I woke up in my bed this morning and still can't believe that yesterday I was in Brussels eating the finest chocolate I've ever tasted in my life and today I woke up in another of the world's greatest cities, New York, my home.
Instead of feeling sad, I feel awash in gratitude that this is my life and it is beautiful.
But, I really wanted to jot down observations of my trip to seven of the world's greatest countries, mostly for myself, but maybe you'll like them too.
So, let's go then, yes?
(A disclaimer: these won't be in the order I visited these countries in, that would be as follows: Turkey, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Czech Republic, Switzerland, France)
To begin, the autobahn isn't what you think it is. It's really just a two (sometimes three) lane highway with no speed limit that runs throughout most of Germany. In Europe the left lane is the passing lane and no one stays in in for long. That would be great, except for the cars who drive slowly while passing making the autobahn almost useless for non-stop speeding. I WISH. I will say I did drive at 125 (or about 200 kmph) for a few minutes and it was awesome. I just wish I'd had something faster than a stupid BMW SUV. Boo.
People in other countries do not hate Americans, they do not care what you wear and will never be rude. This was a concern of mine as I wanted to fit in and not stand out like a 'stupid American,' but my fears were completely unfounded. Everyone I met was incredibly kind and helpful. I didn't have one negative experience with anyone. My American/Southern accent either fascinated or bewildered them, but it never offended.
Istanbul is very much a city that I felt the least affection for. The Grand Bazaar is really just like a huge flea market where very little is authentic. It was my greatest disappointment. The mosques and other sights were interesting and beautiful, but I was accosted regularly about buying something or seeing something, etc. I felt a little disrespected as a woman, but had an amazing conversation with my cab driver through our mutual translation programs. Too fun!
Zurich was gorgeous, but I feel disconnected from it. I'm not sure why. It was beautiful, the people friendly and the city mesmerizing, but I just felt unattached to it. They even charged me 40€ for the pleasure of driving on their roads, maybe that was it. Very friendly people, so kind. I really enjoyed that.
I was warned against visiting Luxembourg, but went away. I wish I'd listened. It was described to me as a soul-less city and that's as accurate as I can describe. It seemed to lack warmth or any sort of vibrancy that the other cities had. It was very historical, the buildings were impressive and there seemed to be a lot of movement around the city, but it just felt blah to me. I won't return, but it was nice to say I've been.
I visited both Heidelberg and Munich on my trip to Germany. Heidelberg was so beautiful that it seemed like it was pulled from the pages of a fairy tale. It was just a stunning, stunning city. This, though, was one of the only countries where it was difficult to find English speakers. That made it harder, obviously, but not impossible. The food here was amazing and the hotel I stayed in was just indescribable. The castle was amazing and the river and bridges were just beautiful. It's hard to put into words how much I loved this city. It was perfection.
Munich on the other hand literally freaked me out. I drove in and the city was just crawling with people. I mean, EVERYWHERE. My sister reminded me that I lived in NYC and I reminded her that I didn't care, I was freaked out. I felt surrounded and just not happy here. The men are also incredibly forward and I felt completely unsafe. I wouldn't come back here even as kind of cool as it is. It was just too much.
Prague. How do I even begin to describe how much I love the Czech Republic? I drove into the country from Germany on an overcast day and it felt exactly like I was driving into a Cold War country. I don't know how else to describe it. It wasn't that I was driving into an industrial city, it just felt that way. Just very cold and a little scary. To make matters worse I had a flat (not bad, I had BMW run-flat tires) and in a seemingly desolate area. I just took an exit and drove. I found a gas station but the air station wasn't working. I was beginning to freak out because these people seriously do not speak English on any level.
I pulled out from the gas station drove about a mile, turned a corner and there was a tire shop! It was amazing (and confirms the super charmed life I live)! They at first said they couldn't fix it, but thanks to my translation program (and Peter's - my future ex-Czech husband) I told him I would cry and he got it all fixed. This was the first person I'd seen on my trip that I was seriously attracted to. He was kind and the hottest man I'd seen in Europe yet. It was everything I could do to not stab my other tires with a knife. He was gorgeous! If he'd spoken English I'm pretty sure we would have been in bed together that very night. Damn language barrier!
Moving on to my actual visit to Prague.
This city defies explanation. There is nothing in my ability to use language effectively that can even come close to telling you about this magical city. It is beautiful, the people so incredibly welcoming and friendly and you can get whatever you need for next to nothing. It was by far the least expensive city I visited. I lived like a rock star here on pennies. Never mind that, the river, the bridge, the architecture, the people, the food, the shopping, everything was so perfect. I could have stayed here forever. It will always be one of my favorite places.
Paris. What can you say about Paris that hasn't been said and isn't absolutely true? I liken it to a more fashionable, fun NYC. It reminded me completely of the city I live in, but with the amazing Eiffel Tower! Although, going up in it just reminded me of the ESB. Yikes.
The food here was incredible! WOW! I loved eating in Europe and it will take about a month to lose all the carb weight (I'm looking at you pan au chocolate, croissants, french bread and butter!), but it was so hard not to!
I also loved the people. My sister, a former Euro-living American, scared me senseless about the people, but she's just crazy. They didn't care what I wore, didn't care that I butchered their language with my remedial high school French pronunciations, that I had no idea what I was ordering when I ordered it. They accepted me as I was and it was incredible! I will never, ever forget the feeling I got of looking up and seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time, ever. It was amazing. It wasn't my favorite city, but I understand its power.
I'm saving my favorites for last.
Belgium. I loved, loved, loved Prague, but Ghent, Belgium stole my heart. This was a day trip to my regret because I could have stayed here for a week. This city brought me the most peace and the place where I felt just calm and centered. I just wandered and wandered and found the most beautiful churches, the friendliest people and I just felt so good here. It was magical. I don't have any experiences to speak of from here, it was just the whole feeling I got from being in this city. Just amazing.
Ghent has to share my heart with Colmar, France. This was a place I decided on because it was halfway between Zurich, where I had been, and Brussels where I was going. The drive was too long so I needed to spend the night in between and as luck would have it, I chose Colmar.
THIS was my first taste of France and it was, like Ghent, just beyond description. The people, the food, the churches and houses that looked like gingerbread lived in them, Little Venice and beyond just wowed me from the beginning. It was a city I regretted not staying longer in. I almost, almost did, but I'm glad I carried on because I got to see Paris and fall even more in love with France. If you ever get to that country visit Colmar, you won't be disappointed.
This trip didn't start out as one of a lifetime. I really just wanted to revisit Europe, but it became something life changing. I felt empowered by choosing my own way, by navigating some of the most challenging places I'd been, I felt beautiful and free and independent and I now feel like I have some of the most incredible experiences to add to the already pretty incredible experiences I've had.
I love Europe and I'll go back soon. It was AMAZING!