Thursday, April 18, 2013

Pick a Place, Any Place

Conveniently, a close friend from high school is studying in southern England this term, so naturally we had to meet up. But not in England, strange as it seems. Instead, we picked a random spot on the map, closing our eyes and pointing our finger down on any old European city!

Our destination: Geneva, Switzerland.

I knew almost nothing about the city before flying over, except that it's surrounded by the snowy Swiss Alps that may or may not be visible depending on the weather. Surprisingly, I didn't even know Geneva was linked to John Calvin, the major reformer my college in Michigan is named after. It was quite an exciting find. Therefore, because my knowledge of the city was little, my expectations were low, and because my expectations were low, my reaction towards the city was out of controlI squealed and jumped like a child. 

Flying into Geneva, the sky was perfectly clear with a few wispy clouds, and the rolling hills alongside Lake Geneva were speckled with little villages and large castles. As a backdrop, miles of high peaks covered in thick layers of snow stretched into the horizonno matter which way the plane turned, the Alps were always in sight, surrounding Geneva on every side. Upon landing, the sunny sky proved to be honest with a heat wave of 60 degrees Fahrenheitthat's about the warmest England gets all year—so I quickly stripped off my coat, realizing that 5 layers was overkill, as Switzerland is not nearly as cold as the skiing advertisements make it look. I should have thought that through.

Tired from traveling, lethargic from the sun, and deprived of lounging, we (KJ, KJ's friend, Layla, and I) walked to a nearby park where we found a solitary stone beach covered with sea glassa wonderful resting haven. Just across the lake sat luxurious chateaus with large mowed lawns on the much-too-green-to-be-true hill, and towering behind were the snowy peaks, including Mont Blanc (the highest mountain in the Alps). The homes, we learned later, were owned by authors such as Mary Shelly, the author of Frankenstein, and today a few are owned by Arabian and Indian princes. To our right, hundreds of boat masts and tall French-style buildings lined the lake, wrapping around the end of the lake like a U, and shooting high into the sky was the Jet d'Eau fountain, famous for reaching a height of 460 feet into the skythough high, it doesn't quite compare to the 15,000 foot Mont Blanc towering behind. 

Being in Switzerland felt quite similar to France, as they speak French and use francs as their currency (France doesn't even do that anymore!) Even the buildings looked French with their delicate stone carvings and rod iron railings. But there were differences between the two countries: every other block there was an authentic Swiss chalet with elegant wood carvings, and sharp wooden roofs; the water was clear and fresh, and it wasn't uncommon to drink tap water--in fact, there were fancy drinking fountains on every street; and the chocolate was pure heaven, the aroma filling the streets from the surplus of chocolate shops. 

Chocolate is to Switzerland as wine is to France, as waffles are to Belgium, and as pannekoekens are to the Netherlands. 

In the three days that we lived and breathed the fresh Swiss air, we became quite familiar with the streetsthough a large city, it's not impossible to master by foot. But my favorite Geneva adventure took place on the  edge of the city limits (and outside the country, as we found out afterwards). Early Friday morning, we hopped on a bus that dropped us off in, what felt like, small town Geneva where the streets were empty and the houses had lawns and fences. Only locals were around. We set out along a deserted road following the rail road tracks where signs, written in French, pointed us towards "Telepherique du Saleve." We only hopped that meant Cable Car to Mountain Saleve, otherwise, we were hopelessly lostthe giant cables up the mountain ahead was a fairly obvious clue, though. At last, we arrived at the station where we rode way up high to Mount Saleve, just the 3 of us and the conductor, stepping out on top where the sun was hot and views were breathtaking.

We spent hours on the mountain, hiking along unmarked paths where donkeys roamed in the open grass and abandoned houses sat forgotten, and when the sun sat directly above us, we picnicked in the woods with a beautiful view of what we thought might be France. With a baguette, an orange, and a box of strawberries, we basked in the beauty of the Swiss mountains. Hours later, on our ride back down the mountain, my phone buzzed, and I noticed a serious of missed texts. The newest read, "Welcome to Switzerland. -T Mobil." A bit puzzled, I flipped down through the messages to the first missed text. It read, "Welcome to France."

So, as we sat with our bread and fruit earlier that day, gazing out at the France Alps, we were sitting on French turf all along, canopied by French trees as clueless picnickers. Life doesn't get much better than that. 

