Tokyo Twenty-Two

On July 17th, I turned 22! (cue Taylor Swift’s lyrical interpretation of this new milestone)

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I’ve gotten to celebrate my birthday in some pretty cool places: I turned 14 at a beachside resort in the Philippines, 18 on horseback in the Dominican Republic, 21 squealing over penguins in Cape Town, South Africa and now 22 in Tokyo!

On my actual birthday, I didn’t do much outside of my usual routine.  I still woke up at 8am, ate breakfast with Mrs. Koseki and headed off for school by 9am.  At school, the students wished me a happy birthday and the rest of the day continued with lessons as planned.  Of course, spending all day learning Japanese wouldn’t be my first choice for a birthday celebration, but I had been expecting it.

After class I took the subway to Tokyo’s Ginza district.  It was a lot like Toronto’s Yorkville, filled with fancy shops and things I couldn’t afford.  But it was fun to window shop and check out another part of this giant city.  I even stopped to treat myself to a few pieces of delicious sushi.  It doesn’t get much better than sushi in Japan!

Checking out Ginza's famous clock tower

Checking out Ginza’s famous clock tower

My first proper sushi in Tokyo!

My first proper sushi in Tokyo!

My host family had let me know that we would celebrate my birthday on the 18th, since Mr. Koseki and Yuko were both away on the 17th.  I wasn’t sure what the celebration would entail, as I’ve heard birthdays aren’t a huge deal in Japan.  But I was so touched and blown away by what they had planned.

On the 18th I came home to a dinner of homemade sushi.  Except, this sushi looked just as good, if not better, than restaurant sushi! And, it was accompanied by a bottle of champagne.  They made me pop the cork and then the whole family tucked in to some delicious food!

Sushi + champagne = perfection!

Sushi + champagne = perfection!

After sushi, they pulled out a cake that had my name written on it and candles bought just for me.  Everyone sang and I tried not to laugh as Mr. Koseki, who actually has a lovely singing voice, struggled to pronounce my name in time with the song.  Pictures were taken, candles were blown out and cake was stuffed into our already full stomachs.

Yuko & I

Yuko & I

"I don't know about you, but I'm feeling 22!"

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22!”

The family then presented me with gifts.  I wasn’t expecting anything, but really appreciated the tokens of Japan they gifted me with.  Mrs. Koseki’s aunt gave me a beautiful handkerchief that had Mt. Fuji and two little cats on it.  Mrs. Koseki bought me a traditional fan decorated with Japanese goldfish.  And Yuko gave me the coolest card depicting a Japanese festival.

Beautiful host family gifts

Beautiful host family gifts

After all that, the family took me out to the balcony where we lit sparklers.  I’ve never been one for pyrotechnics, but I really enjoyed watching the sparklers go off, especially when Mrs. Koseki’s aunt seemed almost afraid of hers.

Aunt & Mr. Koseki

Aunt & Mr. Koseki

Sparklers!

Sparklers!

The next day, Mrs. Koseki took me to a LABO party.  LABO is the organization hosting us here in Tokyo and teaching our Japanese lessons.  They also run English clubs for Japanese families and facilitate homestays for Japanese children in English-speaking countries.  At the LABO party I watched a few skits and speeches by the kids, participated in a game of human knot and even gave a speech myself about all of the places I’ve travelled.  I pulled out my pictures, when one kid asked what kind of animals I had seen, and was immediately swarmed by all of the children (and their parents!).  It was a really fun event!

Towards the end of the party, the LABO organizers surprised me by getting everyone to sing happy birthday.  One of the high school girls then presented me with a handmade card she had drawn and gotten her friends to sign.  And one of the moms gave me a package of chopsticks that she explained the LABO moms had handmade for me.

Surprise gifts from new LABO friends

Surprise gifts from new LABO friends

From my host family to people I had just met; I still can’t believe how sweet and kind everyone has been.  22 will definitely be a birthday to remember :)

Meet the Koseki family!

A week ago I was introduced to the lovely Kosekis; my host family for my time here in Tokyo.

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The Kosekis live in Fuchu, a suburb about an hour out of downtown Tokyo (by transit).  It’s a good neighbourhood with a residential section and a main shopping strip.  I’ve yet to do a proper walk around, but I think there are some cool shops, shrines and other things to discover.

The Koseki house!

The Koseki house!

Their house is really modern and surrounded by Ms. Koseki’s amazing garden.  She is always out in the garden taking care of all her plants. And I found out the building across from us is actually their garage and more garden space.  They have their own jungle!

In the jungle

In the jungle

The inside of the house is also quite modern – they have an elevator (for a 3 storey house…)! The set up is quite different from houses I’m used to: the first floor is a guest room (aka my room for the next 3 weeks), the second floor is for the family bedrooms and the third floor is the kitchen/living room.

The elevator!

The elevator!

