Disneyland Paris

“Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” -Walt Disney

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Disney has always held a special place in my heart. It played an important role in my childhood and no matter how old I am, it will always be my favorite vacation destination. I was overjoyed to visit Disneyland Paris in December, possibly more so than the 9 year olds.

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Transportation and Accommodations: Multiple options are available for both going and staying at the park. Several hotels, each with their own Disney theme, are available near the park in a variety of prices. All are either within walking distance or provided a shuttle. Driving from Paris takes about an hour and a half but parking is ample (if you arrive early) and traffic is not bad. The train can also take you straight to Disney if a car is unavailable.

[If you would like to hear my struggle with renting a car in France, please see my trip to Strasbourg]

IMG_1803Attractions: In general, your favorite traditional attractions can still be found. Such as, Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, Dumbo’s flying elephants, and It’s A Small World. You can still see the characters you know and love. (You can still freak out when you run into a princess or two.) Some of the attractions I was unfamiliar with, such as the Alice in Wonderland hedge maze. Warning to those of you with small children: It is a maze and kids can go missing in there. Trust me.

IMG_1782Food: The food at Disneyland Paris however was not an enjoyable experience. The service was slow and unprepared for the large crowd. Many people appeared unhappy with wait times and quality of product. Language barriers only worsened the situation. If you do plan on eating dinner at one of the many restaurants, make sure you book a reservation early. They fill up quick.

DSC_0153Decor: The decor was spot on with Disney details and appropriate holiday celebrations. In early December you enter the park to find a Christmas wonderland. Holiday-themed parades ran through the park multiple times a day.


Staff:
 Every employee was friendly and helpful. Most speak a variety of languages to accommodate the international guests.

DSC_0241Entertainment: The music and performances were greatly enjoyed. The Christmas parade was fun and festive. Inside a live band could be found. Throughout the park character appearances could also be found, sometimes after a lengthy wait.

IMG_1804The final performance of the night was truly spectacular. Cinderella’s castle was glowing and shimmering in the night as music played and people gathered around. When the show began, images of beloved characters could be seen projected onto the front of the castle. The images played out a fun story filled with songs. Make sure you plan ahead because the area can be very crowded and getting a good view can be difficult.

I would highly recommend a visit for any Disney lover. My one suggestion would be to go on a warmer day in nicer weather. While standing outside in one hour-long lines, you wish to yourself it wasn’t December. Disneyland Paris may not have the same grandeur or extravagance as the original park but it is still fun for everyone.

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The Weekend Adventure to Strasbourg

The nice thing about knowing lots of international people is you always have someone to visit. An exchange-student friend (I have not seen for many years) happens to be in living in France, at the same time, as me. Obviously, this means a fun weekend visit.

As a student, the easiest way to save money (while also keeping yourself safe) is to include as many people as possible in your trip. I could only convince one. My new friend, a crazy Californian guy, joined me on the adventure. And off we went to Strasbourg.

There are multiple options to travel from Paris to Strasbourg. It was the clear, the easiest is the TGV super fast train. However, it is fairly expensive. On the other hand, there are unofficial “ride-shares” available outside the train station for very little money (and very little safety). We quickly try to come up with a safe alternative, affordable on a student budget. Thanks to a helpful suggestion, California and I learn it would be cheaper and easier to simply rent a car. [Thank you mom for teaching me to drive stick!]

On the streets of Paris

Thursday afternoon, we meet outside the metro stop on our way to the car rental location. After carrying my luggage through the hot, sweaty subway stations, I was looking forwarding to throwing it all in the back of a nice, comfortable vehicle. But sadly, it was not to be…

We enter the rental agency with all the necessary paperwork in hand, already paid in full. After a confusing half-French-half-English discussion, we come to find out, despite having already paid in full we must down put down a deposit 3X the original amount as well as purchase additional insurance. On top of that, due to various reasons, they cannot accept either of our cards, checks or cash. The entire process became one huge nightmare. Eventually ending with no car and a cancelled reservation. Thank you Europecar.

Unhappy Brady riding the TGV

We gather our possessions and proceed back down to the metro. Reverting to the original plan, we head out for the train station. We arrive to find… the station workers are on strike. Thanks to one helpful employee we discover we can buy tickets on the train with cash, but yes they will be pricy. Sitting in the train station, amidst the rush of people, we debate the decision.

