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Trip Report Europe with Students and Mom: 6 Weeks in France, Netherlands & Germany

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Hello everyone,

I haven't written a trip report in some time and thought it would be fun to share some of this summer's travels. I am a college professor traveling abroad with a small group of students and my recently retired mother. I did this trip last year with students (albeit a larger group) and it is a different type of travel. Therefore, I thought it would be fun to share.

The trip this summer includes 2 full weeks in Paris and 1.5 weeks in Amsterdam. Following the end of the study abroad program, my mother and I are traveling to fulfill her lifelong dream of visiting her parents' homeland: Germany. We will be renting a car in Cologne and driving around for 2.5 weeks. We will end in Berlin where I have a work conference.

So this 6 week summer trip is a combination of business and pleasure. I try to squeeze in as much pleasure as possible.

Our summer study abroad program studies child development. It's sort of a different topic to try and study abroad...well, I mean it's different than the ones that are easy to understand, like art history. However, we adapt and find topics that are related to the sites in each city. For example, child development and the Louvre? Doesn't really seem like a good match, right? However, we spend time discussing how children were represented in art throughout history and then visit museums to find those representations.

This year there are 10 students....much more manageable than last year where we had 24 college students! Amazingly, we didn't lose anyone last year and no one got arrested (apparently a common occurrence during summer programs).

Who am I? Just a professor who loves to travel. I have the stereotypical, American "I need to see everything possible and check it off my list" mentality. However, the more I travel abroad the more I find myself slowing down. I like to see the "must sees" but don't have rigid travel schedules. I don't make restaurant reservations, I just wander around until I'm starving. I prefer street food to fancy restaurants. I don't drink alcohol (which seems like a crime in France).

I still try to see a lot....I struggle with trying to see a lot of cities/towns in a country vs. staying in one area and doing in depth exploration. My justification has always been that I want to see snippets of things and then decide if I want to go back. For example, we drove around Ireland for three weeks. We basically did a full loop of the island. Some thought we were crazy for staying in towns for only 2 nights at a time. For me it was perfect. Now I'll return to the areas I fell in love with.

So let's begin, shall we?

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    Departure from the US:

    We flew direct from our US city. The majority of the students were on the same flight, but several flew in from different cities and one was taking the train in from London. In addition, my Mom was coming in on a different flight as well. Mom and I made a meeting rule: within 1 hour we would wait just past immigration; 1-2 hours we would meet at the Sheraton in T2; more than 2 hours we would meet at the hotel.

    My flight left the US late and arrived about an hour late. Our flight landed at the same time as a flight from the Middle East. This meant that immigration was taking a very long time to check passports. It looked like many of the passengers from that flight had visas (some type of paper in their passport). I was one of the first off the plane, so I was right behind them. However, after I got in that line they decided to open another line that was just for our flight. OF course, they proceeded through much quicker. Oh well. Finally, another officer came and he just opened passports and stamped. Never said a word!

    Mom's flight arrived on time, but she was waiting :) So glad that it worked out. I forgot to mention that Mom has never traveled to Europe before.

    Now the students. Wrangling the ones from my flight was easy. I only had carry-on, but most of them have huge suitcases. So I just went out to the arrivals hall and waited. I needed to hit up the ATM anyways (I never exchange euros beforehand, but just use ATMs). The two from different flights was another story. They had texted me and I got their texts and responded. However, my texts to them didn't go through. Luckily, one of the girls figured out where we were landed and walked over and waited at arrivals. We never did find the other girl. She ended up having to take a taxi alone (pricey!).

    So, you know how there are the "shuttle" drivers peddling their rides? Yes, I know all the rules. Don't use them and just take a taxi. Well, we had a big group and they only charged 20 euros per person. Which is cheaper than a taxi. So we went for it. They had a business card. I showed it to our hosts and they shrugged and said it seemed legit.

    Arrived at the hotel which is in the 13th. Unfortunately, the rooms weren't ready so early (it was noon by this time). Probably a blessing. Everyone was dragging...so we immediately hopped on the metro. One student learned a quick lesson: The doors close...even if you are in them!!!

