Cruising the Norwegian Fjords

One country I needed to cross off my list was Norway.  I’d been to the other Scandinavian countries and this was the only one I was missing.  When Chris booked a Fjord cruise for us, well, it was perfect!  It was a cruise we’d both wanted to go on and with a good deal – he couldn’t resist.  Travelling with an ex, of course, has a set of unique circumstances but not only is Chris my ex, but one of my closest friends and so we still really enjoy spending time together and doing one of the things we both love – traveling.   Since the divorce I haven’t travelled as much (except a really AWFUL trip to Iceland – that we never mention) and so I was really looking forward to getting away. 

The night before we left we dropped Sugar off at the new (fabulous) boarders and settled in to watch the best TV of the year – Eurovision!  That’s a whole post on its own.  We leisurely headed to Southampton the next day in time to board the ship around 3:00.  Even though I’ve cruised twice before, I don’t think I ever get used to how big the ship is.  When we first saw it, it was pretty amazing.  Since it was run by Norwegian Cruise Lines, I took for granted it was a Norwegian Cruise Line (duh!??!).  I was pleasantly surprised to find it was an American cruise line which made the ship even better – a cruise and a taste of home – perfect!  Chris got an unlimited drinks package in the cruise deal so we indulged in Pina Colada’s (non-alcoholic of course) and sat on deck in the lovely sun waiting for us to head North.  It really was a beautifully sunny day.  Its always fun and exciting to explore the ship.  Its like a maze full of restaurants, shops, arcades, and bars.  I always think I’ll never find my way around when we first leave, and by the end of the cruise you know where everything is.   This ship, The Jade, was FAR larger than the other 2 ships we’ve cruised on before.  It always takes me a while to acclimate to the rocking of the ship but I was pleasantly surprised that my sea-sickness was at a minimum during this cruise (except through some particularly rough sea).

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Our first full day was a day at sea.  I was fully prepared with a good book (what I THOUGHT was a good book), textbooks and notebooks full of study material for my final essay for one of my University classes that was due a day after I got home, laptop, tablet full of games, podcasts, and music.  I learned my lesson from being bored on the Marco Polo Ship.  This ship was excellent and was full of activities for all ages and things to do, but I was content to sit in the sunshine and watch the world go by.

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Our first port was Stavanger.  To be honest I had no idea what to expect.  I didn’t do much research like I usually do before I travel and was just going to take things as they came.  We decided to do our old favourite – the hop on hop off bus.  They crammed us on like sardines for the first route of the day.  After a sunny day at sea the day before, it only took one look up to see that on this day we wouldn’t see a hint of the sun… and we didn’t.  We had LOADS of rain.  Off of the bus we took cover in an old church, which turned out to be a good choice.  It was ornate and the alter was unlike any I’d ever seen (and I’ve seen a lot of old church alters after 11 years in England!). 

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We could only sit in the church for so long with so many other things to see so we braved the rain and headed out.  The village centre was pretty small so we just walked.  We looked at the market (full of tourist bait) and saw a circular building on a hill so we headed towards it.  At one point as we were sitting down for a rest, fortune smiled on me when I decided to see if there was a Pandora shop and there was one literally 5 steps from where we were sitting.  So of course, I HAD to get a charm for my bracelet (thanks Chris) and we continued on to the building on the hill.  Chris braved the cobbled street, but with my ankle I kept it safe utilizing the steps.  We arrived at the top to find… well… a circular brink building of no particular interest.  There was a plaque on it but neither of us knew why it was important – but there was a good view from all the way up there.  We headed back down the back streets just taking everything in. 

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Chris found where the bus stop was (I still don’t completely trust his sense of direction even though I REALLY should, 99.9% of the time he is exactly right and I am waaaaaaaay off).  We got on the bus and went and saw some older buildings…

**** I REALIZE I AM COMPLETELY VAGUE WITH THE NAMES OF THE PLACES WE’VE VISITED – IF YOU’D LIKE TO KNOW THE NAMES AND MORE INFORMATION ABOUT THE PLACES WE SAW, CHRIS BLOG IS GREAT WITH THE DETAILS OF THE TRIP – CHECK IT OUT (I’M REFERENCING IT AS WE SPEAK, UH, TYPE). ****

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We got back to the ship with a little time to look around.  Chris looked for some souvenirs and I walked down the street to take some pictures of the houses along the waterfront.  The tour guide said that the houses on that stretch of road keep their curtains open and have a lot of traditional decoration for people to see how they live.  I didn’t get that far down the road – it started to pour with rain again.

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As we sailed away there were people putting their heads out of their windows waving and waving flags.  It was a lovely send off!  We were headed to the fjords next.  This was one of the nights we ran into some pretty rough sea and even Chris suffered with some sea-sickness.  With such a big boat you could really feel it listing back and forth – it was a bit unsettling, but I never felt unsafe or in danger, just not my favourite feeling. 

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Nothing could have prepared me for the view that we woke up to in Skjolden.  We had an inside room, which means we have no windows.  Our first view is when we walk out onto the deck.  This day we walked out to this….

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When you looked up all you could see were cliffs, clouds, and green and when you looked down you could see…

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It was Norway’s National Day and there was a band and the village all came out to greet us dressed in their traditional clothing, handing out flags as we got off the ship.  It was a quaint, charming welcome!  There was no hop on hop off bus here, so we did an excursion from the cruise line.  We got on a coach and started the climb up the mountain.  Some of the roads were narrow, and looking at the sheer drop out of the window I had to remind myself that they do this all the time – still scary though!

