Stumbling Down the Swiss Alps

The ski school back in Basye, Virginia has seriously failed me. That became very clear to me as soon as we arrived in the Alps. In over 20 years of “skiing,” I’ve never actually needed to wear a helmet down the mountain. I’ve also never been to a resort where you really and truly need a map to navigate the slopes to make sure you don’t take the wrong one down. Obviously the latter is more crucial for beginners like myself (yes, I’ve been skiing for 20 years, but I am definitely a beginner round these parts). For the advanced skiers the map isn’t so dire, but for me it was essential. If we had gotten off a lift where the only option was to take a more advanced slope down, I would have been, well…screwed. OH WAIT. That happened.

I know what you’re thinking, “It was in your head. You knew it was a more difficult slope, so you were apprehensive.” Well, that’s not correct. I didn’t know. I was under the assumption that it was a blue slope (the easiest). I went down the first few parts just fine. Sarah, my cousin, was surprised. I told her I would have trouble on this mountain, considering that I typically ski on hills in comparison (and I use the term hills generously). But then came the hard part. It was a pretty steep slope, and there were small hills covering the slope. My family back home calls them jumps because when you hit them, you fly up into the air for a split second. The group of friends (and family) I was with in the Alps would never give them that term. THIS is a jump in their eyes:

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For them, this tiny slope was child’s play. For me? It was my worst nightmare. There were no smooth spots on the slope that would allow me to navigate around the little “jumps.” At the bottom of the slope, there was probably about 60 feet of space before you came to the next run. I knew that if I would have let go and just gone down that I wouldn’t have been able to stop before the next run. No one knew what the next bend would hold. It was their first time at this resort, too.

So I inched down, breaking the entire time. My legs were killing me. Oh! Let’s back up quickly- I decided to workout my legs the day prior, completely ignoring that I would be skiing down an 8,400-foot mountain the following day. New year, new you, right? I did lunges, squats; you name it. I could barely walk before we even went up the lift, so skiing down this colossal mountain was no cakewalk.

I eventually made it down, and for the most part after that it was smooth skiing. After a few runs, we took the lift up to the second highest point on the mountain. We were at 8,432 feet. I wish I could tell you the view was incredible. It was breathtaking, don’t get me wrong; Breathtaking in the sense that I was scared out of my mind and therefore held my breath in fear. Like you’ve seen from my Instagram photos, the weather in the Swiss Alps is unpredictable. It was sunny and gorgeous heading to the top, but as the lift got closer it started hailing.

I could barely see through the thick, white blanket of snow against the backdrop of fog. Add a little bit of hail into the mix, and it was nearly impossible to see where you were going. I stayed as close as I could to the flags marking the inner side of the mountain to my left. To my right was the edge of the mountain, though I couldn’t quite see where it started through the haze. The slope was about 7 feet wide, if I had to guess, so it was narrow.

We eventually stopped for lunch. We were all soaked and cold from the hail. I don’t know if I’ve ever been so thankful for heat and a warm meal. After lunch we made it down to the next slope, where the view was incredible. I’ve never been that big on skiing. I’ll typically ski for one day, while the rest of my family skies for three or four. I’d much rather sit in the lodge, eat a club sandwich, drink a beer, and laugh at the weirdoes dressed in onesies and strange hats skiing down the mountain. But views like this make skiing a tad bit more appealing…

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Just stopping to look at the map to ensure that I didn't die.

Just stopping to look at the map to ensure that I didn’t die.

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A beautiful view was waiting for us through the hail.

A beautiful view was waiting for us through the hail.

I couldn't have asked for better people to experience this with.

I couldn’t have asked for better people to experience this with. We are each wearing 10 pounds of clothing.

Other than the few difficult slopes we went down, I enjoyed the rest of our day and was able to actually ski and take in the stunning view. We probably skied for about 8 hours before heading down. So after hours of killing my legs and not knowing whether to laugh or cry at certain points through the pain and fear, I finally made it down this massive mountain. And I am oh so glad that I did. It was scary and wonderful and beautiful. This time, the beer I had at the bottom of the mountain was actually well deserved.

Lovely London Town

I have always wanted to go to London, especially at Christmas time. So it was no surprise how quickly I fell in love with this fog-filled town. London in December is truly magical. Completely overstated Christmas lights line nearly every street, my favorites being both Oxford and Regent Street, and there are Christmas markets galore. Streets are packed with people shopping during all hours of the day, and it’s never too early to stop into a pub for a beer. Let’s not forget the lovely accents you hear while wandering the streets. I was quickly convinced that London must hold some of the most attractive men in the world, accents aside (though it does tip the scale a bit).

One of my favorite days in London was one where I spent quite a bit of time at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. This Christmas market is unparalleled to any I’ve ever seen. It’s a huge tourist attraction, yes, but it’s also something enjoyed by the locals. If you ever have a chance to go, you’ll quickly know why… Not only does this market boast some of the most unconventional little stands for souvenirs and Christmas gifts, but it’s also swarming with sweets, from chocolate to dessert waffles to candy. The market has German-themed pubs built in, so when you get tired of strolling you can stop and enjoy some hot wine (or a stein…there’s no judging here). So you’ve got three things the English really love- shopping, copious amounts of sweets, and beer. Can’t ask for much more. I saw all that I had time to see before wending my way to a free walking tour of Westminster.

