What an amazing week!!!!
Had you asked me three years ago if I would ever go to Europe, I would have said, "Some day" knowing that was an open-ended possibility. But it just so happens that I went to Europe for work...last week!!! I've never been overseas - actually, I've never even been to California - so this is a HUGE adventure for me!
Note I used to be a school teacher. No travel required. Then after teaching junior high school kids for too long (only 2 years full-time), I took those skills and taught adults how to use off-the-shelf computer software. At times that job required local travel to various business sites within my city, but that was rare. Then I got an office job, dealing with the management of a training program, which felt like a slow death by spreadsheets and process documents. And I took another job that was very similar but at another company before I (and 500 others) were laid off. During that period of lay-offs, I had a former boss recommend me for a job with a start-up company that needed someone who could speak to end users about how to use the software product that the developers so amazingly created but don't understand (and/or aren't interested in) the teaching of software to end-users. The clients are all US-based, but some companies have divisions outside the US. I finally am teaching again, and find the job really interesting, working from home 90% of the time, with some travel to client sites usually no more than 30 min to 90 minutes away.
But it happened that one division outside the US wanted a co-worker and I to come teach. (!!!!). So our sales manager called all the satellite offices in Europe to find out if any of them wanted us to visit their sites as well, just to make sure we weren't taking only two days to travel to EU, ensuring the most bang for the buck with our overseas visit.
So we flew over to Brussels, Belgium first. From JFK airport, it was a 5-hour flight due to strong tailwinds - otherwise it would have been 6 hours. EU is 6 hours ahead of my time zone, so it took some adjustment. The weather was gray and rainy like it was here, but umbrellas and jackets work fine for this explorer.
Brussels - I didn't see much due to a busy work schedule, which was actually quite interesting. On our first day in Brussels, which was scheduled to be our time-zone-adjustment day, we went into a nice mom-and-pop type of restaurant and had a good hot meal and great cup of coffee. I found out that Brussels is mostly French speaking, but Dutch is also a national language. And then English is pretty common. So most people I met (whether university-educated or not) spoke 3 languages, and usually apologized for not speaking English very well (!!!!). Considering they could speak full sentences of English better than I can speak any one word in French or Dutch was certainly nothing for them to apologize for. I stayed in a nice hotel in a high-rent district where the shopping consisted of the stores Gucci, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Tiffany, and the like. I window shopped and tried not to gawk too long else the bouncer-like associates come out and tell me to stop breathing on the glass. No where in that area did I find an Old Navy, TJ Maxx, or Kohl's. ;-D
The high-speed train is what we took to Germany after three days of work in Brussels. This is where the US could learn something from EU. We got on the ICE train in Brussels to travel to Germany at ~200 mph - a smooth 200 mph, in a train car that wasn't overcrowded, relatively quiet, and non-motion-sickness inducing (I take Dramamine for flights). What a convenient way to travel.
In Germany we had one day of sight-seeing, with quite a few hours unwelcome due to our getting lost. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers. A hint if you've never traveled and you're wondering if you're at the right metro stop. Asking "Is this the train station" is a good question, but an even BETTER question is "Is this the [enter city name here] train station?" An important modifier, the city name. Getting off at any train station means you wander around a city you don't know trying to read road signs in a language you don't understand. During the happier sight-seeing moments early in the day was a small downtown where people were shopping in some interesting looking stores, and we even happened upon an open-air market where fruits, veggies, flowers, and fish were being sold. I saw some people greet each other with the pressing of their cheeks together, making the kiss sounds on both sides (see? everything is new and exciting and foreign to me). We even had coffee in a corner cafe, feeling very well-traveled for having that experience (oo la la, and we're not even in France...yet).
Then in the evening we took a high-speed train from Germany to France. After the wander-around-a-German-city debacle, we missed our first high-speed train we had planned to take to France. Luckily it seems these run all the time, so rushing into the train station we learned our train was running 5-minutes behind (seriously? They actually keep track of and announce a 5-min delay?). This worked in our favor as we rushed to our gate to ask to buy a ticket. The gentlemen said, "Just board the train then buy the ticket once you're on it." DOUBLE-WHAT!??!?! Twenty minutes into the ride the steward came around and asked for our tickets, we stated that we needed to buy them, so we made the purchase right then and there. Crazy efficient, right?!?!? 3 hours later we were in Paris!
We stayed in the St. Lazare area. We had the next morning to explore before working, so we went to an 8:00 a.m. Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral (!!!!). I am not Catholic but taught at a Catholic school for two years. I do not speak French either. But what amazed me was that the two years of going to Mass every Friday morning with my students prepared me for the ritual of this Mass. I didn't understand a word, but felt the comfort in the ritual and the reverence in the amazing structure. This year is the cathedral's 850 year anniversary. 850 years!!!!
We hadn't eaten prior to leaving for the Mass, so we ducked into the tourist-trap cafe seen in the picture below, where they rightly overcharge for coffee. We also visited the cheesy tourist shop nearby so I could pick up all things Paris that were made in China. :-)
We then took the metro to the Champ Elysees to look around. It was gray, rainy, and cold, but we wandered as much as we could. The Eiffel Tower was far in the distance as was the Arch de Triomphe, but an ornate bridge and a palace was nearby, as were a few slimy Parisians who tried to take advantage of us American tourists. We ducked into the French version of a sports bar/pub during the harder rains, the bar decorated with Rugby balls and jerseys. After working, the evening was much better, as the experience of Paris without the tourist traps was what I wanted - a very small chocolate shop where the owner carried chocolates from what she claimed were the 10 best chocolatiers in Paris (who am I to argue? It sure smelled great), and a very small restaurant whose menu changes every month, and whose main server knows just enough English to be able to translate what the menu means. This was in the St. Lazare area, where we wandered the winding streets up and down hill to experience the little shops that were off the beaten path of the main sights of France that are so iconic (no Eiffel Tower or Arch de Triomphe, which I hope to see on a future visit with my husband..."some day"...). For those of you who travel regularly, the restaurant is http://www.laromatik.com/resta
urant.html and the chocolate shop that shares the same wall is http://www.viachocolat.com/. I suggest using the web browser Google Chrome if you don't read French, as the Google browser can translate these web sites for you.
A few hints if you ever travel to Europe - "coffee" is actually espresso - I'm pretty sure my spoon dissolved every time I dunked it into that little cup o' energy that I quickly got used to. Asking for water in restaurants means the default is mineral water, so you have to ask them for still or flat water if you don't want "water with gas" (yes, the translation can be funny for any of you with a somewhat crude sense of humor like I have). Tips are not accepted by taxi drivers. Google Maps are good up to a point - that point being that Google Maps has no idea whether or not taxis actually visit the train stations where the maps tell you that you can get a cab from the train station. Give yourself plenty of time to get lost, and don't carry a back pack that can be easily gotten-into by thieves (but honestly, that advice is good for any big city in the US, too, right?!?). Many smaller restaurants and cafes don't take Visa, so ensure you have enough Euro to grab your coffee and croissant and other foods that aren't large meals.
Overall, it was quite an experience that I am SO grateful to have had!!! I think I'll be on that visitor's high for quite some time, looking forward to going back, and hoping next time to visit the UK and/or Switzerland.
I hope this blog didn't sound "snooty." I truly feel blessed to have taken this trip - I am still slightly disbelieving that I was actually overseas!!!!!!
And now that I'm back, it's back to tracking food (let's face it, how could I NOT eat croissant and chocolate in Europe?!?) and drinking lots of "water without gas." :-D