Saturday, March 14, 2009


Like in Brussels, I stayed in a youth hostel in Luxembourg. When I was in the UK, I stayed with Iranga and his roommates in the apartment they share in East London. They were all very nice and welcoming to me, and on my birthday (March 7) they bought me a cake! I was so touched. Rimla wasn't at home then, but the other three were.

Iranga is on the right, next to him is Nazleen and on the left is Asif.

On my last full day overseas, Iranga and I visited the Tower of London and the British Museum. Both were very cool. The Tower was initially constructed in the 11th century; at first, the only part of the complex that existed was what today is called the “White Tower,” and was first a royal residence, then later an armory.

The first picture is the White Tower, and the second one, taken inside the building, is a medieval bathroom!

Of course, the Tower of London isn't just a fun historic site, but a place where political prisoners were once imprisoned and executed. In one corner of the inner courtyard is a little chapel, and inside are the unmarked graves of several decapitation victims, including Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard. The stories of some of the victims are really horrific, like one person whose execution was botched because the axeman was too drunk to swing straight; eventually he got so frustrated that he grabbed the person's head and sawed it off! And most of them were so young, younger than me...I wish it weren't all treated as mere entertainment now. These were real people, whose lives mattered as much as ours do and who suffered horrible fates that no human being should ever have to endure.

After the Tower we got lunch at a cafe along the Thames, then headed for the British Museum. I had always wanted to go there; the collection of ancient art is wonderful. Of course, we have museums like that here in New York, but it's still fun to look around, and besides, we got to see the actual Rosetta Stone, which you obviously can't see anywhere else! Seeing all those fantastic ancient artifacts made me even more eager than I was before to visit the countries they came from, and I may have a chance to go to China on a study abroad program next winter. Fingers crossed!

So that was how I spent the first week of March. Definitely the best birthday I've had so far! I've now been to nine countries (actually ten, since the train from London to Brussels passes through a bit of France after going through the Chunnel, but I don't really count that). I still feel kind of bad about allowing Iranga to pay for so much of my trip, even though I know I shouldn't. But most of all, I'm just incredibly grateful to have had a chance to see a bit more of the world. I know I only got a tiny glimpse of the countries I visited, but that was more than I had before I went, and while I would love to visit them again and explore them in greater detail (especially the UK), I'm very thankful to have been able to see as much as I did.


When you buy a round-trip ticket from Brussels to Luxembourg, it's an open ticket that's good for two months. Southern Belgium, the French-speaking region known as Wallonia (the Dutch-speaking part of the country is called Flanders) is hilly and looks a lot like the northeastern US. It takes about three hours to get to Luxembourg, and it was early evening when I arrived. Luxembourg City, the capital and only real city in the country (and it only has about 100,000 residents) is built in a valley and on the surrounding hills. The country of Luxembourg is unbelievably small, smaller even than Rhode Island. Despite this, they've managed to develop their own language, called Luxembourgish, which to my ears sounded like a mixture of German and French, both of which are also widely spoken there.

I liked Luxembourg a lot. I don't think there's much to see outside of the capital, but Luxembourg City is very pretty, and despite its small size there's a good bus system that covers the town. Most or maybe all of the bus lines stop at the central train station, so it's not hard to find your way around. I got in Wednesday evening (I just happened to wake up around 3:30 Thursday morning to use the bathroom, and I remember looking at my watch thinking: If I were at home, I would be watching LOST right now!), and left on Friday, giving myself Thursday to explore. I had hoped to visit the American military cemetery on the outskirts of the town, but I was told there wasn't a bus that went there. So instead I just spent the day poking around the town and seeing what there was to see. At first I just hopped on a bus and decided I'd ride it to the end and see where it went. (I had a one-day bus pass that you can get for 4.50 Euros, which allows you unlimited rides on city buses.) This one went out to the suburbs and to an athletic field of some kind—not much to see. It turned out the bus driver spoke English, so I explained to him that I was just out looking around and got on his bus to see where it would go. He seemed nice at first, telling me he was from Serbia and didn't like living in Luxembourg, but when he asked me if I liked it there and I said “yes,” he said, “Maybe if we get married and have a child you can stay here.” I figured that was an excellent time to put on my headphones and turn up my new mp.3 player, loud! ;)

