Sunday, 1 July 2012

Day 11: Paris

Sunday is still my favorite day of the week, even in a foreign country.  We attended fast and testimony meeting this morning in the Paris Ward.  I love attending Sacrament Meeting in a foreign language because it forces me to concentrate more on the spirit of the meeting as opposed to what is simply said.  Actually, I was quite surprised at how much of French is similar to Spanish.  I was able to pick out a lot of words, especially when we were singing the hymns.

After church, we walked down to the Cathedral of Notre Dame.  This is another quite impressive structure, and extremely beautiful.  A group of us walked from there to the chapel at San Chapelle.  The chapel was once a private house of worship for one of the French kings (Louis XII maybe) and the home to one of the most beautiful stained glass windows ever built.  Our next stop for the day was the Louvre Museum.  All of the museums in Paris are free on the first Sunday of the month.  The line was long at the Louvre, but Matt showed us a less known entrance that got us right in to the museum.  The Louvre is massive!  We were in there for over two hours and only saw a small part of the collection.  Patrick told us that if you were to spend two seconds looking at each piece in the museum it would take you three months to finish.  I have never seen another museum that could compare.  We basically saw the most famous pieces of art, such as the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory, and the Code of Hammurabi.  The Mona Lisa is a tiny painting.  It hangs on a large, empty wall that makes it appear to be even smaller than it is.  I am glad to be able to say I have seen it, but it was not my favorite piece in the museum.  There are hallways and galleries with gigantic paintings lining the walls that are much more beautiful and much more impressive.  This is somewhere I could definitely visit again.

The group kind of broke up after the visit to the Louvre.  A few of us walked back along the River Seine towards Notre Dame.  The street is lined with street vendors who sell second-hand books, trinkets, and other odds and ends.  They are things that no one needs, but, nevertheless, still fun to look at.  Vance and Michaela would have a heyday down here.  Our wanderings led us to the Latin Quarter where we had some of the most delicious ice cream I had ever tasted.  I also had my first Parisian crepe.  It was delicious, but I wish I would have tried the nutella and banana version.  My goal is to have a different crepe each day we are here.

The evening ended with a visit to Sacra Ceour.  This is another cathedral and Paris landmark that I don't know much about.  Erica and I walked up to meet the group and watch the sunset.  Supposedly, this is the best place to see the sunset in all of Paris.  The steps to the cathedral give an amazing view of the city.  The inside of the cathedral was not quite as impressive as St. Paul's in London, but still impressive nevertheless.  The first similarity I noticed was its size.  I think every cathedral is designed to make you feel small and insignificant.  A service was being held while we were there.  We listened to the grandeur of the organ music as it was being played by some unknown person in the front of the hall.

Most of the group left to go straight home from Sacra Ceour.  I decided to linger with Patrick, Emily and Rhett, and The Godfreys.  Patrick walked us up a side street from the cathedral to a square that to me is the epitome of Parisian culture.  The square had street side cafes with hanging lights, traditional music, and artists in berets painting portraits.  This is what I think of when I think of Paris.  I want to come back to this spot!

Saturday, 30 June 2012

Day 10: Paris

This morning I got to have my first real European adventure.  Everyone was supposed to meet in the hotel lobby at 9:30 am for our business visit.  The plan was to take the subway together to the Paris Ward building to meet with our presenter.  A little after our appointed time, Paul realized that my roommate, Justin, had never come down to the lobby.  He sent me up to know on the door and hurry him along.  I ran up the stairs and knocked twice on the door to our room.  When there was no response, I figured he must have come back downstairs.  Knowing we were running late, I took off down the stairs to meet the rest of the group.  When I got to the bottom, everyone was gone.  At first I was kind of ticked off that they took off without me.  But, as the frustration slowly began to fade away, it was replaced with excitement.  I thrive off of adventures in travel situations, and this was surely going to be an adventure.  I walked out to the main road to see if I could see anyone from the group, but no one was there.  Initially, I decided to try my best to follow the directions Paul had shared and took off walking.  After walking for a block and not seeing the subway station that was supposed to be on my left, I decided I would need a little more help.  So, I returned to the hotel and talked to the lady at the desk.  She pointed me in the general direction and I took off working towards the Subway stop.  When I got there, I could not buy my ticket because the machine would not accept 50 Euro notes and that was all I had.  That meant I had to walk back out of the station and buy breakfast in order to make change for the ticket.  I thought for sure I was going to miss the entire visit.  Although it crossed my mind just to take off by myself, I decided to keep going on to try and catch up with the group.  Thankfully, the Subway system is really similar to the ones in New York and London.  With the help of the desk attendant and my own knowledge of the Subway system, I was able to easily find my way to the correct stop.  Finding my way from the stop to the church building was a different story.  When I exited the subway station, I honestly had no idea where to go.  Thankfully, I started walking in the right direction and found the street of the church building a block down.  This time, I did not turn the right way.  But, Heavenly Father had my back.  I ran into a companionship of missionaries who were walking down the street.  It felt so nice to see a pair of friendly faces.  They were headed towards the church building with a man who introduced himself as our presenter.  Sigh of relief.  I had not missed anything.  The Paris Ward building is tucked away in a little alley and housed in a large, old Parisian style building with a courtyard in the middle.  The building also doubles as home to the mission offices, which is where our presentation took place.  I was the first one to arrive from the group and I was completely shocked that no one else was there.  They all showed up about ten minutes later.  None of them even realized I was not with them.