I sleep in a traditional tatami straw floor room, which was quite a shock when I first walked in.  It still kind of feels like I’m living in a touristy Japanese restaurant or something! But the most shocking bit was realizing I wouldn’t be sleeping on a real bed, or even a mattress for that matter. Instead, I roll out two comforter blankets and sleep on top of those.  My back is still getting used to it.

Welcome to my room!

Welcome to my room!

I have the sweetest host mom in Mrs. Koseki.  She cooks all the meals, which are all amazing, and has been showing me around whenever she can.  She greets me after school and indulges me in slow English conversations since my Japanese is nowhere near up to par.  She always checks on me and never lets me help with anything.  And, she always gets very excited whenever I use a Japanese phrase correctly – you should see her when I nail my “good mornings” and “thank you for dinners”.

Mrs. Koseki picking up breakfast at the bakery

Mrs. Koseki picking up breakfast at the bakery

Mrs. Koseki & her aunt making gyoza from scratch!

Mrs. Koseki & her aunt making gyoza from scratch!

Mr. Koseki is a retired drug store owner.  He seems to spend most of his time in front of the TV, but, let’s be honest, that’s pretty much my life and I’m nowhere close to retirement.  And he has the best laugh! He is extremely good-natured and cracks up about everything.  He also seems to think my grasp of Japanese is much better than it is as he is always trying to explain things to me without a word of English.  I’ve mastered the smile and nod with appropriate pauses and the occasional laugh.

Yuko, 16, is my host sister.  She’s very sweet and is working on her confidence with English.  However, Yuko is the busiest 16 year old I’ve ever met! She is always at school and then after school she has all of these activities or even more school! In the week that I’ve been here, I think we’ve had two meals together.  And today (Saturday), she left the house by 7:30am, made a brief appearance around 7:30pm and then finally returned after more school by 10:00pm.

Yuko & her mom walking through the neighbourhood

Yuko & her mom walking through the neighbourhood

Lastly, there’s Mamei, the family’s fat black cat.  She has giant yellow eyes and is nimble as anything jumping around the place.  Her favourite spots are on top of the piano, directly in front of the television or meowing near her empty food bowl.  Friendly would be a stretch, but Mamei is definitely a character!

Meow!

Meow!

And that’s the wonderful Koseki family! More to come on Japanese lessons and celebrating my 22nd birthday in Tokyo!

Jet-lagged in Japan

I’m in TOKYO!

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It all still feels a little unreal – am I actually in this huge city in a brand new country on the other side of the world? After many hours of travel yesterday, and only the airport terminal and my hotel room for a view, it’s pretty hard to believe that I am in Tokyo, Japan.

It’s also kind of scary to believe that it’s 2 in the morning and I’ve recently woken up from an 8 hour “nap”. Whoops! Adjusting to the time difference may prove more difficult than I thought.

On July 9th I headed out of Amsterdam (with giant luggage in tow) on a three hour flight to Moscow.  Our flight was a little delayed, so upon arriving in Moscow I was greeted by a young Russian man, sweating profusely and shouting “Tokio? Tok-i-o!” at all of the offloading customers.  I showed him my Tokyo boarding pass and he ushered me over to the corner.  After gathering the 15 Tokyo-bound passengers, he ran speed-walked through the terminal with all of us jogging to keep up.

We reached a security gate and after some exasperated discussion, we were lead through the quickest security check of my life.  Dude might have looked at my passport for a millisecond before ushering me through and liquids/laptops no longer needed to be identified for the scanner.  Once on the other side of “security” a new grounds agent took us on another race to our gate.  She sweet-talked an employee (who ended up redirecting all of the Air France passengers to a different terminal) and sent us flying down the stairs to the awaiting bus.

So probably about 10 minutes after I had walked off my first flight, I was standing on a bus on the tarmac with 14 other rushed passengers, having expected a leisurely two hour stopover in Moscow.  Just before our bus left the gate, our original Aeroflot employee, who was still rushing and sweating, appeared to do a final headcount.  Reaching 15, he exhaled with relief and we all applauded as he waved our bus off to the awaiting plane.

The next 9 hour flight was pretty uneventful: I caught up on some TV and movies, didn’t sleep much and enjoyed some quality passable plane food.  I did appreciate the little touches that Aeroflot provides its passengers: slippers, a sleeping mask and a printed menu so you know what you’re really getting when you cautiously opt for chicken over beef.

And then I was in Tokyo! I quickly pulled out my tablet and, to my great relief, my hotel confirmation had been sent.  However, to my disbelief, my luggage was missing.  Seems like not everyone was as rushed as I was in Moscow! Luckily, I’m staying at an airport hotel for two nights and will hopefully see my beloved luggage tomorrow afternoon.