Geneva was beautiful: the city, the mountains, the lake, and even our hostel which felt like a mini hotel. If only we could afford it, we might have moved right in. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Motherland

Of all the countries I've set foot in, I now have a favorite: the Netherlands. Of course I love EnglandI wouldn't be living there if I didn'tand France, and Normandy, and Belgium were beautiful, but there's nothing like the homeland. Almost 100% Dutch, I can claim my origins in this country regardless of whether I speak the languageDutch is not a pretty language anyways. It is because I have roots in this beautiful land that I fell in love with it.

Our first stop after crossing the border of Belgium, was Oost-Souburga small village on a south-western peninsula where hardly any tourists venture. It seemed a strange city to enter into our GPS, but we have historical connections that led us down the road. Oost-Souburg is the city where my great-grandfather grew up in the early 1900's, until age 7. Before passing away, he wrote a descriptive memory of his childhood home, describing the quaint little village from a child's perspective, and alongside his words, he drew a rough sketch of his street. He drew a canal, a bridge, a windmill, and a steeple, writing "it may have been a Catholic church, but I do not know." Driving through the city, we got lost several times, turning the wrong way down one-way streets, and driving in circles in the round-about, but at least we had a French license plate (this way the locals would blame the French for being crazy tourists). We were also quite fortunate that there were few cars on the road, as almost everyone rides their bicycle. At last we found the street, labeled Kanaalstraat, translated to Canal Street, where we found the canal, the bridge, the windmill, and a steeple that a 7 year-old could have easily mistaken for a Catholic church. We had found my great-grandfather's street. 

Our connection to the city was strong and nearly brought my mother to tears, but it wasn't just the history we connected with. The locals were also extremely friendly, welcoming us into their peaceful town and taking time on their Saturday afternoon to assist us in finding information. Their hospitality was genuinely friendly and for the first time since leaving America, I didn't feel like a tourist. I belonged. (Read Project 21, #8). 

Over a course of 3 days, I fell in love with small town Netherlands. After Oost-Souburg, we visited a number of little towns including Oudewater where the houses leaned forward and the canals ran brownwe saw our first stork nest on top of the church, and I was quite surprised by its size; Soestduinen where we slept in the outskirt forests in a luxurious hotel surrounded with biking paths; Giethoorn which is the Dutch Venice with narrow, winding canals, arched bridges, and tiny cottages with thatched roofsthe peace and quiet of the simple town was refreshing; Elburg where we ate gelato for dinner; and Harderwijke where the constantly red street-lights and road blockades refused to let us drive through the city centeragain, we found ourselves driving the wrong direction on one-way streets. The towns were endless. 


Though we could have explored these small towns for days, we made our way towards Amsterdam, stopping for a few hours in Keukenhofthe famous tulip garden. As spring had only just begun, the tulips were fresh bloomers outside, peaking their heads up from the ground. However, in the indoor greenhouses, the fantastic tulips stood as tall as my waist, blooming with a vibrant radiance. For hours, we wandered the beautifully decorated gardens, admiring the signs of spring and appreciating the warm sun on our faces.


I finally got to pet a spring lamby!
By afternoon, we were in the busy city of Amsterdam, riding down the city canals lined with tall skinny buildings. The canal system, a much larger scale of Giethoorn's, is brilliantly engineered, resembling a bike wheel or spiderweb, with large outside rings and smaller connecting spokes. Bikes lined every fence, piling up around every bike-rail, and houseboats lined the canals, one after another, in an endless chain. And at night, the city was gorgeous, bridges lit up with strings of white bulbs and jazz bands playing on street corners. Though many cars aren't seen during the day like most big cities, hardly any are seen at night, creating a peaceful atmosphere perfect for a moonlight walk.

The highlight of Amsterdam was the Anne Frank museum, where we walked through the tight rooms of a classic Dutch home, up the ladder-stairs and through the bookcase door into a small-scale apartment. The pictures Anne pasted on her wall were still hanging, wrinkled from the paste as if hung only yesterdayher diary-voice whispered in my head like a ghost in the room. Walking through the museum, I was fully engaged from start to finish, reading every sign and watching every video, and I completely lost track of time. No museum has ever sucked me in that far before. 

The Netherlands was my favorite country, connecting with me on many levels, so when I said goodbye, I shed a few tears. But saying goodbye to my parents at the end of Amsterdam was far more difficult, as I wanted to continue sharing my experiences with them rather than write my experiences to them as I do to many. However, our memories of our time in the motherland will last a lifetime and I will cherish the adventures forever!