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The church was closed to visitors because they were having services for the National Day.  The people were so friendly and patient with people wanting to take pictures of them.  When we got back from the excursion we still had half a day left, so we walked along the edge of the water to the village centre.  Everything was closed because of the holiday, but we got to see some traditional homes and just take in the most beautiful scenery I’ve seen in a LONG time.  As we travelled, throughout the whole cruise, I can see why there are so many fairy-tales and folklore about trolls centred around this area – its magical!

It was so calming cruising through the fjords.  They are unlike anything I’ve ever seen and the water is like glass.  Waterfalls are every where you look.  There are little homes dotted along the coast line.  It makes me wonder how people live and thrive in such remote places, but part of me dreams of living a life like that.   The ship continued to impress with is great food and really entertaining shows. 

The next stop was Alesund.  This wasn’t a fjord, but a port town.  We got on the hop on hop off bus and headed up to the top of a very steep mountain.  We had clear skies and usually we’d do the whole route once and decide where to stop, but we didn’t know how long we’d have clear skies so we got off at this stop.  The view was breath-taking!  The top also had some old WWII bunkers, which seems like a pretty good place to have one, but it surprised me that even in this place there were effects of WWII.

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We got back on the bus and went and looked at an old church and the graveyard.  Even though it was a pretty big town, it still seemed pretty small and quaint. 

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We found our way back to the ship with only a minor disagreement (okay a bit of an argument) about directions and I only bring this up because although Chris STILL thinks he was right, well I think I am.  But, if the past is anything to go by Chris was probably right because it was all about how to get back to the ship. We went to a grocery shop to look at all the strange and usual food and to buy more chocolate than necessary.

When we leave the ports there are so many thing to see and beauty to take in.  You don’t know what way to look or what to focus on.

Next stop – Geiranger.  We had to amend the excursion because one of the roads that we were supposed to go on was still blocked with snow.  That didn’t matter, I knew the minute I took a step onto the deck we’d be spoiled with scenery no matter where we went.  We got on the coach and continued up another mountain with some of the most hairpin, sheer drop roads, I’ve ever experienced.  I just kept thinking – the driver knows what he’s doing.  And he really did.  We first stopped at a frozen lake.  The tour guide said, as we were getting out of the coach, “Don’t go far out its very deep and we don’t know how thick the ice is”.” Ummmmm, okay.  This Utah girl was pretty steady on her feet in the snow compared to some of the other people and the view was indescribable.  It was a frozen lake, but the sun was shining, and at the same time the fog was rolling in.  Beautiful.  The coach parked next to the snow bank so we could see how deep it still was.  One of the things that surprised me was that just when you think that there could be no more liveable areas, you’d stumble upon another house.  It is crazy some of the conditions the people live in.  I cant imagine it!

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On the way down from the lake, we stopped to take pictures of the Geiranger Fjord.  It was spectacular (I’m going to run out of adjectives, I’m going to need a thesaurus soon!).  We went to the other side of the fjord and went to a road with 10 hairpin turns.  It was hairy at points!  We stopped at another look out where you could see the whole fjord and the seven sisters waterfalls.  Back at the port we stopped at the shop and tried reindeer jerky, took pictures with a massive troll and headed back onto the ship.  I went to find a coveted seat on the deck with the best view.  I finally got 2 seats at a table right by the railing and then had to go inside because it was such a nice sunny day that I was getting sun burned!  We were lucky on the trip that we had pretty great weather.  Several tour guides said how lucky we were and that the groups the day before couldn’t see the view for the fog/rain. Chris stayed out on the deck and got some pretty amazing pictures – its hard to pick just a few!

Our last stop was Bergen.  We didn’t have a great time at this stop.  Once again they packed us on the coach and that started things off bad.  The weather was kind of blah (but no rain which is VERY rare), and we were both tired.  We did the hop on hop off bus stop but there wasn’t too much to see that was very different from our other non-fjord stops.  We went to the fish market and I was determined to have salmon right from the sea and I had been hearing about Norwegian strawberries off and on and when Rick Steves suggested them I was sold!  Luckily at the market they had some and they were some of the best I’ve ever had.  I also tried Cloudberry jam.  After struggling through the tourist shops we stopped for fish.  I got salmon and king crab and Chris got cod (he thought that was a safe choice, little did he know they barely cook it).  It was okay but, I didn’t quite know how to get into the crab very well and the salmon was lovely but garnished with some strange things.  Needless to say it wasn’t the best money spent on the trip (and it was VERY pricey!!!!).

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The next day was our last day and was a full day at sea.  It was really relaxing.  Chris spent a lot of time on the deck but it was too cold for me so I spent most of my time that day (and really, anytime on the ship – in the library.  It had big windows and classical music playing quietly and it was super quiet).  It was Sunday and I was falling asleep working on my school work and I looked on the book case for ‘take one, leave one’ and saw a Book of Mormon so I read, in a pretty nice setting!  Well done to the people who thought to leave it – missionary work done!

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We were in constant awe of how long it stayed light at night!

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The last night they had a Broadway show and I loved it!  We were given a beautiful sunset and I loaded up on the last of the American bacon, self serve all you can eat ice cream cones, and unlimited pina colada’s.

