29 April 2009

Dutch Tulips

One of the things I love about the Lyon exchange program is the diversity of international students that I meet here. One of my friends, who currently goes to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, grew up in Den Haag in the Netherlands. It's always fun to hear stories and learn about each other's lives growing up in a different country. In random conversation I told her about a documentary I had seen about tulips in Holland on PBS. I was so happy when she told me how I could see them for myself this April! So, this spring break I took the 4 hour trip from Brussels to the Keukenhof Tulip Gardens in Holland to see the most amazing and colorful arrangements of tulips in the world.

The garden covers 32 hectares and has 4.5 million tulips in hundreds of varieties. Unfortunately I went on a rainy day, but that didn't keep me from wandering into a hedge-maze, skipping on the stones next to swans in the pond, and taking in the sweet fragrance that filled the air. When it started pouring, I was in luck that there were multiple indoor displays spotted around the enormous park. The 2009 theme of the garden was "USA, New York 400 years". The theme only meant that each tulip variety was named after something "USA, New York". It was kinda corny, especially the large display at the entrance that read "I (tulip) New York" instead of "I (heart) New York". Besides the theme, the garden was absolutely spectacular. It was impossible to see the everything in one day, but one thing is for sure, the Dutch have the tulip thing down to a science! Even on the way out of town I passed numerous colorful fields of tulips. What a beautiful tradition!

Finding Beauty in Ruins

The valuable adornments of jewels and gold in most European cathedrals are more than extravagant and grand. You can visit any country to see domes reaching to the heavens, priceless religious murals, and crypts older than the USA. It's wonderful to witness so many beautiful things but at what point does the element of charm begin to diminish? I've seen millions of euros worth of gold by now and, to be honest, it's not as aesthetically pleasing as it was the first time. The whole point to my schpeale is that sometimes real beauty is from something that isn't decked out in fancy fabrics or showing off its wealth and power, but is instead something that is forgotten and decayed.

The Villers Abby in Villers-la-Ville (Wallonian Belgium) was once a Cistercian Abby. Starting in 1146, 12 monks began building the Abby, which gained the importance and popularity to become a wealthy "village" within itself. But the money came and went and it was abandoned in 1796. It currently lies in ruins from time, war, and industrialization. It is of course a tourist attraction but only to those who have the desire to travel to this small town and walk 2 miles to find it. Generally, it is a site of holiday and summer festivities for the locals.

When I arrived in Villers-la-Ville, the streets were still spotted with colorful confetti from the previous week's carnival celebration. It was a ghost town, save a friendly teenage boy who offered in his thick Walloon French to lead my friend and I to the Abby. In the walls of the Abby, we wandered through each building envisioning the extravagance the walls once held. Our imaginations were at work putting roofs on the buildings and furniture in the rooms. I felt the mystical presence of all the spirits that lived and died there over hundreds of years. Visiting the forgotten ruins of what used to be an elaborate Abby was one of the most beautiful historical sites I have seen in Europe.

22 April 2009

Bruxelles pour la deuxième fois

Being in Brussels again was a comforting experience because a lot of things were already familiar to me. I was able to spend a lot of time with Jon and all of the Mizzou students on the Brussels program. This time, though, I was more interested in the relaxation opportunities rather than tourism. The spring buds were blooming all over the city and the parks were calling my name. Playing Frisbee with friends and sitting around with the grass in-between my toes was the perfect way to start my vacation.

I was also able to fully enjoy the culture of drinking in Belgium. I'm not saying I was intoxicated, but I was appreciating the quality of Belgian beer rather than the quantity. There is a certain richness and unique taste of beer that has hundreds of years of history behind the brewing methods by Trapist Monks. Drinking high quality beer is one of the (few) things that is culturally 'Belgian' other than Frites and soccer that I observed.

My time in Brussels, however, wasn't all play. I took the opportunity to further my research on the subject of Belgian national identity for a paper at school. I arranged an interview with a journalist who lives in Brussels. Gareth was a great source as he is knowledgeable about the politics of the EU and the relations between the Flemish and Walloon regions. I left the interview with a strange desire to start writing the paper right away. It was fantastic feeling to be able to do some first-hand research on a subject that would otherwise be so foreign to me. In addition to the interview, I made sure to visit the two regions while I was in Belgian to feel as though I fully researched and observed for myself the places that make up the Belgian identity.

Le Printemps et les Vacances

I'm back in Lyon and recovering from a whirlwind spring break vacation all over Europe. It was a quick 2 week trip through 15 cities, 5 countires, 4 hosts, 2 hostels, and one rail pass. I saw and met countless friends that each contributed to making my vacation complete. I can't think of anyway that the vacation could have been any better. C'était absolument parfait!

My time here is winding down with only 1 month and 5 final exams left. I'm making the best of my time here but the time passes too quickly. I have been out of communication with the world without my computer for the past 2 weeks, but I think it's refreshing to be away from technology for some time. As a result, though, my blog has many holes and I have a lot of writing to do between traveling and studying for finals. Stay tuned for blurbs about my experiences as I update periodically when I find the time. As for now, tonight I depart on a night train and wake up in Venice in the morning. It's Jon's last weekend in Europe so we are going to make it count! A Bientot!

06 April 2009

Des Plages de Normandie

The region of Normandy was at the top of my list of places to visit in France. This region is rich in French and European history; something that I'm very interested in. So, I spent the first weekend of my Easter break in Bayeux and Colleville-sur-Mer on the French coast. Bayeux is a small medieval town, historically significant since the 11th century when the Normans and William the Conquerer, Duke of Normandy, invaded England. Notre Dame de Bayeux is a beautiful medieval church in the middle of town, where the longest tapestry in the world (Bayeux Tapestry, 70 meters long) was housed near the crypt containing bodies from 1077. Bayeux is also one of the few villages on the coast that was untouched by the Battle of Normandy in 1944.

Jon met me in Bayeux where we enjoyed exploring the sites and museums. It was the perfect time to go, pre-D-Day Invastion's 65th anniversary when the town will overflows with tourists in June. In fact, the hostel where we stayed was practically empty, save the friendly young german couple, with whom we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast. After exploring Bayeux, we made our way to Omaha Beach in Colleville-sur-Mer, where the American WWII cemetery overlooks the beach where the waves once washed over the heroic men who died in order to halt the German occupation of continental Europe.

Foggy weather set the mood as we entered the cemetery. The field was dotted with thousands of crosses and star of david marble headstones bearing the name and number of each American soldier who died there. As we walked down to the beach, we saw the open view that the Nazi troops had as the American boats arrived at the beach. The large open beach was empty on April 4, 2009, but it was depressing to realize its history on June 6, 1944.