I’ve noticed that the way I travel has evolved quite rapidly. I started out paying for tours and cramming far too much into one day. I’ve now graduated to finding the free things to do around town, and have come to terms with the fact that I simply can’t see everything. I might be seeing less, but I’m enjoying what I’m seeing more, rather than seeing more and having less time to enjoy it. I also have more money for shopping by doing these free tours (motivation at its finest).

I saw lots of regal things on this two-hour tour, from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey (I SAW WHERE KATE GOT MARRIED, Y’ALL…sorry). There were a few iconic London landmarks and buildings worked in as well, namely Big Ben, which (fun fact) is actually called the Elizabeth Tower. I met an Aussie girl on the tour, and after it was over we sauntered over to Covent Garden for fish and chips. It was my first official fish and chips experience. You can probably guess that I had no trouble cleaning my plate. The rest of the day we strolled around the city and took in as much of sunny London as we could.

That night we went to see Winter Wonderland lit up in all its glory. It’s truly a beautiful sight to see. We both caught ourselves walking around with smiles on our faces for no other reason than the fact that we were there. It’s impossible not to be happy in this Christmas cornucopia. But in true London fashion, the sky eventually opened up and it poured down on us. We ran into one of the pubs to wait out the rain and sip hot wine. Of course millions of others had the same idea, so there were no empty tables. We quickly made friends with some (really) cute English guys and spent the rest of the evening there (obviously). It’s no wonder why this might have been one of my favorite days in London. Though my day in Notting Hill gave this Christmas market spectacular a run for its money…

I love, love, love the movie Notting Hill. It’s one of my go-tos. I can quote it word for word. Probably shouldn’t brag about that… So naturally this was an area I was dying to explore. Portobello Road is such a quaint and quirky little lane, composed of an eclectic mix of shops and markets with various odds and ends, from teapots to vintage clothing. I stumbled upon so many amazing shopping finds- vintage sunglasses, a book with recipes from all of Charlotte Brontë’s novels (so English!), and a random mix of new (old) knobs for my dresser among other things that I cannot list because they’re for people who are reading this blog.

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I saw all of the famous sites from the movie- the blue door, which is in fact blue again, the bookshop that inspired the shop in Notting Hill, and the actual store that held the bookshop in the movie (which is a terrible shoe store). I spent hours walking down this street, popping in and out of the little shops and perusing the markets before finding my way back to Leicester Square. I was seeing The Nutcracker in this area, which is one of my all-time favorite ballets. It was such a beautiful day. I felt so fancy wandering around London, carrying out all of my adulthood dreams and going to ballets and whatnot. In fact, it was such a fancy day that after seeing The Nutcracker, I felt the need to do something not so fancy. You know, just to keep a good balance. So I had McDonalds for dinner. A Big Mac, to be precise. It tasted of America, and it was wonderful.

Overall, I’d say my trip to London was lovely. I wandered around Notting Hill and Portobello Road; I saw lots of royal things and places; I rode the London Eye; I walked across the London Bridge; I drank tea; Saw the London Tower; Went to a ballet; Enjoyed a show (Wicked); Shopped; Shopped some more; Drank beer; Ate fish and chips (twice); Had Sheppard’s pie (twice); Ate cobbler that would make you want to slap your mother; And most importantly, met a gorgeous English man. Don’t worry. I’m still (reluctantly) coming home…

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Breathing Easy in Basel

I really can’t believe it’s here. My last trip before making the trek back to the States. The past few days I’ve felt such a whirlwind of emotions. I know that when the day comes to go home I will be glad. But until that time is here, I’m soaking in every minute of my time here, trying my best not to be anxious about it coming to an end on days where I don’t feel ready to leave; trying my best not to wish it away on days where I feel ready to go.

Today I spent the day in Basel, the third most populous city in Switzerland, though you wouldn’t know it on a Sunday. It’s a beautiful city and everything you want to see is essentially located in the city center, so you can walk everywhere. They have walking tours you can do by yourself around the city with little signs all over town guiding you in the right direction. I picked up a brochure that gave the history behind what I was seeing and did two of the walking tours. It was a great way to see and learn about the city. Basel has a nice mix of medieval and modern architecture. It’s beautiful and boasts some pretty amazing views along the Rhine river. However, there’s not a ton do to in this sleepy Swiss town this time of year. It buzzes more in summer.

I spent half the day walking around exploring the town. After that, I decided to do some relaxing. Every trip I’ve taken so far has been less of a vacation and more of an experience. Don’t get me wrong. It’s been so amazing and I’ve loved every minute, but my idea of a vacation is lying on a beach somewhere for a week, only changing out of my bathing suit when I’m forced to peel myself off the sand for food and margaritas. On my more recent trips, I’ve been focused on exploring the city and seeing and doing as much as I can. I usually am wandering around for about 10-12 hours a day, which means my body hates me right now. So I spent the rest of the day at a place called Aquabasilea, which is basically a massive, massive spa with a “sauna world,” outdoor hot tubs, vitality pools, etc. It was definitely a much needed afternoon of relaxing, and I think it’ll help me to wake up feeling refreshed tomorrow morning as I head to Barcelona.

