Bridge is an iconic symbol of London. It consists of two bridge towers with two horizontal walkways connecting them. They were designed to allow people to walk from one side of the Thames to the other, even when a bridge is drawn for tall ships to sail through. Under the Tower Bridge Act (Corporation of London Act), the city is required to raise the Bridge to provide access to and egress from the Upper Pool of London for registered vessels with a structure of 30 ft or larger. This service is free, only requires 24 hours’ notice, and can happen any time during the year. You can find out the next time the bridge will be raised hereClosest Underground Stations: Tower Hill, London Bridge, Bermondsey
Cost: free, £10.50 if you go to the top walkway of the bridge and get a tour
Closest Underground Station: Tower Hill

Tower Bridge

Our Year Five Began in Paris

Before we moved across the pond, my friend Mary Anne suggested that we should celebrate our fifth wedding anniversary by being in Paris and in the Eiffel Tower. I become fixated on doing this because I thought it would be a very romantic way to celebrate. I was envisioning eating chocolate and drinking champagne at the top by ourselves – yes, in my mind, all of the other tourists would just not be in the tower with us. Maybe El rented the tower for the day to celebrate. Who knows? It could happen, right? Let’s just say that I can be a little delusional at times!

This was our second holiday (the first being a tour of East Anglia in July), but our first one to “the continent.” By which, I mean continental Europe, which excludes all of the islands that are associated with Europe. In other words, Brits refer to Europe as this other place that excludes them. And while I don’t disagree that British people and their customs are wildly different from other Europeans, I find it strange that the Brits commonly exclude themselves from the rest of Europe. Examples include: UK is the only place in Europe that drives on the left side of the road, thereby needing to have right-side driver seats; the UK is the only country (edit: one of ten countries, soon to be nine) in the EU that does not use the Euro as currency. The other countries that do not use the Euro are Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Sweden, and Lithuania. However, Lithuania is set to start using the Euro in January 2015. (Thanks Nesrin for the information about the EU countries that haven’t adopted the Euro!)

I digress. Back to France! We had an ambitious list of things that we wanted to see and do in Paris, but we’d only be around for two and half days. Therefore, we opted for subway tickets that would let us freely roam within Parisian Zones 1-3 (the main portion of the city) and tried to group together things based on their locations. We still have a few things that we would have liked to do, but we plan to be in France again in the next few years. We envision the possibility of stopping in Paris for another day or two on the way to somewhere else.

Here’s a photo-essay with a sprinkle of information and/or history on what we did for the ~70 hours that we were in Paris:

Musée du Louvre
Famous for the pyramid shaped sculpture and for being the site of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa painting, the Louvre is a fantastic museum full of sculptures, paintings, and textiles. The museum contains thousands of works of art divided into several departments: Near Eastern Antiquities, Egyptian Antiquities, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, Islamic Art, Sculptures, Decorative Arts, Paintings, Prints, and Drawings. The span of the museum is extensive because it has been so much more than just a museum. In 1190, The Louvre was built as a fortress to protect Parisians from possible invasions from the north (I would have feared Viking attacks too). In the 16th century, the Louvre was reconstructed as a royal palace. And finally, in 1793 the Louvre became a fine art museum.

Louvre 5

We roamed through the never-ending hallways and stairwells for hours with Nintendo 3DS consults as our tour guides – they are totally worth the 5 Euro. There is at least one stairwell that goes under the museum, which is pretty interesting to see the foundation of the original building! I was really struck by various artists sitting in front of fantastic pieces of work with their own paintbrushes and canvas, trying to recreate the original. I also found one of my new favorite pieces of artwork by exploring the Louvre.

Louvre 2

Fun fact for others (and maybe ourselves): on the first Sunday of the month during off-peak travel season (from October until March), all visitors can access the permanent collections of the museum for free. It is not free between April and September. Also, the museum is closed on Tuesdays year-round.

Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile
This arch monument is not to be confused with the one just outside of the Louvre Museum – that one is the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel and is about half the size of the one in Place de l’Étoile. This monumental and triumphal arch was inspired by the Roman Arch of Titus, which was built in 92 BCE. The construction of the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile started in 1806 (completed 30 years later) and is one of the largest triumphal arches in the world, standing at 164 ft (40 meters) in height, 148 ft (45 m) in width, and 72 ft (22 m) deep. To put that into perspective, after the hostilities of World War I ended, Charles Godefoy (aviator in the French Air Force) flew his Nieuport fighter biplane through (THROUGH!) the arc. This event has been captured on film and in photos.
Currently, there are two larger triumphal arches: the Monumento a la Revolución in México, D.F. (Mexico City) standing at 220 ft (67 m) tall, which was built in 1938, and the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang, North Korea standing at 197 ft (60 m) tall, which was built in 1982. The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile honors those who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary War and in the Napoleonic War. The names of all the French victories and generals on carved into the surface of the arch. Beneath the vault is the Tomb of the Unknown Solider from World War I. Many days, there is also a colossal French flag flying under the archway as well.