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A great summing up of our time together on this holiday!

We got home to several text messages about work and University essays due – that was reality with a hard landing!  It was a really nice holiday.  I would HIGHLY recommend Norwegian Cruise Lines, by far the best I’ve been on.  The fjords are something that you wont regret seeing and wont ever forget.  I’m so lucky to have been able to go.  Let me just get sappy for a minute – Chris and I didn’t have a perfect marriage and we both have many regrets about things that happened during that time.  But one thing that I don’t regret and will never be able to pay back is the fact that Chris, quite literally, gave me the world.  The things I’ve experienced and the places I’ve seen have been a gift, that I’m forever grateful for. 

Luckily one of the perks of staying friends is that we can continue to travel together  – we’ll see where the wind takes us next!  

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All This shall give you experience

These last few weeks have been pretty uneventful and although I have a renewed motivation to write on my blog, there isn’t much to write about.  A lot of people have reached out to me lately and made sure I was okay when they heard news of the divorce.  Chris and I kept it pretty quite (on purpose) while it was still going through the courts.  We didn’t want to deal with the gossip or the questions that we weren’t quite ready to address either.  I started letting a few friends and family know last summer but we never officially announced it anywhere so when I put a picture on Facebook and mentioned the divorce, it elicited some kind and loving reactions that helped to heal my heart – thank you.

Ha!  Look at me saying “we”!  Funny, that’s one of the hardest things to change.  After being  a “we” for so long and now I’m just me.

Last Saturday I had the opportunity (see I called it an opportunity) to play the piano at a lovely friends wedding.  She’s a member of the ward.  I don’t know her as well as I know her dad and brother who have been my Home Teachers and supported me through the last few years.  I was more than happy to help his family after the help they’ve given me. 

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Me and my very British fascinator!

I got the music and I was scared, like run and hide scared.  I guess I should be flattered that they thought that I could play such complicated pieces.  With a lot, A LOT of editing and missing out notes I managed to get some arrangements I felt okay with.  I always get so nervous when I play piano for anything except Sacrament Meeting and Primary.  My hands turn ice cold and the shake uncontrollably.  This doesn’t help with the mistakes while playing.  That day I said a prayer that one of my favourite people, My Grandma – who gave me my first piano and ignited the love of playing, would help me be calm and make up for my many musical shortcomings.  And she sure did!  I managed to get through the songs with few (noticeable) mistakes and felt semi-calm while doing it.  What a blessing!

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A congratulatory note to myself at the end of the hardest song.

 

What I didn’t plan for was the wedding itself.  The ceremony.  The love.  The excitement for the future.  And to be honest I was caught completely off guard.  It really hurt my heart.  I was so happy for the couple getting married they were so happy and joyful.  But, I couldn’t help but look back at my wedding and feel a sense of loss.  My cynical side was constantly chiming in… (Speaker) “This is just the start of your eternal family. (Cynical Jamie) “Yeah, maybe… give it a few years.” And so on and so on…. And then I stopped (because the last thing I want to be is cynical about love) and listened, and I’ll be honest I shed a few tears (hidden behind the piano – the front of the chapel was hardly the place to have a breakdown!). 

I’ve learned that grieving a divorce, for me, is similar to the process of grieving childlessness.  It doesn’t happen all at once.  Sometimes there are unexpected tears and the emotions just come up out of nowhere and I don’t know what to do with them.  But I’m slowly learning that I have to give myself time.

In those nights that I cried and cried to my Heavenly Father and asked why he wouldn’t bless me with a child I never dreamed that that experience would be for my good.  That, that experience would help me be more gentle with myself through this experience.  Now, after 10 years and a divorce I am so thankful that he knows better than me.  Divorce is hard but, I would imagine, divorce with children is even harder. I am relying on that experience to know that this experience “shall be for my good” as well. 

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So I made it through the wedding.  I managed to control my emotions so I could see the music to play.  I thought of my Sharing Time lesson to keep my mind off of some of the ceremony.  Then I got in my car to drive home and an amazing thing happened.  I wasn’t sad anymore.  For that moment the sadness had passed.  I recognized it, I felt it, and I let it go.  I know it will come back, sometimes unexpectedly, but I just have to trust that the Lord knows better than I do and remember one day this too, “shall be for me good”.

 

Find out more about what I believe here.

Journey to the bluebells

Okay, so I’ve lived in England for almost 10 years and believe it or not there are still things I’d like to see and do that I haven’t gotten around to doing.  One of these things was going to see the bluebells when they were in bloom.  This year I was determined to find some!  It worked out well when Chris’ holiday fell through that he had time to be my bluebell searching companion.

Firstly, we stopped at a place called Stonea Camp.  It is another place I’ve wanted to visit and had seen signs for so we drove down a long dirt road and got to the Camp.  There was a couple there and I think they decided they didn’t want to share the experience (?!?!?) so they got back in their car and wait for us to explore.  They didn’t have to wait too long.  Stonea Camp is an old site of a Roman settlement as far back as 500BC.  I don’t know what I was expecting but there were some rolling mounds, swampy grass, sheep (and the best part, lambs), and LOADS of sheep poo.  So after walking around for about 5 minutes we decided to head out to see the bluebells. 

