Wednesday, March 23, 2011

p a r i s

One of the perks (probably the main one) to moving over to London to work temporarily is the fact that it is so central to every other European country. With that in mind, Paris was the destination for this past weekend. It is only a 45 minute to 1 hour flight (about the equivalent of Vancouver to Edmonton, although, not nearly as glamorous ;)). Since it was such a convenient flight, I chose to take a flight straight after work (at 7pm) – I am not going to do that again. It was a major rush trying to get to Heathrow in rush hour, on the Piccadilly line. But I made it and to France I went! 

Instead of booking a hostel, I thought I would try something else. An apartment owned privately but rented out for vacationers. It was in the 10th arrondisement and right by 2 metro stations. Furthermore, it included 3 beds, a kitchen that was fully stocked, a TV and a washroom. It was great – and only for about $95 CAD a night. So if you are flying anywhere next, give a try – they allow ratings much like expedia does so you can have a better idea of what other travellers thought as well.

Now, going into Paris, I had heard a lot of stories and people’s thoughts on the city. It is known to many as a romantic city with incredible architecture and history. I  haven’t been told many bad things about the city at all, other than to try to speak a little French while I am there – even if I am terrible at it. So I practiced my bonjours and merci’s a little while before I left. I arrived late in Paris that first night and it was pouring rain so it wasn’t the most pleasant welcoming party but I was exhausted and just wanted to get into my apartment. When I finally found it, I settled in and planned out days 1 and 2.

Day 1 – On the very first day, I had a laundry list of things that I wanted to see and get through. But I will start with the sights first. When you first come to Paris, I think there is an expectation that there are a number of sites that you have to see at least once.

Eiffel Tower

What a breath-taking structure. You see it all the time in pictures – whether they be of miniature ones for the dreamers or the real pictures from travellers all around. The thing is, until you actually see it, you have no clue. It is enormous and to see something like that right in front of you kind of leaves you without words. I came to see the tower in the afternoon and I pre-booked a ticket to reach the summit where I could see an overhead view of Paris. It was so worth it… even if the queue was borderline insane. I met a ton of Canadians and a family from New Jersey as well while I was waiting in line so it made time go by a little faster J

There are multiple viewing points for the tower. The first in front of the Ecole Militaire where you can get a view of the tower with the Parc du Champ de Mars in front of it. The second is from the Palais de Chaillot. Both provide impressive view points but I prefer the one in the Parc du Champ de Mars – it gives you a natural green foreground to use and the Tower is closer J.

Oh and it goes without saying, come here at night. On the hour, the bridge will twinkle in bright white and blue lights and it is bound to leave you without words (just shutter clicks). I must have taken 50 shots or more of this monumental structure.

Musee du Louvre

The famous pyramid entrance to this museum is known to many around the world. It really makes it very unique and picturesque. I took a few photos but sadly, when I came back at night time, the yard was already closed so I had to settle with some day time photos with overcast skies. Since I only had 2 days, I opted to not go inside this time but I would love to when I come back later in the summer!

Arc de Triopmhe 

This famous Arc de Triomphe is a structure well visited. It is also famous for the fact that 12 roads converge on this monument – which is situated in a the middle of the enormous round-about. For those in Vancouver, this is not the neighborhood round-about that we see which slows down traffic… no, this is a round-about that fits seemingly any cars that are daring enough to go through. Since I am not daring enough to even try to drive in Paris, I can only guess that there is a system to this madness but it works! The details carved into this structure are incredible and is just another example of a structure that leaves you in awe. You can also pay 9.50 Euros to walk up to the top (quite a few stairs) where you can see probably the most impressive view of Paris. I honestly prefer this view of Paris more so than in any other place in the city because it allows you to see the Avenue des Champs Elysees as well as the Eiffel Tower in the not so far distance.

There were other very impressive sites as well, including the Notre Dame, the Saint Chapelle, the Sacre-Coure in Montmartre (I loved this area… you could tell that in the summer this place would be a great haven away from the touristy sites and would provide that café scene that so many love about this city), and the Pantheon. I didn’t get a chance to go inside every one of these places but some pictures are below.


Paris is a place that is known for its sophisticated pallet as well when it comes to food. Everywhere you look in this city, you find tons of café’s and brasseries. People enjoy sitting out amongst the sun in and just sipping on a glass or two of wine while munching on a perfectly baked croissant. Unfortunately, because I was in such a rush, I only got to do this once. But boy, do the French know how to cook. Something as simple as a double café expresso, scrambled eggs (this is not the kind of scrambled eggs we know in North America… it was just a little on the raw side with intention and it tasted amazing), some bread, a croissant, and a freshly squeezed orange juice shaken with ice could make your day. I left not feeling stuffed but good and the food was just so tasty.

While in Paris, you have to enjoy some of the basics of their diet. On Saturday night, instead of dining at a restaurant, I bought some baguette from a patisserie, some 30 month old comte and creamy brie from la Fermitage and some local red wine and I was set for the evening. It was a great way to unwind.