After filling out my lost luggage form I visited 4 or 5 rental phone desks before finding the one I had made a reservation at, picked up some food and waited in the muggy disgusting 30+ degree humidity for my hotel shuttle.  While searching for my phone, I walked around the airport mall and was immediately enchanted by all of the tiny, intricate wares for sale.  Not one to usually get excited about cute bracelets or small notebooks, I was surprised by my desire to touch (and then purchase) all of the adorable stuff for sale. I’m calling it the Tokyo-effect.

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So now I’ve made it to my hotel, got caught up on MasterChef Australia (my first priority), eaten some delicious Japanese to-go food and slept. I’ve got one day left to acclimatize to this time zone (and this heat!) before the students arrive, we’re introduced to our host families and thrown into three weeks of Japanese lessons and exploring Tokyo! I can definitely feel that long-awaited excitement creeping in :)

Amsterdam: Doei en dank u wel!

Coming back to Amsterdam after almost a full month of being away was like returning home.  My apartment felt bigger, my fridge seemed emptier and my city had never looked so beautiful.  With only 3 weeks left to call Amsterdam home, it was time to take advantage and make sure those “last times” were the best times.

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Of course, this essential meant we had to eat our way through the city :)

Beginning mere hours after our plane landed, we were at the Saturday night version of our Sunday favourite: The NeighbourFood Market.  The food options weren’t as good but the ice cream and music were rocking.  The next day, we did it up right for our last NeighbourFood visit.  I went for hirata buns, after falling in love with them in London, and this delicious burger:

Best burger at NeighbourFood!

Best burger at NeighbourFood!

A few days (or it could have been the next day) later, we were back at Westerpark but this time for the famous scones! I can honestly say these scones are the best I’ve ever had; even better than the ones served with afternoon tea in London!  They are warm and come with tasty cream & jam.  Of course, this wasn’t our last scone tasting!

These scones are as close to heaven as humans can get

These scones are as close to heaven as humans can get

Next on the gastronomical tour down memory lane: Pannenkoeken! Or, Dutch pancakes! Our favourites are at the Pancake Bakery by the Anne Frank house.  The only was to enjoy these is with friends: everyone orders a pancake, you eat a share and then rotate the plates.  This way, you get to try everything and don’t have to choose between savoury and sweet!

PANCAKES!

PANCAKES!

We couldn’t leave Amsterdam without taking a ride on the iconic canals. I had been tempted by overpriced tour boats before but am so glad I waited until we rented a boat for ourselves. It was so fun to be out on the water, manoeuvring the boat ourselves, while enjoying good music, good drinks and good cheese.  Despite almost hitting a few other boats and struggling to “park”, we had a blast on the boat.

We're on a boat!

We’re on a boat!

Low bridges are no joke!

Low bridges are no joke! The blue pads were the seats!

How can I be leaving this city?

How can I be leaving this city?

How else could we top off a typical Dutch day than enjoying the football match with our fellow Nederlanders at an outdoor pub? While I’m not a huge soccer fan (and not scoring for the first 70 minutes didn’t help) even I loved the atmosphere when we beat Chile 2 – 0!

HUP HOLLAND!

HUP HOLLAND!

June 25th brought us to the Grumble Gig, which was actually the reunion of 6 friends over dinner and not a group of pugs playing instruments.  It was the final date the 6 of us would be in the city and we celebrated with a meal at Everything On A Stick (actual name of the restaurant).  And while the service may have, the food did not disappoint! Everything was literally on a stick and the beef was melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Better than the food and novelty of eating off sticks was the unstoppable laughter erupting from our table all night long. I miss the grumble!

Some stick-licking good food!

Some stick-licking good food!

All the sticks!

All the sticks!

<3 The grumble

The next morning, Stephanie’s family arrived and we showed them Gabby’s favourite kiwi brunch spot.  Somehow she managed to find a New Zealand-owned brunch place in Amsterdam that serves some serious food.  My plate of pulled pork, poached eggs, avocado and mango salsa was SO GOOD I’m a little upset I didn’t go back a second time.  And making our breakfast date even more special: I got a quick visit from my wonderful friend Mel, who was en route to Ghana from Vancouver!

SO YUM!

SO YUM!

Sadly, after a delicious brunch it was time for me to hunker down.  Over the next 48 hours I crammed and wrote my final exam (24/30 baby!) and joined my flatmates in the most intense clean our apartment has ever seen.  After all that mental and physical work, it was time to relax and enjoy Gabby’s last day in Amsterdam! After starting our day with scones (what else?) we missioned into town to find Thai food and for another visit to the zoo.  Unfortunately, the zoo wasn’t accepting our student discount on a Saturday, so we decided on a place with fewer kids and better smells: Gabby’s favourite brewery!

Finally getting the much-craved Thai food!

Finally getting the much-craved Thai food!

Brewery time!

Brewery time!

