Cindy Hoang — Europe (2014) ‡

Flexibility Pays Off During Enriching Experience

“Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer.” I wholeheartedly agree with you, unknown person.

hoang-introI was fortunate enough to spend almost 3 weeks this summer in Europe, and with the risk of sounding cliche, I believe that I emerged from this experience a slightly new and improved person. One valuable lesson I learned, and I would recommend this to future travelers, is that when you travel, you only have to bring 4 things with you — a passport, a camera, money, and some flexibility.

I am the type of person that loves being organized and planned. Excel spreadsheets are my best friends. So when it came time for me to plan my trip, you can bet that I spent almost a year planning every detail, from hours that would be spent at a museum and down to every restaurant that I had to try. But what I got from this trip was that while having some structure is good, it is even better to take risks and follow your heart.

The first part of my trip started in Paris. I had initially planned to spend days in Paris then go off to Belgium and London, but when checking out the weather reports, I saw that Bruges had about one day that was not going to result in pouring rain — the next day. So I managed to rearrange my Belgium trip. This was just the beginning of the flexibility I had to undertake.

hoang-canal

A canal in Bruges.

The next day, I made my way to Bruges. The Globetrotter Grant helped me get a hotel room in Bruges, allowing me to spend the night and see more of the town in the early morning. Bruges is like a Disney fairytale. The entire town is simply adorable. Amazing chocolate shops line the streets of Bruges, with a waffle shop sprinkled in between. I think I had more chocolates in two days than I had in years. I had to keep making mental notes to join a gym when I get back home, but it was quite worth it. I managed to stop eating chocolates long enough to try the local Flemish cuisine such as Flemish stew and ham knuckle.

Belgian waflles in Belgium. So delicious!

Belgian waflles in Belgium. So delicious!

There was a Salvador Dali museum and art gallery showcasing his earlier work that I very much enjoyed. I managed to work off some of the chocolates by climbing 366 very steep steps in the Belfry Tower, giving me a panoramic view of Bruges. The weather in Belgium was not so nice. The sun was out for a total of 2 hours and the rest of the time, it was pouring rain, cold, and windy. I had not packed correctly for this. Another lesson learned. I contemplated very hard about whether or not to skip Brussels because of the terrible weather and head back to Paris. I was quite bummed about abandoning an itinerary, but I kept in mind that I was trying this new thing called being flexible.

I came back to beautiful, sunny Paris and was ready to start my adventure there. Let me preface this by saying that I was truly intimidated by Paris. Almost everyone that I have spoken to regarding the “City of Love” has told me pretty much the same things. “The French hate Americans,” “If you don’t speak French, you won’t have much fun in the city,” and “The French are incredibly rude and snobby.” I can assure you that all of those statements are completely false. Even though I knew two people in Paris that spoke French, my boyfriend’s uncle Howard and my “cousin” Annalise, I spent a lot of time alone with my three French phrases. Despite my terrible attempt at this beautiful language, I found the French people helpful, friendly, and sophisticated. It was truly a pleasant surprise.

Entrance of the Louvre Museum.

Entrance of the Louvre Museum.

Paris, as a city, is hard to describe, but if I had to try I would say that it is a lively, cultured, beautiful city with a large sense of elegance. I fell head over heels, hard, for this city. I fell in love with the people, the museums and architecture, and the food. Every morning in Paris consisted of espressos, croissants, macaroons, and, of course, taking a baguette to go.

I decided to start my Paris adventure at the Montparnasse Tower to see a panoramic view of Paris first and then delve into the sights. The Montparnasse Tower was spectacular and I began to recognize some sights — Notre Dame Cathedral, the Louvre, Sacre Coeur, and the Eiffel Tower. The grant allowed me to splurge on a Paris Museum Pass, where I had access to over 60 museums and sights and also allowed me to skip the long lines, and the special exhibits that was not included. The Louvre Museum was simply amazing and thanks to the Museum Pass, I actually got to go twice, once at night time! I could’ve spent weeks in there.

The Mona Lisa!

The Mona Lisa!

Walking through the Louvre Museum was like walking through my history books from junior high. Seeing Venus de Milo, the real Hammurabi’s Code of Law, the Mona Lisa, and Michelangelo’s sculptures was surreal. I never thought that these pieces from history centuries ago would be several feet away. The Louvre is definitely heaven for any history or art buff.

