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It’s easy to point and laugh at the portrayal of (mainland) Chinese tourists in this article in The Economist, because we of the Western world (even of Chinese heritage) haven’t grown up in the same restrictive culture as they have; but the conclusions and the rationalization behind their actions end up resonating with me (unfortunately).

This is because excitement and acquisition are prized over pleasant, relaxing experiences. The Chinese are keen on European luxury, says Andy Xie, a Shanghai-based economist—they just aren’t so interested in luxurious hotels and lavish meals. Coming from a newly affluent, increasingly unequal society, they have a strong preference for the accumulation of material goods. After all, a Swiss watch lasts a lifetime, whereas “if you want a good bed, you can have that at home.”

The Chinese travel patterns aren’t that odd, they are just interested in different things.

The whole brouhaha over the lack of air travel due to Iceland’s volcano eruption reminded me to continue blogging about our Europe trip and how we didn’t fly as much as we could. We did fly to Amsterdam but decided to take the scenic route back in order to visit a few more cities. Our last leg was to go from Brussels to London.

The easy way to do this would be to take the Chunnel and that was the option we were considering at first. It would have been cool to take a train under the English channel, but in the end we decided to take a bus. The bus ended up being a better option because it was significantly cheaper (I can’t remember but at least half the price) AND it was an overnight bus so we would save a night of hotel in London. After finding out this option, we booked our seats online.

In retrospect, we probably should have put more thought into this. First the bus ride was scheduled for 8 hours even though the distance between London and Brussels was about 360km. Sure you need to cross the water and customs, but it shouldn’t take that long! And also, you need to cross customs so you can’t actually sleep for the entire time. We didn’t end up with a lot of sleep that night!

It wasn’t all bad though, and actually an interesting experience. We got a good seat at the front and was able to watch the bus driver navigate and jostle for position amidst the narrow streets of Europe. But the most interesting part was when we had to cross the English channel. We didn’t do any research, and considered that the Chunnel might support vehicles in addition to trains. Well we still don’t know because we took a car ferry across from Calais, France to Dover, UK. This was our first time on a car ferry!

The ferry was actually pretty nice, and not like the ones that you would take to Centre Island. Once on board, you had to exit your vehicle and go up to the passenger cabin. There was a restaurant, a couple of bars and lots of seats for the passengers. They also had gambling machines and a duty free shop for when the ferry was in international waters!

And it really doesn’t take that long to cross the channel, about 1.5 hours for the 34km. Even with the customs and onloading/offload we ended up in London an hour early, which meant that we got there at 5 in the morning. Unfortunately, nothing in London is open at 5AM, not even McDonalds.

I always mean to, but usually end up forgetting, to try and take some panoramas. On this trip to Europe, I remembered for once (or twice)! I think the catalyst was that there Belgium had a large number of public squares where there was a lot of open space surrounded by intricate buildings. Each building by themselves is not noteworthy to take a picture of, but the environment that they contribute to is memorable. I ended up doing two panoramas. One in Brugge and one in Brussels, and I put together a little page to view the panoramas (and any future ones I put together).

Whilst reading the wikitravel entry on Brussels, they advised us to try a couple of things in Belgium: mussels, fries, waffles and of course chocolate. Well being tourists, we tried all of them!

Chocolate was the easiest. There were chocolatiers EVERYWHERE. They were like the cell phone stores in Canada, and every single one of them had some cute Easter display in their storefront.

I’m not a connoisseur of chocolate but high quality chocolate is much more accessible in Belgium. And the best part is if you browse around the stores, you will get lots of free samples!!

Waffles were also quite easy (and cheaper) to acquire. They were like the crepes in France, and good if you needed something to fill your stomach (or a Nutella infusion). But surprisingly, we had quite a difficulty with the fries. In the Netherlands, we saw many stores selling fries on the street, but Holland wasn’t known for the fries so we waited until Belgium. Except when we got to Brussels we couldn’t find any place selling frites! We walked around for an hour or so around the Grote Markt before finding a store. In Belgium (and Holland) you had to pay extra for the condiments. Even ketchup. We paid for mayonnaise even though I am not a fan of it but because that’s how people in Belgium traditionally eat them. The mayonnaise wasn’t that bad, but I don’t think the fries were that special.

The last specialty were the Belgian Mussels. I think a lot of places expect that tourists would come and try it and so the prices that we saw were exorbitant (€20 for mussels with a side of fries at your generic restaurant). In the end, we found a small fish bar beside a market in Brugge which were a bit cheaper.