Our business presenter is a member of the church who works for the OECD.  His responsibilities include heading up the economic development in Korea and Japan.  The job sounds interesting but he used a ton of graphs and economic jargon that had me pretty confused.  This visit went much better than the visit at the European Commission.  As we discussed afterwards, someone brought up the fact that all of us being members of the Church automatically creates a sense of trust that was not present in the other visit.  What a blessing it is to have that connection anywhere we go in the world.

After the visit, I went with a group to tour the catacombs.  The line was over two hours long!  I'm not sure I would wait that long again.  The catacombs were cool but I don't think I was in the mood to really appreciate them.  To me, they seemed like piles of bones in a never ending maze of underground tunnels.  The bones lined both sides of the corridor and were stacked about shoulder high.  All we could see were femurs and skulls; I'm not sure what they did with the rest of the bones.  The sheer magnitude of the catacombs was impressive.  The tunnels are home to six million human bones.  There is a certain sense of reverence as you think about the legacy of all those humans who call the catacombs their final resting place.  I'm glad I went, but I probably won't do it again.

From the catacombs we ventured off to find lunch.  We rode the subway to the Champs de Elysee and ate dinner at McDonalds.  Normally, I would not do this in France, but we wanted the novelty of being able to eat on the most expensive street in the world and McDonalds was the only place we could afford.  The only other thing we did was walk back the the Arch de Triomph at the end of the street.  By that time we had to get back to the hotel.  Paul gave us an early curfew because we have been running so hard the past few days.  I am really thankful for that.

Friday, 29 June 2012

Day 9: Brussels and Paris

We had a business visit this morning at the European Commission.  I was really excited to go, but left feeling a little disappointed.  The lady who presented is in charge of a committee about corporate social responsibility.  First off, this is not something I am familiar with.  The whole concept of corporate social responsibility is passing legislation to encourage companies to make decisions that are socially responsible.  I can understand why this would be important, but I had a few issues with the content of our presenter.  For starters, her committee did not seem to have any clear goals.  When we asked questions about that she danced around our questions and would never give a straight answer.  The way she responded made it seem to us that she was not very knowledgeable and that her job was not very important.  I think she also had some problems with us.  She seemed to notice right off the bat that many members of the group were having a difficult time staying awake.  I got the feeling that she was ticked off because of this.  Overall, it was not the best experience for both parties and I am thankful it is over.

After grabbing some lunch in the town square, we boarded the bus and made our way to Paris.  The trip went really well until we got about 10 kilometers outside of the city.  That is when traffic came to a complete stand still.  This was our first experience with Parisian traffic.  It took us nearly an hour to go one kilometer (which is less than one mile).  Everyone was getting really restless on the bus and finding creative ways to entertain themselves.  Three of the guys started running in place in the aisle.  This turned into a game with Patrick, the bus driver.  He would put on the gas, which would make the guys go backwards, and then then brake which would fling them forward.  It was pretty hilarious to watch and helped to pass the time.

My first impression of Paris was not a very good one.  The first thing I noticed was the stench that seemed to be everywhere.  I soon came to realize that we were not staying in a very nice part of town.  There are two bums that live right outside the front door of our hotel.  I was feeling a little disappointed until Patrick took us on an evening bus tour of the city.  This is something that is not part of his job, but something that he wanted to do.  Patrick is an awesome guy.  His tour helped me to see the beauty of Paris that I have always imagined.  He drove us around to all of the big sites, which is an amazing feat in and of itself.  The roads in Paris are absolutely crazy!  The craziest one I saw is the circle that goes around the Arc de Triomphe.  There are no defined lanes so people enter and exit the circle anywhere they want.  Patrick charged right on in there with the bus and almost gave me a heart attack.  It was an adrenaline rush to say the least.

The other sites were impressive, but nothing quite as impressive as the Eifel Tower.  For whatever reason, this is the thing I most wanted to see in Europe.  There is something romantic to me about the Eifel Tower.  It did not disappoint.  Patrick dropped us off so we would have an hour to explore.  I think I could sit and watch the Eifel Tower all night.  At 10:00 the tower began to light up to the applause of everyone seated on the lawn n front of it.  At 11:00 it started to sparkle, adding to the magic of that is Paris.  I cannot wait to come back here and climb to the top.  That is one of the top three things I want to do in Europe.  I am so excited for my stay in this city.  It is going to be amazing!