The last chips :(

The last chips with mayo in Amsterdam :(

Saying goodbye to Gabby on the 29th was tough.  It had been an emotional week of goodbyes with Steph and Candy already having left the city.  But Gabby was especially hard, given that “see you soon!” doesn’t really apply to someone living in New Zealand.  But we have a pact: before I turn 25 (in 3 years!) we will be living together again in the wonderful city of London! See you there Gabs!

To celebrate Carlie’s last few days she had friends in town and we had a few last minute things to check off the A-dam bucket list. #1: utilize that student discount at the zoo! We saw all the animals, even the gorillas this time! And Carlie even dragged me into the insect and reptile houses, though I squirmed the whole time.  The highlight was definitely watching Carlie get a proper Amsterdam send off from a friendly elephant :)

She speaks Elephant fluently

She speaks Elephant fluently

Another thing I’ve been doing a lot of in the last few weeks: watching MasterChef Australia! The show is wonderful and crazy addictive. Plus, it airs 5 nights a week, so there is always something to watch.  Gabby & Colin got me hooked on it and then we pulled in Carlie.  After being inspired by a good 30+ episodes of MasterChef, Carlie and I decided to try our hand at chocolate noodles. It was so fun (and simple!) to make and it made our chocolate treat feel way more posh!

MasterChef 2015 - we're coming for ya!

MasterChef 2015 – we’re coming for ya!

After failing on finding a cheap and near by Indonesian restaurant for Carlie’s last supper, we settled for take away Chinese and frivolity on the swings!

Their feet touched!

Their feet touched!

Who let these nuts get on a swing?

Who let these nuts get on a swing?

Don't leave! :(

Don’t leave! :(

And before we knew it, July 2nd was here and our place was spotless. It was so weird to see our place empty and to roll suitcases out our front door.  It was especially weird for me, since I was only moving downstairs.  I hugged Carlie goodbye, with promises to catch up over sushi in Van this fall, and entered my new apartment.

Bye apartment!

Bye old apartment!

It has been a strange week: I’m still in Amsterdam and I’m still in the Gevleweg apartments but I’m not in my apartment and I’m all by myself.  I’ve never had an issue with solo travel (see most of my trips) but after starting out in a place with people, it’s tough to lose them.  I think Amsterdam understood my feelings: the whole week has been a weird mix of humidity, wind and rain; which makes staying in my PJs till 1pm much easier.  I’ve definitely had a pretty lazy week but I’ve been able to get ahead on some Tokyo prep and get some time to myself before I’m thrown into 3 weeks of students, teachers and host families.

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Tomorrow I leave for Japan.  It’s weird to be leaving on another trip when almost everyone I know is ending theirs.  And it’s strange to be going even farther abroad after spending 5 months living in Europe.  People keep asking if I’m excited and I can see why: 3 weeks working a nice job in a new country that has as much culture and good cuisine as Japan does is definitely a dream experience.  But despite all that, there is a part of me that wants to go home.  And there’s another part of me that wants to stay in Amsterdam (bringing back all my friends, of course).  That’s not to say I’m not looking forward to Tokyo, but “excited” doesn’t seem to capture my current emotion.  But, to be honest, I wasn’t exactly excited on my way to Amsterdam.  I was nervous to be starting a new life in a new city at a new school with new friends.  I was disappointed that I wasn’t going to London.  And I was regretting leaving behind my family in Toronto and my job/school in Vancouver. But from all that worry, disappointment and regret came 5 amazing months and one of the best experiences of my life.  I suspect something very similar will happen with Tokyo.

And lastly, Montenegro

Montenegro was the vacation from our vacation. We had nothing planned, no one to see and nothing beyond “eat seafood” on our agenda.  While travelling this leisurely would’ve bothered me if it had been our whole trip, by Montenegro, I was ready for it.  Coupled with the fact that I had barely heard of the country before this and it was stinking hot, I was more than happy to spend the majority of our last few days doing next to nothing.

And “nothing” turned out to be walking along the water from Igalo Beach (where our apartment was) to Herceg Novi, exploring the Old City and fort walls, reading on the beach, searching every open store for postcards and eating seafood at least once a day.  Most of that seafood came from Nautilus, a restaurant we frequented far too often for a five-day trip; the waitress recognized us and remembered our orders.

We did stray a little farther from “nothing” to spend one of our Montenegrin days out on a boat visiting different islands.  We had hoped to go on a tour boat but since it was pre-season, we ended up chartering a little (extremely tiny) boat of our own.  We made stops at the Blue Cave, to see the luminescent blue waters, Mamula, where the old prison used to be, Zajinc, to lunch on fresh fish over the crystal waters and Rose, where our driver (captain?) found us a little private beach.  It was a beautiful day and a great way to explore a little more of Montenegro.

Let's go to the beach, beach. Let's go get away!

Let’s go to the beach, beach. Let’s go get away!

Sipping some OJ and figuring out where to go

Sipping some OJ and figuring out where to go

Climbing up to the Old City of Herceg Novi

Climbing up to the Old City of Herceg Novi

Hi Moo!