I think they were good, but now I don’t really remember how they tasted. We did get a lot though so it was worth the money, although like most seafood nowadays I don’t know if it can be a local specialty anymore. I believe the mussels we had came in from Normandy, but it sounds like a lot of them come all the way from New Zealand!

I heard that Amsterdam is the “Venice of the North” because it has a bunch of canals. I think it’s kind of silly that if a city has canals, then it’s considered a “Venice”. Amsterdam isn’t even the only city that is known as the Venice of the North; there is a list of 10+ cities with that honor, including Brugge.

Because I was just in Venice three months ago, canals within the city were just not that unique nor appealing to me. In fact, the canals in Amsterdam weren’t as neat as Venice since there are roads on both sides. Without the charm of the canals, Amsterdam didn’t really have the European flavour and feel to me. The neighborhoods are different and quaint, but the buildings and their step wave-esque facades were not what I expected from European architecture (in fact their most intricate buildings ended up being their malls).

I think it’s because of this reason that I was so impressed when I reached Antwerp. Antwerp was our first stop in Belgium and by contrast their historical buildings were very ornamental in comparison. The Antwerp central station was a beautiful mix of modern construction within a historical setting.

And while old, the buildings seemed to have aged gracefully. In fact I liked Antwerp a lot, maybe because I just came from the uninspiring architecture of the Netherlands, but maybe also because it seemed to be just the right mix of beauty and size for walking around and exploring.

Ok, I’m not a Harry Potter fan. I’ve never read the books although I’ve seen some of the movies. Well we went to King’s Cross station in London anyways because that’s where Harry Potter gets transported somewhere or something like that.

Unfortunately for us, we had not done any research beforehand, for while we knew that King’s Cross station was where there was some Harry Potter thing, we didn’t exactly know what. We ended up taking a picture at platform 5. Which was totally wrong.

Later, we met with Julian who told us the we were (obviously) at the wrong track! We were supposed to go to 9¾ instead! So off we went, back to King’s Cross station again and the right track this time. Here is me on my way to Hogwarts (or whatever).

I’ll blog about that part of the trip maybe later…

Between our stops in Antwerp and Brussels, we felt like we were a bit ahead of schedule so decided to head up to Brugge (which is pronounced like rouge except with a B). It is supposed to be a tourist town that is very scenic.

Since this was unplanned, we had no maps and didn’t know what to see; we ambled into the town from the train station. My first impressions of the city is that it looks like Quebec City. Can you guess which is which?

I guess that’s why they say that Quebec City is very European. Eventually we wandered our way onto the main tourist arteries and squares and it did not look like Quebec anymore (too many chocolate stores).

Brugge seems to me like a combination of the Netherlands (canals and the distinctive roofs) and Belgium (everything else) but because we had just been in Venice (lots of canals), the NL and Belgium; I didn’t think it was as unique as it could have been.

While I was unlocking content on The Beatles: Rock Band. I came across a story of how the Beatles came up with their album cover for Abbey Road

“At some point, the album was going to be titled Everest after the brand of cigarettes I used to smoke,” recalls Geoff Emerick. The idea included a cover photo in the Himalayas but by the time the group was to take the photo they decided to call it Abbey Road and take the photo outside the studio on 8 August 1969. The cover designer was Apple Records creative director Kosh. The cover photograph was taken by photographer Iain Macmillan. Macmillan was given only ten minutes around 11:30 that morning to take the photo on a zebra crossing on Abbey Road. That cover photograph has since become one of the most famous and most imitated album covers in recording history.

Eventually while planning our trip, I realized that Abbey Road studios is in London, so we added it to our itinerary. And lo-and-behold, the same zebra crosswalk is still there. I walked back and forth a few times, but of course could not duplicate the album cover because it was just one of me and they did not wear any backpacks. I think drivers who need to drive around this area must be super annoyed as random people will constantly stop traffic and cross the road here for no reason. I myself crossed it 3 times (4 if you count the time I jaywalked).

The studios themselves are unimpressive except for the wall out front. The wall is covered in writing where the numerous Beatles fans from around the world have arrived and written the song title of their favorite Beatles song. The wall we saw wasn’t as covered as in the link, but we noticed that all the dates were in the last 10 days! The wall was just repainted but was full of fanatic scribbles already.

And they are fanatics. We saw a gentleman arrive via taxi for the sole purpose of writing on the wall!