Half an hour later, we find ourselves sitting on the train.

After a long and stressful day, we arrive. We walk the short distance through the town to our hotel, anxiously expecting something else to go wrong. We enter the lobby and are greeted by a friendly older gentleman behind the counter. In broken French/English we hand over the paperwork and explain who we are. “Oh yes!” He exclaims, “You have been uhh.. up.. up-classed!”

“Upgraded?”

“Yes! Up graded! You have apartment! I show you, come.”

Hold it there. What just happened? In utter shock and disbelief we follow the sweet, little French man, back out onto the street. We proceed to the next building, where he leads us up to the top floor and into the most amazing 5-person, 2-floor apartment! You mean, we aren’t squeezing into a tiny single room? This must be a mistake.

This is why I love Europe. If you find yourself in Strasbourg, Hotel 21, go there.

In our search for dinner, we discover the seemingly quiet town actually has a lively nightlife. Every other bar has a line out the door of young people dressed to impress. Eventually, we find a calm place to grab a seat. Soon, we over hear English, which naturally leads us to making conversation. Come to find out, every hotel room around has been booked for the monthly European Parliament meeting. So we kick back and talked politics with Parliament members, late into the evening.

After some good sleep, we fill our weekend with sightseeing. We light a candle inside the jaw-dropping cathedral Notre Dame de Strasbourg and view the enormous astrological clock. We strolled along the beautiful river Ill. Despite the freezing cold, numb fingers and toes, it was gorgeous. Topped off by the light sprinkle of snow, my first sighting of the year, it was truly picturesque. If you go, you must enjoy the local cuisine, a glass of vin chaud and a hot bowl of baeckeoffe, traditional beef and potatoes stewed in wine.

I have an emotional reunion with my good friend, as we relive memories of our experiences in Poland. I visit his incredible château of a dormitory. I am invited to enjoy the student Halloween party and I practice my French skills with a very polite cab driver.

Our view of France out the train windows

Sunday comes checkout and returning to Paris. Not quite the same as returning to the real world, but still going back to a daily routine.

Thank you Strasbourg for a wonderful time. Thank you Hotel 21 and everyone else with great customer service skills. Thank you Daniel for inviting me out! And thank you Brady for coming with me and keeping me safe!

21 and over

I’m getting old. I am quickly approaching the last big hoorah for most young Americans. If I were home, I would be planning my big blowout. Instead, I am lucky enough to find myself in the ever-enchanting city of Paris, where 21 is just another number with no special entitlements.

It is funny to step back and realize what seems so important at home is totally different in the eyes of someone else. The 21st birthday has always appeared to me as a huge milestone in life, not just in a legal sense, but also as an imaginary line between youth and true adulthood. Interestingly, this change also comes at an important time in my political life. This year’s election will mark my first official vote for US president. I have a lot of new choices available and new decisions to make, which all come with new responsibilities and consequences.

Looking back, at the age of 20 I have jumped out of a plane, auditioned for Disney, conquered the Tough Mudder, graduated college, become a licensed nurse, spent my summer traveling North America, learned to shoot a gun, and moved to a different country. I have to say, it has been a successful year, as well as influential.

Thursday certainly will not be a traditional (American) 21-year-old celebration, but hey, I’m pretty far from traditional.

I look forward to an enjoyable night with my 9-year-old friends. I also look forward to growing up (but not getting old!). As I reflect on the last 21 years of my life, I want to thank my friends and family, from the bottom of my heart, for everything they have done. Especially mom and dad.

Now I’m wondering, what craziness can I expect from the next year of my life?

Dear Jet Lag,

I do not appreciate the constant fatigue at 3 in the afternoon. You interfere with my plans. I also do not appreciate you continuously waking me up during the night. (However I am surprisingly productive between the hours of 5 and 8 am.)

Please be gone by the end of the week. Thank you.

Sincerely,

The tired traveler

International Waters

How do you go about packing for huge changes in your life? It all boils down to what is essential. This is when you find out what you really need to survive. It’s exhilarating. I’m tempted to throw out everything I didn’t pack (but its just a thought).