More soon!
Heidi

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Roaming Around Rome.. and Florence

The rest of my time in Italy was a both accelerated and lackadaisical all at once. That seems impossible, but if there’s anyplace in the world for this to be possible, it’s Italy. I covered a lot of ground during the six days I was there- four in Rome, and two in Florence- but I still managed to somehow feel relaxed and took my time through things.  (Okay… so I was pretty stressed when my phone was stolen, but we won’t be discussing that nightmare here. Mostly because I don’t want that to taint my good memories of Italy, and it’s my blog so I can edit out the bad things when I want.)

After a wonderful Thanksgiving in Italy’s capital city, I was eager to explore more. The following day was also my new friend’s ten-year anniversary with her late-fiancé. As if the day wasn’t daunting enough, she got a text message that morning letting her know that her grandfather wasn’t doing well. They were basically waiting for her to get back to pull the plug. Still, not once did I ever see her faith waiver. There were definitely times throughout the day when she seemed a little down or I saw a silent tear fall now and then, but had I not known her story I would have had no clue anything was wrong. I’m still so amazed at her faith. Meeting her made me question my own. I’ve come so far yet still have such a long way to go. I’m thankful that I have a God who is willing to meet me wherever I am.

We mapped out a busy day to keep ourselves occupied. We went to the Coliseum, which was crazy and amazing. The events that took place once upon a time in this circular hall of doom are simply unfathomable to me, so I walked around in a daze imagining the worst. At the same time I was so entranced by the sheer massiveness of the architecture and by the fact that I was standing where I was standing. We spent a good amount of time there and then moseyed over to the Roman Forum, which was my favorite part of the whole experience. Seeing the ruins of these ancient government buildings, imagining the people who walked through the very same place that I was standing was incredible. They’re also pretty great to see at sunset, which I did the following day unintentionally.

Later we made our way back to Trastevere and went and had pizza at Carlo Menta, a place a friend recommended. It was the best pizza I had during my trip (and the cheapest). Hands down. We stuffed our faces, and then left to walk it off. We passed through Campo de’ Fiori and stopped to walk through the markets at Piazza Navona, which is beautiful, on our way to see the Pantheon. It was after dark when we finally arrived, and it instantly made my “favorite things I saw in Rome” list. After walking around inside and spending quite some time peering at the big gaping hole in the ceiling, wondering to myself what happens when it rains, my friend left to catch her flight. I felt such a strange wave of emotions saying goodbye to her. My heart still breaks every time I think about what she’s going through, but I guess it would be pretty concerning if it didn’t. I stayed behind and sat down to enjoy a glass of wine while staring at the colossal columns of this ancient marvel. Eventually, I got hungry and reluctantly wandered down the street for dinner (I had pasta- duh) and then went to Giolitti, the infamous and oldest ice cream parlor in Rome, for my first taste of real Italian gelato. I got raspberry and chocolate. Legit.

The next day was my shopping day. I walked across the Ponte Sisto Bridge for about the hundredth time, or so it seemed, and finally went into the leather store my friend recommended. It was like heaven, only with leather. This place looks like a little hole in the wall, but when you walk in you find a huge sea of leather purses, totes, and weekender bags. Venture further back and you’ll find the people who work there sitting at the front desk cutting leather and making purses. I wanted to buy everything, but I restrained. I was holding out for the leather markets in Florence. Then I walked over to Via del Corso, which I had already been down many times but hadn’t allowed myself to stop and shop. So this time I did. I found lots of little cute shops along the side streets. Eventually, I did manage to mix in a little bit of culture on this day of shopping.

I saw the Trevi Fountain during the day, and after a few hours I walked over to Piazza Venetia. It was about time for the sun to set when I got there, and the Roman Forum happened to catch my eye. I thought it would be a good place to watch the sunset. I was right. It was gorgeous. Once the sun had set, I popped into the Mamertime Prison. It is said that Paul and Peter were imprisoned here. I have no idea if this is true or not, but on the chance that it might be I had to go in. I enjoyed seeing the thought-provoking prison cells, though the tour itself was… strange. At one point there was a light display complete with rocks that talked to each other. I won’t bore you with more. But talking rocks aside, it was worth going to see. I ended the day eating some bomb lasagna at a restaurant near Piazza Navona and went to bed fairly early. I had to be up for my train to Florence the next morning.

Florence was one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen in Europe, despite the fact that it stole my phone. It was a quick, two-day trip, so I spent most of my time exploring the city itself rather than spending time inside museums and things of that nature. I know I committed such a huge travel sin by not going into an art gallery, considering that Florence is basically one gigantic art gallery. But that’s just the way things played out. Now I have a good excuse to go back someday.

The city itself was captivating enough for me this time around. I loved how small it was in comparison to Rome. There were Christmas lights lining the cobblestone streets, I was able to walk everywhere, and while it was small in size there was still an abundance of things to see and do. I walked across Ponte Vecchio, the stone-closed bridge with lots of shops over the Arno River, took in the beauty of the Duomo and its gothic facade, ate tons of pasta and gelato, spent far too much time at the leather markets (bought far too many purses at said leather markets), saw a few fake David statues (not the real one), and climbed to the top of Piazzale Michelangelo for a dramatic panoramic view of the city.