The only “real” tourist attraction that we went to in Amsterdam was the Anne Frank Museum. In this museum you can visit and walk through the actual hideway that 8 people used for almost 3 years as well as learn about some of the history (in case you were like me and don’t remember much from the book).

The Diary of Anne Frank is a classic book, and I believe I must have read it at some point. But it was a long time ago and I’ve forgotten most of it in my old age. What has stuck with me is the gist of what happened and the emotional impact – I always thought that the family had to suffer being trapped in a confined space until finally (inevitably?) being captured. While visiting the museum, I was surprised to find that in fact the space they had to live in was pretty large. Yes, their voluntary confinement was tragic in other ways, such as forcing the kids to grow up being quiet and never having the freedom to go outside and play; but in terms of living space, their hideaway would easily be an apartment in HK! What my younger self didn’t get is that the book and the museum is a statement against racism and xenophobia.

In the museum, you walk through the actual rooms, but they are now unfurnished as per Otto Frank’s (Anne’s father) wishes. The actual house is the second one from the left (although there were a lot of people taking pictures of the adjacent buildings that housed the museum part). The scope of the museum is quite narrow, and it’s not particularly cheap; but what convinced me to go was because I remember the story from my youth and I was surprised to learn that you could actually visit the original house.

In contrast to Rome, I found Venice really interesting. Perhaps it is because my visual image of Venice comes from the Venetian in Las Vegas and Macau, which is basically a repeating sequence of identical buildings surrounding a wading pool.

The real Venice is of course quite different. There are lots of different structures in different colours, and you can’t see the bottom of the canals! The imitations are really inadequate in describing the uniqueness of the city. There are no roads, there are no cars, and you can fall into the Mediterranean Sea if you stumble around drunk.

Perhaps my enthusiasm is a bit tainted because my first few impressions of Venice were: 1) Arriving at night when there were no people, 2) Wandering the streets before/after dinner with nary a person in sight, and 3) Walking the streets in the morning while everyone else was having breakfast. Later in our day, we ended up on the well traveled route between Piazzale Roma – Ponte Accademia – Piazza San Marco which is basically a mall filled with high-end stores hawking their goods to tourists. That should not be the Venice you should see.

The guides tell you to wake up early and explore Venice and we tried to do that. When we set out in the morning; however, we were greeted with a nasty surprise. Venice was overflowing from its canals!

Well we were aware that this was a real possibility so we prepared and brought extra plastic bags to wrap our socks “just in case”. It turns out we didn’t need them since not all paths were flooded (and they had “boardwalks” in the tourist areas).

In the morning, it was easy to just wander around the various alleyways of Venice to explore and get lost. Aside from a few churches/museums, there aren’t a lot of real tourist attractions. We went down to the beach, had some gelato, visited a ship building yard (no one was working), found a midway, took some pictures around the Grand Canal, and did some shopping.

Venice is supposedly a tourist city now, normal residents have no reason to live in the city. Accordingly, the majority of the shops we came across were fashion-related, restaurants, cafes, or souvenir-related. This was pretty apparent when we started getting lost in the SE part of Venice. Here, the buildings were boarded up and there were no tourists or residents. Strangely though, I did not feel unsafe. It just felt like walking through Roman ruins that weren’t ruined yet (I guess in this case, it would be underwater).

One thing I wanted to try in Venice was the Black Cuttlefish in Venetian style. They take the black ink from a cuttlefish’s bladder and use that to cook it. What they don’t tell you is that the eating the cuttlefish makes you goth!

After visiting Rome, I don’t think too fondly of it. I think it is a multitude of factors; it seems overly expensive to visit (food and hotels), there are just too many people at the attractions, I don’t understand the language at all, and it’s really not that all different in lifestyle from France or England which I’ve previously visited.

It is odd though, that I could levy half of those criticisms about visiting Asia; but I guess the cheapness of travelling in Asia (short of the flight) makes up for those hassles.

Aside from the Vatican and ancient Rome, we visited a bunch of other Roman attractions such as the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, Trastevere (the food is affordable here yay), Capitoline Hill, Castel Saint’Angelo, the Christmas market at Piazza Navona, and various other buildings/piazzas along the way.

The food (gelato included) was not as great as I thought it would be. It seemed like every (family-owned) restaurant had the same set of dishes; spaghetti bolognese, lasagna, grilled beef fillet, etc. Many things were also overly salty, and I don’t consider that delicious or tasty. There was wine, but it wasn’t as cheap as I thought it would be. After currency conversion it ends up being around $5 for a glass of house wine.