 While reading David Lebovitz’s blog, I came across a suggestion to try out this confectionary haven called, A l’Etoile d’Or Owned by Denise Acabo, it was a little shop that offered an incredible variety of chocolates. I felt like I wanted to try every other item but… not only was time not on my side, I could only afford so much room around my waist. I ended up buying several different items but I did try the salted caramel butter candy and it was, I’m not going to lie, a little taste of heaven – so smooth and tasty. 

I also got a chance to meet Denise and am I ever glad that I did. I do not understand French other than your basic words but she chatted me up like I was a local. In both French and English, she explained to me which items she loved (apparently many) and why. Although, I could only nod and smile half the time, one thing was clear: this was her passion. Now that – in addition to her delicious creations – is something to envy. What a superb personality.

On the second day, it was a beautiful, sunny day and it made it perfect for a search for ice cream. With that in mind, I went to Berthillion’s  - a location famous for its sorbet. I had the chocolat noir and the piche with my cone… perfect for a nice, sunny day. I just sat by the river and watched people go by… couldn’t think of a better way to spend the afternoon!


Well that is about all I want to write for now. It is already at essay length so I apologize for that. There is so much more that I want to write about this city but I will hold off. It was a great two days and a great way to spend the weekend. I could easily spend at least another week here before I could be satisfied. Paris is a beautiful city. The French language is also very appealing and so easy to listen to. I would come back in a heart beat J So for now, bon soir, Paris, until next time!

Monday, March 14, 2011

a m s t e r d a m

This weekend (March 12-13) I boarded a flight at 6:35 in the morning to get to Amsterdam. No longer am I going to book an early flight like this… particularly after drinking and staying up the night before! Anyhow, that is already done. Getting to Amsterdam took about no time though – 45 minutes was all it took to land.

Schiphol Airport

Now, Amsterdam is a city that is an enormous tourist attraction throughout the entire year. This was my first time but I feel like I had experienced the city just from hearing the numerous stories from so many other people. Even with these stories in the back of my mind though, this was an experience that you just don’t get unless you see it for yourself.

My first thought was, “holy cow, do all these bikes belong to people??” I have never seen so many littered around in a single place but over there, it is just a way of life. Everyone bikes around. It is cheap, convenient, and the city is small enough that this form of transportation is practical than in any other city. Most of the bicycles were aged and dated but it did the job. As a tourist, you could rent a bike and roam around the city as well (apparently it is the best way to see the city) but I wanted to walk it so I could get in as many photographs as possible. Ah the sacrifices that are made in the name of taking pictures!

Amsterdam is also known for its mixture of old and new architecture and its canals. The canels almost serve as dividers in the city, much like a street or train track would. They were everywhere and it made the city even more photogenic. I can imagine this place in the summer as being a beautiful place to just sit back on a boat and cruise through the canals and enjoy the view. Needless to say, I took loads and loads of pictures of the canals in Amsterdam, I just couldn’t help it. People who have seen my flickr stream will know that I like bicycles as well so I pretty well stopped every 5 minutes to take a photo… or ten.

For people that have never been to Amsterdam, there are a number of attractions. If you are like me, then you’ve heard stories about the drug and sex culture here. To be honest, it is true. But instead of seeing it as dirty, I think it represents Amsterdam in some way as a more free thinking place. People just do what they want to here without much reservation. I think the newer generations are starting to change that but for now, it is a haven away for people who want to come here and enjoy those things that are considered illegal just about everywhere else. There were multiple weed shops with everything you can think of to get you on your way in smoking a bud. There were also special cafes where you could just walk in and freely smoke in doors and eat other treats like space cakes and chocolate mushrooms. If you think legalizing drugs is the way to go… I think Amsterdam might change your mind about that.

The sex scene is a living industry here in Amsterdam as it is legalized. The red light district is something that everyone should see. While people associate this type of scene with lots of negativity, in contrast to most people’s expectations, the area is very safe (so long as you are out of there before 10-11pm). My friends kept telling me that it is a place where girls stand in windows and display themselves. I didn’t think that this was true but how wrong I was! Girls were in little display windows and coax you to come inside. It really is something completely unique to Amsterdam. Needless to say, the word discrete does not come to mind at all haha. It was in the red light district though that I met a local senior though and we chatted about the history of the area and he explained how he thought of it. Apparently a lot of these girls are from Eastern Europe and come over here to work. He also reminded me that taking pictures of the girls was taboo and not to do it. I took his advice. 

Other sights that I saw while in Amsterdam included the Dam and the National Monument, Van Gogh Museum and the Anne Frank Huis. The rest I just walked by and took pictures of since I didn’t want to spend hours inside museums when I had only 2 days (and believe me, I could spend days inside a museum! I’m a bit of a nerd that way).