Arc 1

As we approached the Arc de Triomphe, we couldn’t figure out how exactly to get there. The Métro (Parisian subway) stop is Charles de Gaulle – Étoile station, which plops you out close, but on one of the adjacent streets coming off of the roundabout. Did I mention this arch happens to be in the center of a roundabout? And this roundabout is at least a few lanes deep and is the intersection of 12 roads! Because of the traffic, it is highly recommended to use the pedestrian underpass (located at Champs Élysées and the Avenue de la Grande Armée). In fact, I don’t think you could make it across the roundabout road without getting injured.

After marveling at the outside design of the Arc de Triomphe, we decided to go to the top. The spiral staircase to the top consists is just shy of 300 steps. At the top you arrive at a small gift shop and exhibition to learn more about the monument’s history. There are about another 50 steps to reach the rooftop of the monument, where you have a panoramic view of Paris. One can see the Place de la Concorde, the Jardin des Tuileries, the Louvre Museum, the Basilica, and the Eiffel Tower. I personally believe that this is one of the most amazing views of Paris.

Arc PANO top-001

The 18th Arrondissement
The 18th arrondissement (district) is on the north side of Paris and is known for a many things. One of which is the Sacré-Cœur Basilica (Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris). After researching a little bit about what exactly a basilica is, the word has three separate meanings, which is why I’m probably still a little confused. A basilica can be used it to describe a building, usually Roman and an open public court building. Another way it is used is to architecturally describe Christian churches that have a central nave and aisles. The third way specifically describes churches that have Papal rights to perform specific ceremonies. One thing is for sure, the Sacré-Cœur Basilica is a Christian church with a central nave and aisles.

Basillica 4

Sacré-Cœur Basilica is a Roman Catholic church at the summit of Montmartre, a 427 ft (130 m) tall hill, which happens to be the tallest point in Paris. Also on this hill is another church; the Saint Pierre de Montmartre, the older of the two churches on the Montmartre hill, which claims to be the location where the Jesuit order of priests was founded.
Montmartre also describes the surrounding neighborhood, which is part of the 18th arrondissement. This area is also known for Moulin Rouge (we only stopped outside of to take a photo or three) and the Place du Tertre, which is a square where some artists make portraits for tourists while other artists are painting landscape scenes of Paris – to sell to tourists. This area is apparently also known for being the night club district and has been the site where many artists have lived in Paris. The museum of Salvador Dalí‘s drawings and sculptures is also within this district. I think our favorite part of this neighborhood was the views of the city and watching a mime entertain the crowd outside of the basilica.

Basillica 1Moulin Rouge

Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris
Notre-Dame de Paris is a historic Catholic cathedral in the 4th arrondissement of Paris on the eastern part of the Île de la Cité, one of two natural islands* in the Seine River within Paris. The architecture of the cathedral is stunning along with the stained glass and sculptures within the cathedral. It is also the location of the Archdiocese of Paris and contains the treasury notable for its reliquary; it is the home of the Crown of Thorns, part of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails. There are ten bells in the cathedral, which to my amusement are all named. The largest (and oldest), Emmanuel, is original to 1681 and weighs over 13 tons. That’s a BIG bell! It is mostly used to mark the hours of the day. The other nine bells (names are: Marie, Gabriel, Anne Geneviéve, Denis, Marcel, Étienne, Benoît-Joseph, Maurice, and Jean-Marie) were replaced in 2013 and are rung for various festivals or ceremonies. My friend Dan also recently pointed out that just outside of the main entry, there is a small octagonal brass plate set in the ground which marks “Paris Point Zero” – the  exact spot from which all distance from Paris are measured. We completely walked by it without noticing it.

Notre Dame 5

*As a side note, there is an artificial island on the Seine River. One of them is Île aux Cygnes, which is where there is a replica of Statue of Liberty. This statue is one quarter of the size of the one located in the USA.

The Eiffel Tower

On to the grand prize of this adventure. The Eiffel Tower happens to have many replicas – one of which we visited in June of this year in Las Vegas, Nevada. But we wanted to see the real thing. Remember? El was to have rented out the tower for a day to celebrate our anniversary without other tourists. The iconic iron lattice tower is located near the Seine River and on the Champ de Mars. It was named after the engineer (Gustave Eiffel) and was constructed to be used as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair. Gustave Eiffel has an impressive list of things he has designed; another popular attraction he designed is the Statue of Liberty.