Hi Moo!

I was going for a "strong like this fortress" pose

I was going for a “strong like this fortress” pose

Sunsets in Montenegro

Sunsets in Montenegro

Hamming it up with the anchors

Hamming it up with the anchors

More ham :)

More ham :)

We're on a boat!

We’re on a boat!

Entering the beautifully hued Blue Cave

Entering the beautifully hued Blue Cave

Exploring the old prison fortress

Exploring the old prison fortress

I'm like a bird!

I’m like a bird!

Wandering Mamula

Wandering Mamula

Crystal clear waters of Montenegro

Crystal clear waters of Zajinc

Fresh fish carpaccio

Fresh fish carpaccio

Loving the boat life!

Loving the boat life!

Look who's in the ocean!

Look who’s in the ocean!

Probably our 5th meal at this restaurant :)

Probably our 5th meal at this restaurant :)

Enjoying a beach day

Enjoying a beach day

After five days of good food and relaxation, we started the long trek (cab, bus, cab, plane, bus, cab) back to London.  As documented in my previous post, London was the end of Moo & Boo time and the start of my 5th London adventure with new friends.

All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a more awesome month-long trip with one of my favourite travel companions.  We got to do it all: re-visit old haunts, show off my new home, discover new cities, eat well and laugh a lot.  It’s been a while since I’ve had that much uninterrupted time with my mom.  And while we did get on each other’s nerves a bit, we made up for it with all of the amazing moments and incredible memories made in 28 days adventuring around Europe!

The Iron Throne of Croatia: Dubrovnik

(Excuse the awful Game of Thrones reference above. I’m not a big enough fan of the books or series to do much better.)

After Split, mom and I took a bus down the coast to the magical city of Dubrovnik.  Strangely enough, to go from Split to Dubrovnik (same country) you have to pass through Bosnia Hercegovina (another country) for a stretch of land. But we jumped out of the bus long enough to snap this shot of the scenery:

Driving to Dubrovnik through Bosnia Hercegovina

Hi Bosnia Hercegovina!

After arriving in Dubrovnik and settling into another cute apartment, we headed straight for the famous Old City.  Every image I had of Dubrovnik before this trip (and most of my images after) were of the Old City.  The fortress-like walls and winding alleys are straight out of the medieval ages – no wonder Game of Thrones films here!

Heading to Dubrovnik's famous Old Town!

Heading to Dubrovnik’s famous Old City!

Admiring the columns of Old Town

Admiring the columns in Stari Grad

The next morning we trekked back down to the Old City but decided to take a back road, instead of the main one.  It was definitely a more scenic route and felt more direct, but we couldn’t be sure.  Our Dubrovnik days were always filled with uphills and downhills, regardless of which path we chose.

Peekaboo!

Peekaboo!

Hi flowers!

Hi flowers!

On our second day we stopped for lunch at Mimoza, a restaurant our landlady had recommended to us.  To be honest, the main dishes weren’t too wow. The meats were a nice break from seafood (a break from seafood? Blasphemous, I know!) but were nothing special.  However, we did notice a certain adorable slow-walking creature in the flower pots by our table. And mom managed to find a pretty amazing cake for dessert.  She may or may not have come back on our last day to order one (or 4) more slices!

Adorable turtles by our table at Mimoza restaurant

Adorable turtles by our table at Mimoza restaurant

Mom's favourite cake!

Mom’s favourite cake!

Another restaurant find: Wanda’s! I had found Wanda in one of our guide books and after scouring the incomplete street signs, we finally found the place in a back alley of the Old City.  Right away Wanda won our hearts when a waiter insisted we sit down for free prosecco, even though we were just making a dinner reservation for later.

Free Prosecco at our favourite restaurant!

Free Prosecco at our favourite restaurant!

Admiring the view off the Old City

Admiring the view off the Old City

Cats rule this town

Cats rule this town – they are everywhere! 

After exploring more of Stari Grad (Old City), we met up with my Amsterdam friends, Candy & Carlie, who were just starting their Croatian adventures. We took them to Wanda’s for some delicious carpaccio, pasta and, of course, more free prosecco! We also became pretty convinced that our waiter (the one pouring the free drinks) wanted me to marry his son! Living in Croatia and eating free at Wanda’s? I do!

Meeting up with Candy & Carlie in Dubrovnik!

Meeting up with Candy & Carlie in Dubrovnik!

Our favourite jazz band with the singer with the voice of an angel

Our favourite jazz band with the singer with the voice of an angel

The next day we met back up with the girls and headed up…all the way up the Dubrovnik Cable Car to get full views of the beautiful city! While we almost melted waiting to get onto the car, the views (and cool wind) at the top were spectacular!

View from the top of the Dubrovnik cable car

View from the top of the Dubrovnik cable car

Mom and Carlie building Inukshuks!