    We went to the Eiffel Tower. So cliche....I know :) Grabbed a crepe from a street vendor and then just sat on the grass under the shadow of the beautiful work of art. It's such a beautiful day! Then we walked over to the Trocadero for another view. The French Open just started and there is a tennis ball in the middle of the tower. Kind of cool!

    Headed back to the hotel to unpack. Our room this year is much smaller. We are at the same chain of hotels, but switched locations. It's a great location and a typical European hotel. Small. But no worries...it's a comfortable bed and a hot shower.

    Made the mistake of sitting down. Big mistake. Mom and I were fading fast. So we made a decision to go wander the neighborhood. We are right next to Butte-aux-Cailles. Wandered the streets for awhile, had my first pain chocolat of the trip. Believe me, it won't be the last (there is one sitting next to my computer right now). Then met back up with the students for dinner.

    We went to the Arc. Bummer that half of the top is under construction. Glad I got some good pics last year. There was something going on though. This was on Sunday May 24. There were tons of Red Cross trucks and a bunch of people under the Arc. Lots of folks standing around and watching, but nothing happening. So we strolled down the Champs. So busy, even on a Sunday. Or I guess especially on a Sunday since all the stores are open here.

    Many of the students are on a budget and the Champs restaurants are expensive. So I took them over to the Latin Quarter. First we stopped at Place St. Michel to watch a street performer. He was comical! Then wandered through the Quarter until we settled on a place with a 10 euro menu. The food wasn't too bad. Not great, but edible.

    Back to the hotel. So tired! Was in bed by 10 PM. Woke up a few times through the night and finally up the next morning at 6:30 AM.

    This day (May 26) was all about orientation for the students. So we really didn't do any sightseeing. Had yummy chevre salad for lunch and dinner was divine. It was a group dinner hosted by the study abroad company that we hire to plan our hotel arrangements, etc. I had a delicious steak & pepper sauce with sauteed potatoes for the main course. Oh, the appetizer was cucumbers in fromage blanc. Oh...so light and summery! Dessert was an apple tart. Yum!!!

    Unfortunately, I didn't fall asleep early. It was midnight! Way later than I stay up at home. This happened last year too. It' a combination of the sun setting later and my body thinking it's late afternoon/early evening.

    Up now at 7 AM. Got some Facetime in with family back home. Plan today is class time for an hour in the morning, then a walk along the Left Bank, and hopefully the afternoon at the Eiffel Tower for more class activities (people watching!).

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    Maybe you could start by giving a bit more info..

    Have you already identified some regions, e.g. from where your mother's family originated?
    Are there any health related issues re. your mother? Just so and so much walking/hiking or similar restrictions one should keep in mind?
    Any opinion on small towns vs. major cities?

    Would you be interested in a mix of scenery and landscapes or rather only the more idyllic?
    Is arts/museums an issue? If so, you could start by giving Cologne a full day. The other museum "hubs" are Berlin, Frankfurt, Munich.

    Eventually, there will be quite a lot to choose from in between Neuschwanstein and the Alps and the Imperial resort towns on the Baltic Sea.

    Since you will end in Berlin, I'd reserve for that at least 3 nights (in addition to the time you have to spend at the conference). And another night/ full day if you want to explore also Potsdam's palaces and gardens.

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    So sorry for the confusion!!!!! My apologies!

    Cowboy...eek! But we think alike. I will have 4 nights in Berlin. We are spending a full day in Cologne. We decided to omit the Black Forest area and concentrate more on Bavaria. My Mom's family has origins in Prussia (Danzig area) but lived in Russia (Mennonite German). Grandma was in the Westphalia area during the war, but she has passed on and we don't have more detail. Grandpa was in Dachau post-war, but they don't have any records there...we have to contact the US :(

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    We've already had some interesting experiences with the students:

    1. One of our students is having some type of allergic reaction and her face was swelling. So we had to take her to a doctor. About an hour wait, some steroids prescribed and a return visit on Wednesday.

    2. Another student had a rough encounter on the metro. Some man made eye contact with her and she ignored him. He got off metro and then back on another car. Got off when she did and followed her. Grabbed her arm and asked for her phone number and email. Proceeded to follow her after she firmly said "no." She was quite shook up. She ran to hotel, but said she was looking back and didn't seem him following her anymore. Poor thing!!