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I found that the closest place to see the bluebells was a place called Brampton Wood.  I had never been there before, or even heard of it, neither apparently had the Sat Nav.  After a lot of turning around and missing roads we made it.  There was a simple map to take near the gate to enter the woods and we thought it was pretty straightforward.  We only happened upon people everyone once in a while but it felt like we were completely alone.  Luckily we had lovely sunny weather and I was happy to just take a leisurely stroll. 

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We didn’t know where the bluebells were exactly so every one we saw we wondered if this was the spot for them.  After walking quite a bit and still not finding the bluebells Chris was ready to call it a day.  I told him I’d continue on and he could either follow me or meet me at the car.  Once I started on my own I noticed it was getting to be a bit, what the English call, “squelchy”.  The dry ground was quickly turning to mud – and lots of it.  I finally made it to the fork in the path I was searching for and I called Chris to let him know he should probably just meet me at the car.  He told me he was already on his way up and before long I could see him (and a gigantic walking stick) headed up the hill.  I decided to walk up the path to the woods.  As I was walking I started to see more and more bluebells.  And finally the woods opened up and ground was carpeted by bluebells.  It was breath-taking.  I just too a minute to go to the middle of the opening and take it all in.  It was just like the pictures but 1000% better.

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Starting to see the bluebells… finally.

 

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I could have probably stayed all day, but we decided to head out.  That’s when the adventure started.  As we continued on the path to get out, we ran into some more mud.  I immediately envied Chris and his ginormous walking stick that he had pulled up the previous hill.  At first I thought I’d try to go through the puddles, but they became too deep, so I tried to walk around the edges trying not to slip into the puddle because of the mud along the edge.  This all came to an abrupt halt, and in a fit of strength that even I surprised myself with – I was trying to go around an especially deep puddle and I grabbed onto a rare fence post.  As I got over the puddle my foot slipped and with one arm, in what felt like very slow motion, I swung back to the other side, saving myself from falling into the puddle with the grip of that one hand on the fence post.  I was pretty impressed with myself but, after laughing so hard I nearly fell in anyway, decided to just walk through them from now on.  Behind me was quite the sight!  Chris with his walking stick and his jeans rolled up to his knees, cursing under his breath at the mud.  As we saw people walking up we said, “Be careful its muddy!” but they just smiled and kept walking.  I am willing to bet more than a few of them saved themselves with that same fence post.  By the time we got back to the car, my trousers and shoes were caked with mud and Chris’ once white trainers looked like mud slippers.  But, it was all such good fun!  The mud washes off but the memory of those bluebells (and Chris’ mud distress) definitely made up for it!

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We took the long way home and travelled the back roads – a thing we both really enjoy (when petrol prices cooperates with us!).  We stopped at a church in Alconbury and walked around looking for the oldest graves.  It still boggles this American’s mind to find headstones and churches older than America!

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While we were looking at the headstones I found one that especially touched me it said, “Worthy of Remembering”.  I thought that was beautiful and something that I aspire to, I don’t quite know how yet, but I’m searching.

All in all it was a really nice day and the bluebells were WELL worth it.  One more thing to tick of my England Bucket List. 

The only thing Constant in life is change

It might surprise many of my faithful readers that I am updating my blog again.  You’d given up on me hadn’t you?

Lately I’ve been itching to get back to writing about my life and connecting with my friends and family in a way that I have always loved.

But, things are different now that I’m back.  Some things I’m going to want to keep private.  Some things might only be for me.  That’s because my life is changed.

I’m not the married, childless, American living in England – biding her time until she could talk her spouse into getting a visa for the states.

Now (deep breath, Jamie) I’m the single (divorced *cringe*) American living in England because, well, because I want to.

Lets clear up a few things.

Chris and I are still very good friends.  The divorce was final in April, but it hasn’t been too difficult because we are still in each others lives.  We travel together, spend days out together, talk, text, and continue navigating our way through this uncharted experience.  The reasons for the divorce are ours, and ours alone.  Its our story and one that only we will tell, when and if we’re ready.  Have there been tears and heartbreak along the way?  Of course, probably more than I can count.  But, I’m thankful everyday (mostly everyday) that we settled things in a way that allow us to have a friendly relationship.  There will be no bashing of the ex on this blog – friends just don’t do that.

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So, I hear you ask, if you are divorced and he was a major reason you stayed in England – WHY ARE YOU STILL THERE?  That, my friend, is a great question and I still don’t even have an answer for myself, yet alone anyone else who might wonder and question it.  I do know one thing for absolute sure, England is my home.  I’ve been an adult longer here than in America.  Me and England?  We’ve been through a lot!  Just because I am now on my own, that doesn’t change much.  I am settled here, I love it here, and if it only had my friends and family I’d be completely happy (anyone want to move over?  Visit?  Anyone??).  I’ve searched, studied, prayed, asked nicely, and begged for an answer of what I need to do with my life.  I am still waiting, but in the meantime I am going to be taking advantage of some great opportunities for my future while I’m still here – however long that may be.

I am lucky that I still have the twins in my life as well.  They are going to a new school in the Autumn and I, luckily, get to look after them still.  They make me crazy and frustrated and happy and peaceful all at the same time. 

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Luckily, this change in my life hasn’t made me bitter and angry with the church.  I am so blessed that I still treasure my testimony and membership.  Don’t get me wrong there are times where I want to scream and shout, “ITS NOT FAIR! WHY??” but I am learning to lean on my Saviour even more to answer those tough questions.  My calling in our newly created ward as a member of the Primary Presidency has helped me to focus on the basics. 