Also while I was in Florence, my sweet baby cousin Ava had her third birthday. Those of you who know me know how special this child is to me. It was so hard for me to be away from her that day. I have been really good about focusing on just enjoying my time away from home, rather than missing it because I know home will be there when I’m back. But being away that day was really hard. Later that night, my phone was stolen. I just felt far away from everyone and sort of stranded. So at the end of my two days in Florence, I was eager to get back to Rome and just glad to be safe.

I spent my last day in Rome walking around basically the entire city, taking in the sites that I had already seen just one last time. I also spent a large chunk of time hunting down a gift for my step-dad. When he was in the army and came to Italy, he bought a set of glass murano horses. Don’t ask me why, but he did. And he loved them. On his way back to the States, they broke. He was devastated, and he still talks about them to this day. So I was on a mission to find these illusive glass horses. I searched leisurely throughout my trip, but hadn’t found any. So this was my last chance. I went into 8 different shops, in very different areas of the city. I finally found one, and can’t wait to bring it back. Let’s just hope it doesn’t break on my journey home.

As the day wound down, I found myself back near the Roman Forum at sunset. For that, I was thankful. I was so sad to have lost all of my pictures from Italy, so I was glad to be able to see the Roman Forum at sunset again. I was also thankful to have my camera that I almost didn’t pack…

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Giving Thanks in Italy

Pasta. I feel like this seems like an appropriate word to start with in describing my trip to Italy. I ate so much of it while I was there, and it was wonderful.

The first day I arrived in Rome, I asked the woman who worked at my hostel if there was a good place to get dinner nearby. I was staying in Trastevere, a picturesque area of Rome with cobble stone streets, quaint little restaurants, shops, and markets. She replied by asking how long I was staying. I told her, and she said, oh you are here for a long time, go and buy some groceries and cook here. Um, no thanks? I’m in Italy. I’m not here to cook. I’m here to eat. I insisted on a restaurant. She argued that I couldn’t live on pizza and pasta everyday for six days. With all due respect, ma’am, you don’t know who you’re dealing with here.

Well, I went on to prove her wrong. I had pizza for lunch everyday, and pasta almost every night for dinner. Let’s not forget the copious amounts of gelato, either. Guess I showed her. And I now need bigger pants. I’m not entirely sure who won here…

My first night I had ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach covered in a truffle cream sauce with a glass (or three) of Chianti, which was my wine of choice throughout my stay in Italy. After dinner I took my time wandering around Trastevere going in and out of the shops, bookmarking the ones with the best leather, and called it a night.

The next morning, I met a girl from New Zealand who was staying at my hostel. We decided that our agendas were pretty similar, so we set off to tromp around Rome together. Our first stop was the Vatican City.

We started with the Vatican Museum, which was underwhelming apart from the Sistine Chapel. I wish I had known this going into it, rather than sort of wasting two hours wandering around. The Gallery of Maps was pretty amazing, but you see that just before going into the chapel. So if you’re ever in Rome, bypass the rest of the museum and make a beeline for the Sistine Chapel.

We left the museum and rounded the corner to St. Peter’s Basilica, which as most of you know was primarily designed by Michelangelo and Bernini, among a few other famous people. At this point, I had been to four different countries during my three-month trip. St. Peter’s Basilica was the first thing to really take my breath away. I walked in and actually gasped. It is one of the most beautiful structures I’ve ever set foot in. We wandered around for about an hour, and then decided to sit and pray for a little while. My new, New Zealand friend recently lost her fiancé to a drunk driving accident. He was the sober driver in the scenario. They had planned this trip together for their ten-year anniversary, and she decided to brave the trip on her own. So we took our time praying together silently, but I’m positive we were both praying about the same thing.

We left the church to climb up the teeny-tiny, winding, staircase to the cupola (the dome at the top of the church). This is not something I would recommend to anyone who is claustrophobic. You can take the elevator up most of the way, but after that you are on your own with the stairs. Keep in mind, that the dome is just that. A dome. It’s circular (duh), so half the climb up the winding staircase is spent bent over sideways as the walls close in on you.  I kept my head down the whole time and took deep breaths. However, the end result was totally worth it…

Oh hey, Rome!

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At this point, we were both hungry so we left and sat down for a quick lunch. Eventually, we talked a little bit more about the accident involving her fiancé. Six months ago, a 19-year old boy, peer-pressured by his friends, decided to get behind the wheel after drinking. Her fiancé paid the ultimate price. Later, I found out that they also had three kids together, all under the age of 10. They both came to know Christ after their third child. I had tears in my eyes listening to her story, but she seemed so calm talking about it. I couldn’t help but ask if she had forgiven the boy who took her fiancés life…

She shrugged her shoulders and said, “Yes. Of course I have. What good does it do me to hold on to anger toward this boy who is haunted by his own mistake? It won’t bring Daniel back to me, and it would only hurt me to hold onto anger.” She kept talking about how thankful she should be for the blessings in her life- she’s healthy and her three girls are healthy- rather than focusing on the negative. I was blown away by her unwavering faith, willingness to do as God calls us to do and forgive the unforgivable, and by her thankfulness through such a grim time in her life.

It made me think about anger I was holding onto in my own life toward people who may have wronged me in the past. If she can forgive someone for taking the life the person she loved the most in this world, then how on earth can I not forgive the people in my own life, who have done things that nowhere compare to the hurt she has experienced? How can I not show others the same grace that God shows me every single minute of every single day? It quickly became clear to both of us that God had our paths cross for a reason.

