Tour d’Europe Number 2, and counting!

The London Tower Bridge in the background

The London Tower Bridge in the background. Isn’t this the most beautiful view ever?

Earlier this year, I had a great opportunity to go to London, UK for a business trip. It was my first time there and I was thrilled about it. Thankfully, my work location was in central London, right by the River Thames. Mind you, before you are ridiculed because of pronouncing the Thames the American way, you may want to ask a Briton first or consult Google, or Siri, or what have you! Apparently, Britons read it like “tems” and rhymes with “gems”, or “James”.

Fortunately, my black cab driver from the London Heathrow Airport was extremely friendly. After a long red-eye flight into Heathrow from RDU, NC, I couldn’t have asked for a better ride. Although I was very exhausted and sleepy, since I was up the entire flight (we landed around (5am London, 1am EST, my bed time), my brain was surely awakened by the beauty that this city is!

The view of the River Thames from my office building

The view of the River Thames from my office building

The cab driver of 40+ years of experience under his belt, kindly explained everything from the airport to my hotel, without even being asked. He gave me tips on must see places and where to be careful. As we crossed the River Thames bridge to my hotel, he made it clear that it’s pronounced like “tems”. Oh how I love the British accent. Although later I was told that Britons will hide their annoyance behind a pleasant smile, I personally found them to be extremely kind. During my 8 day-stay there, there was not a single person who wasn’t extra nice to me!

Citizens and tourists outside the Buckingham Palace waiting for Changing the Guards ceremony

Citizens and tourists outside the Buckingham Palace waiting for the “Changing the Guards” ceremony

Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace encompasses colorful spectacle and British pageantry. The ceremony lasts about 45 minutes and usually takes place daily at 11:30 from April until the end of July and on alternate days for the rest of the year, weather permitting. ” ~ Royal Collection.

I must say though that people there aren’t necessarily good at giving directions: when you ask someone where the bus or metro station is, they will simply point that it’s over there, when there’s no such a thing in sight. I found that quite interesting. I got to ride the London tube once, otherwise I mostly took taxi cabs. While in Europe, I also got to visit Belgium and the Netherlands. My last time on this continent was in 2012. Remember the post “Tour D’Europe, In My Own Words!”?

  • FOOD

Now the fun part of my experience there besides the fact that it was bitter cold and windy the whole time I was in London, was food. What’s up with arugula on every meal? The first time my meal arrived I wondered if it was a mistake; I definitely remembered my order at this Italian restaurant pretty well. Also, while in London, if you order chicken, make sure you specify that you want chicken breast. Otherwise, chicken legs/thighs will land on your plate. When I ordered the chicken pasta meal, at an Italian restaurant, I was shocked when they brought this:

Chicken pasta brought to you by Jamie's Italian Restaurant, London

Chicken pasta brought to you by Jamie’s Italian Restaurant, London!

I undoubtedly signaled the waiter that he may have brought the wrong order. To my shock, he confirmed my fear. I may not know much about different cuisines, but this doesn’t look like chicken pasta to me. Not only that there was bread in lieu of pasta, the chicken didn’t taste good at all :(.

IMG_1081

Arugula salad for ever meal! I guess I eat a lot of pasta. I must be Italian somehow, somewhere!

If you know me very well, you know that I can eat pretty much anything, right? Kidding aside, even in a place like London, it was not easy for me to venture outside my hotel and find food that I like :(. My taste in meals is a real challenge for a frequent traveler like myself. The good thing is that at least I now know restaurants to go to and meals to order during my travels. Salmon is my favorite fish.

When I searched for seafood places near the London Bridge and the Borough Market, I was excited to find the Wright Brothers Borough, a seafood restaurant. It was only minutes from my hotel. When I got there, not only that there was no salmon to save a life there, they didn’t have fish. I am not kidding! Luckily, I found Black and Blue Steakhouse right across from them, and I finally enjoyed a normal American looking meal there.

That's more like the food I like to eat, unfortunately! I can't help it

That’s more like the food I like to eat, unfortunately! I can’t help it. @ Black and Blue, London 

  • A playground for grown-ups 😀

London has other many unique things, such as this one here in the picture! Those people are not children I promise.

I didn't get a chance to explore it though, but it seemed like a lot of fun!

I wasn’t brave enough to bounce on it though, but it seemed like a lot of fun!

I loved London and its people so much. I hope to go back when it’s warm and sunny.

  • Belgium

Now, moving across the water south east to Belgium. Judging from the next picture, I am pretty sure that this country may never have an issue with obesity, in my opinion. After a long day visiting the Netherlands, I was very hungry when I arrived back to my hotel room in Brussels. I was too starved to wait for room service, so I immediately headed down to the hotel restaurant, Bien Belge.