Right now, I don’t think I will ever go back to Rome (or Italy) by choice again, although there are still some places in Italy which still seem intriguing (Tuscany, Pompeii). It’s just there are so many other places in Europe that seem more promising.

The day after the Vatican, we woke up early again and headed out to the see the Roman Forum, Palantine Hill, and the Roman Coliseum. Originally, I was thinking that the Forum and Palantine Hill would be boring, and that the real highlight would be the Roman Coliseum.

Surprisingly, I found the reverse to be true. The Colosseum does look iconic and great from a distance; but once you are inside, it is a bit like touring a run-down stadium with lots of other people.

There is a lot of history in the Colosseum but most of the interesting sections, like the Hypogeum below the arena floor, were inaccessible. Basically, you can only walk around the upper and lower bowls to take some pictures. There was also a museum display about the Flavian dynasty.

On the other hand, the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill had a varied selection of ruins scattered around. There were some arches, some pillars, and other remenants of stone buildings. This playground of ruins in addition to the cloudy sky and the rich browns and greens made for a some great photo opportunities. In retrospect I wish I had spent more time taking pictures here.

Perhaps part of the reason was that there weren’t that many tourists crawling around. By the time we got to the Colosseum after lunch, it was plain crowded. It felt great to just stroll past all the people waiting in line to buy tickets at the Colosseum!

Because we were going to Italy around Christmas, we wanted to visit Vatican City as close to Christmas as possible. That turned out to be Sunday the 27th, which also happened to be a free entrance day for the Vatican Museum. <geek>cool the Vatican has a .va domain</geek>

We expected the the line-up to be pretty crazy so we planned on getting there early. That plan, coupled with jet lag (Italy is 6 hours ahead) and walking around the previous night seemed like it might be a disaster, but we actually did pretty well and got into line around 7:45 or so. I think we ended up getting in around 9:30. By the time we left, the line stretched almost INTO Saint Peter’s Square!

To be honest, I wasn’t really interested in the museum; I don’t know the significance of the artifacts or the imagery. I wanted to go to the museum because of the Sistine Chapel and Michelangelo’s work within it. But after seeing it, I was underwhelmed. Perhaps I just don’t know how to appreciate Renaissance art.

After a quick lunch, we visited Saint Peter’s Square and St Peter’s Basilica (is there a reason one is Saint and the other is St?). There was a huge lineup that stretched around half the square oval to get into the Basilica but fortunately it moved pretty quickly. For me the Basilica was the highlight of the Vatican City. Did you know you can fit the entire Statue of Liberty or the space shuttle (with booster rockets) within the Basilica’s dome? That’s more striking than saying that the Basilica is 45 stories tall.

Indeed, once you’re inside, you feel tiny. Especially when there are thousands of tourists around but there is still a huge amount of emptiness above you. The Basilica could be one of the caverns in Middle-Earth.

It is quite impressive that a structure of this size was built in the 1600s and still immaculately maintained today! It is also quite nice to see a church with marble and other colours after seeing so many monochromatic Gothic churches in France.

As beautiful and romantic as the classical architecture of central Paris is, I am still partial to towering skyscrapers and the surrounding concrete jungle. The modern skyscraper district of Paris, like it is in London, is just outside the central region and a quick 20-30 minute Métro ride away. I did visit London’s Canary Wharf and it is basically what you would expect, a lot of tall, metal buildings and people rushing to work. La Défense is a bit different in that there is a tourist attraction there. La Grande Arche is the third arch that lines up with the Arc de Triomphe and the arch outside the Louvre; but was it really worth the trip out there (it’s not even within walking distance)? Last time I decided to visit a cemetery instead, but this time we made the trip out to the ‘burbs.

The La Défense stop on the Métro line 1 is the last stop of the line. Once you exit the station, you end up in a large terminal and underground mall much like Canary Wharf. There are underground passageways everywhich way to a variety of buildings, and I suppose that this is one of the hallmarks of business districts (i.e., Toronto’s PATH system). We couldn’t orient ourselves so we decided to follow the school group and head above ground. As the escalator brought us up to the ground level, La Grande Arche appeared before us, and it was indeed very grand (I mean big, in French)!