After lunch, we hopped onto a hop-on/hop-off bus to lighten the mood with a little fresh air, and to relieve ourselves from all the walking we had done that day. We rode around taking in the sights Rome had to offer until we reached the stop near the Trevi Fountain. The Trevi was one of my absolute favorite things to see in Rome, and it’s a must-see at night. Day-time Trevi Fountain does not hold a candle to nighttime Trevi Fountain. Once we were done taking lots of touristy pictures, we trekked along to the Spanish steps, and then sat down at a charming little Italian restaurant for dinner.

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It was my new friends only night in Rome, so she wanted to have a traditional Italian meal. For me it was Thanksgiving, so I was just prepared to eat. A lot. We ordered bruschetta to share, and then I had…what else? Pasta. And Chianti, of course. We unintentionally spent a lot of time talking about what we were most thankful for in our lives. One common denominator was meeting each other. The next day would mark her and her late fiancé’s 10-year anniversary. God clearly merged our paths so that she wouldn’t have to endure that day alone, and so that I could learn a thing or two about forgiveness along the way. It was definitely one of my most memorable Thanksgivings.

Au Revoir, Paris.

A trip to Paris wouldn’t be complete without a trip to The Palace of Versailles. Everyone warned me that a trip to Versailles would be expensive, but oh so worth it. They were right about one of two things: it was so worth it, but it was not an expensive trip. It was actually one of the cheapest days during my trip. Instead of booking one of the all inclusive tours that most people do, I just did everything on my own. It was super easy and I was able to do everything on my own timeline.

I took the metro, hopped on the RER train, and started the three or four block walk to Versailles. I wasn’t quite sure how to get there, but it’s a huge palace. It couldn’t be that hard to spot. I turned a corner, not knowing if I was heading in the right direction or not, and immediately stopped in my tracks. I was in awe. Tucked away behind ornately decorated golden gates, was the prodigious Palace of Versailles.

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IMG_7441I took my time through each room of the palace, imagining all of the history that had taken place, completely rapt in its architecture. After the palace, I wandered through the winding paths of gardens. I will say, the entire time I was in Paris, I was not bothered by the fact that I was there during an off-season enduring cold weather. But walking around Versailles, I just kept thinking to myself, I wish it were summer. I can only imagine how beautiful the gardens, the palace, and everything must be during peak times when everything is blooming. I was also really cold.

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Next I hiked out to the Grand Trianon, which is where Louis XIV used to go to escape the frigid court life (and spend time with his mistress), and then onto the Petit Trianon. The Petit Trianon is built in similar fashion to the Grand Trianon, and was essentially Marie-Antoinette’s private little palace.

I wandered along to discover my absolute favorite part of Versailles- the Queen’s Hamlet. Marie-Antoinette ordered this hamlet to be built (because she was Marie-Antoinette, and she could do things like that) in the late 1700’s. Here, and throughout the rest of her estate, no one was allowed to enter without her invitation. She spent a lot of time in her hamlet, which was designed to mimic a Norman village where she could enjoy the “simplicities” of a rustic lifestyle. It is comprised of eleven houses, five of which were hers and hers alone. While I’m not entirely sure how simple an estate consisting of 11 houses could really be, hats off to Marie-Antoinette for building quite the pad. I mean, I’d choose to live in one of these houses over a palace any day. So I feel you, Marie. A “simple,” rustic lifestyle is the way to go.

I eventually left the queen’s hamlet, only to get myself completely lost. I managed somehow never to get lost in Paris, but could not for the life of me navigate my way out of the gardens in this tremendous estate. I finally bumped into another person and asked him if he knew how to get back to the main palace. He was American. And from LA, which meant he was just as lost as I was. But like a typical guy, he pretended to know where he was going. I went along with it. We wandered around for about an hour and a half before finally finding our way back. Once we did, we stopped and had a glass of wine at one of the restaurants on site. It was so refreshing to talk to another American. Not many people speak English in the village where I’m staying in Switzerland, and as you know from my first blog post my family mainly speaks to me German in hopes that I’ll pick it up (still haven’t). So just being able to speak English for a few hours was great.

We finished our wine and made our way back up to the main palace just in time to catch the sunset over the gardens. Breathtaking. Pictures do not do it justice. The 8 hours I spent wandering around Versailles were completely worth it…

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Now it was all coming to an end; my very last day in Paris. I was le sad.

I spent the morning of my last day in the “City of Light” at Sacré-Cœur, which sits on the summit of the highest point of Paris. I enjoyed a long, much-needed prayer time while I was there. It was the perfect way to start my day- giving thanks to God for allowing me to be where I was. If there’s one thing God is trying to teach me while I’m here, it is to be thankful for his blessings.

The Christmas markets, which were conveniently located just before the famous shopping strip of Champs-Élysées, would be my next stop. I love a good Christmas market, so I was dying to go to the markets in Paris. As soon as arrived, I got a glass of hot wine to warm up. I assumed it would be the same as hot cider. Well wouldn’t you know, it’s actually just what its called- hot wine. Winning.