I also have been on the “Divorce Diet” as my mom calls it.  I am finding joy in taking care of myself in every way including physically.  I am sure it is something I will mention in future posts, but I wont ever say how much I’ve lost, just that I’m focusing on me and you know what? It feels great when I get out there and do it!

In the future there will be some posts that will be private and unavailable to read.  But hopefully, I’ll keep having adventures and keeping a record of it right here on this blog!  Stay tuned!

Me, single again?  That’s bound to create some stories right there!

Finally Vienna (and Budapest, Brno, and Bratislava)

A few weeks after I got back from Poland, Chris and I had planned to visit Vienna.  It was a place that we’d always wanted to visit and what better time then Christmas.  Chris got a bit overly-ambitious and also planned for us to see Budapest, Hungary – Brno, Czech Republic – and – Bratislava, Slovakia.  This meant we’d see a lot more places and Christmas markets, but that I’d also be driving a lot more.  I just prayed that it wasn’t bad weather.  Like the previous post I’ll be doing my Top Ten (because I’m a slacker).  If you want more detail then you can always check Chris’ blog posts.

Vienna (and its neighbours) Top Ten

1.  Budapest, Hungary

I have to say this was my favourite part of this visit even though it was FREEZING!  We caught the train early in the morning and spent the day in Budapest.  We got to explore LOTS of Christmas markets and it was a very picturesque city.  I could have probably spent more time there (I didn’t get to see the Synagogue – not pointing any fingers….. Chris).  We took the City Sightseeing Tour, which included all the different routes and boats and everything.  We stuck to the first line and after 45 minutes on the open top of the bus, we pealed ourselves from the frozen seats and got out to see the market.  But it was a beautiful city!

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2.  Driving Through the Countryside

We decided on one day we’d visit the Czech Republic and Slovakia.  It sounds like a lot, but they were all very close and only a few hours at the most away.  I was so glad that it was nice weather.  It was foggy, which kind of ruins sightseeing while driving (and pictures), but that cleared and led to some off track sights and beautiful countryside.  Oh by the way, check your rental car for the Vignette before you pay for a new one for only a few hours – right Chris?

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Ode to Conchita Wurst (said in a think Austrian accent – by me). 

No idea who she is?  Well, SHAME!

 

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3.  Brno, Czech Republic

After finally parking the car in what might have been the tiniest car park ever (ever mindful of the rental deposit), we took a nice walk to the town centre to see the Christmas market.  Chris and I both remarked about how strange it is that you can cross a border (Austria to the Czech Republic) and immediately see the influence of the Soviet Era.  It was a quaint little market with a live nativity lots of little stalls and yummy food.  I really like the smaller markets, they are less commercial and have a lot more atmosphere. 

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4.  Bratislava, Slovakia

This little town was suggested by a wonderful friend when we once had a conversation about the places we have loved to visit.  I knew with her suggestion we couldn’t go wrong planning in a visit.  Vienna is only 30 minutes away and so we added this gem to our visit.  I wasn’t disappointed it was a lovely little town, one that I’d never visit otherwise, but well worth it.  We found a place to park just as the sun was setting so we didn’t get to see a lot of the scenery.  We walked past a little preview of a market and followed the crowds to a huge market!  Like most, it was in the shadow of an old church.  We walked around the stalls and through the Old Town.  I would love to go back here too!  A few hours wasn’t enough.

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5.  Schonbrunn Palace

The next day we had the whole day to spend in Vienna.  Unfortunately it was raining…. a lot.  Luckily we made it to the Schonbrunn Palace before it started to pour.  Chris really wanted to visit here because he’d seen in on TV.  It was spectacular!  We didn’t know it but, we got a Christmas market to boot!  It was pretty packed with school trips and LOTS of tourists.  It was quite the setting.  It may be the one place in Vienna I’d like to go back and see.

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6.  Vienna

I cant do a top ten of Vienna without adding Vienna, can I?  To be honest it wasn’t my favourite place ever.  I don’t think that helped that it was freezing and absolutely pouring down!  Would I pay to go again, no.  Would I go if someone paid for me, yes.  I am sure it has so much more to offer than what I got to see.  But, in-between the downpours I did see some lovely architecture and it is really nice to be completely surrounded by history.  Later that evening after drying off we headed to a concert we had tickets to.  We stopped by another market and, luckily it had stopped raining.  The market was WAY to commercial for my liking but it was a nice setting.  We tried Kinderpunch (the non-alcholic version of their version of mulled wine).  It was really nice and we even got a free mug! (Okay, not free they charge you a lot for the drink). 

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Did I mention it was raining… a lot…

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Equality street signs – I loved these.  They were left from when Vienna hosted Eurovision earlier in the year.

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7.  Audio Tour by Rick Steves

I find it crazy that Chris doesn’t know who Rick Steves is.  I spent many Saturday morning with him when I was growing up (maybe that’s what ignited my wanderlust).  I guess he is just an American treasure.  Anyway, this American treasure has an app to download free walking tours around Europe.  I found one for Vienna and decided that it was a great idea.  Unfortunately the rain, cold, and Chris had other ideas.  I was chuckling to myself during the first part at all of his lame jokes (they didn’t translate for Chris).  Before we turned it off and went to seek cover, he took us to an amazing memorial for WWII.  It was out of the way of the bus tour so I’m glad Rick (yeah, we’re on a first name basis – well at least I am) helped me find it.  From Chris Blog:

It is located in the triangle of Augustinerstraße, Fürichgasse and Tegetthoffstraße.

