Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Prague, Czech Republic

Wow, what a weekend! Pam and I had such a great time and Prague is my new favorite city! If you talk to anyone who has been to Prague, I would bet they will tell you the same thing...everyone loves this city and now I know why!

We stayed at a great hotel, Hotel Cerna Liska, located right on the Old Town Square, one of the major squares in Prague. I would highly recommend this hotel! The room was fantastic and it overlooked the square and the St. Nicholas Church.

This was our view every morning from our window sill!
We arrived late on Friday night, so we got up on Saturday and hit the ground running! We could not have asked for better weather! We mostly spent the day walking around and shopping in Old Town and enjoying the beautiful weather.

Prague (Praha in Czech), is the capital and largest city of the Czech Republic. It is situated on the River Vltava in central Bohemia and is widely considered one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. To me, Prague represented the true old Europe. It is what you think of when you think of a European city, just so quaint. Only 1 building was hit during World War II (and that was by accident) so all of the original architecture is there and preserved.

Also on Saturday, we decided to do all of our shopping as Sunday was a national holiday so we thought the shops may be closed. Pam warned me I would want crystal and I am glad I came prepared! Czech Bohemian crystal glassware is some of the best in the world and the prices are great. I did not have really nice glassware before coming to Prague, so I knew I wanted to get some while I was there. I bought juice glasses, water glasses, wine glasses, champagne flutes, and dessert bowls. Whew! They only came in a set of 6 and while 6 is just not enough, I had to buy 12! And, I know, 12 is just too many! But, I have extras in case one (or two) breaks! I also got a great discount...I love bargaining! So, just for laughs, imagine Pam and I trying to pack 10 boxes for me and 3 for her. It was quite a site! I will say that so far, I have opened half of my boxes and nothing is broken! Yay!! I will try to remember to take a picture of my new glassware and post for you all to see!

Prague is also known for the Astronomical Clock (Prague Orloj). The Orloj is composed of three main components: the astronomical dial, representing the position of the sun and moon in the sky and displaying various astronomical details; "The Walk of the Apostles", a clockwork hourly show of figures of the Apostles and other moving sculptures; and a calendar dial with medallions representing the months. We sat at a little nice cafe overlooking the clock on Sunday night and saw it do its thing on the hour! It was really cool!

On Saturday night, Pam and I decided to go on a dinner cruise down the River Vltava to see the city at night from the water. This was NOT a good idea!! It was a great idea; however, we just chose the wrong boat. We were supposed to be 'picked up' at the hotel, but that meant someone met us at the hotel and we walked about a mile to a bus that took us to the boat (not my definition of being picked up!!). Then, once we got on the boat, we were seated at a table for 6 people which was not that bad; however, you could not move as we were squeezed in so tightly. Then, it was a buffet, but the food table and drink table were both set up at the front of this room and there was NO room to get your food, no orderly line for people to wait in, just a boat load of people crowding around a table. It was terrible.

Anyway, after dinner we went upstairs to enjoy the view. That was so much better...until we saw this...... Notice the telephone receiver just hanging there!

This is what happened. The boat came to a complete stop for over an hour towards the end of the ride. We were enjoying the view, but wondering why we were stopped. Then, Pam looks up and sees the captain walk out of the cabin where he was supposed to be driving the boat (I am sure there is an appropriate name for that area of a boat, but I do not know what it is right now). He walks out and downstairs appearing to leave us stranded and we are about to have to swim! Pam was the one who caught on to this and started laughing so hard she was crying. I start laughing mainly because she was laughing so hard! She was trying to explain to me what just happened and I decided to capture this on film! (Hence, the pictures!).

Our tour guide walks over to make sure we were really only drinking water (which we were) and wanted in on the fun! We told her why we were laughing so hard and she explains to us why we are sitting still for over an hour...something to do with being in a lock. Anyway, she sat down and joined us.

Here she is...
Ok, Pam and I were not trying to dress like Twinkies...I got cold earlier in the evening and bought a sweatshirt...and come to find out, she had the same one from an earlier trip to Prague.
Since we were stranded, I was able to capture some great shots of Prague at night! The first picture is of Prague Castle and the remaining ones are of Charles Bridge.
We shared a table with this couple (shown below). When the first sat down, we asked the obvious question of where they were from. Come to find out (per our tour guide), she is from Prague and does not speak any English. He is from Wales and only speaks English. So, you may wonder how they communicate....well, the language of love, I suppose! I call it...GET A ROOM!!! They could not keep their hands off each other! The captain finally decided to come back...and we made it off the boat safe and sound with only our sides hurting from laughing so hard!
On Sunday, Pam and I decided to take a little sightseeing tour. We did not want to take a bus, so we opted for this instead.... And, this was our driver....nice! See why we took the car?!
Just could not get enough!
Anyway, we saw all of Prague, thanks to Mr. Hottie! Highlights included: Prague Castle which is the largest ancient castle in the world with its St. Vitus Cathedral; Charles Bridge; Josefov (the old Jewish quarter) with Old Jewish Cemetery and Old New Synagogue; Petřínská rozhlednaan observation tower on Petřín hill, which resembles the Eiffel Tower ; and much more!