Fish of course is always my first choice and lucky for me, they had salmon on the menu in French and English. I don’t always eat large portions, but when the waiter brought my dinner, it made me wonder if they thought that I needed to lose a few pounds ;). I will let you judge for yourself, from the next picture. Salmon is in there somewhere 🙂

A $USD 22 meal to quench your hunger

Lo and behold, a $25 dinner to satisfy your hunger. I am not kidding!

  • Bedding

Another observation while in Europe was about bedding. This sounds like an odd one, but please bear with me. I grew up in Rwanda, where a normal bed has one fitted and one flat sheet, or 2 flat sheets, and a comforter on top of that. This is the same in the United States. Europe is different apparently. You only have a fitted sheet and a comforter. You should have seen the look on their faces, every time I asked the hotel staff for a second flat sheet.

Of course the sweet housekeeping ladies spoke practically no English, so the front desk was the main contact. The only problem, every morning when the housekeeping came through, my flat sheet was obviously gone, understandably. Then it’d be the same thing over again in the evening. I just don’t understand how people use the comforter only. I am going to spare my imagination from wondering if they wash the comforters every time a guest leaves!!

  • Egg mystery

First, I must say that the European hotels breakfast is nothing similar to what I often see here in the United States, even in similar hotel brands. In the US, many hotels don’t offer complementary breakfast to their guests; and some that do, choices are limited. Take it from someone who has had her share of traveling, although I don’t always have time to eat breakfast before work.

In European hotels, not only that breakfast is absolutely complementary, they have no shortage in breakfast item choices. That was my observation in all European countries I have been to so far. I may be biased toward the Hilton hotel chains I stay at, but I can’t imagine that it’d be different from other hotel brands.

The Hilton Executive Lounge, London @ breakfast

The Hilton London Tower Bridge Executive Lounge @ breakfast

Now, while in Brussels, one morning after breakfast, I grabbed a snack for later. One of the few items I took was an egg. I was pretty sure that it was a hard boiled egg that I was going to snack on later. Well, “later” came around, and with excitement, I cracked the egg, only to be surprised with a mess everywhere on my room desk. I was horrified. The egg was raw; I will spare you the rest! I guess I can’t tell the difference between a hard boiled and a raw egg, but I think that I simply did not pay too much attention.

One thing I remember though is that in the morning when I was at the restaurant, there was no chef, I am positive, to make omelets for guests on spot, or hard boiled eggs for that matter. I spent 3 nights at this hotel, and grabbed breakfast every morning. What raw eggs were doing next to bread, fruits and other breakfast items is beyond me. I still haven’t found an answer to what Belgians do with raw eggs on the go 😀

The sign says it all ;). I enjoyed touring the city of Amsterdam

Amsterdam Centraal: I enjoyed touring this city too

In addition to Amsterdam, I also visited Haarlem, in the Netherlands. I plan to write about my trip specifically to Haarlem in another post. I am so thankful to my friends in Brussels who took me to Amsterdam and Haarlem. It made my trip easier rather than having to figure things out on my own, especially that apparently Amsterdam is known for drugs and prostitution, and I was certainly there for neither!

While in Haarlem, it was obvious that it’s not a diverse town, whatsoever. I have never laughed so hard than when one of my friends (all from Rwanda) made a joke. She said that if our other friend lowered his hat and held it upward, that everyone around us would have started putting Euro coins in there. Not sure if poor people there are mainly black but the town is exclusively white for sure. The joke made my day because I laughed so hard!!

Needless to say, it was an amazing experience and getting to connect with my friends in all these places made it even more enjoyable. I hope that my next visit to Europe will be to Germany and Poland at minimum. Can’t wait!!

Tour D’Europe, In My Own Words!

In the warmth of the European summer 2012, I was honored to be invited to my best friend’s wedding. I was very thrilled and looking forward to walking past the European airports ‘walls, at last. In the past, as I navigated between terminals to reach connecting flights at the London’s Heathrow or the Netherlands’ Amsterdam, I’d peek through the bus or airport terminal windows to gaze upon the city’s beauty. I wondered when I would be able to get out and wander in the streets of London but I was anxious to reach my destination at the same time.

On July 6th, we touch down in Milan, and are immediately waved onto two buses that would take us to the gate for immigration purposes. I have never seen more confusing signs than the Linate airport. As we step out, the driver signals everyone in our bus to go left. I follow the crowd only to find myself before a sign that says “EU residents”. I quickly switch lanes to go to the “Non EU Residents” when a policeman rushes in my direction and harshly points me to go back. Exhausted and jet lagged, I gather my courage to explain to him, in English, that I am not a European resident. He does not understand a single word that comes out of my mouth. Unwillingly, I turn around and join a very slowly moving line. The female Immigration Officer that checks our passports is the slowest I have ever seen.

