After four months in the UK, we finally returned to northern Europe to visit the last few cities on our list that we were dying to see. We flew to Brussels, Belgium where we took a train to the city center and walked through the deserted streets on a rainy Sunday evening to arrive at our hotel.
What we did not know was that the hotel had no front desk reception to greet us and check us in. Instead, they had sent us a code that would let us in the front door and another code that would let us into our room. However, they had only sent these instructions a couple hours before our arrival, while we were traveling and unable to connect to wi-fi, thus never receiving the message. Luckily, we have an international SIM card that allows us to make calls in the case of emergency so we called the hotel owner (with the 3% battery we had left) to request that he text us the information.
We immediately received the instructions via text and began attempting to enter the building using the code he gave us. Unbeknownst to us, however, the owner had sent us the wrong code, leaving us stuck outside in the cold and rain, frustrated and exhausted, attempting the same wrong code over and over. Just then, a man appeared off the street, seeming very eager to help us and let us in, leading us to believe that perhaps he was an employee.
This was simply an assumption because the man spoke no English and we speak no French so any communication between us was not happening. After looking at the code on our phone – rather than already knowing the code – we realized that this was certainly NOT an employee! My heart sank and I immediately went into panic mode, thinking that this man had ill intentions and that somehow the situation was about to end badly.
Thankfully, the code was wrong and neither us, nor the man, were able to enter. He finally got frustrated and gave up, leaving us alone once again. We were able to use the 1% we had left in cell phone battery to place one last phone call to the owner and get the correct code. We finally entered, got inside our room and have never felt so relieved as we did in that moment! And the next day we discovered that the man was a shop owner next door and was, in fact, only trying to help.
We got up early the next morning to take advantage of our short stay in Brussels, first visiting the Atomium, a historic landmark turned museum, built in 1958 for the Brussel’s World Fair. Up close, the structure is massive and looks so shiny and new, we couldn’t believe it was that old.
Next, we made our way to the city’s central square known as the Grand Place where we were in awe of the beautiful architecture of the buildings dating back to the 17th century. The square is so impressive, it is no surprise that it has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Our tour of Brussels would not have been complete without seeing the famous Manneken Pis, a small bronze sculpture of a little boy urinating into the fountain. It is a very small landmark for having such great fame. We walked all over the entire city, covering a span of 9 miles, seeing all the city has to offer. And of course, we ate Belgian waffles! And they did, in fact, live up to all the hype.
Hopping on a Flixbus, our favorite mode of transportation in Europe, we moved on to Amsterdam where we had a housesit for two kitties, Matias and Felix. Our first day at the house, we went to the nearby grocery store to stock up on food for the week and encountered yet another patience-testing, yet character-building roadblock.
After shopping for an hour, filling our cart with items and scanning them with the cashier, we went to pay for everything with our travel Visa credit card (which we use for all transactions to accrue points and then pay off every month). We were told that they do not accept Visa. So I waited with all of the bags while Daniel went back to the apartment and grabbed another form of payment, an American Express card and a MasterCard. He handed them to the cashier who then told us they do not accept AmEx or MasterCard either. To which we replied, “What do you accept?!” We were shocked to learn that all grocery stores in The Netherlands take local Dutch bank cards only (or cash).
So after a scavenger hunt to multiple different ATMs in search of one that would take our debit card, we finally succeeded hours later. Again, it was a lesson in the trials and tribulations of long-term travel and one that we can laugh about in hindsight.
The next day we went to the Anne Frank House and museum to see the very attic where Anne and her family hid out for two years during WWII. When we walked through the hidden doorway behind a bookshelf leading up to the attic, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed with emotions. It was deeply moving and disturbing and I couldn’t help but feel a strong urge to cry. I remember reading the Diary of Anne Frank in school and very vividly can remember the details of the horrors that she endured. And to be there in the exact place where she wrote the diary and lived out her final years was something that I will never forget.
One of the most powerful parts of the tour of the attic was Anne’s bedroom where the cutouts from magazines that she had put up on the walls to try and feel like a normal teenager were still in the exact same place that they were 75 years ago. It was kind of eerie but powerful and again, made us feel something indescribable.
The next couple of days in Amsterdam were spent exploring the endless canals, walking through the famous Red Light District, people watching in several of the “coffee shops” and taking in the super chill, laid back vibe that only this city has to offer.
We were also very lucky and grateful while in Amsterdam to get free concert tickets to see one of our favorite bands, Caamp, who happened to be doing a show while we were there. When we discovered tickets were all sold out, we tweeted at them that we were their biggest fans and asked if there was anything they could do to help us get tickets. Sure enough, a couple hours before the show, they replied saying that there would be two free tickets waiting for us at the door. So we immediately hopped in an Uber and arrived right before the show started, with just enough time to run into one of the band members and thank him for their kindness. It was truly a special night and one of our favorites of this entire trip.