Here are some shots...

Me on the Charles Bridge with Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral in the background.

View of the city from Prague Castle.
On Charles Bridge.
Observation tower on Petřín hill, which resembles the Eiffel Tower. The story is that the Eiffel Tower is 5 times larger than this tower but they are the same height above sea level due to this one being on a big hill.
St. Nicholas Church
Opera House
Typical meal in the Czech Republic...goulash! It was actually really good!
What a fantastic trip! We had such a great time...mostly just laughing! We are great travel buddies! We made it home on Monday thoroughly looking forward to our next adventure together....our Mediterranean Cruise!!!

Friday, September 26, 2008

I'm off...

to Prague, Czech Republic this weekend! I am so excited! I have wanted to go to Prague for a while now, and it is finally here! I am going with Pam who has been several times, so she knows where to go, what to see, and most importantly, where to shop! The must-buy thing in Prague is the Czech Bohemian crystal glassware! Pam got some on her last trip and it is so beautiful! I cannot wait! I even packed an extra suitcase inside my larger suitcase just to make sure I had room to bring stuff back! I know, I am so weird!

Anyway, I hope everyone has a wonderful weekend and I am sure I will have lots to post next week (before I leave for Memphis...1 week from today!) Yippie!

Thursday, September 25, 2008

My Hole

Remember this post here...well, I am finally over it and able to tell you all what happened! It only took me 6 months!

Ok, not really, I just needed photographic evidence to fully explain the situation.

Let me set the scene....

It was a Thursday night in March here in Belgium. It was very dark outside, pouring down rain, and freezing cold. I had plans after work. I asked Pam to watch Maxie for me so I would not have to rush home after work, let Maxie out, then rush back out. After my plans I was on my way to Pam's to pick up Maxie.

I took the interstate but soon realized it was a huge mistake as cars were backed up for miles and I had not moved in over an hour. I decided to get off the interstate and take some side streets. I had my GPS with me, so I knew it would navigate me around. Therefore, I got off on a familiar street. As I was driving, I missed my turn so I decided to go up a little and make a U-turn. Since it was pitch-black dark and pouring down rain, I did not realize I had made the U-turn in the BUS LANE. As I was driving, I could barely see...then all of a sudden, I noticed a HUGE hole and slammed on my brakes, but it was too late.

I was in the hole and I hit it hard, really hard. I felt like my car was completely destroyed. A guy ran over to my car and asked if I was ok. I was. My Belgian cell phone was dead (figures), so I asked the guy if I could use his phone to call the emergency assistance people. He was so kind and talked to the guy in French and told him what happened. A 'rescue' truck was dispatched!

That guy had to leave, so off he went as I sat there wondering how the heck I was going to explain this one to the leasing company! Then, here comes a bus (as I was in the bus lane, remember!). See, the bus lane is a separate lane for buses only, separated by a curb, so I could not get out of the bus lane even if I was not stuck in this hole.

The bus driver gets off the bus and comes to see what I am doing just sitting there (in the hole). He spoke no English but, using my universal language of gesturing, he got the point that the car was not moving. He said, "Car ka-put?". I said, "Oui (Yes), car ka-put!". The bus driver decided to jump the curb and leave me in the hole!

Then, a few minutes later, another bus comes. I tell that driver the same thing, but he was not having any part of it. He spoke English and told me I needed to get this car out of the bus lane before the police arrived or I would get a huge fine. I told him that I could not move it and was waiting on the emergency assistance people to show up to tow my car. Then, 2 very nice guys get off the bus and decide to help me get the car out of the hole, and thus, out of the bus lane. I handed them the keys and said, "Go for it! If you can get this car out of the hole, be my guest!".

Let me remind you, it was pitch-black dark, pouring down rain and freezing cold.

They were able to get the car out of the hole and out of the bus lane! A miracle, I tell you!

Then, one of the very nice guys tells me the only damage he can see was to my right front tire and rim. He said all I needed to do was change the tire. Ha!! Yeah, right, me change a tire!?? That is just funny thinking about it!