Foodwise, Amsterdam isn’t very well known for its cuisine. But I did get some tips and went to a bunch of places. Pictures are below but I had some great comfort food I took in while I was here. The first place I stopped at was Vlaams Frites Huis who served the fries with spicy mayo. At home I would probably refrain from eating this heart attack wrapped in news paper but I had to give this a try. It hit the spot alright! But when I came back in the same area later on in the day, the line up was already around the corner! I also tried some raw herring at the Albert Cuypmarkt (a market that sold just about everything including some reasonable prices for Dutch favorites). When people hear raw herring, they probably think sushi. But this was hardly that. It was gooey and the texture was very interesting… I didn’t like it very much in particular but it wasn’t bad either! The pickled onions and pickle helped to contrast the soft texture of the fish nicely. For dinner that first night, I went to China town and got a seat in this restaurant called Nam Kee. This is a place known locally for some of the best Chinese food in all of Amsterdam. All I can say is, it tastes just as good as those restaurants at home in Vancouver :) The next morning I wanted to find a place to try out some Dutch pancakes and found it in Pancakes. I had the apple crumble dutch pancakes with whip cream. It was delicious but I was also sick I was so full. The coffee was notably very good as well though it was in the unexpected European size. 

Well, sorry for the essay! This was just a quick summary of what I thought about Amsterdam but it was fun while I was here. Lots to see and experience. So if you’ve heard the stories but want to experience the actual thing, go for it! Be sure to sit back and enjoy the canals (and have a Heineken while you are at it). Just be sure to make it worth while and go to other places in Europe while you are in the area! 

Monday, March 7, 2011

s e l f r e f l e c t i o n

There are times when you reflect on what you have been able to accomplish during your life and you wonder if you made a difference. Now, I'm not 90 years old or anything but sometimes you just have to think that the world is bigger than yourself. You realize that more and more when you grow up - it is just the natural way people mature. And that is the way it should be. While we live in a materialistic society we sometimes have to remind ourselves of what makes us really happy. It's self absorbed but I always feel happiest when I do something for another person. It makes me think sometimes that I really need to get out of this corporate life and do something else that will get me back to a place where I can help others and yet still be able to make a solid living (am I dreaming?).

Anyway, one of my most rewarding trips ever was in September of 2009. I went with a group of other coworkers (not for work) to Africa for a part vacation, part volunteer trip. We first went to Zambia and visited their amazing Victoria Falls in Livingstone. I haven't seen too many wonders of the world yet but Victoria Falls definitely deserves its place in there. But the thing I noticed while commuting there was just how much of a disparity there is in Africa. Where we stayed, it was 5 star accommodations and we received customer service like you would not believe in North America. But we also saw loads of little huts, kids walking on the side of the road as they were coming home from school. The guide said that lots of these kids have to walk upwards of 30 kilometers each day to get to school and back. Some of them didn't have shoes to walk in... others didn't have much of a house to live in at all. It was very eye opening. It made me wonder what I could do to make a difference.

We ended up going to Accra, Ghana to visit and volunteer. Accra is the capital of the country and it is very heavily populated, full of congestion, and pollution. But it was also a place where people were happy, vibrant with personality and who just enjoyed life! The world there is different than it is in any first world country though. All the luxuries that we have in North America or in London where I am now are just that... luxuries. When I was in Ghana, we showered in cold water (whether in a shower room that flooded every single time we used it or with a bucket and pail) for over 2 weeks straight. The temperatures were torching every single day and there were open sewers all around. It was a different world but one that makes you really think that we should appreciate all the niceties that we are privy to. We wanted to come here to do some volunteering and we got a slight taste of that while we were there. Luckily, we were able to secure one volunteer opportunity at a child day care center. It was like a school that taught kids from the age of anywhere between 1 to 7. They were so full of personality and mischievous :)

They were like any of us going through elementary school: some were so bright and you could tell right away that they understood the material and could grasp it quickly... others just seem to be in their own world, day dreaming away or taking away others' attention haha. It was great to see. During their breaks we would play with them and take pictures of them and with them. They were so fascinated to see the camera it was funny. They would literally grab your camera though so I had more than one occasion where a finger print ended up on my Canon G10 at the time. Good thing I didn't bring my SLR haha. It was fun. We ended up donating some money for supplies to extend their roof (at the time, the roof did not provide enough cover and when it rained, the kids had no where to go to continue their schooling). So I went with some locals to buy the materials around town... got to ride on the wagon as we brought all the material back to the school and then we started to help out with the construction. The project was far too short but at least we got a chance to experience it. In the end, we ended up building that roof and it turned out well!

At the end of the day, I think I realized that people don't need to have all the materialistic things or the luxuries that we enjoy to be happy. People in Africa and in other places around the world make what they can of life and they enjoy it. We really stand to learn a thing or two from that kind of mentality. Sadly some people are too focused on the wrong things. Lots to learn on this trip and I am glad that I had a chance to see all of this. No documentary could have provided the impact that seeing Africa through your own eyes could.