Waking up Wednesday morning, just like any other day I don’t want to get out of bed. I hang on to my last moments of sleep as I know I’m about to go without it for some time. Then I realize what today is and how many things I need to do. No big event in my life ever seems real till the day it happens. I don my comfy, all-black travel outfit and I am out the door.

After a hectic drive through Manhattan, we begin to approach JFK. That is when butterflies in my stomach suddenly appeared. The realization slowly creeps over me, I am leaving. Again. The little voice in the back of my mind reminds me, I’ve done this before, no big deal.

I drag my luggage through the airport, check in, and manage my way through security. I finally find my gate, where I sit down on an empty row of chairs. I give myself a moment to catch my breath before whipping out the cell phone to begin my goodbye calls. My stomach is growling. I’ve burned through my donut breakfast, which I scarfed down while driving.

Boarding proceeds and I find myself sitting on the plane. Time to turn it off. Time to turn off the phone which has previously spent 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, ready and waiting in my front left pocket. Now I have to turn it off, without knowing when I’ll be using it again. Time for take off. Just like every other flight. The familiar speech about finding the nearest exit, no smoking, and how to buckle a seatbelt makes me feel calm. And we are off!

I was starving in the airport but on the plane my appetite is gone. The butterflies in my stomach have returned. I have a free plate of food and I’m too excited to eat. They serve dinner and breakfast. I watch 2 movies, read my book, and nervously fidget, unable to sleep.

We land. I wander through the Parisian airport, following the crowd, like a herd of lost sheep. The customs agent stamps my passport. I love to hear that sound! I collect my bag and proceed to the train station. I follow my uncle’s instructions: buy a ticket, take the RER train into Paris. Every one around looks as lost as I do. Dragging my suitcase up and down escalators and the occasional staircase makes me sweat, or maybe it’s my nerves? Finally I manage a seat on the train.

Quickly the train changes from empty to packed. People are not happy to see a suitcase taking up valuable floor space but I am helplessly trapped in a thick crowd. Luckily I stay near the doorway to make my quick escape. In the city, I walk through the park to my uncle’s apartment.

I look so out of place wandering through nature, surrounded by runners. I lug my two suitcases behind me. While I might fall over a million times, trip every 5 feet, I laugh and look around. What does it matter? I’m in Paris!

I am greeted my uncle outside his apartment. “Oh you packed light?” HA! My aching body would beg to differ.

I shower. Glorious shower. Fresh and clean, I change into a pair of light blue jeans and wrinkled white shirt. Looking at myself in the mirror I see a much brighter image than my all black traveling outfit. It helps with the bags under my eyes. My hands are red and blistered from lugging around my beast of a suitcase.

I sip some tea before we set off on my introductory walk. I get some breakfast from the French bakery. I am in awe of the buildings and streets and everything around just oozing Parisian style. The city smells different, looks different, sounds different. Fresh bread wafts through the air. It really is all I expected and more. Walking back I am exhausted. I am sore all over. Now comes the realization I have been awake for over 24 hours.

Drifting to sleep, I day dream about the upcoming months. Starting a new life in a new country. Again. It could be wonderful or it could be terrifying. I have just jumped into unknown waters, but I’ve done this swim before.

LAKE HARMONY, PENNSYLVANIA (THE POCONOS)

If you are looking for a cheap vacation spot to share with a large group of friends, rent a lake house in the Poconos! The neighborhood surrounding Lake Harmony is full of huge lodge style houses which sleep anywhere from 10 to 20 people (depending on how close you are with your family). Some are pet friendly! Along with the house you get a lake pass for the small beach at the end of the road. 15 minute drive away from grocery store and Dunkin Donuts. Check out Vacation Rentals By Owner, a great website my family has used multiple times.

The wood cabin house was cozy and relaxing. A hot tub and pool table in the lower level, televisions with cable, a fire pit for roasting s’mores, and deer right in your backyard! The big dining room table is perfect for family dinners or spreading out to play some Jenga. At night, you can gaze up at the stars or take a walk down to the water for some midnight swimming.

Walking distance down the road is the Split Rock resort with indoor water park movie theater, mini golf and more! The attractions are open to the public for a $1 parking fee.

15 minutes away from multiple parks including Hickory Run State Park where you can find a larger beach and endless hiking trails.