    She did all the right things....the other would have been finding a police officer, but there were none around.

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    Hello all,

    Another beautiful day in Paris. Well, overcast and chilly...but no rain equals a beautiful day! Last summer we were here during endless days of rain, so this is refreshing.

    Today was our first day of class material. The topic for today was theories of child development and the influence of culture. This theory basically discusses how there are direct influences on children (i.e., parents) and indirect influences (such as culture). The indirect influences can influence how parents parent, etc. So not anything specific to Paris, but students have an assignment to go out and walk around and identify examples of these different levels of influence.

    Last year I found that this typically shifts students focus to people watching and making critical observations that relate back to class material. We had some great opportunities today as there were a bunch of school groups walking around and on the metro.

    After class we decided to go wander around for a bit. The plan was to end up back at the Eiffel Tower for some class discussion/activity. We went to Notre Dame just to take pics outside (returning as a class next week). Oy! It was about 11:30 and the line was enormous! Following that we walked along the Left Bank. Of course, the students wanted to do the love lock thing. They bought some locks and then walked through the St. Germain des Pres neighborhood, visiting the church and St. Sulpice. The students were very in awe of the St. Germain church. Neither church was busy.

    We then headed over to the Eiffel Tower. Stopped at a crepe stand for a late lunch (yummy mushrooms, cheese, and ham!). Found a spot on the Champ Mars for a class discussion. This time we talked about observational methods and they had to go out and do some observing. Fortunately, we were right next to a children's park.

    The rain held off! It was supposed to start at 4 PM, and nothing. Just windy and chilly. After class my Mom and I walked to the tower to line up. Wow...almost NO line. Only had about a 15 minute wait to pay, about 25 minutes for the first elevator, and 5-10 minutes for the second elevator. It was quite chilly up top, but it was not too crowded. In my opinion, I'll take a breeze over hordes of people.

    Not sure if Tuesday at 4:00 is a good time, or it was the weather? Either way, I'm happy and Mom was thrilled to see the city from up high. I got some great photos and switched my lens for a zoom lens and snapped some good pics of some landmarks.

    Back to the hotel where I had to take care of some business in the US with phone calls. I just discovered the Magic Jack app. It's totally free and actually works not too bad. A couple times the connection was spotty, but that was it over an hour of calling. Unfortunately, things are not resolved and I'll be making daily phone calls (trying to obtain some important paperwork).

    We bought some strawberries at the market yesterday and that was dinner. Oh wow....they were delicious. So sweet and tasty. Does everything taste better in Paris? So yummy!

    Now I'm just relaxing and preparing for tomorrow's class.

    On tomorrow's agenda is class in the AM. We then have a 3.5 hour break. Not sure where to go....maybe the Army museum? But then at 3:30 PM we have the Louvre. So we might be museumed out and I know I need my stamina for the Louvre. This time I hope to visit some areas I missed last year.

    Any suggestions? Hmmmm, maybe some shopping along St. Honore. It's pretty close to the Louvre. Or go to the Marais for a few hours...always fun wandering those streets.

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    My apologies for the break. I have a developed an awful cold :( it started as a tickle when we landed and I thought it was allergies. By Wednesday my throat was in a lot of pain. I made my way to the pharmacy for a great experience with language barriers. I had researched the phrase beforehand (j'ai mAl du gorge). I was given some Maxilase tablets. I was really hoping for some Robitussin and some cough drops. No cough drops and the pills weren't going to help with immediate soothing. So I went to another pharmacy later and grabbed some Vicks. By the end of the day I was still in pain so I googled again and got some spray with lidocaine (although it doesn't really feel like it's doing much numbing).

    The pharmacists are so helpful and everything is pretty cheap.

    I felt a little better yesterday (Thursday), but not nearly close to 100%. Still a ton of coughing. Just woke and I'm still coughing, but I'm hoping it's a little less than yesterday.

    I haven't had a cold in years and have never really been sick on vacation (little bit of motion sickness on a cruise once). It's putting a bit of a damper on my enthusiasm for Paris. I don't know if Paris just isn't my European city (you know....we all have that city we fall in love with and return to again and again) or if it's just because I'm sick.