The Arc de Triomphe and the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in front of the Louvre are very stately and commemorative arches. When you’re under the Arc de Triomphe, it feels like you’re under a large building, in the middle of a roundabout, with an observation deck at the top. It doesn’t hold a candle to La Grande Arche. Imagine a movie where aliens traveled through the universe in a (hyper)cube shipped and landed it in the middle of a city. It’s nothing special to stand beside the CN Tower, because you stand beside structures that dwarf you in height all the time. But you can actually run around the open middle area of La Grande Arche with offices beside and literally above you. You’re one tiny person standing in the middle of those three dimension objects that you sketched on graph paper in math class. It’s so big, that even at 10mm, I couldn’t fit the entire building in. I had to lie on the ground at the base in order to fit the top!

The hypercube is the termination of the Axe historique, meaning that you can walk, as the bird flies, all the way to the Louvre. That’s a lot of open space and it becomes in essence a long wind tunnel. They actually have panes of glass across the bottom of the hole to block the wind and prevent pedestrians from being blown over the side. The signs in the area were reinforced against the wind with special stone weights and bendable bodies.

The buildings in the neighborhood are in themselves pretty interesting. The skyscapers are designed uniquely and there is a lot of public art around, although because we only walked down the Esplanade de La Défense I think we missed a lot of the interesting displays. But visiting La Défense was a neat experience because for once you’re visiting a grand 21st century monument.

I’ve come to realize, through travelling the last few years, that I am not a museums or a park person. This is unfortunate since many top-tier tourist attractions within cities are museums or parks. Paris is one of those cities, and if you don’t visit the Louvre (the largest museum in the world btw), your friends will think you’re an ogre who grew up in a cave. How can you not see La Gioconda in real life? Maybe because I’d rather see it without having to fight through a crowd, stand behind a wooden barrier, and view a small portrait from far away while it is obstructed by glare from its protective “see-through” barrier.

But the truth is we did visit the Louvre. If not to see the famous pieces of art, but to walk around a former palace. We went in the afternoon and not during tourist season, so fortunately for us, it wasn’t as busy and there were empty seats on their couches to rest. It’s not like I’m anti-history; I enjoy reading about history and how things came to be, I just don’t get enough out of seeing artifacts to warrant spending my limited amount of time there. A good example is the Venus de Milo. It’s one of the top pieces of art at the Louvre, but why? I don’t know. It would be more interesting to me to understand the story behind the statue than to see it (Wikipedia says its fame is due to a French propaganda campaign).

The most interesting gallery was the history of the Louvre itself. A palace has existed at the site for almost a thousand years, and has been expanded gradually through various monarchies. Some sections of the Louvre are still amazing, especially the Napolean Apartments and the Apollo Room; but walking through the grand structure that is now separated with partitions, it’s difficult to imagine the palace bustling with life and being habited by le Roi.

While the Eiffel Tower has all the flash, my favorite tourist attraction in Paris is the Sacré Coeur. I’m not a big fan of the church itself because they have really anal guards that maintain an eagle eye on you so you can’t raise your camera from your hip; and if they see you doing so, will yell at you in a hushed voice. The location is great though, because you’re above and able to look down on all the six-storey high Parisian buildings (and the Tour Montparnasse — which I don’t understand why it was approved since it wrecks the view).

The neighborhood is also enjoyable. Montmarte was the former artisan area of Paris, home to Picasso among others. Most of the bohemian spirit has been lost however, and replaced with tourist stores offering crêpes at inflated prices, cafés and stores selling Chinese souvenirs and knockoff replicas. The best art I saw was graffiti on the wall depicting a stick man drawing on a canvas. Now that’s meta.

A visit to the Sacré Coeur feels like a journey. Since it’s elevated, there are three ways to get there: 1) Take the tram (lame!), or 2) walk the neighborhood roads in a cylindrical fashion, or 3) walk straight up the stairs. We walked straight up the stairs, but it was not as monumental a journey as my first visit where I also climbed up to the church dome. We took the roundabout way when we were leaving, although under the auspices of finding a restaurant, we wandered in the general direction of downhill and ended up where we started!

But my best memory, was sitting on the steps of the Sacré Coeur with Pauline, looking over Paris as the cloud-covered sun set, while a random Parisian covered some French and English songs on his guitar and school-trip kids danced around him. He wasn’t busking — there was no money involved. He was just playing for his and everyone else’s pleasure. It wasn’t a bohemian rhapsody, but it was the bohemian feeling that fit in perfectly with the neighborhood.

Because we were staying within the city, one thing I didn’t have to book for this trip was a car. I’m glad to save the hassle, but I’m also glad because driving over there seems a lot different than in North America.