There are 4 carved granite columns (the granite comes from the Mauthausen Concentration Camp near Linz in Austria). Behind and to the middle of 2 of the columns is a cast iron statue of a Jew that was forced to clean Anti-Nazi slogans from the streets of Vienna afterAnschluss. This statue showed just how much the Nazi’s were prepared to degrade and humiliate the Jews and those not of the Aryan race.

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8.  Strauss “Concert”

While we were waiting for the sightseeing bus, we got accosted by a man dressed like Strauss (or that style) telling us about a concert that night full of Strauss and Mozart.  Chris was sold at the word Strauss (his favourite composer) and I was sold (well I was sold before we even met the guy – I was looking at tickets the night before) by the word Opera.  We got to the Palace Auersperg and got to see a semi-professional concert.  It was really beautiful, but don’t believe the guy when he says he’s giving you a deal because he only has a few seats left.  There was a great mix of ballet, instrumental, and opera.  The venue made it even more impressive.  We couldn’t record anything or take pictures during the show, so you’ll have to just take my word for it.  Worth the money?  Not really but if you love Strauss or Mozart you wont be disappointed. 

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9. and 10.  The FOOD

Okay, lets just pretend that I had 10 things I loved from this trip.  After looking through all the pictures there is one thing that is highlighted more than any other – the food.  The markets were full of unique food and I don’t think we’ve ever tried so much of it!  So here are some of the things we got to try.

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Belated Warsaw

In December, after much convincing and procrastinating (Chris convincing and me procrastinating), Chris and I decided that it was be fun to go to Warsaw and see the Christmas markets.  Its a favourite tradition of ours to go to Christmas markets.  This year was bound to be a little different since we were officially separated, but we were looking forward to spending time together exploring Poland.   We got a flat in the town centre which had a great view.  It was in a good location that was pretty central to everything.

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Since it was nearly 6 months ago, I don’t remember a lot of the finer details (you’ll have to use Chris’ blog posts for that).  But, I didn’t want to go without writing about it so I decided I’d do a Top Ten of the trip.

Warsaw, Poland Top Ten

1.  Wandering the streets of Warsaw

I quickly learned that walking in Warsaw was  A LOT safer than driving (its crazy there!!!!).  There were so many things to see that it was hard to take it all in.  I really had the motivation to walk around a bit more during this trip.  The sites seemed to be quite close together (or relatively close depending if you as me or Chris).  It was really nice to take in the sights.  You definitely get a different perspective when you are walking in and out of alleys and parks and its a bit easier to take detours and find a way out on foot instead of by car.

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2.  The crosswalks in Warsaw Town Centre

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I guess when you’re visiting the birth country of Chopin, you get street crossings of piano keys.

3.   The Jewish Ghetto

During the war Warsaw was divided and there was a wall put up to keep the Jews in one place.  The conditions in the ghetto were horrible.  We found that there was a place in Warsaw where that wall was still standing so we went to search for it.  When we finally found it we were surprised, although we probably shouldn’t have been, that it was through a block of flats.  Very inconspicuous and if you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t know it was there.  There was a reverence here that I’ve found at every WWII memorial I’ve visited.  It was quiet, except for the occasional resident coming or going.  Chris and I wondered what the people there think about it, if they even do.  Through the whole city there were markings of the border of the Ghetto.  To me it was a constant reminder of the past.

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4. Christmas market in Warsaw

One of my favourite things is to go to another country, explore their traditions, and take in the culture.  I think one of the best places to do this is the Christmas market.  It doesn’t feel like Christmas to me anymore without visiting a market!  The atmosphere is one that you cant get anywhere else.  You get to see the locals – the local food, toys, gifts, music, clothing, and traditions.  At this market we discovered some yummy squeaky cheese and delicious chimney cakes,  A lot of the markets are in log cabin style stalls, but this one almost looked like it was straight out of the desert.

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5.  Driving in the country

While it can be VERY overwhelming to drive in a different country, there are so many advantages I cant pass up the opportunity to get out of the city and dive into authentic countryside.  Poland wasn’t a disappointment.  Once I got out of the mayhem that is Warsaw, we were treated to beautiful countryside and a taste of the country.  The houses were very worn down and you could tell that it wasn’t a very affluent country.  But, there was still a certain charm.  The traditional houses, coupled with the antiquated churches make for a very nice drive.  The only problem we had this time was the lack of sunlight in December.

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Driving in Downtown Warsaw vs. driving through the countryside

6.  The home of Chopin – Zelazowa Wola

Luckily we got some beautiful sunlight for the visit to Chopin’s home.  The gardens were lovely to walk through and a good opportunity to get some pictures.  The house on the other hand…. well, lets just say it wasn’t worth it at all.  It isn’t even the real house that he was born in (its been rebuilt a few times), they definitely don’t put that in the tourist pamphlets!  If fact, when we went there were zero tourists at all, and we felt it especially when we walked into the house feeling full of excitement to learn more about him and leaving feeling like common criminals.  The FOUR ticket takers (surely that isn’t the right name for them) accosted us upon entry and as we travelled room by room we were followed, not so stealthily by a security guard.  Very awkward.  The gardens were well worth it – the house, not so much.