I traipsed around the markets enjoying the Christmas music, admiring the lights and cute little shops, and got a gyro (one of these things is not like the other, amirite?). I’d eaten far too many crêpes at this point and wanted something quick, so a gyro was the next best option. Ladies, if you’re ever on a romantic trip with your significant other in Paris, do not order a gyro. It’s huge and therefore not at all attractive to eat. They’re messy, food falls out everywhere, and you get stuff all over your face every time you take a bite…I can’t believe I haven’t found my future husband in Paris yet. Weird.

After finishing (most of) my massive gyro, I walked down Champs-Élysées and shopped a little. I went into the original Louis Vuitton, which is three stories tall. This was not the smartest thing I could do- walk into a store full of purses, shoes, and luggage that cost more than my trip to France. So I walked out almost as quickly as I walked in and made my way down to the colossal Arc de Triomphe. If you ever find yourself in Paris, it’s worth walking up the 284 steps to reach the top. Promise…

My last day in Paris was winding down, and I had planned to picnic (despite the cold) on the lawn near the Eiffel Tower at night. It seemed like a great way to end a close to perfect trip in Paris. Only once I arrived, I realized quickly that I could not have said picnic, on account of there were fences blocking the grass. Also it was freezing. So I got a crêpe and walked around completely entranced by the view.

As I walked away from the tower toward the Trocadéro, I realized it was 5:58pm. Starting at dusk, which is at 6pm, the Eiffel Tower lights up every hour on the hour for five minutes. So I ran up the rest of the way to the Trocadéro just in time to catch the first sparkle of the night. It was completely mesmerizing. (Sorry I’m not sorry for the Eiffel Tower collage.)

I eventually pried myself away from this stunning view and ended the night with some chocolate mousse and a glass of Bordeaux before saying goodnight to Paris for the last time.

Xoxo,

Heidi

Paris Part Deux

Paris…we meet again. Part deux of my Paris trip started off on a beautiful (rare) sunny day, and I was staying in a nice and clean hostel right near the metro. It was easy to get to and was nestled in a quaint and quiet area of Montmartre. Montmartre is an artsy area in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, and it holds both the Sacré-Cœur and Moulin Rouge (so similar, right?). I was just about three blocks from the Sacré-Cœur in a quintessential Parisian quarter of the neighborhood, filled with lots of little shops and restaurants.

The first thing I did after arriving was book a hop-on hop-off bus tour. Yes, I know, how touristy of me! And I know everyone back at work is cringing at the thought, but just bear with me. It was amazing, and I would recommend it to any other Paris newbie such as myself.

So after dropping off my things, I took the metro to The Louvre in search of the closest bus stop for the start of my tour. It was a gorgeous day, so I took advantage of Paris’ extremely unpredictable weather and walked around the Tuileries Gardens outside the Louvre.

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After wandering around for about a half hour, I began actively searching for my bus stop. The stop “description” on my bus map was not very descriptive at all. The name of the stop was “The Louvre.” Cool… the Louvre only covers an area of 652,300 square feet. Come to find out, I also chose a bus tour in which the majority of the bus stops were not marked. Great! So, once I found myself in what I hoped might be the general vicinity of the stop, I asked for directions. The girl I asked was local and wasn’t sure, so she advised me to ask a random bus driver at a nearby bus stop.

I waited there for a few minutes and decided to meander on. I figured the odds of the bus driver speaking English were slim to none. As I started walking away, low and behold, I spotted the big red bus speeding down the street. I hesitated for a moment, and then did what any sane person would do. I ran after it.

I chased that big red bus for two, long blocks, ignoring the fact that I looked like a maniac. It had to stop somewhere near the Louvre. Thanks to Paris traffic, and to my lightning speed of course, I caught it. And I loved every minute of that bus tour.

I didn’t do the hop-on hop-off thing. I just perched on the top level of the bus, grinning from ear to ear, ignoring the freezing cold, and soaking in all of the sights Paris had to offer. I had a perfect view of everything and saw it all while listening to the history behind the city, accompanied by music from one of my favorite ballets (The Nutcracker). I was able to get incredible pictures without a bunch of annoying tourists like myself blocking the view.

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As my bus tour came to an end, I found myself near the Trocadéro, which sits ideally across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower and boasts a breathtaking view of the iconic monument. I ended the cold day in a comfy restaurant nearby with steak, a glass of Bordeaux, and caramel ice cream.

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The next day in Paris was a gloomy one, but it didn’t bother me one bit. I fell so in love with this city that it could have rained my entire trip and it wouldn’t have mattered. I woke up early to head to the Louvre and beat the lines that were not actually there. I was warned profusely about lines to the Louvre, but apparently November is an ideal, off-season time to come to Paris. I didn’t have to wait in line for anything throughout my trip. Once inside the Louvre, I made a beeline to the Mona Lisa before the crowds settled in. Honestly? I was a bit underwhelmed. No offense, Leonardo. It’s a must-see because of its history, but I didn’t need to stick around gazing at the painting. I was most captivated by the Roman and Greek sculptures, which are all must-sees in my opinion. I spent a lot of time walking through the wing that housed famous paintings from people like Da Vinci and Raphael. After about three hours of browsing, I started to get a headache and decided it was time to move on. My fourth hour in The Louvre was spent simply trying to get out of the Louvre. Like I said, it’s massive, and I am also directionally challenged.

