Tuesday, September 30, 2014

From Normandy to the Bodensee

It's been some time folks. These past two weeks have flown by and therefore we have much to catch you up on. Willie and I last wrote to you on the ferry crossing over from Portsmouth to Ouistreham/Caen, Normandy, France. For our stay in Normandy we used the incredibly useful—now extremely popular—Airbnb website/app. Using it as a means to find accommodations only a couple of days before, we found an amazing family to stay with, five minutes from the ferry port. On our arrival, we were treated to a drink and talked with our hosts late into the evening. As we discussed our plans for the next day, they generously offered us their vehicle in order to get to all the places we wanted to visit! Surprisingly subjected to gracious hospitality, we couldn't refuse the offer. Promising to fill the tank and pay the small fee they requested, we set off the next day to experience Canadian WWII history. It was fitting that outside our bedroom window hung a string of alternating France and Canada flags from lamp post to lamp post.

Figuring out the reverse gear of a Renault 1990's Clio and adhering to the road signs of France was no easy task. Though the adjustment was fortunately quick and it was smooth sailing from there on in as we headed west from town to town, along the beautiful coast of Normandy. Our first stop was the Juno Beach Centre in Courseulles-sur-Mer. The museum and the beach itself were definitely top highlights during our travels. Spending about five hours in the immediate area, we took a tour of the underground German bunkers, read everything in the elaborately informative museum, walked on the beach, and admired our surroundings; all the while remembering and trying to grasp what had happened there 70 years ago. It was a humbling experience, but also made us extremely proud to be Canadian. Standing on the ground where our countrymen majorly influenced a crucial step toward ending the war was very special.

From the beach we drove to the Canadian War Cemetery about 7km away. A massive Canadian flag mural made up the centre of the parking lot. What awaited us in the cemetery was a beautifully kept resting place for hundreds of Canadian war heroes. I cannot describe how picturesque this place was (my pictures below may not convey this either). To see fallen young men our age was emotionally heavy, reminding us of how blessed we are today.

(If you watched the Normandy episode from this past season of Amazing Race Canada, where they went to Juno Beach and the Canadian War Cemetery, you'll see exactly where we stood and what we saw!)

After two nights in Normandy, we made our way inland to Paris. What a change of scenery: The big bustling city life. I'd much rather live in one of the small coastal towns of Normandy. I've been to Paris before, but I still wanted to show my brother the essential touristy spots of (and obviously being) Le Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. Overwhelmed by hours of countless artifacts and masterful paintings, we couldn't drag our legs any further. We tiredly ventured over to the Eiffel Tower... A word of advice, do not eat near or around the admirable landmark. Our dinners were reasonably priced, but what we weren't prepared for was the price of our Cokes. We forked over the additional €16 for two Cokes and walked a block over to the tower. The tower itself was epic. We looked out across the city landscape from the summit, witnessing the whole city brightly lit, acting as a massive vice pressed against the Seine river.

The following morning we boarded an early train to get to the Bodensee region of Germany via Zurich. It was time for us to make our way back to Bodenseehof Bible School in Fischbach, where our journey came full circle to a halt. I joined the welcome team staff and was happy to help out with meal set-up, serving, dishes and various daily activities around town, which showed the new students the surrounding area. It was great to see old familiar faces from my time there and meet new ones as well. It was a great five day stay, and I'll have to visit again before my time in Europe is through.

Here are a bunch of pictures from our previous two weeks of travel:

Juno Beach
Juno Beach Centre
Safety glasses and free Stubhub glasses
Dug up bunker
A French memorial
Canada House--Most likely the first liberated building on the beach
Canadian War Cemetery parking
Centre Cross Monument
Row upon row


Le Louvre
...
Love Lock Bridge in Paris
Voila!
8pm Lightshow
Willie can't look down
No escape
Back to the Alps and the Bodensee
Now I am touring through Germany solo, visiting friends along the way. Of course another blog is to come from these current adventures.

Ciao for now!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Cousins in Cambridge

From Belgium we made our way through coastal France toward Calais to hop on a ferry and set foot on English soil. The ferry itself was bland and ordinary, but the Cliffs of Dover greeting us at the end made the sea voyage worthwhile. As Willie and I kept humming the cliffs influenced catchy riffs of Eric Johnson, we docked in Dover and were welcomed by the vast cream coloured cliff faces. There was one problem... How do we get to the train station from the port?

An outspoken pudgy taxi driver insisted his price to the station was only £6, so we agreed to use his services. He asked where we were from and we replied Canada. "VANCOUVER... Is where I'll be going next year," was his response. Okay (awkward pause) who is this guy, we thought. Upon settling into our seats, Willie reached down and found a £5 note... Being honest, he held it out to our driver and asked if it was his money that had fallen down. "Ah no, it would cost one more quid for ya," he shot back. I told Willie to just hold on to it and we fell silent for the rest of the short ride. Getting out of the taxi we quickly paid the guy, however we didn't have any accessible change to tip him... "What?! No tip? Do they not tip in Canada?! In America it's tip for this, for this, for this, and for that. I'm fed up!" Yikes. By this point we didn't know if he was still talking about us or not. I ended up handing over the small Euro change I had in my pocket as a tip. Little did he know, we ended up paying him with his own £5 note... Harsh on our part—and we still kind of feel bad about it—but we also felt he deserved it for his abrupt manners! It was a weird situation that we obviously laugh about now.