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    We did end up visiting the Louvre. Ugh, I remember why I didn't like it last year. Hot, crowded, and crowded some more. Mom isn't an art lover, so we did the express pass. Hit the major works of art and headed for Napoleon's apartment. I had missed those last year getting lost in Egypt. We were out of there in 90 minutes and that was after spending at least 30 minutes finding the apartments.

    Student consensus was that the louvre is something you have to say you've been to, but they didn't like it. That was generally the consensus with our group last year. They enjoy the Orsay much more (me too). We'll be there next week.

    Stopped off at printemps and bought my replacement Eiffel Tower bag that my dog age (gotta love puppies). Mom bought one too and says she loves it better than lugging around a backpack.

    By the end of the day I felt like I had been hit by a truck and had the chills. So I went to bed early.

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    Thursday -

    Today was a full day. Woke up and felt a wee bit better. It feels like the cold is breaking up, if that makes any sense. Had class early where we talked about parenting in France and the differences between France and the USA. They've had some interesting observations so far and are really interested and excited (which is fun as a professor).

    Following class we decided to go to Montmartre. Didn't realize that is was Ascension Day. The Metro was running a little slower and was a little emptier. We took the funicular (free with our metro passes) to the top. Turns out there was a mass during our visit, which made it a little more special. Some magical about hearing the singing and praying echo in the large space.

    Outside we started walking to the artists square. Students bought some self portraits and some art. A Dutch woman came up to us when she heard us speaking English and asked if we knew where a police station was because she had been robbed (wallet stolen). Unfortunately, none of our maps had that info on it. We all held on to our bags a little tighter, it was a good reminder. However, I will say that I think the students have been pretty good about taking care of their belongings and being aware.

    We then walked around Montmartre. Saw the moulin de galette and van Gogh's apartment. Somehow I missed this stuff last year! Ended at moulin rouge, which just doesn't look the same during the day. You really have to go at night to take pics. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) I attended a show last year and mom wasn't interested in going.

    We then headed to the Luxembourg gardens for a little more class and student observations. It was a great day to go. Partly cloudy, nice temperature, and so many families were out because of the holiday. All the sail boats were on the pond. It was a nice site.

    That evening we went on a bus tour. We did this same tour last year, and at the same time. So we were expecting to be at the Eiffel Tower when it lit up. Nope, that didn't happen this year. Bummer. I mean, it was still a great overview of the city and the students enjoyed it. We'll just have to go out next week and see the sparkling. I didn't think to call/email and check because it was the same company and the same tour.

    Tomorrow we just have class in the am and then a free afternoon. We had planned it this way so students could go on a weekend trip if they wanted. Turns out that none of them booked that.

    Some students are trying to go to Normandy for a night, but are being told the return trains are all sold out. I find that hard to believe. Other students are planning on exploring Paris and going to the flea market.

    I'm planning on Auvers sur Oise on Saturday and then vegging out on Sunday :)

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    Friday -

    I've forgotten to mention that our hotel has free breakfast, so we've been subsisting on that. The typical spread of pastries, yogurt, breads, and juice. My throat is enjoying hot lemon tea with honey at least several times a day.

    Actually, today the throat is starting to feel better, but my ears are all wonky. It seems that my immune system does this every 3-5 years....just crashes. Oh well....it can't last for the entire 6 weeks.

    Today was a nice day. We had class in the morning where we prepared for Monday. We will be interviewing a French mother and a French college student about their experiences living in France and also discussing their stereotypes about Americans. We did this last year and our American students found it very eye opening.

    The afternoon was a free day for everyone. So a few of us decided to go to Chartres for the afternoon. It's very easy to get out there and a short, direct train ride. We left from Gare Montparnasse and tickets were 15.60 each way. Trains leave every hour.

    Once off the train we walked to the cathedral. We spent just over an hour inside and another 45 minutes or so walking the exterior. Wow. What an amazing piece of architecture. The labyrinth was also open to walk since it was Friday. I had read about construction and was worried, but there was no scaffolding present on the inside or outside. It looks half finished though....there are parts that look new and parts that look like they haven't been touched. So I'm not sure if they are done. It wasn't overly crowded either, which was nice.