Mom and Carlie building Inukshuks!

From the top of the mountain to….the sea! After returning to ground level, we decided to take our group to the water and try our luck at a few hours of sea kayaking and snorkelling.  Overall, it was a really fun experience and great way to see more of the Old City.  That being said, the water was freezing and my arms were definitely in some pain the next day!

Getting ready for our sea-kayaking adventure

Getting ready for our sea-kayaking adventure

Snorkelling in the freezing cold with nary a fish to spot!

Snorkelling in the freezing cold with nary a fish to spot!

After kayaking it was time to replenish liquids (aka get our day-drink on) and grab some dinner.  Mom and I tried out a few new places in the Old City, before meeting back up with C&C for dessert and drinks while listening to my favourite jazz band.

Afternoon drinks after kayaking

Afternoon drinks after kayaking

Asian-fusion on our last night in Dubrovnik

Asian-fusion on our last night in Dubrovnik

The next morning we packed up and got ready to head to Montenegro! But before our bus left, I managed to sneak in one more must-do Dubrovnik experience: walking the Old City walls! I joined Candy & Carlie for the 2km walk which felt more like 10 thanks to lots of stairs and the scorching midday heat.  But, the views were incredible! I kept expecting to see a GOT star shooting a scene!

Views from the Old City walls

Views from the Old City walls

Missing this view!

Missing this view!

Hey ladies!

Hey ladies!

Selfie on the wall!

Selfie on the wall!

Beautiful red roofs of the Old City

Beautiful red roofs of the Old City

All smiles (and all sweat) as we finish our wall walk

All smiles (and all sweat) as we finish our wall walk

After finishing the wall, we met back up with mom and enjoyed some Mimoza cake.  Saying goodbye to the girls we grabbed a quick lunch (back at Wanda’s, of course), picked up our bags and boarded our bus for Herceg Novi, Montenegro!

Bye beautiful Dubrovnik!

Bye beautiful Dubrovnik!

The coast of Croatia

After Germany, mom and I flew to Split, Croatia.  This was the start of the “warm” leg of our journey; the part where it was just us two with few plans outside of relaxing on beaches and admiring coastal views.  Croatia had been my idea.  I had first seen pictures of the country a few years ago on a travel blog and fell in love with the bright blue waters and old-style architecture.

We started our time in Croatia with the city of Split.  We stayed in a cute apartment off of the main strip and spent most days dining on seafood, walking around the city and admiring the coast.  There were the old palace walls to sweat our way through, a fruit market where we found fresh berries, and the best lemon cake hiding in a back-alley bakery.  We managed to eat four meals at the same seaside restaurant, thanks to their delicious brunch menu!  And on our third day we decided to walk along the coast in search of some beaches.  While sandy in spots, most of the walk was on paved terrain and most of it was spent hiding from the intermittent rain clouds.  But we did finally make it to the Radisson Blue, our goal destination, where we feasted on delicious fish, pasta and dessert!

Photos from our time in Split below:

First meal in Split, Croatia: seafood in a hidden courtyard!

First meal in Split, Croatia: seafood in a hidden courtyard!

Checking out the palace!

Checking out the palace!

More of the palace

More of the palace

Every palace needs a church

Every palace needs a church

Licking the plate clean of the yummiest lemon cake!

Licking the plate clean of the yummiest lemon cake!

Brunching at our favourite place by the sea

Brunching at our favourite place by the sea

Beautiful Split

Beautiful Split

Checking out the beaches of Croatia

Checking out the beaches of Croatia

Hi Moo!

Hi Moo!

We finally made it to Radisson Blue!

We finally made it to Radisson Blue!

BYE SPLIT!

BYE SPLIT!

Best Bits of Berlin

In vague chronological order, here are my favourite memories from 5 days in Berlin, Germany:

<> On our first night in Berlin we walked around the corner from Tilo’s apartment and stumbled into one of Germany’s famous beer gardens.  Out of an old junkyard someone had placed tables and twinkle lights, brought in an Italian pizza oven and full-stocked bar, and opened the place up to Berliners (and their friends) of all ages.  It was the perfect introduction to Berlin and the pizza wasn’t half bad either!

Trying the sour Berlin speciality!

Trying the sour Berlin speciality!

Beer garden!

Beer garden!

<> Checkpoint Charlie was….pretty much a giant tourist trap.  There were even “American” (probably just Germans) guards you could pay to take a photo with.  You could also pay to get your passport stamped and while I knew it was a touristy rip-off, I couldn’t resist filling another page in my almost-full passport!

As tourist as it gets

As tourist as it gets

SO MANY STAMPS!

SO MANY STAMPS!

<> The East Side Gallery was the one thing on my Berlin to-see list. I love the idea of street art anywhere but the fact that it’s creating something so beautiful and meaningful out of a once-oppressive wall really made the gallery special to me. I wish we had gotten to spend some more time there, but due to a painfully long and hot bus ride, we were set with about 20 minutes.