This guy was so nice and offered to change it for me (in the dark, freezing rain!)!! And, he did. It wasn’t until he got the tire changed that the emergency assistance guy showed up (right on time!). The guy who changed my tire refused to let me pay him (I begged him to take the money) but asked if I would just take him home (he got off his bus to help me!). There was no way I could tell this guy no, even though I did feel weird about letting a total stranger (although a guardian angel) in my car. When the emergency assistance guy showed up, I asked him to drive my car around the block to make sure it was ok to drive...and also asked him if we could take this guy home (he lived really close). We did and I survived another adventure in Belgium!

So you may be wondering...where did the hole come from?? You see, Belgium puts huge holes in the bus lanes to keep people like me out of them. I think they are just out there to kill foreigners in their precious country. Buses can straddle these 'death holes' but little Fiestas, obviously, cannot!

May I present to you...My Hole!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My Maxie!

Several people have asked me about Maxie, so I thought I should share her story here! I tell long stories, so get comfy!

Back in 2005, I started thinking about getting a dog. I always had a dog growing up, but since I lived alone and traveled often with my job, I knew it was probably not the best environment to bring a new puppy into. But I just could not get it out of my mind.

Something kept telling me to pursue getting a dog, I really felt the push! I prayed about it and asked God that if it was the right thing to do, then I would find her. I knew I wanted something small (the smaller the dog, the smaller the messes, right?!) and actually first thought I wanted a little Yorkie...they are just so darn cute! I started my research and found that, actually, a Maltese was better for me! I soon realized that Malteses are really hard to find and you could be on waiting lists for some time. I also knew I wanted a female Maltese....yep, I am picky, but I knew what I wanted!

So the waiting game began. I was put on several waiting lists for breeders that I found on the Internet. I knew when the time was right, I would find her. On January 15, 2006, while I was in the process of taking down my Christmas tree (yes, I know, I know...it is a long story!) I decided to check the paper and see if anything was posted. I found an ad for Maltese puppies (2 males and 1 female). I called the breeder immediately to see if the female was still available. She was!

I still had that feeling of really needing a dog. So, when I found the ad and confirmed the female was still available, I knew I had to go. The breeder was in Baldwin, MS which was a 2.5 hour drive from Memphis. It was a Saturday afternoon when I found the ad, placed the call, and decided to go!

At the time, I was still traveling for work and actually would be traveling the following week. I called my parents and told them I found a dog and asked if they would be willing to watch the new puppy while I traveled the next week and a half. They said yes! I also called my sister to see if she would ride with me so she could assess the situation and make sure the puppy was healthy, etc (she is better with that stuff than I am). I would just take them all home, if I could!

Anyway, we made it to Baldwin, MS and saw Maxie for the first time. Well, that was it, I had to have her no matter what! So, we packed her up and took her home!! She rode curled up in my lap or my sister's lap the whole way home!

We stopped by my parent's house so they could meet their new granddaughter! It was about 1AM, but they didn't care!!! This is Maxie (sporting her little bow) the night we brought her home! She weighed in at 2.8 pounds! So freakin' cute!

By the way, Maxie is named after my parent's dog, Max.

Since I was not prepared for a dog, the following Sunday, I had to make a quick trip to Target to get food, food and water bowls, a kennel, toys, a sweater (it was cold!), etc. I did not know what to do with Maxie while I was gone, so I put her in the bath tub with a blanket and water until I got back home. That was the first time I knew this little baby was going to have me wrapped around her little paw! I could not get home fast enough to rescue her from the bath tub!!

This is her that Sunday in her new new kennel with her new sweater and toys!
It was sooo hard to leave her while I traveled, but my parents loved every minute of it! They were a bit tired of my MANY phone calls asking about her!

How can you resist this face?

Anyway, life was good over the few months. Things were plugging along quite nicely and I was spoiling her more and more!

In June 2006, the opportunity to move to Brussels was presented. I was immediately interested (and seriously pushed by God). You can read about it here. I knew there was not a quarantine for dogs in Belgium (I am afraid that would have been a deal breaker) and I knew Maxie was young enough to make the move without any problem. She is also small enough that she can fly on-board with me and not be placed in the cargo area of the plane.

So, in April 2007, we moved to Brussels. What I did not know at the time was how much of a blessing she was going to be during my transition and stay in Brussels. Once I moved, she was (and still is) the best thing that I could have to come home to! She was there welcoming me home from work every day and licking away my tears when I was homesick.