Anyway, we hit the tracks and made it to Cambridge later that night. We were fortunate enough to stay with our cousin and his wife for the next little while, which ended up being a much needed relaxing 5 days in total. They are both working on their Ph.D's and were quite busy but still made the time to host us. They were amazing hosts, taking us to their favourite pubs and spots to eat/have a drink. They gave us tours of the many colleges, told us where to go punting, and laughed along at all our quirky travel stories.

Punting is a legendary boating tradition amongst Cambridge and Oxford students, in which a person stands on the back of a narrow boat and uses a long wooden or metal pole to push off the river's bottom, propelling the boat along. It felt legendary. We got the hang of it and luckily didn't end up with our pole stuck in the water's muddy floor, which would result in one of us clinging on for dear dry life, alone with no boat beneath. This was my cousin's fate earlier this summer, but he didn't mind walking back through his college drenched to the bone while waving to his laughing onlookers.

Saturday rolled around and we were off to the North Eastern coast of Sunderland. Spurs and the Black Cats were facing off in what turned out to be a thrilling contest. It was a dream of mine to witness a Premier League football match, and now I can say I have. Our seats were fantastic, and we learned later on that we were visible back home to our parents watching on TV. Our wide grinning faces were permanent for those 90 minutes of game play. Two goals in the first few minutes made for quite the opening, giving a fast paced counter attacking style to us fans straight from the get-go. In the end, a 2-2 draw was a little disappointing for us Spurs supporters, but the action and increasing aggravation/excitement from the fans was definitely invigorating.

England has been quite the highlight of our travels. From our amazing cousins to our exciting experience at the game, we felt at home in Cambridge and it was tough to leave. But we must, and we're now off to pay homage to our fallen Canadians in Normandy. I look out the window as I type and see the crashing waves of the English channel, imagining what it must have been like in the moments before storming one of the nearing beaches in WWII France.

Until then, here are some pictures from this last leg of our travels:

Platform 9&3/4s in King's Cross Station

Pembroke College 

The River Cam and its punting

Willie at the helm

It was a lot of fun

No caption needed

Our seats at the Stadium of Light

Who do you see, as happy as can be?

Ciao for now!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Brothers in Belgium

The search for Belgian bliss began when Daniel and Danielle left us. We were bound to find the sweetest chocolate and fluffiest waffles imaginable; there was no looking back. In Bruges, we stayed in a quaint little inn 2km from the city limits. This proved a bit difficult to find when we arrived around 9pm, when nobody in Belgium seemed to be awake. The deserted area behind the station was spooky at night, and with the highway being a construction zone we figured we had to jump a fence to get to our desired path. Willie went first and quickly realized that he had jumped out from behind a large highway sign into a death stare with oncoming high beams. Jumping back, he was a second away from being one with Belgian asphalt. Phewf. Getting past the construction death trap was the only hard part it turned out. We found the walkway on the other side and in no time we were at our destination.

The next morning we rented bicycles and set off to experience Bruges. We found our Belgian waffles in the Markt square, and enjoyed them while taking in the architecture of the perimeter. There we climbed to the top of the Belfry tower and took in a bird's eye view of the whole city. Staring at and admiring architecture plenty of centuries old is magnificent. From there we ventured to the half of the city where we found no tourists. Our inn's helpful staffer mentioned the oldest pub in town as it was established in 1515. Unfortunately it turned out to be closed on Mondays, but I stood on my bike to peer into the tall window because I needed a visual. After cycling to historical churches and the river's windmills, we looped around and headed back to the centre for food and drink. We stumbled upon the 19th century De Halve Maan brewery and ordered a drink from their prestigious taps. I highly recommend Brugse Zot if you can get your hands on it.

The icing on the cake of a fulfilling day was that we also got pulled over by a motorcycle cop for accidentally cycling down a one-way... the wrong way. I thought she was going to run me down because she veered straight toward my bike, forcing me onto the sidewalk (it was an impressive strategic pull-over). She also thought Willie had no brakes because he flung out his long legs to stop quickly behind me. As soon as it was apparent we didn't speak Flemish, she gave us a fair warning and dangled €150 fines in our faces. Cheers to being foreign!

The next day we were on our way to Brussels. It was a short day but we made the most of it by checking into our hostel quickly and hitting the city centre. Walking about, we were craving another waffle. This time a Liege waffle which was a delicious dessert for lunch. The ice cream and chocolate sauce added to the party in our mouths and we savoured every bite. After talking to a hilarious American and his wife beside us, they suggested the Musical Instruments Museum a short walk away. So we carried on and got there half an hour before close. We persuaded the ticket lady to let us run around for the remaining minutes, and we saw a fascinating amount of old age instruments. Still thinking about the massive variety of instruments I thought I knew something about, we continued and made our way to the Royal Palace and its central park. Here at a beautiful gazebo, we eavesdropped on a passionate Belgian named PJ who was giving his tour ending, epic monologue. You'll have to ask me about this in person, because Willie and I practically memorized his speech verbatim and found it amazingly patriotic, yet hilarious at the same time.

To cap off our wonderful time in Belgium we decided to hunker down at a bar that night to enjoy a few €1 beers and Euro '16 international qualifiers. We would take off for England the next day! Cambridge with our awesome cousins was on the horizon.

Here are some photos from our time in Belgium:

Willie admiring the canals in Bruges
Us in the Markt square, Bruges
A windmill!
View from the Belfry tower, Bruges
Grand Place in Brussels
Looking over Brussels
Musical Instruments Museum
I'd love this in my living room someday
Brussels Cathedral

Ciao for now!

-MG

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