Along the streets of Lake Harmony you can find Piggy’s Restaurant right next to Hog Heaven ice cream. Nick’s Lake House is always busy, as is Shenanigans later in the evening. Friday and Saturday they advertise karaoke.

Tuesday night special, enjoy a crab leg dinner at the Boulder View Tavern, just down the road.

If you feel like working for your dinner, you can hit the lake with your fishing pole! Bass and catfish are practically jumping onto the hooks, ready to be caught and fried.

Saturday morning relax with a walk around the enormous Blakeslee flea market. I bought a number of items including my new favorite purse! Or if you need some serious shopping, take a 30 minute drive to The Crossings outlet mall.

Take a drive 17 miles to historic Jim Thorpe. You will find a groovy town filled with used books stores, coffee shops, and tie dye clothing.

Doggy spotty: Helga! The friendly next door neighbor dog.

The vacation was fun for everyone. Our dogs came home exhausted! And even if it rains (like it did 75% of our trip) there are many great things to do with whole family. 

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON

Seattle, well known for rain and grunge,  certainly took me by surprise. I am now a huge fan. The food was amazing, the weather was spectacular. The people both kind and ridiculously in good shape. Visiting Seattle makes me wish I knew how to recycle and totally reconsider how much I exercise.

Day 1, I hit the touristy spots. No matter where you are, how old you are, or how embarrassing it may seem, tourist attractions are usually worth it. The Space Needle is no exception. Here you get the full panoramic picture of the beauty that is Seattle. On a clear day you can just glimpse the tip of Mt. Rainier (pictured below), it’s spectacular.

Looking down, you see the bustling downtown filled with skyscrapers housing the technological giants such as Microsoft. Amidst the towering buildings you can find high fashion boutiques and cafes. While 15 minutes outside the city you can find mountains and lush wildlife. 

In the shadow of the Needle is the brand new Chihuly Glass museum. Opened in May, the museum is really an incredible display of human talent. The enormous glass sculptures will put you in awe. Right next door, you will find the Experience Music Project museum. The collection of exhibits included horror movie props, Nirvana memorabilia, interactive displays based on the movie Avatar, and playable instruments of every kind!

Personally, the Kurt Cobain memorial was a must-see. Due to his cremation, there is no formal memorial but true fans have found their way to pay homage in the form of a graffitied bench. It sits in a small public park, a couple blocks from his previous hollywood-style residence. The bench is covered in love notes, poetry, unsmoked cigarettes, and other tokens for the musician. It was a moving experience for me, as a devoted Cobain fan.

In the evening, I enjoyed dinner with a fantastic view on the marina at the restaurant, Palisade. As the sun set on the water and all of the boats floated in, we enjoyed delicious fresh seafood.

Another important activity: You have to visit Pikes Place Market! Here you can get a latte from the first Starbucks, gaze at the endless rows of colorful fruits and exotic seafood. Don’t forget to put a little money in the piggy bank!

If you are looking for school, the University of Washington has a beautiful campus near the downtown area. The campus is unbelievably green and you can find several food trucks in the central quad.

I also managed to snag a free trial at the David Barton gym. If you want feel like a celebrity, this is the gym to try.

Just across the water from the New York style metropolis you’ll find a beautiful Florida-like Alki Beach. Unique houses and restaurants with patio seating line the water front. As the sun went down the activity picked up. The sand was covered with volleyball games and a cardboard dance floor filled with salsa dancers. In the distance, through the sunbeams, you can see the amazing mountain tops.

Take a drive to the little German town of Levanworth, past the site of the well known TV show Twin Peaks, for a cute touristy destination. On your way there, stop to gawk at the gorgeous waterfalls and raging rapids. On the way back my group stopped off for a local town carnival in Sultan, Washington.

My final night was spent eating at Monsoon (now my favorite restaurant of all time). The fresh oysters, the duck-stuffed squid, and other small plates were all amazingly delicious! For dessert I enjoyed a treat of bananas and coconut milk.

I was well warned by Seattle citizens, the weather I experienced is not a year round occurrence. There are plenty of rainy days just as you might assume. However if you are lucky enough to visit in the summer, the weather will be well worth your trip.

This post has been made possible by the wonderful generosity of a very special uncle, big thanks go out to Robert!