My first job upon arrival was finding someone to take care of her while I traveled (as traveling is a major part of my job over here). A few weeks after I arrived, I was told there was a situation in India that required my immediate attention. (I work in Internal Audit so we are there to take care of things that arise and need immediate attention.) I cannot tell you the emotions going on inside me. I had just arrived in Brussels, had not even unpacked all my boxes and certainly had not found anyone to watch Maxie. Then, I had to travel to a country that, in all honesty, scared me to death. I was in Brussels culture shock, about to be in India culture shock, and just plain homesick and worried about what I was going to do with Maxie as I did not know anyone in Brussels yet.

I had myself a little breakdown and started looking for dog-sitters. I met with a few people and if I had to leave her with them, then I would, but I was not at all comfortable. I became a member of the American Women's Club of Brussels shortly after I arrived and the week of my breakdown received an email from a lady who was starting a pet co-op. I emailed her immediately and told her my situation. She responded back saying that she may be able to help me as she had a Maltese as well.

A few days later, I met Pam and Zsa Zsa at a local park (neutral territory for both dogs!). I loved them immediately! The plan was to also have lunch! We walked to a nearby restaurant and grabbed a table outside. Once we were seated, Pam pulled out 2 baby blankets for the dogs to lie on....because we cannot have them lying on the bare ground! I immediately knew Maxie was going to be well taken care of! Seriously, anybody who carries baby blankets for the dogs to lie on would definitely treat my Maxie the way I treat her!

Ever since then, Pam and her husband, Dan, and dog Zsa Zsa have taken me in as a member of their family. They are from California. There is no other explanation than this was a "God-send"!!! I was so worried about finding someone to watch Maxie that now, looking back, I should have never worried at all. I knew God would take care of me, He always has. God knew His plan for me and knew that I would need a little furry companion to join me so far away from home. He knew the timing of Maxie's arrival and put everything in the perfect place at the perfect time for it all to work out.

I have been able to live and travel freely in Brussels knowing that Maxie is well taken care of. And, I have had the pleasure of keeping Zsa Zsa while Dan and Pam travel so it has worked out perfectly! I am blessed....so blessed!

This is just one little example how God has made it perfectly clear this was where I was supposed to be for these 2 years!

So, share with me some of your little "God-sends"!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Cultural Differences (Part Cinq)

I recently realized I have not been posting a lot of the cultural differences that I am experiencing over here. That is partially because I have learned to accept the differences and not be so shocked when I see things anymore! I am going to try to document more as my time here is coming to an end (only 6 months left...can you believe that??!!)!

The pictures below will show you how you get moved in or out of your apartment here in Brussels. I live on the ground floor so all of my things were either brought through the front door or through my living room window. However, if you live on the 2nd floor or higher and your building does not have an elevator (which about 99% of them do not and if they did it is probably big enough for 1 box), this is how all of your household goods are delivered!

It is basically a ladder with a motorized platform where your boxes and all your furniture get loaded onto (not all at the same time, mind you!). Your precious belongings glide up the ladder and get unloaded through your living room window! Sort of a genius concept, uh?! I just wonder how many couches, chairs, and tables they have lost in this process over the years!!!

Sunday, September 21, 2008

No Car Sunday!

Maxie at Parc du Cinquantenaire last year! Photo taken by Ginnie!!

For one day each year, Brussels has "No Car Sunday", which is basically a day where only emergency vehicles, buses, and taxis are allowed on the roads in the city. What a fantastic idea, right? Yes!! I think they do it to eliminate pollution for 1 day...but who knows, I love it anyway!

My friend, Julie, and I decided since the weather was perfect we had to get out and do something. I wanted to take my bike out, but since Julie does not have a bike, we decided to get out and go for a nice walk.

Julie with Maxie and Zsa Zsa (Maxie on the right and Zsa Zsa on the left)!
We decided to walk to Parc du Cinquantenaire, my favorite park in Brussels! If you are a devoted reader of my blog, you may remember this is where I spent last year's No Car Sunday with 2 special friends from Memphis! The weather was a bit cooler than last year, but definitely nice to get out for a LONG stroll. So off we went.

I have no idea how far it is to Parc du Cinquantenaire, but let me tell you...it was a haul...probably an hour there and an hour back, give or take a few minutes (a little slower because we had the dogs who wanted to stop and say hello to everyone we passed!)! It felt so nice to get out, absorb some sun, get some fantastic exercise and just enjoy the day!

Check out all the bikers!
Zsa Zsa is staying with me this weekend while Dan and Pam are traveling, so she enjoyed spending the day in the park, as well! However, all Maxie and Zsa Zsa wanted to do was roll around and act like dogs, imagine that!! It was so funny!