Eiffel Tower 1

We first admired the tower from the Champ de Mars, the adjacent park. The park has a lot of history that goes with it. The world’s first hydrogen-filled balloon was launched from there in 1783. In 1790, the first “Federation Day” (Bastille Day) celebration was held there. A year later, the massacre on the Champ de Mars also took place. And he first mayor of Paris (Jean Sylvain Bailly) was guillotined there in 1793, becoming a victim of his own revolution. Only the French.

We had a little picnic with some wine and soaked up the sun on the green. Our nearest neighbors in the park were also soaking up the sun in swimsuits, which we found to be pretty awesome since they all looked to be around our grandparents’ ages. We then took a few pictures “with the tower” before climbing all of the stairs. All 704 of them to the second level. There are three levels for visitors – the first two levels have restaurants and gift shops on them. There was also a movie showing the construction of the tower and views of the tower throughout its history; the film ended with panoramic views of fireworks at the tower. One the day that we went, the third and final level was inaccessible by stairs, so we stood in line to take an elevator to the top deck observatory. The top level is 906 ft (276 m) from the ground, making it the highest accessible public platform in the EU.

Eiffel Tower Picnic 5                 Eiffel Tower Picnic 4

My thoughts of the City of Lights

From what we did see and experience of the city: the food and culture are nothing like we’ve experienced. Every wine we tasted was fantastic, but I couldn’t tell you what type of wine. The city views from the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, and Basilica are all very different, but my favorite was from the top of the arc. With an app, the subway system was easy to navigate. The local people (away from the city attractions) were quite friendly – we used an app that had common French phrases, which helped with communicating to non-English speakers (they appeared to be thankful that we were trying to speak French). The lesson we learned for our next adventure: bring a second pair of shoes! The pedometer on my phone estimated that we walked about 100,000 steps the four days that we were in London and France. I say that this was by far our healthiest vacation!

First Trip Through London

We are new to traveling in Europe. We expect (hope) to do a lot of it over the next few years (specifically out of London to the continental Europe), so we need to become professionals at it. When booking our trip to France, we didn’t know that there is a direct train to London Stansted Airport from Cambridge (stops at the airport terminal) and that Stansted Airport flies to many countries, including France. What we ended up doing was spending a full day in London and staying overnight before catching a plane to Paris out of London Gatwick Airport. The benefit was that we were able to explore London.

Live and let live. And, you know, learn a little too.

Our first learning experience was coming to find out that England loves a good queue. Long queues for the subway in the morning are epic in Kings Cross and Victoria Stations. We also learned that we needed to have an “anytime ticket” that allowed us onto the tube (subway) before 9:30 a.m. And so we walked. We walked from Kings Cross to the British Museum, only to learn that they still were not displaying our favorite piece of artwork: Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa. However, we stayed and wondered through the British Museum for awhile and grabbed some caffeine for the morning.

After stopping at a few bookstores and going through the National Gallery, we crossed the Millennium Bridge and tried to go for a tour of Shakespeare’s Globe. Because there was a matinée showing, we were unable to tour the Globe (maybe we’ll get to it next trip). We settled for grabbing a pint at the Swan restaurant, which is attached to the Globe. Finding our silver lining: we discovered a new (to us) beer that we both love: the Camden Ink Stout, which is locally brewed in London (in Camden, technically). They have brewery tours, so that will also be on our list of things to do next time we pass through London.

London Eye, as seen from the Millennium Bridge

London Eye, as seen from the Millennium Bridge

Drinking a pint of Camden Ink at the Swan above The Shakespeare's Globe.

Drinking a pint of Camden Ink at the Swan above The Shakespeare’s Globe.

Our next stop was the Tower of London. I read about the ceramic poppies being “planted” at the Tower of London to commemorate and remember the 888,246 British military fatalities during the first world war – each poppy represents one person. The UK entered the first World War on August 5, 1914 – 100 years ago. The last poppy is to be “planted” on November 11 of this year – on Remembrance Day in the UK (Veteran’s Day in the US). You can actually buy and dedicate a poppy, which I think is amazing.

The Tower of London, surrounded by ceramic poppies.

The Tower of London, surrounded by ceramic poppies.

The Tower Bridge.

The Tower Bridge.

This tour of London ended with fantastic Chinese food from My Old Place. We try to note where the locals go – it is usually where the best food is in the city. However, this restaurant recommendation comes from a friend, Lora, who lived in London for awhile. We didn’t make it to her other restaurant recommendations, but we have plenty of time to go back!