Thursday, 28 June 2012

Day 8: Amsterdam, Delft, The Hague, Brussels

I retract any statement I have made over the past few weeks about being tired.  I don't think I ever experienced true tiredness until this morning.  It has been our second 5:00 am day in a row.  We got up that early to make it to the Aalsmeer flower auction in Amsterdam.  This is the biggest flower auction in the entire world.  Within an hour, millions of flowers trade hands and are shipped out to be sold throughout the world.  You enter the facility and walk along a cat walk above the warehouse floor where all the flowers are sitting on big crates, waiting to be displayed in front to the buyers.  In some ways, it looks like a colorful jungle.  The auction itself takes place at the end of the cat walk.  Each of the buyers sits at a desk in what looks like an auditorium while each crate of flowers is wheeled past.  A large clock sits on the wall that shows the price.  They conduct their business in a "Dutch" auction style.  This means that the price starts high and then drops.  This seemed kind of counterintuitive to me, but Paul explained that sellers prefer this style of auction because it requires buyers to act more quickly, and often sells items at a higher price.  A large window separates the public from the auction floor.  I don't think I have ever seen as many flowers in my life as I did today.

After the flower auction, we stopped in the little town of Delft.  I had never heard of Delft before, but apparently it is the place where all of the blue pottery is made.  This is the most picturesque, idyllic town I have ever visited.  The town square looks like something that would have come straight out of a movie.  We arrived so early that most things were closed.  This meant we had the experience of watching the town literally come to life as merchants and shoppers arrived to go about their day.  The pinnacle was reached when I heard a man playing the accordion in the street.  I knew then I had arrived in the romanticized European village my mind so often and easily creates.  The normal town is located only a few blocks outside the village square.  While it still has its own unique style, it is simply not the same.  The magic stays within the square.  There I got to have a fresh strop waffle.  This is one of the traditional pastries of Holland that reminds me more of cookie sandwich with caramel filling than a waffle.  It is one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted.  Eating a real strop waffle was one of the few things I wanted to do before leaving Holland.

The highlight of my day was our temple trip in The Hague.  The temple there is one of the smallest I have ever seen.  Nevertheless, it is one of the most beautiful.  It is located in a little suburb of The Hague which thankfully has no resemblance to Amsterdam.  The whole structure cannot cover more than one city block.  Because of zoning laws, the Church only owns the building itself and none of the land around it.  I think we were probably the biggest group they have seen in a long while.  As we entered the Temple, each person was given a pair of blue booties to cover their feet.  The baptismal font is located directly behind the desk.  It kind of surprised me when I walked in and saw it there.  There were only enough seats for about six people around the font.  The brethren in the group served as the Temple workers and performed all the functions in the baptistry.  I started as a witness at the font, and then did confirmations.  As I was in the Temple, I was amazed at the faith of the Dutch saints.  They have the smallest temple I have ever seen, yet they are more grateful for the temple than anyone I have ever met.  This is because they understand the importance of the Temple.  Some people would complain about the inconvenience of having such a small temple, but not the Dutch.  It was a marvelous experience to do the work for the Dutch in their own land.  It feels different from doing it back at home.  I was the last one to be baptized, and I got to do more names than all the rest.  I had an extreme feeling of peace come over me while I was in the font.

After the Temple, we took the bus to Brussels.  Patrick took us on a detour to see one of the biggest tourist attractions in Brussels: The Atonium.  This is something that was made for the world exposition several years ago.  Basically, it is a big metallic structure in the shape of an atom.  It is pretty cool.  When we actually got into the city, I was not really impressed, until we got to the town square.  This is considered to be the most beautiful town square in all of Europe (maybe all the world).  The square is cobblestone and has gorgeous buildings on all four sides.  Everyone just sits in the middle of the square with their friends and enjoys life.  While we were there, I tried some Belgian chocolate and a Belgian waffle.  The Belgian chocolate was the most marvelous things I have ever tasted.  The waffle was also delicious, but they only gave me a tiny fork to eat it.  It was almost comical.  The other thing we saw was the most photographed statue in the world: a statue of a little boy peeing into a fountain.  The statue was a lot smaller than I expected, but provided a good laugh.  After seeing most of the touristy things in Brussels, I took time just to sit and watch people on the square.  I absolutely love doing that and just soaking in the culture.  I think I could sit and watch people all night long.  The sun stays out much longer here and I think that contributes to the active nightlife.  Italy beat Germany in a really important soccer game and there was a lot of celebrating in the square.  Belgium, for whatever reason, is very pro-Italy.  People were driving around honking their horns and yelling and screaming for joy.  Even after we got back to the hotel, we could hear partying for several hours.