After the week came to an end, we took another Flixbus to Paris, but this one was a bit different. To start with, it was 10 hours long but also, it was overnight. From my experience, the only thing worse than an overnight flight is an overnight bus ride with stops every hour when all the lights come on and the driver loudly and obnoxiously gives information over the speaker, not allowing for one single wink of sleep.
When we finally arrived in Paris the next morning, I was in bad shape. Not only had we not slept, but apparently I had picked up some germs along the way that made me so sick for the next week. But with only four days in Paris, I knew I had to suck it up and get out of bed regardless.
We checked into our adorable hotel room where it wasn’t long before the hotel kitty had joined us and was sleeping with us every night! His name was Espiga and he was the sweetest, cuddliest kitty ever.
Our visit to the Eiffel Tower was, of course, amazing and a major bucket list experience for me. However, it was a bit disappointing when we learned that we wouldn’t be able to go up the tower that day due to a strike that was going on. So instead, we visited the Arc de Triomph where they were letting tourists go up to the top for free due to the closing of the Eiffel. In the end, we feel that this worked out because the view of the entire city from the Arc was truly impressive.
The next day we visited the Sacre Coeur, the Roman Catholic church that is the second-most visited landmark in Paris. As we were climbing up the steep hill to the basilica, we were greeted by African refugees who asked us where we were from. After Daniel responded he is from Mexico, they started speaking Spanish to us, reached out to shake our hands and simultaneously placed some colorful threads around our fingers, quickly making them into bracelets. We knew immediately where this was going so we both tried to decline their offer, stating that we had no cash on us.
They ignored our comment and continued asking us questions and engaging us in conversation and within two minutes, they had finished the bracelets and tied them in a secure knot around our wrists. Again, we reminded them that we had no cash on us, thanked them and offered to return the bracelets. Another man, the “boss” then appeared demanding rather aggressively that we pay for the bracelets. After going back and forth with the boss, they finally let us leave. But it wasn’t without an uneasy feeling of their shady process and unnecessary aggression.
Continuing our Paris tour, we went on to admire the Notre Dame Cathedral, eat magnificent crepes in the Latin Quarter, visit the Louvre Museum and stroll along the Champs-Elysees.
Seeing the Catacombs was another unique and chilling experience that we couldn’t miss during our visit. Venturing several stories down below the city, we explored the vast network of tunnels, holding the skeletal remains of six million people that was created to eliminate the overflow of the city’s cemeteries.
All in all, we had a lovely time in Paris. Although, if I were to give my honest opinion on the city, it would be that it did not live up to the dreamy, romantic and magical ideal that it has so often been portrayed as in books and movies. Personally, it felt like any other big city, but more smelly, a bit dull and void of color. Paris in real life, to me, was very different from Paris in all the greatest love stories. I know others may disagree, but again this was just my experience.
Moving on to the very last stop on our Europe tour was Denmark where we had another housesit for two beautiful Main Coons. We were lucky enough to have two bikes loaned to us by the homeowners during our stay so we were able to trek around in normal Danish fashion. Copenhagen is known as the most bike-friendly city in the world with specific lanes and stoplights on every street just for bikers, making it super safe and efficient to move about. More than one-third of the population commute by bike so we saw women in dresses and heels, men in suits, parents with their babies in carts, grandparents, young children, and everything in between. It was so interesting to be waiting at a stop light in bike traffic and look around at the hundreds of other bikers on their way to work or school.
Throughout our week in Copenhagen, we worked on getting our Chinese visas which turned out to be a lot more than we had bargained for. In all, we spent 12-15 hours working on the applications, gathering all the necessary documents, and presenting it all to the officials at the Chinese Consulate. After much stress over getting them in time – and after spending $400 – we were finally granted the visas and purchased our first plane tickets to Asia.
To treat ourselves for all of the hard work, and to celebrate Valentine’s Day, we went to Nyhavn, the famous colorful harbor for a lovely Valentine’s lunch where we had the traditional smorrebrød, open-faced sandwiches with tasty, creative toppings.
We finished up our Danish adventures with an ancestry scavenger hunt to find the homes of my great-great grandparents who had lived in Copenhagen before traveling through Ellis Island and moving to the US. My mother had sent me their addresses that she discovered during some genealogy research so we rode our bikes all around town and successfully found the very buildings that were still standing after 120 years. We also visited the church where they were married and their children were baptized. It was an exciting feeling to stand on the doorstep of the same house where my ancestors had lived so long ago.
Our last day in Scandinavia, we took a day trip by bus across the Øresund Bridge, the longest combined road and rail bridge, to visit Malmö, Sweden. We first traveled under the ocean through a tunnel, coming out in the middle of the water to then cross a bridge.
We spent the afternoon wandering the streets, admiring the buildings, eating delicious food and being grateful for seeing our 23rd country.
Finally, after a total of seven months, we said goodbye to Europe, packed up and moved on to our next adventure in the Middle East.