Once I found my way out, I grabbed an espresso in the Tuileries Gardens and decided it would be nice to walk around and take in the view once more. As soon as I took my first sip, the sky opened up and it started pouring. It was extremely windy, so my umbrella kept flipping up. I was mostly focused on not spilling my espresso, so I just got wet. I eventually (and reluctantly) downed my espresso, burned my throat, and ran into the nearest restaurant I could find. Here, I got some mouthwatering carbonara and tiramisu. Not a bad way to wait out a rainstorm.

I spent the rest of the day wandering around just exploring the city. I stumbled upon La Madeleine and walked around the area near Galeries Lafayette, a French department store which is 10 stories high. Festive holiday lights lined the streets and buildings, and the window displays put you right into the Christmas spirit. I had to elbow a few kids out of my way to see them. Totally worth it (kidding…kind of).

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Eventually I made my way back to the Eiffel Tower, where I was taking a sunset/nighttime cruise along the Seine. Romantic boat tour for one? Yes, please! I stood outside in the freezing cold on the boat for the majority of the ride. Fingers and toes felt like they were about to fall off. Did not care. I was in PARIS! You all already know from my last blog post about Paris that I have a love for seeing monuments at night. There’s really not much that compares to seeing Notre Dame, the Louvre, and The Eiffel Tower all lit up against a midnight blue sky.

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Top day, Paris. Top day.

More soon!

xo,

Heidi

Too Much Toulouse

Since I’ve arrived into Switzerland, I’ve been doing a lot of running around, trying to see this and that. So the few days I spent in the south of France provided a much-welcomed change of pace. I went to Toulouse to visit a friend, and it was so great to see her. We did a lot of eating, wine drinking, and sleeping- three of my favorite things in life. (Note, if you’re not a lover of food, you will not like this blog post. Or any of my blog posts for that matter.)

My first meal in Toulouse was by far my favorite. We went to a pizza place down the street from my friend’s apartment. I had honey and goat cheese pizza (and wine, of course). It was the best pizza I’ve ever had. I promise I ventured out and tried new, french things while I was there, but pizza was on the menu for the first meal.

I ate a lot of duck while I was in France, on account of I was in France so I had to. I’m always a little apprehensive about eating duck. I’ve only had it a few times. The last time I had it was in Mississippi, which means it was freshly killed and cooked in our kitchen. So duck was just a little bit different in France.

I had duck confit, crisp duck on my salad, duck pâté… is this reminding anyone else of Bubba from Forrest Gump? No? Just me? Okay, moving on then. I really liked pâté, which I was surprised by. I wanted to try as many traditional French dishes as I could, and I’d say I succeeded. I drew the line at foie gras, though. I think I would have tried it had someone else ordered it, but I was not prepared to order an entire meal of it on my own. I like to consider myself an adventurous eater, but I’m not that bold.

After a few days of overeating, we decided to take a day trip to Carcassonne and do some sightseeing. It’s such a captivating city. From afar, the city looks as if it’s floating, perched perfectly on thick clouds of fog. In most places, the old part of the city looks as if it hasn’t been touched in thousands of years. We walked around this medieval town for hours, had some lunch complete with both duck and wine (duh), and went home shortly after the sunset. Top Day.

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We made the trek back to Toulouse to continue what had quickly become our new routine- eating and wine drinking. I didn’t mind it one bit. I did venture out into the real world to walk around and see several gorgeous cathedrals- The Jacobins, St Augustine… but the highlight of my trip (other than seeing my friend) was the food and wine. I had crème brûlée, chocolate mousse (which I LOVED), and some of the best chocolate cake at The Flowers Café. To. Die. For. I also had a goat cheese salad there for lunch. It came with a big pot of warm goat cheese, a large helping of mozzarella, and tapenade on the side. So basically, while I was in Toulouse I stuffed myself with cheese, bread, dessert, and French wine. When in France, right?

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As much as I loved the south of France, after about 5 days or so my body finally decided it hated me. It was time for me to head back to Paris for part two of my trip. I packed up my things, said goodbye to my friend (le sigh), and headed back to the city I fell in love with a few days prior.

More about Paris soon! I have to pack for my Thanksgiving trip to Rome now.

Xoxo,

Heidi

Love Affair With Paris

I am in love. Everyone suspected before I moved that I would meet a gorgeous Swiss man during my three month stay and never come home. They were (sort of) right. I did fall in love. With Paris.

It only took a matter of hours for me to become completely enamored with this city, despite my slightly bumpy start…

I flew into Charles de Gaulle airport, which is not close to the center of Paris. I knew this going into it, but thought, “How bad could it really be?” I’m familiar with the DC metro, so I figured I could navigate my way in easily.  Nope. It’s far. Like really far. You have to take a 40-minute train ride just to get to the metro. And then you have to metro to wherever you’re staying from there, and then there’s usually a walk involved.

I did zero research about how to get from the airport to my hostel before going, so I was completely lost when stepping off the plane. I happened to bump into two Swiss girls (who spoke English). They let me follow them into the city center, so in the end it worked out just fine. Don’t worry I did actually talk to them throughout the train ride and did not just follow them around creepily.

After about an hour and a half, I finally made it to my hostel to drop off my bags. This was my first time ever staying in one. Word to the wise- trust the reviews you read about the bathrooms before booking your hostel. Huge. Mistake.