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<> Who would have thought satisfying sushi and delicious ice cream would be highlights of Berlin? YUM

Diving in at Ishin!

Diving in at Ishin!

So delish!

So delish!

<> After ice cream we stumbled onto another awesome outdoor event: swing dancing by the water! While we weren’t skilled enough to join in, it was so cool to watch a bunch of people freestyle swing dancing under fairy lights in the middle of a big city!

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<> One of my favourite memories of our time in Berlin was meeting and spending time with Tilo’s family.  They were honestly the most warm, kind and hospitable people who didn’t hesitate to open their home to us.  We sat down for cake and fruit salad with Tilo’s parents, his sister and his nephews.  After the snack, we headed over to billiards where the girls beat the boys 3 to 1! I even managed to sink a few balls myself, including a game-winning 8-ball, but the memorable hot streak belonged to 8 year old Peter who sunk 4 balls in a row! After pool, it was more games (and more food) back at the house. Who would’ve thought Family Night would be a travel highlight?

The 8 yr old pool wizard himself!

The 8 yr old pool wizard himself!

<> A lot of this trip was about spending time with my Moo and I was so lucky to be able to do that in these wonderful European cities.  But sometimes we had to bring back a bit of our Toronto routine: like spending a morning eating Vietnamese noodles, getting pedicures and going shopping!

How I missed Vietnamese food!

How I missed Vietnamese food!

<> Berlin’s CineStar IMAX theatre is a magical place with the comfiest seats I have ever sat in! They were plush, spacious and there were even a few double seats for couples (or people like me who want to stretch out!). With all the rain Berlin showered down on us, we actually made 2 visits to the theatre for Maleficent and X-Men.  Both movies were awesome, but the seats were still the highlight :)

<> Eating was definitely a major part of our trip. Despite our German location, we branched out quite a bit when it came to cuisines. Like the night we went to “Massai” and dined on plantains, falafel, mango beer, zebra, crocodile and antelope!

Bring on the wild animals!

Bring on the wild animals!

Berlin was a city I stepped into (drove into?) without any expectation.  Strangely, it had never been a city I was dying to see.  And since I was going with a veteran-visitor, my mom, and a local, Tilo, I didn’t have to do much in terms of planning.  Despite coming into the city unarmed, I was pleasantly surprised: Berlin was pretty cool. And I feel fortunate that I got to experience the touristy side (including the cringe-inducing tour bus) and a bit of the local life all in a quick rainy 5-day adventure.

Thanks for the memories - bye Berlin!

Thanks for the memories –      Bye Berlin!

Next, off to Croatia!

Driving Deutschland

On May 22 Tilo, mom and I set out from Amsterdam and drove straight (except for a quick police check) across the border into Germany! Our first stop was the city of Cologne, or Köln, as the Germans would say.

When we arrived in Germany it was dark and rainy; a bad omen and common weather for the remainder of our time in the country. Luckily, we managed to find some delicious seafood pasta (and not so delicious stuffed calamari) at an Italian restaurant, one of the few restaurants open at 9pm, which tells you a lot about Cologne.

Highlight of our first night in Cologne!

Highlight of our first night in Cologne!

We spent the next day exploring Cologne starting with a visit to an old SS prison now-museum.  I had read about the museum in researching Cologne and was interested to learn more about Germany’s horrid history.  The visit was extremely impactful, mostly because the prisoners’ writings were still visible on the prison walls.  Many prisoners counted their time in prison on the walls or left messages for their homelands and loved ones.  The prison also housed a courtyard where many of the prisoners were executed.  Museum visitors were free to stand in the courtyard and try to digest what had happened there.

Record of time spent in prison

Record of time spent in prison

Top left is writing of an American soldier who found the prison during WWII

Top left is writing of an American soldier who found the prison during WWII

Hard hitting message on the way to the courtyard

Hard hitting message on the way to the courtyard

After that chilling history lesson, we walked over to Cologne’s most famous sight, the Cologne Dom (or large cathedral). And it was huge! I heard varying accounts on just how huge (largest in Europe, tallest in Germany, etc.) but suffice to say, the beast was impressive.

Cologne Dom!

Cologne Dom!

From there we picked up lunch, walked through the city streets and headed back to the car to drive on.  A few hours later we arrived at a roadside motel an hour outside of Erfurt.  Despite the reputation of roadside motels, this place was beautiful with a big room and the nicest shower I’ve had in months.

The next morning we drove into Erfurt, one of the cutest towns I have stumbled across in Europe.  It reminded me a lot of Holland’s Utrecht with adorable old houses, a big cathedral and water running through the town.  While walking through the town we witnessed four (4!) weddings and the shooting of a music video. So chances are we ended up in the back of someone’s photos/film!