My favorite museum experience, however, came from Musee D’Orsay. Now initially, I wanted to include Amsterdam in my trip to see the Van Gogh Exhibit and the Anne Frank House but was disappointed to see that I simply did not have enough time. Maybe another time, I thought. So imagine my happiness and surprise when I discovered that the Van Gogh exhibit was at Musee D’Orsay! I was so taken with the Van Gogh exhibit. I have The Starry Night hanging in my house but it was not even comparable to the original work. Seeing one of my favorite paintings in real life, well there are just no words for it.

Sainte Chapelle Cathedral in Paris.

Sainte Chapelle Cathedral in Paris.

With my Paris Museum Pass in hand, I went to Sainte Chapelle Cathedral, a small cathedral with stunning stained glass art and then went to Notre Dame Cathedral, filled with tourists from all over the world. The trek to Palace of Versailles was quite long for an afternoon trip but was well worth it. I paid extra to visit the Versailles Gardens and spent hours walking around admiring the massive, well-manicured gardens. The Palace of Versailles was very beautiful and each room was more extravagant than the next. The next day, I took my time and went to the Arc de Triomphe and took a stroll down Champs Elysees to admire the high end designer stores. I ended my day with a trip to Sacre Coeur.

At the Eiffel Tower during a romantic weekend visit with my boyfriend.

At the Eiffel Tower during a romantic weekend visit with my boyfriend.

Walking around Paris, I could see why it is known for being a romantic city. Seeing couples hand in hand made me call my boyfriend who was in Germany for a work visit. However, I was supposed to be heading to London. This was a very difficult choice as there was a lot more that I wanted to see in Paris but London was a part of my plan. I decided to have a little fun and flipped a coin — heads, I stay in Paris and invite the boyfriend out or tails, I go to London. It was heads, so I stayed in Paris. I was secretly a little happy about the outcome because I was comfortable in Paris and to be honest, could’ve stayed the whole summer. Staying in Paris and asking my boyfriend to come out for a few days was not what I intended. Again, I was being flexible and with each thing on the itinerary not going as planned, I got less uncomfortable each time.

hoang-lockI asked him to come out for the weekend so we could do all of the cheesy, romantic stuff together and for him to visit his uncle. We visited Pont des Arts, the love lock bridge, and spent hours reading the thousands of locks on the bridge and even adding one of our own. Afterwards, we headed to Montmartre to Le Mur des Je T’aime, I Love You: The Wall. It is a huge wall with “I love you” written in over 300 languages. There, we saw couples, young and old, from all over the world searching for the “I love you” written in their native language. It was a very sweet sight to encounter. We ended our “romantic, cheesy” Paris time with a picnic underneath the Eiffel Tower and what turned out to be my favorite food experience from this trip (and quite possibly, my whole life) comes from a restaurant called L’Ange 20. It was a quaint, traditional, French restaurant with one chef, one apprentice, and one waiter. It rained quite a bit and even hailed the last night and I thought it was a good ending to Paris.

Trying barnacles at San Miguel Market, Madrid.

Trying barnacles at San Miguel Market, Madrid.

The next day, my boyfriend headed back to Germany and after a tearful goodbye to Paris, I headed to Madrid. Madrid was quite beautiful and I found the architecture a little more colorful than Paris’ mainly white buildings. I knew more Spanish than French so that was a gigantic help. I couldn’t wait to try out some Spanish, eat some tapas, and siesta. I love tapas restaurants in Los Angeles, but one dinner in Madrid made me realize that tapas in Spain was completely different than anything else I’ve tried. At the San Miguel Market, oh did I eat. I ate razor clams and barnacles for the first time while the locals looked on and giggled at the faces I was making. I ate oysters, shrimp, paella, so many pickled things, anchovies, and jamon iberico. I don’t know how I managed to walk, let alone find my way home, but I went back to the apartment to siesta. Eat and sleep. Oh, I could do this every day.

Crystal Palace at Retiro Park.

Crystal Palace at Retiro Park.