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The fake/real house.

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A very photogenic garden – even in winter!

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Making being “Just Friends” look easy!

7.  Treblinka II – Nazi extermination camp

One of the biggest blessings of living in England has been the opportunity to see a different side of WWII.  Poland was no exception.  Poland was devastated during WWII and there is still evidence of the horrors of the war.  We were going to go to Auschwitz, but it was too far for the short time we had.  As I was looking through my many, many brochures from the tourist office (Chris always gives me a hard time about how many I collect) I read a little about Treblinka II.  We decided that it would be a pretty interesting place to visit.  As we were driving we were running out of daylight.  When we finally got there (no thanks to the Sat Nav for taking us up a bike path at one point) it was dusk and it really added an eerie atmosphere.  There was no one else there and it was set in the middle of a dense forest.  The Nazi’s built a railway right to the entrance, but when you walk up you only see the skeleton of the rails.  Then you walk a bit further to see stones with different countries names on them.  Then you look up to a large stone memorial – the Jewish Tombstone.  This is surrounded by 1700 stones to represent just some of the nearly 800,00 people who died in that very spot.  The crematorium is marked by a large rectangular pile of stones.  It is hard to comprehend, impossible really, what devastation occurred where I was standing.  It was a sacred place.  I wanted to stay longer but unfortunately it was getting too dark so we tried to find the visitors centre.  It was closing just as we pulled up so we missed out on that, but the feeling of standing among those stones – I will never forget.  Good thing I picked up that brochure!

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8.  Nozyk Synagogue

Its a silly thing to say, but if I wasn’t LDS I would want to be Jewish.  As cliché as it sounds, I decided this the first time I watched Fiddler on the Roof.  I admire their faithfulness and traditions.  I am very interested in their religion and so I was happy to get the opportunity to visit a Synagogue while in Warsaw.  It was the only Synagogue that was left standing out of 400 during WWII.  It isn’t overly decorated like a lot of old churches are.  When we went in Chris had to cover his head.  There were men in a back room learning and singing which only added to the atmosphere and my admiration for their dedication and faith.

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9.  Warsaw Uprising Museum

This was one of many WWII museums in Warsaw.  It was a very large museum and after 2 hours we felt like we didn’t spend the time to see everything and read everything.  The thing that impressed me the most was that in the middle of the exhibit when you walked in there was a wall that spanned the ground and first floor.  It had bullet holes in it and it had a constant heartbeat when you put your ear up to it as a reminder of the sacrifices during the war, both of the people and the solders.  The museum is set up as a walk through-time line with A LOT of memorabilia.  There are also videos which are pretty hard to watch, I had to walk away several times, about what the Jews of Warsaw suffered through.

10.  Warsaw Town Centre

The “Old Town” of Warsaw isn’t too old at all.  It was completely destroyed in the war but was rebuilt just 60 years ago – and you’d never know from looking at it.  It was full of Christmas decorations and had a unique atmosphere.  At times it felt like Italy, Germany, Russia, and several other countries.  It was quaint and really fun to explore.

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Warsaw was unexpectedly wonderful.  It is a place that I’d love to go back to and explore more – not only because it is very inexpensive.  I’m glad Chris talked me into going.

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Berlin – Part 2

On this day of our holiday we decided that we’d take the Westend Tour that the company offered.  On our way to the bus stop we happened upon a huge parade going right down one of the main streets in Berlin.  There were tanks, Soviet flags, posters in German, and very angry people shouting in megaphones.  As we drove on we noticed an increased police presence and we knew something was going on but really didn’t know what.  It was strange and a bit unnerving.  I don’t think I have ever seen so many police in one place.  We had done this part of the tour the day before and there were none.  But because we didn’t speak the language we had no idea what the parade was in aid of.   We just carried on, oblivious to why onto the next tour.  The next tour was an hour long and didn’t run as regular as the other tours so we got to the stop and had to wait for about an hour to get on the bus.  We had a quick bite to eat at the biggest McDonalds I’ve ever seen!  It was 4 floors and at one point they had a theatre room for the kids to eat with tables set in stadium seating, cartoons on a big movie screen, and a bathroom attendant.  After climbing all those stairs I wasn’t about to go back down to get money to pay to use the toilets so I shyly walked past the attendant and did the same as I walked back out.  They really should put a warning on the bottom floor “Toilets are attended and FOUR FLOORS UP!”  Anyway, it was time to queue for the bus and luckily it wasn’t packed full.  We got good seats and got ready for our tour.

Our tour guide was just so lovely.  He was friendly and very knowledgeable.  The tour was all based in the old West Germany.  I found it very strange the more time we spent on the tour.  I don’t know if it was intentional or not, maybe for dramatic effect but they made West Germany seem so idyllic with tree lined streets, beautiful houses, lakes, forests, and peace and quiet.  The made East Germany seem dark, industrial, cold, and destitute.  As I spoke to my German employers when I got back they assured me this just wasn’t the case.  That the river we could see from our hotel in old East Germany has some houses built right on the riverbank and is one of the most beautiful places in Berlin.  In fact, he told me how impressed he was with how Berlin was now “just Berlin” not East and West.  He was there when the wall came down and so he can see the progress.  He assured me that the old East Germany isn’t the way they portrayed it and – with both East and West there are stunning places of beauty. 