First wedding of the day in front of Erfurt's big church

First wedding of the day in front of Erfurt’s big church

Would you believe this is the set of a rap music video?

Would you believe this is the set of a rap music video?

From Erfurt we kept heading east, with bad Chinese take-away in tow, to Dresden.  Our first move in Dresden was to hide from the rain in Tilo’s apartment while watching Firefly.  After getting our fill of Joss Whedon sci-fi and ensuring the rain clouds had moved on, we ventured into the city for some evening sight-seeing.  Tilo played tour guide and walked us over to the Old Town (fun fact: the Old Town is actually newer than the New Town because it had to be rebuilt after most of it was destroyed during the war).

Walking over to Old Town

Walking over to Old Town

The buildings in Dresden’s Old Town were marvellous to look at.  We caught the end of an outdoor choral performance and walked along the world’s (or maybe just Europe’s?) longest mosaic.  We found another big church (surprise surprise) and even a Canadian restaurant! We ended our evening with Italian food, gelato and fireworks!

BIG mosaic!

BIG mosaic!

We're pretty excited about the Canadian food, eh?

We’re pretty excited about the Canadian food, eh?

BIG church

BIG church

Beautiful Old Town of Dresden

Beautiful Old Town of Dresden

The next morning Tilo showed us around a series of connected courtyards in Dresden.  Each courtyard is decorated with a different theme, like the animal courtyard that had a giraffe on the wall and a buffalo-shaped rock in the middle of a fountain.

Wall in the water-theme courtyard

Wall in the water-theme courtyard

After the tour we ate some leftovers for lunch, packed up our stuff and set off for Berlin where we would spend the next five days.

Welcome to Amsterdam! I’m Riana and I’ll be your tour guide

The second leg of the mother-daughter trip landed us back on the mainland in my home of Amsterdam! I’ve had a few friends visit before but it was nice to have my mom and be able to show her where I’ve been living for the last few months.

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Our Dutch tour started right away: we took a bus directly from the airport to catch the last day of Keukenhof tulip festival! Despite the wonderful weather, most of the tulips had died and it wasn’t as impressive as my previous visit.  But we enjoyed hanging out in the park and taking in whatever floral arrangements were left.

Moo in the tulips!

Moo in the tulips!

Does it get more Dutch than this?

Does it get more Dutch than this?

The next day I got to take my mom to my favourite monthly market: The NeighbourFood Market at Westerpark! We enjoyed delicious street food and the famous Westerpark scones while watching ducks swim and kids squeal around the pond.

Best scones ever!

Best scones ever!

Mom’s friend Tilo, from Berlin, joined us in Amsterdam for some more sightseeing that week. We headed down to Museumplein and visited the Van Gogh Museum. I had yet to see the works of this great Dutch artist so was impressed….but thoroughly arted-out after an hour.  From there we walked through Vondel Park and visited with a friend of my mom’s who was now living in Amsterdam.  After a short visit, we met my flatmate Carlie at Blauw for Indonesian food.

Hanging out on the I amsterdam letters at Museumplein

Hanging out on the I amsterdam letters at Museumplein

We feasted on rijsttafel – a Dutch Indonesian rice table that consists of billions (give or take) of tiny food dishes served with big bowls of rice. It was so delicious! And quite hilarious to watch our table pile up with more tiny plates than we had space for.

Rijsttafel time!

Rijsttafel time!

Tuesday brought us to Utrecht; a cute little town about 20 minutes by train from Amsterdam. I had been earlier in the year with some friends but it was nice to see it in better weather.  We checked out the big tower and found a little secret garden behind the church.  We enjoyed Spanish tapas down by the canal; it was really nice to just sit by the water and sip some sangria as people kayaked and boated by.

Secret garden in Utrecht

Secret garden in Utrecht

Cheers!

Cheers!

On our last full day in Amsterdam, I sent mom and Tilo to the Anne Frank House for what, in my opinion, is a really important part of an Amsterdam visit. After learning a bit of history, I met back up with them for my favourite Dutch pancakes at The Pancake Bakery. We sampled the French, Mexican and Indonesian pancakes – all delicious! After filling our bellies, we walked through the 9 Streets and into the centre where I went off to attend my last law class.  After class we all met back up and headed out to dinner with other flatmate, Gabby.

Walking along the canals

Walking along the canals

We headed to Noord Amsterdam on the world’s shortest ferry ride (apx. 2 minutes) for dinner at the Eye.  The Eye is a large cinema building that in no way actually resembles an eye.  But, the dinner they serve at their restaurant is pretty delicious! The service was incredibly slow and the entire meal took over three hours but we were rewarded with an ending of fantastic desserts :)

YUM!

YUM!

The next morning I finished off my essay, did a quick load of laundry and got ready to head to Germany! By 3:30 we were all packed into Tilo’s car and on our way to Cologne, Germany.