I eventually made my way to the center of town, called the “Ville Haute.” It's a very pretty area. I visited the Cathedral of Our Lady, which was constructed by Jesuits in the early 17th century. Nearby was an area of old, narrow streets surrounded by government buildings. It was so strange—those buildings that were so important to the national government of Luxembourg were just...there. No extra security (except, I'm sure, for CCTVs), no distance between them and the street, nothing to tell you that they were particularly important except for the signs on the buildings that named them as places of government. It felt so weird. In most countries government buildings are both grand, to signify their importance, and set apart, for security purposes. Sure, I know Luxembourg is a tiny country and all, but it's still a country, so it seemed strange, and nice in a way, for their places of government to be so unpretentious. Here are some pictures I took in the area, the first being of the cathedral:

Because of its position along the German/French border, Luxembourg's culture is a mix of northern and southern Europe, and that comes through very clearly in its architecture.

The Ville Haute sits on top of a hill; below it (which you can actually take an elevator to, so there's no need to hike up or down a cliff) is the “Grund,” another historic, and very lovely part of town. I loved walking around that quarter (Luxembourg City is divided into quarters) and took as many pictures as I could. Surprisingly, given the gloomy dark skies, most of the pictures turned out pretty nice. Here are a couple:

The second picture is looking at the Grund from above.


On Tuesday, I left to go over to Europe for a few days. I had gotten enough money for my birthday to pay for this part of the trip, and quite frankly, I knew that all the time I was in England Iranga would insist on paying for everything! I actually got the idea from reading Jorge Garcia's blog. (Jorge plays “Hurley” on LOST.) He had blogged about a trip to Europe he took with his girlfriend last summer, and one of his entries described a day trip they took to Paris from London. I knew there was a train that ran between the two cities, but hadn't realized it was such a short trip. When I looked into it, I found out that there was another train that went to Brussels and was actually a little shorter than the one to Paris. I had never been to either France or Belgium, and to be honest France has always held more interest for me, but Belgium is a lot smaller and since I only had a few days, I thought I would be able to see more of that country in the time that I had. Then it occurred to me that I could go down to Luxembourg from Brussels, thereby not only adding one more country to my list but also getting to see a lot of Belgium on the way down.

I arrived in Brussels around noon. Unfortunately, the hostel I was staying at didn't check in guests until 4:00, so I had to lug my bag around with me. The mass transit system in the Belgian capital seems to run efficiently, but it's very confusing for visitors. I don't think I've ever been in a city where the platforms of the subway system were so poorly marked; everywhere I went, I had to ask someone if this was the right train to get where I wanted to go. Northern Belgium speaks Dutch and southern Belgium speaks French; Brussels, being both in the middle of the country and its capital, has both as its official languages, but French is the lingua franca of the city—good for me, since I don't speak any Dutch.

Once I figured out where to catch the train that I needed, I decided to head up to the Atomium, since I knew how to get there. The structure was built for Brussels' World Fair in 1958 and is a model of an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times. It's basically just a big tourist trap, but it does look kind of cool and you can go inside and get a nice view of Brussels.

Unfortunately, it was overcast and drizzly the entire time I was in Europe! In any case, the Atomium was really the only sight-seeing I was able to do in Brussels, since I was there for such a short time. The country of Belgium is relatively new, and when Brussels became its capital in the 19th century most of the older structures in the city were demolished to make way for newer buildings housing the various offices of state. As a result, a lot of tourists don't care to spend much time there, using it only as an entrance point to explore the rest of the country, and I can kind of see why. Still, I would have liked to spend a bit more time exploring the city if I had had time to do so. I didn't even get to see the statue of the kid peeing! ;-P Oh well, maybe next time...