The first thing you notice is that they prefer small cars there. Sure I saw a couple of Mercedes and BMW sedans, but the majority of the cars on the road are small hatchbacks. There were a lot of European brands like Renault, Citroen, Peugeot, and Fiat but also familiar brands such as VW (Golfs), and Toyota (Yaris). I would have expected the reverse of Detroit, with very few American cars, but I did see quite a number of Fords (Focus). Surprisingly I didn’t see any Hondas, and I randomly saw 1 PT Cruiser and 1 Dodge Caravan.

Yes, in fact you’re right, I did spend a lot of time looking around counting cars. In fact I made it a game to count the number of Smart cars. I hit 122 on the entire trip, but 60 of those were on the first day (and I wasn’t even paying attention all the time). I got tired of the game after the first day otherwise I’m sure the number would be much higher.

Because they have small cars, they can start and stop quickly, so they drive aggressively. There is a tendency to merge lanes randomly and to wait for left turns in parallel (perpendicular to the original lane) instead of in serial. Also, I read a neat point that in France (and unlike US/UK), cars entering roundabouts have the right of way. That’s an accident-causing fact right there. As crazy as it was though, I wouldn’t go to say that it is as chaotic as China.

The third deterrent to driving was the price of gas. I only came across one gas “station”, which are basically stores on the street that have a gas pump as a store front, and the price of gas on the meter was 3.39€/L. That’s like 4x our inflated cost of $1.09+/L that we’re paying in Canada!

Oh one last thing, if you’ve ever been on the Champs Elysées, you’ll know that the major European car dealerships all have storefronts there. I’m curious however whether they actually sell cars there or they’re just selling their brand. Because one of the worse places I can think of to pick up your new car is the most popular street in the city.

We woke up late after visiting the Eiffel Tower the previous night (and resetting our clocks), with the room service knocking on our door. Due to using a discount broker, we didn’t have breakfast included in our hotel. Sure we could pay an extra 12€ for it, but the great thing about Paris is there are Boulangeries (bread shops for those that haven’t played My French Coach on their DS) and street vendors everywhere. And by street food, I don’t mean the ever great street meat, but crêpes, panini and stuff of that sort.

Today’s adventure involved heading over to the Latin Quarter, and since it was on the way, to try and visit Notre Dame again. Guess what, it was raining. So we continued on our way and discovered a Greek neighborhood in some back alleys. This would have been a good place to stop for breakfast/lunch, but it had stopped raining so there wasn’t a good reason to seek shelter. Though, they (every place basically) had in their window these really big shrimp-wrapped-around-tomato shish kebobs that I wanted to try. They also had a lot of Greek men trying to pull you into restaurants. I figured it was a tourist trap, so ignored them (plus no dancing of the table-top variety right).

We opted for street food, we bought a street (limon sucré) crêpe for 2,5€. It was simple and good (although when you do the conversion it doesn’t seem that economical! Every day was kind of the same way. We would wake up, go to our destination and buy something like a 0,75€ croissant or a 4€ panino along the way. Although the street food is not as convenient as I thought it would be, there were only crépes/panini around the tourist areas (but neighborhood Boulangeries were common). The only weird experience we had was ordering a jambon (ham) crépe at what seemed like a Muslim place (they do not eat Ham due to religious reasons). There was a bit of confusion amongst the cooking staff while they were making it, although it could be because we were English-speaking customers; all I can say is if they didn’t plan on serving it, then it shouldn’t be on the menu!

We also stopped in a lot of cafés, sometimes to avoid the rain, sometimes for rest, and sometimes because we were hungry. The cafés were never as busy as I thought you should be, maybe because it wasn’t tourist season or maybe because it wasn’t consistently sunny. They say you should relax at a café and people watch; well the menu is certainly priced for it! A café au lait or would run you about 4€! One day we got a café au lait, a plate of spaghetti, a panino, and a dessert plate and it cost 20€ — that’s $30! The whole people-watching concept conflicting with us though, because we didn’t have the time to idle away an afternoon watching people on Boulevard Saint Germain.

The last thing we were confused about was whether to tip or not. I had read previously that tipping was mainly an American thing (and by extension Canada), and many of the things we normally tip on was not required in Europe. The confusing thing was that our semi-fluency in Français enabled us to kind-of figure out that tips might be included in the price (“Prix net services compris”) except because it didn’t follow academic French structure, we weren’t entirely sure. Of course they didn’t say anything in English since they had to pay the Americans back for that freedom fries thing. We tried observing people and it seemed like they didn’t leave extra cash so I think we were followed correct social behaviour!