I walked in, looked at the molded, smelly, bathrooms with holes in the ceiling that led to who knows where, and decided I would be cleaner without showering that night. For those of you who know me well, know that this was an extremely difficult conclusion to come to. It was too late to cancel and try to find something else. So I took some deep breaths, told myself it was only one night (I was leaving for the south of France the next day), and headed back out into the city.

I was staying in the Latin Quarter. So while the bathrooms in my hostel were awful, the area I was in made staying there almost worth it. There was a really cute street market close to my hostel with lots of little shops that had cheese and wine (my two favorite food groups) on cobblestone streets lined with French architecture. It’s exactly what you picture when you think of Paris.

Notre Dame was on my agenda for the day. I decided to walk despite the weatherman’s warning of rain. After about 20 minutes of walking and coming to the realization that I don’t actually know how to read a map, I wound up asking for directions. I’ve always heard that the French can be a little… abrupt. Either I got lucky or people felt sorry for me because I talk with little bit of a drawl, but I did not find this to be the case. I asked a French girl for directions to Notre Dame, and she walked me (three blocks out of her way) to the nearest bus stop and gave me directions from there. So one short bus ride later, I finally made it.

Notre Dame was, well, Notre Dame. It was tremendously beautiful. I walked around and admired it while eating a crêpe (how french am I, right?) before going inside. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to go up top to see the view, mostly because I couldn’t figure out how to get up there. But I can’t complain. I got to pray here, y’all…

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After leaving, I wandered around in the cold, not really knowing where I was going or what I wanted to do next. I stumbled into some quintessential French gardens, found what I thought was the infamous lock bridge (it wasn’t), and then went into Shakespeare and Co., a quaint, well-known bookstore near Notre Dame. My sister practically begged me to go there. I’m glad she did. Basically, this bookstore is every hipsters dream. There were people playing music upstairs while others sat and read, it’s filled with history, and the architecture of the building itself is reason enough to visit.

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After that, I had a glass of French wine at a restaurant next to the Seine and sat outside despite the cold. Before wandering back toward the Latin Quarter for dinner, I caught one last glimpse of Notre Dame, only this time at night. I have always been a firm believer that the best time to see any big tourist attraction is at or after sunset. This just reaffirmed my opinion.

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I left Notre Dame feeling even more in love with Paris than before and eager to come back and see more after spending a few days in the south of France.

More soon!

xoxo

Heidi

Max-King of the Swiss Castle

I woke up to have breakfast with Max and Julia. “What will you have?” Max asked. “Um, I can’t read the menu. What are y’all ordering?” He sputters something off in German. “That. I’ll have that,” not really knowing what “that” was. As it turns out, I should have troubled him to translate. It was bread and ham (as in thinly sliced lunchmeat ham) with butter. But there was also espresso, so the morning wasn’t a total loss. As I picked at my bread, avoided the ham, and sipped my espresso, we discussed our plans for the day. Max decided he was going to take me to the ruins of the old castle up the hill from my apartment. There’s still a tower intact, and the top of the tower apparently boasts one of the best views of the area for miles around. We would ride our bikes to get there.

Julia decided she wanted to come along with us. Max was not on board with that idea. “She asks me too many questions in German. And you ask me too many questions in English. AND IT’S JUST TOO MUCH…Plus she is stupid,” Max says, exasperated. I, on the other hand, want Julia to come. She’s been a little standoffish toward me, so the fact that she wants to come means she’s warming up to me (I think). The argument continues as we leave breakfast and walk toward my apartment, where the bikes are parked.

Now that Max has (sort of) resigned himself to the idea of her coming along, they’re fighting over who is going to ride which bike. Max wants to take the nicest bike, but Julia says he shouldn’t be allowed. Why? Because Max recently took Julia’s nice, new, shiny bike for a ride, and proceeded to run said bike into a nice, shiny, moving car. Solid point, Julia… Max should not have the nice bike.

I remove myself from the situation and go upstairs for a minute, hoping they’ll come to a resolution. When I come back down, I find Julia alone. Max stormed off crying. He wanted to spend the day with me alone, without having to bother translating in German to anyone else. I feel a tinge of guilt, since I was encouraging him to let Julia come with us.

Julia and I bike back to their house and wait for Max there. He comes back about an hour later, but doesn’t speak to anyone. His mother says that he has a very strong-will, and wants what he wants. Hmm, maybe that’s why we get along so well. Kindred spirits…

“He needs to learn that he’s not the king of everything. And he can’t always get what he wants,” his mom says. I start to wonder if I’m going to be cooped up inside all afternoon on this beautiful Swiss day. It’s not normal for it to be this warm and sunny this late in the year. I want to take advantage before the fog and cold settle in for the winter. But I perk up when Otto chimes in.

“This is okay. We will not go to the castle today. We will do something better. We will go to a mountain. You will go home to change. And you will wear some of our mountain boots,” he says, looking down at my shoes.

Mountain boots? As in boots that come above my ankles and have thick, chunky soles? No, thanks. I’ll stick with my running shoes.

Otto and his wife pull up to my apartment. None of the other kids are with them- it’s just Max… and the mountain boots that I’m being forced to wear. I guess Max got his way after all, and we’ll have a day without the other kids. We head off into the Swiss countryside toward Appenzell, a traditional Swiss farmland in the pre-alps…