After what seemed like eternity, it’s my turn and I hand my passport to her. She doesn’t seem to have a clue about the Schengen visa that is stamped in my passport and proceeds to asking me questions. In Italian! I respond to her that I don’t speak Italian; she keeps talking and I grow silent. She calls her supervisor and they chat in a language I don’t understand. Few minutes later, she comes back with my passport. I grab it as quickly as possible and disappear to avoid the possibility of being asked further questions I don’t get. I let out a sigh of relief and annoyed by the fact that this is the most touristic country I know, and yet, an Immigration Officer who speaks no other language besides Italian, at the airport. My friend on the other side begins to worry about what might have happened to me because I am already more than an hour late or so since after I landed.

Duomo di Milano, Italy

Duomo di Milano, Italy

The very next day, Honorine and I board a flight to Paris, and Geneva afterwards. I don’t remember any question asked in either of these two countries; perhaps because I understood their main language: French, of course! I enjoyed touring the city, visiting the Eiffel Tower, the United Nations Headquarters, the International Telecommunications Union HQ, riding in the Geneva Trams etc.

Paris, France

Different parts of Paris, France

Paris

Paris, France

Different parts of Geneva, Switzerland

Different parts of Geneva, Switzerland

Genève, Suisse

Geneve, Suisse

Fast forwarding to several days later, I set for Croatia, my main reason for this trip. On the way, my flight connection is in Berlin, German. I face exactly the same issue: an Officer who speaks only German and he is yet to verify my visa to Croatia. Similarly, he talks to his supervisor before I am directed to the Security Check. Couple hours later, on a hot afternoon, I land in Zagreb. Lining up to show our passports, I silently pray that someone will at least speak some English, so that I can be able to explain that I had applied for the Schengen visa through the Italian embassy. This time, I am more concerned with the process mainly because I was told that I can use the EU visa as Croatia was scheduled to enter the European Union in 2013. I am very afraid that the Officer may wonder where I got that information. To my surprise, he doesn’t ask a single question, and with a smile, he says: “Welcome to Croatia”. That was the beginning of my adventure in the most beautiful country I have ever seen.

My best friend was running a little late. In the process of finding a pay phone and exchanging my cash into Croatian Kunas, there I see my friend’s fiancé, and we both walk to my best friend. It was great to see an amazing woman I met in school six years earlier, and haven’t seen her in 3 years. Later that afternoon, my best friend and I go to tour the city, run errands, chatting, exploring, talking and what not. However, every turn I make, there is at least one person staring at me. I check my outfit to make sure I didn’t spill food on my clothes or have stains. Everything is fine; a brown polka dot blouse and a light blue knee length jeans don’t look any different from what other women around me are wearing. Children, older people, eyes on me everywhere I go.

Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb, Croatia

Confused, and with million questions into my head, I decide that it’d probably be a perfect time to figure out what’s so different about me: not another single black person anywhere. None! Not in the super market, shopping center, ice cream shops, restaurants, nada. Only then, I come to a realization that many Croatians have possibly never seen a black person in their life time. I figure that this is probably the part of the globe where only white people live, almost exclusively. To this day, I wonder if my best friend even noticed people looking at me or if I look different. Ms Z. is the most diverse and loving person I have ever met. To seal my anticipation, her parents are just like her: wonderful people. I have never liked the sound of my first name than when Ms. Z’s Dad called me. Their warm welcome overwhelmed me. I left a part of my heart in Croatia!

On the wedding day, the DJ was hired for the entire night. I am not a dancer by any means, but I was determined to make it up as I go for my best friend’s special day. We danced until about 2am. When I took a break and sat outside to chat with other guests, two men and their wives approached to ask me about myself. They knew much more than I expected about my home country, Rwanda. In the end, they confessed that they have been talking behind my back, as I danced, saying that Beyonce had arrived in Croatia. I was not sure if I should say thank you or that’s nice. I gathered a smile and explained that it was just creativity, nothing of experience. And a “thank you” of course.

Zagreb, Croatia

Zagreb & Bjelovar, Croatia

During my days in Croatia, I am sure that I counted almost all black people in Zagreb and Bjelovar: a teenage boy and girl who looked like tourists at one restaurant, and one couple at the Zagreb airport on my way back to Milan. A little girl (about 5 years old) one seat over, looked at me without blinking for about two hours during my flight from Zagreb to Berlin, leaning forward because her mom was sitting between us. Her mom was super nice. She patted my hand when I was scared from the turbulence. She offered a hug, should I need to be comforted.

Without a doubt, I fell in love with this beautiful country, and its people. I hope to go back when I have more time. In the end, I had traveled to 4 countries, boarded 10 flights at 10 different airports in just 11 days. I doubt I would do it again. Next time, I will plan my trip better! My very first night back home, a cold finally caught up with me and I was down for two weeks! Nonetheless, it was quite an experience!