Paris is called the City of Lights, and the shining example of this is the elegant and iconic Eiffel Tower brilliantly lit at night. We skipped the day trip (and the crowds) to La Tour Eiffel and instead visited at night where the tower was bathed by a warm yellow glow. Every hour, on the hour, there was a light show which consisted of blinking white lights over the entire structure, I think this takes away from the beauty of the Eiffel Tower, and it for sure confuses my camera.

It was late in the evening (9ish) and even the African souvenir peddlers were starting to walk to the Métro station. Of the four elevators, one in each leg, only the North one was still open. We lined up to buy our tickets to the first level (4,5€) and then waited another 30-40 minutes to get on the elevator. Once on the elevator, we honestly were planning to get off on the first floor, but were rather confused with the setup. The elevators were multi-level, and it wasn’t clear to me why there was a differentiation. We lined up for the bottom one, since we were going to the first level, Once we were on the elevator, it made a stop and the operator announced something that sounded like this is the stop for the first level restaurant, but I couldn’t hear very well.

Anyways we didn’t get off and the elevator kept going. Sooner than we knew it, we arrived at the second level. Oops. I was a bit worried about this because we had a two-stage ticket, meaning it was ripped once to get on the elevator, and there was still a second rip available (for the return trip?). In the end, it didn’t matter because they let everyone on the elevator.

I think “views” are overrated, whether they are at night or day, cloudy or otherwise. It was a nice night so I took a couple of long exposures. I mentioned before that it was rather windy, in fact it was so windy that we couldn’t go to one side of the tower at all! Fortunately there is a central area that is enclosed from the wind. There was also a unsheltered “second floor” (which explains the multi-level elevator) and there were a lot of people up there; but they must have been nuts to stand around in the wind waiting for the elevator to go down.

We were lucky because there weren’t a lot of people at night, but even then the line for the elevator spread into the middle of the area. I can’t imagine what it would be like to visit during tourist season with all four elevators operating!

Once we got back down to ground level, we had another adventure heading back to our hotel. We decided to take the train (RER) instead of the Métro because we would only have to make 1 transfer; however, trains are not as straight forward since you have to figure out which track and which train to go on. We accomplished those two challenges, but didn’t realize our train was a “Court”. What does that mean? Well it was a short (in length) train which stopped at the beginning of the platform, so by the time we walked to the train, it left. I don’t feel too bad though, we met another (Southern) American family and another Frenchmen who failed the same test! And we did eventually make it back before the transit stopped running.

When we checked the weather forecast before we left for France, it was not looking good. There was either heavy rain or normal rain scheduled, none of the days even had the half-rain/half-sun picture. When we arrived, it was raining (in addition to being windy), and rain+wind is not a good mix. We had an umbrella, but ended up buying Paris-branded ponchos instead (6€ each = $9).

They weren’t very helpful. The first place we went to when we arrived was Notre Dame. We tried to take some pictures, but even with ponchos, it was unmangeable. Frankly, I think Notre Dame is overrated as it’s always crowded and dark. Plus for me, whenever I go there it rains! It rained during my first visit, it rained that day, and it rained when we tried to go again the next day!

We strategically used churches throughout our trip as a means of rest and shelter (from the rain) because there are so many scattered around the city. Aside from Notre Dame, we visited the St-Etienne-du-Mont beside the Pantheon, Saint-Sulpice (still under restoration), La Madeleine, Sacre Coeur, and the Church of the Invalides. We also walked passed several such as the abbey church of St-Germain-des-prés and St Eustache but it wasn’t raining, and you can only handle so many churches before they all look the same.

The prettiest church was St Etienne. It was a huge contrast to Notre Dame as it was constructed with white marble, so was bright and pretty. It was also the final resting place of Blaise Pascal and Saint Genevieve. I also liked La Madeleine because the structure was very impressive, although there wasn’t much to see inside (nor was there any place to sit).

We’re back from our trip. I will of course blog the hell out of it in due time, I’ve already tagged and archived all my photos, and they will eventually make it up on to Facebook. I’ve been debating whether to diary-blog the trip like I usually do, or just tell some stories about several of the highlights, I think I’ll go with the latter.

One thing I was worried about were the lengthy plane trips, I have bad memories of being hella bored on trips back from London and France. This time I was luckier because we flew a red eye out, arriving in the morning, so I *had to* sleep if I wanted to actually do stuff the first day. Plus, the movies were Juno and Alvin & the Chipmunks, so it was an easy decision. The interesting thing about the flight there was the landing. There were 60km/h crosswinds when we landed so there was a lot of turbulence, but we arrived safely. I wonder if our landing looked like this?