Salisbury & Stonehenge

Guess what? The day after I arrived in the UK, we went to Stonehenge! I'm fascinated by ancient history and love visiting old buildings and monuments, and of course, it doesn't really get any older than Stonehenge. I've always really wanted to go there and was so excited to get the chance to see it in person! To get there from London, you take a train to Salisbury an hour and a half away, then catch a bus to get to the stones. I enjoyed the train ride down, even though the scenery didn't look any different from the landscapes I'm used to. But it's always nice to see for yourself what a place looks like, and besides, it was just fun to be able to look out the window and think, Wow, I'm in England! The bus that you take to get to Stonehenge is run by a private tour company. I expected just a ride to the monument, but they actually give you a very nice tour of Salisbury, explaining the history of the town and the Salisbury Plain. Salisbury is a pretty Medieval town and worth the visit just for itself; a lot of the streets there look similar today to what they were like 600 years ago. Unlike a lot of British towns, it didn't suffer any bombing attacks during WWII, and after the war they learned that German bombers had been under strict orders not to touch the Salisbury Cathedral because they were using it as a marker to find their way. Most of the land on the Salisbury Plain is owned by the military and has been a major location for pilot training. Of course, the known history of the area goes back for millennia, and aside from Stonehenge itself a very noticeable sign of this history are the many burial mounds that still dot the countryside. It's really a fascinating place to visit.

Stonehenge itself was really, really cool. Our bus tickets included entry to the site and free audio guides to the site. You walk around the stones, and there are markers along the way that tell you when to move on to the next section of the recording. Seeing this was definitely the highlight of my week!

On the way back to Salisbury, the tour bus stops at the ruins of a 12th-century castle that you can visit if you want (also included in your bus ticket). We did that as well. On the way up the hill to the ruins we made a new friend:

I think this guy was probably very used to strangers walking past his yard ;) BTW, here's a pic of the castle ruins:

And here's one of the medieval streets of Salisbury:


March started off with a very interesting week for me, and now, I have been to nine countries. I have a pen-pal, Iranga, who I've been exchanging letters with for about four years. He's from Sri Lanka, but he's been living and attending school in London for the past two or three years. He's not sure if he'll be staying in Britain after 2009, and already last fall he sent me a letter inviting me to come for a visit, even offering to pay my way since he knew I couldn't afford it on my own. As much as I longed to be able to travel (the last time I'd been outside of North America was when I went to Peru after high school graduation in 2000), my immediate reaction was to say no. I told him that I was touched by his very generous offer, but that I couldn't allow him to spend so much money on me. I mean, he's doing quite well for himself in London, but it's not like he's reached a point where money is of no concern at all, and it just seemed wrong to accept such a generous gift from someone I wasn't even related to. But he kept bringing it up in each letter, and I began to feel more guilty about not accepting his offer. So finally, I said I would come.

I still felt bad about it though; it just seemed so selfish to allow someone to do something like that for me. Maybe that sounds silly, considering it was his idea, but I have a hard time asking my own mother for money for things I actually need. I'm a full-time student, living on grants and the money Mom gives me from my dad's life insurance, and often I feel like all I do is take and take and take and don't ever give anything back. I just feel like such a leech. If I'm being fair to myself, I understand that I'm doing what I can at this point in my life, that being in school now will open up all kinds of opportunities in the future and that the main reason my dad had such a large policy was to put me and my brothers through school if anything happened. I also understand that there are other things that can't be measured that do count for something, like the way I live my life from day to day and the way I treat people, that allow me to be of some good, but I still feel pretty lousy about myself a lot of the time. But I realized that these are my own hang-ups, and that if I allowed my issues to prevent someone from doing something that he clearly wanted, not just for me but also for himself, then I really was being selfish. Plus, I needed this.

I flew to London on Saturday Feb. 28 and came home on Sunday the 8th. Aside from a weekend in Ontario, it was the first time I'd been out of the country since 9/11, and I wasn't sure if there were any new security measures I needed to be aware of. I didn't have anything to worry about though and didn't have any trouble getting through customs at either end of the trip. I did experience a rather frightening couple of hours when I first arrived at Heathrow though, because I couldn't find Iranga! Turned out he was waiting for me in a different area from where the international arrivals left the terminal.

I'm going to be adding a number of posts about the week, since trying to fit it into just one would be ridiculous. If anyone happens to read this blog, I hope you enjoy the descriptions and photographs of the places I visited. It was definitely an interesting week!