    Following the church, we decided to spend time wandering the town. During our wanders we visited two other parish churches. They were also beautiful, but clearly in need of restoration work. However, I imagine all the money goes to the big lady. It was sad to think of them fading away for future generations. I believe one of the churches was St.Aubian and one was St. Pierre. The interior of St. Aubian was so colorful and pretty. Amazing to think that this is the way most churches were.

    We stopped and had dinner near Notre Dame. Ugh, what an awful experience. I don't know what we did to anger our waiter, but he must have despised us. He took orders from tables that were seated long after us, we never received bread although all other tables did, and he brought the bill without us asking (this has never happened to me in Europe). We were a small group, quiet, we ordered meals, and two members ordered alcohol. I don't know what we did wrong? I said bonjour, attempted French, etc.

    Following dinner we headed back to the hotel in Paris and slept! My sleep hasn't been great....I wake up frequently during the night, but I'm sure it's due to the cold.

    Tomorrow is the weekend...yay!!

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    Saturday May 31

    Wow, today was the most beautiful day in Paris that I have experienced between both of my visits. Last year the weather in May was awful...temps in the 50s and raining our whole visit. Today was just perfection.

    We rolled out of bed late, grabbed some breakfast and headed for Gare du nord. The plan for today was something I wanted to do last year, but didn't have time for: a visit to Auvers sur Oise.

    We slept too late for the direct train so we had to do connections, but it was very easy. We purchased tickets in Gare du nord. Caught the train for Persan Beaumont. Arrived and the train for Auvers was waiting. So very easy. All told the ride was just under an hour.

    Arrived in Auvers and was instantly captivated by the paintings on the walls of the station underpass. Wow! Francois Laval is the artist and he is just great! On the weekends he also has his studio open, which is right next to the station. I love the bright colors!

    I forgot to mention....this visit is very special to me. Van Gogh is my favorite artist. I have been a fan of his work for many years and have planned several trips just to see his works of art. I have also read his most recent extensive biography (several times). His life experiences sadden me and I feel such empathy for the man. I know this probably all sounds a little strange, but when I see his art or visit a place where he lived, I feel this extreme sense of melancholy. Maybe that is the point? To feel what he felt? I don't know.

    Visiting Auvers is on my long list of travel experiences. To see the place where he created many of his masterpieces, shot himself, eventually died, and was ultimately buried is like a pilgrimage of sorts. I still need to visit Arles (a place that started out as a place of hope and ended in despair) and the MOMA in NYC to see Starry Night.

    Back to the travels....

    Once in Auvers we walked until we found the entrance to his house. Paid the 6 euro entry fee. We had some great timing, there was no one there! We had to share the tour with one French couple. Unfortunately, there are no pictures allowed....but I can understand since it is meant to be a place of memory and reflection. His single room only contains a single chair and on the wall is a glass case where they hope one day to have a painting that he completed in Auvers. The room itself was so small. How can a man of such artistic genius live like this? The cliche of starving artist is fitting. When I walked in the room I was overcome with sadness and tears welled up. Just imagining the despair that led to him shooting himself and walking back here. And then a slow painful death.

    The next room contained a bed and wash table that they found in the room. They can't be sure that it was van Gogh's, so they keep it in the next room. But it is correct for the period, so it was still interesting to see what the furniture would have looked like. After, they bring you into a room for a short film that contains snapshots from the town and quotes from his letters.

    After visiting the house we wandered to the church. Again, lucky timing as there were only a small handful of people visiting! Once again, being my dorky self, I walked around imagining that I was possibly walking the same steps that Van Gogh also walked.

    From the church we walked to the graveyard. More sadness. We also walked out into the wheat fields. There was a nice breeze and no one out there. So it was peaceful to watch the wheat blowing and to hear the sounds of the wheat moving. I can see how it would capture his eye.

    After the fields we wandered around the town. Had a yummy late lunch at a creperie (cheese, bacon, potato, and onion). Stopped at a bakery for some macarons, since mom has not tried them yet.

    Then we worked our way home. Had a very late dinner at a pizza place nearby (oh so yummy) and stopped at the market for some goodies.

    A fabulous day! Tomorrow is Sunday and the plan is to sleep in and veg out. Maybe head out to visit something.....I still have not seen napoleons tomb, so maybe that.

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