We started by going by the picturesque Charlottenburg Palace.

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Then we continued on through tree lined streets full of little cafes and houses.  It was nice and quaint.  Then we realized our tour guide wasn’t just a tour guide but a singer.  He stood up on the top deck and started singing old German songs.  I missed his first song, but luckily it wasn’t the last.

Then we went to the Olympic Stadium from the 1936 Summer Olympics.  It was very empty but really nicely taken care of.  They were pretty proud of that stadium and we even got to go through the Olympic village behind it as well. 

Then out of no where we entered this heavily wooded area complete with a huge lake, boats, and cute little boat houses.  I couldn’t believe we were still in Berlin as we drove through.  Then the tour guide stood up and I started recording:

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It was like I was taken back into a different world.  If I tried it almost seemed like I was watching an old movie.  It was surreal and very memorable.  And the tour guide soaked up the applause.

Next we went to the bell tower.  We had a half an hour stop there where people could go to the top of the tower.  I decided that I wanted to stay in the bus and all of the sudden I was the only person on the bus – even the driver left (locking the door behind him).  It was the most peaceful part of the whole trip.  I sat in my seat with the sun shining down on me listening to the birds and the quiet all around and took a minute to be so thankful for all of the opportunities I’ve had to see new places.  I would never have thought that in the middle of Berlin I’d have such a peaceful, spiritual experience but it was something I’ll remember for a long time to come.

Everyone started gradually getting back onto the bus and we headed back to the city centre.  On the way we saw more of Berlin and also a nudist park (I was on the wrong side of the bus to see this but by Chris’ surprised face, I am certain it was there). 

Once the tour was finished and we decided to head back to Alexanderplatz we had a bit of an issue getting back on the right U-Bahn.  I wont go into details but there was a bit of arguing and pouting and we finally decided that maybe a short river cruise would help lighten the mood.  So we got tickets to a hour cruise up and down the River Spree.  It was the last cruise of the day so there weren’t many people on board at all – but in typical Chris and Jamie style on the top of the boat with probably 50 empty seats a group of middle-aged, intoxicated, American women sat right next to us.  We were already in a sour mood and this definitely didn’t help.  So I’d like a do-over of the cruise please.  Despite the annoying shipmates, we did see some beautiful scenery from a different angle than the top of a bus.  It was just at dusk and was still warmish. 

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We got back to Alexanderplatz and decided we didn’t want to go back to the hotel yet so we tried some more currywurst (which was nasty and the man wouldn’t let us have it without the tomato sauce “It comes with sauce!”) we had some nice ice cream, did some more people watching, and finally headed back to the hotel.

The next day was our day home but we didn’t have to be at the airport until late that evening.  We debated what to do in the meantime and finally decided to utilize the luggage lockers we saw at Alexanderplatz and do another tour.  We got to the tour company busses and found that the ticket couldn’t be amended for an extra day (like the guy said the first day) and we went back and forth with different companies, got refunds, complained, sat in a packed bus for ages, and finally decided we were both fed up and just headed to the airport.  It would be better to just sit at the airport that deal with the MASSIVE crowds and incompetent tour companies we were running into on the busses.  What we didn’t know was it was the anniversary for VE-Day so there were an extra amount of tourists in town to celebrate.  We got on the train to head to the airport but found that part of the route was on strike and we had to get a replacement bus at a stop.  We got off the train at the stop and there were signs everywhere but we had no idea what they said or where to go.  We exited the train station and luckily found some very nice people to direct us to the bus stop across the street to get the bus.  As we were walking to the bus stop we noticed there were tons of people wearing orange and black ribbons and lots of cars with Soviet flags waving from there.  We didn’t know what was going on, but whatever it was, was huge right at Treptower Park by the station.  I later found out there was a huge protest at the park in connection with VE-day.  THIS is a good article describing what we were seeing:

This is the scene 70 years later: Teenagers are waving Soviet flags, young girls are dressed up in uniforms of the Red Army and muscled guys are wearing pro-Putin t-shirts. At first glance it seems as if the Soviet Union never ceased to exist. Most of the visitors wear the orange and black striped ribbon of St. Georges to remember the bravery of the Red Army.

It made sense with the parade and police in Berlin and the number of Soviet flags we saw.  It was very interesting.  I guess if nothing else it made me realize that not everyone celebrated or remembers VE-Day for the same reason. 

We were on the bus and I thought for sure we were miles and miles away from Berlin and then Chris leans over and says, “Does this look familiar?”  The bus stop that we had to get off at was the same station just down the road from our hotel!!!  I wasn’t a happy lady right then, but we weren’t to know about the strikes or the protests.  As we dragged out shattered bodies up to the train there was an old German man just shouting at us.  We had no idea why and as the lift door closed we just rolled our eyes at each other – only to have the door open and see that the platform was empty.  The man was shouting at us to not get on the lift.  At that point we were just done and got on the other platform and made it safety to the airport.  We walked through a maze of hallways to get to the door where we were boarding and I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to get on an airplane – ever.

The flight home was uneventful and Chris took some great pictures from the window –

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Then I saw the yellow fields again (just like when we were coming home from Iceland) and I was glad to be home.

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All in all Berlin was very interesting and there is a lot to do – way more than we got to do and I wouldn’t mind going back again – but when I do go back I am going to make sure I pack better shoes and a better attitude.