This is Maxie!
And The Zsa!
They LOVE rolling in the grass...
Getting ready! Guess who is getting a bath tonight.... I think everyone is going to sleep well tonight! What a fun day!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Barcelona, Spain

Although Madrid was beautiful, Barcelona was probably my favorite of the two cities we visited. It probably had a little something to do with the Mediterranean Sea (I LOVE the beach!), but I will get to that later!

One interesting thing to note is that there are 2 languages spoken in Barcelona...Catalan and Spanish. I am really not sure of the difference, but it only added to the lack of English and trouble I had while in Spain trying to communicate! Really, out of all the countries and cities I have visited while living in Europe, communicating in Spain was the hardest I have experienced yet!

If you do not know much about Barcelona, I must introduce you to Antoni Gaudi. He is a famous architect whose work can be seen all around Barcelona, especially the Sagrada Família. According to the Internet, Gaudí was an ardent Catholic, to the point that in his later years, he abandoned secular work and devoted his life to Catholicism and his Sagrada Família. He designed it to have 18 towers, 12 for the 12 apostles, 4 for the 4 evangelists, one for Mary and one for Jesus. Soon after, his closest family and friends began to die. His works slowed to a halt, and his attitude changed. One of his closest family members, his niece Rosa Egea, died in 1912, only to be followed by a "faithful collaborator, Francesc Berenguer Mestres" two years later. After these tragedies, Barcelona fell on hard times, economically. The construction of La Sagrada Família slowed. Four years later, Eusebi Güell, his patron, died.

Perhaps it was because of this unfortunate sequence of events that Gaudí changed. He became reluctant to talk with reporters or have his picture taken and solely concentrated on his masterpiece, La Sagrada Família. On June 7, 1926, Gaudí was run over by a tram. Because of his ragged attire and empty pockets, many cab drivers refused to pick him up for fear that he would be unable to pay the fare. He was eventually taken to a pauper's hospital in Barcelona. Nobody recognized the injured artist until his friends found him the next day. When they tried to move him into a nicer hospital, Gaudí refused, reportedly saying "I belong here among the poor." He died three days later on June 10, 1926, half of Barcelona mourning his death. He was buried in the midst of La Sagrada Família.

Although Gaudí was constantly changing his mind and recreating his blue prints, the only existing copy of his last recorded blue prints were destroyed by the anarchists in 1938 during the Spanish Civil War. This has made it very difficult for his workers to complete the cathedral in the same fashion as Gaudí most likely would have wished. It is for this that Gaudí is known to many as "God's Architect". La Sagrada Família is now being completed but differences between his work and the new additions can be seen.

Completion of the Sagrada Familía is planned for 2026. However, this may prove wildly optimistic due to come other railways being planned.

My favorite site in Barcelona was the Sagrada Família. Like I mentioned before, construction began in 1882 and continues today. It was amazing to walk around this massive structure and know that it has been under construction for so long.
The Church will have three grand facades: the Nativity facade to the East, the Glory facade to the South (yet to be completed), and the Passion facade to the West. The Nativity facade was built before work was interrupted in 1935 and bears the most direct Gaudí influence. The Passion facade is especially striking for its spare, gaunt, tormented characters, including emaciated figures of Christ being flogged and on the crucifix.

This is the Nativity facade! The Passion facade!

Note the ‘magic square’ on the wall. If you can add up the numbers in each line they make 33, which is the age Jesus was when he was crucified.
Gaudi's work can be seen all over Barcelona! He truly had a unique design! This is the Casa Milà.
More interesting designs around town!
This is me on the La Rambla, an iconic and busy street with lots of cafes and shops!
One of the must-haves in Barcelona is churros and chocolate! YUM!!!
Barcelona has grown into a huge port for cruises and Jennie and I had dinner down by one of the ports. It was so nice to sit outside, people watching and enjoying a great meal! This is where we had dinner!
I love the water!
When planning this trip, we wanted to make sure we had a 'beach day'...so on Friday, our last day in Spain, we had just that! We sat our rumps on the beach and it was fantastic!!! I am a beach-person and could stay on the beach forever! (Seriously, I am not kidding!) The beach we went to was perfect! There was a bathroom and outdoor cafe right on the beach, so you had all you needed!

We had to start the day with a little pina colada!
Some beaches in Europe are topless....and this was one of them. I have never been to a topless beach, but let me tell you...the US really does not know what they are missing out on. I noticed that people are so respectful on these topless beaches and did not stare, etc. It was really nice for people to express themselves and not feel self-conscience doing so!
All in all, Spain was a really nice country. It was not my favorite country, by no means, but really nice and enjoyable nonetheless!