For the return trip, I had a magazine and my DS so I wasn’t too bored, although I didn’t really have a game to play so I just played a several games for short 20 minute periods. The played Enchanted, August Rush, and I think Stardust (unannounced) but I wasn’t too interested in any of them. I had a weird experience as my seating was suddenly changed at the boarding gate, but fortunately for us, the plane was only 80% full so we were able to move to our own 3-seat row at the back. On both trips, we had a meal, a large snack/meal and a normal snack (pretzels etc). Surprisingly, there was free wine as part of the meal.

Today, I didn’t really have anything that I needed to see, so I decided to head off to Versailles. Versailles is a western surburb of France and famous for having various international treaties signed there. After a little trouble figuring out where to take the train, I took a half an hour ride and walked to the Chateau de Versailles.

While the palace itself was not too big, the palace area is huge. There is a very nicely maintained garden at the back and a large man-made lake. I decided to walk around it, but the lake is actually much bigger than it looks. It’s in the shape of a + sign rather than a pipe |, so I had to walk twice the distance! Anyways, I thought it was nicer than the other palaces I’ve been too, even the Forbidden City.

Afterwards, it was a toss up between going to La Defense, a skyscraper district like Canary Wharf in London, or to a cemetary. I decided to goto Pere Lachaise Cemetary since I had really done enough walking, and I had to get there at a resonable time (my attempt to goto Montemarte cemetary yesterday was thwarted because it was 6 PM). There I visited Chopin’s grave!

That pretty much captures what I wanted to do. I still have the Paris Catacombs and La Defense left, but there doesn’t seem to be enough time to go there, nor do I really need to see them.

Well my adventure as a white man in Harlem, or rather a chinaman in Saint-Malo is over. It is a nice little town with a lot of sun, surf and beach. Originally, I was thinking that I should have spent another day there, but now I do not think that is necessary. Anyways, I am back in Paris and now staying near the red light district, otherwise known as Pigalle. I visited the Moulin Rouge and Sacre Coeur, and I have to say that Sacre Coeur is a neat area to be around. If you look past the tourist stuff, it is very grassroots and interesting.

Since the Sacre Coeur is on a hill, you have a great view of the city; along with a lot of tourists. After exploring a bit, I found that you could climb up to the dome of the church, so I did that (like 300 steps!) and had a great unobstructed view. They say that it is the second highest view in Paris (1st being Eiffel Tower), but I think it is the best. No lineup!

Anyways, staying around here is rather odd. Walking around, you have various people coming up to you as you pass and following you in an attempt to draw business for their club. They are pretty aggressive, and similar to the vendors in China.

Also, if you notice, I did not use on apostrophe in this post. Why? because I cannot find it on the keyboard…(recently found the question mark though).

Yesterday, the shinning was shining like crazy so I was constantly thirsty. Today, the sun was not so bright so I was only moderately thirsty. In fact you could say that it RAINED ALL DAY. Well, I’m not going to let a little rain get in the way of my plans, so I headed out bright and early at 10. First stop was Place de la Bastille, but since it was rainy and Sunday, I think the normal people weren’t around. Then I walked to Notre Dame Cathedral and was luckily on time for a Mass so I stayed around for that.

After lunch, I took some photos at the Pathéon, St Sulpice, and walked around St Germain des Pres (cafe district?), after a walk-by of Ste-Chapelle and then here, to XS Arena. The plan for later is Place Igor Stravinsky and the Centre Georges Pompidou which in my guidebook is one of the top 10 sites of Paris. It seems pretty odd by the look of the outside though.

Well I made it here in one piece, and I didn’t get too lost in the process. At least I can rely on the fact that young people know how to speak english. Anyways, after I landed, I went out to check out a few sites: Eiffel Tower, Hotel des Invalides, Ecole Millitaire, Rue Cler, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysée, Jardin des Tuileries, the ouside of the Louvre, Forums de Halles. If it weren’t for the fact that the internet at the hotel is 22 euros (I’m at a cafe), I would link all the above attractions. So too bad.

Also, Paris is hella dry; I think. I’ve been drinking liquids non stop and I’m still thirsty. Drinks here are also expensive. 2 eurors (~$3) will get you a 500ml bottle of pop. Don’t even get me started on the food either.