One of my favorite nights in Madrid was a flamenco and Spanish guitar show that I attended. The flamenco show was remarkable. I have never seen such passion in dancing before and I fell in love with Spanish guitar. The next day, I spent the day at Retiro Park, going through the gardens, walking by the water, visiting the Crystal Palace, and then ending at the Prado Museum. The Prado was a fantastic museum and I think it is quite underrated, housing the famous works of El Greco, Raphael, and Rubens. My last night in Madrid, I decided to go back to the San Miguel Market one last time. That night I got the worst food poisoning of my life. It could not have been at a worse time because I was scheduled to take a train to Barcelona early in the morning. I can tell you that being violently sick without much sleep, carrying suitcases down four flights of stairs, and trying to navigate a foreign city to make a train is not fun at all. But I managed to reach the last leg of my trip, Barcelona!

Outside of La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona.

Outside of La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona.

The first and second day in Barcelona consisted of me curled up in a bed recovering from the food poisoning. Not exactly the best start to Barcelona. I was glad that I was this flexible person now because that was definitely not part of my plans. After some rest, I woke up feeling 100%. My first stop in Barcelona was La Sagrada Familia and it blew me away. I spent some extra money to go up to one of the Towers where you can see the outside architecture up close. La Sagrada Familia is not photogenic at all. I have seen pictures of it and they do not even come close doing it justice. The intricate details of the entire building are indescribable.

After the guided tour, I spent about two hours sitting in the pews, causing my neck to cramp from staring up at the work on the ceiling. I learned that Gaudi was very into nature since he was a young child and you can see reflections of that in all of his work. What amazed me the most was that the inside of La Sagrada Familia was supposed to resemble a forest. The “trees” that held everything together were actually columns made of different materials to accommodate each “branch.” Most columns in fantastic buildings aim to be symmetrical and perfect, but not Gaudi’s columns. They were different sizes and shapes, and the word “symmetrical” could not be more false. I became a huge fan of Antoni Gaudi and could not wait to see his other work.

On the roof of Casa Batllo in Barcelona, another Gaudi building.

On the roof of Casa Batllo in Barcelona, another Gaudi building.

I walked through Barri Gotic afterwards and made a very short trip to La Barceloneta. The next few days in Barcelona consisted of more Gaudi works, such as Casa Batllo, Casa Mila (La Pedrera), and Parc Guell. Each of these sights were amazing in their own right and different in their own way, but they were undoubtedly works of Gaudi.

I was told that to get the best views of Barcelona, I had to go to Tibidabo, an amusement park perched on top of a mountain. Just getting there was fun. I had to take a train to a blue tram to get to the middle of the mountain. From there, I had to take a funicular, a slow, very steep train, to go to the top. It was a cute little escape from the bustling city.

One of my favorite memories from the trip was the meeting of Joe James and Cecilia. I was at a market in Barcelona and I overheard this couple talk about living in Texas. I got excited and joined in their conservation because I grew up in Texas. It turns out that this couple lives in the same small town as my family in Texas, and they live just one block away. Joe James is in the same work industry as my mother and knew of her, and their daughter and my brother attend the same high school. It’s a very small world. After we bonded over Midland, Texas, they invited me to have dinner with them that night. They treated me to a very nice meal, and we actually had dinner again in Texas a few weeks later when I was there to visit family. I still chuckle at how small the world is sometimes.

Exhausted after hiking up Monserrat.

Exhausted after hiking up Monserrat.

On my very last day in Barcelona, I went hiking at Montserrat, a beautiful mountain that was not very easy to get to. It took two trains, a cable car from one mountain to another, and a funicular to get to the base of my hike. Unfortunately, it was starting to rain and lightning by the time I got up the top. It was very fun hike, besides the being scared of getting struck by lightning part. The views would have been worth it though.

Comparing my intended itinerary to my real itinerary was pretty funny. There were so many things that I thought were going to be certain — such as the French people intimidating me, and going to London and Brussels — that did not happen, while the things that were completely unplanned — such as getting food poisoning and meeting people that I had a Texas connection with — did occur. I am so grateful to be the recipient of this Globetrotter Grant. It allowed me to get the Paris Museum Pass, see special exhibits at museums, try more amazing food, spend the night in Belgium, and so much more. Not only did I gain some wonderful memories from this trip, but I acquired an important lesson — it is okay if things do not go as planned. Sometimes, it is for the best.

We don’t know what life will bring us, and we can’t just sit around being upset that things did not go our way. I hope to apply that to my academics and other parts of my life. Truly, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for everything.

Previous post:

Next post: