Sunday, December 1, 2013

Thanksgiving and Christmas all in one weekend?!

Hello, hello!
    One word to describe how I'm feeling right now: bliss. I'm currently sitting in my living room on the sofa across from our freshly decorated Christmas tree finishing up some of the leftover pie from last night's Thanksgiving feast. Easy to say that this weekend may have been my favorite weekend while abroad. 
    As every American knows, this past Thursday was Thanksgiving and seeing as I'm 3,828 miles away from home I couldn't quite make it home in time for dinner. In fact my Thanksgiving day was spent like no other I've had before--mainly, because I was in class for most of the day. It's odd because it didn't even feel like Thanksgiving, which makes sense because the holiday isn't celebrated here. But, I skyped with my parents during one of my class breaks and it was around 11 AM in D.C. so the Macy's Day parade was still going on. As cheesy as it is, I love watching it! Normally, my mom and I are the ones up on the morning of Thanksgiving watching and getting ready for the cooking so it was kind of sad not being there to lie on the couch while the smells of Thanksgiving were being prepared. It was a quick Skype session and after I had to return back to class. When I got home from class, my host dad's sister was visiting Paris for the day/night so we had a big dinner! After dinner, I was able to Skype into the Thanksgiving dinner with my own family which was really fun to be able to "sit around the table"! 
Happy Thanksgiving!!

Photo courtesy of my brother, but here's the family all together around the dinner table!
      As much as I would have loved to be home for Thanksgiving, I wouldn't trade the experiences and opportunities to travel and meet new people that I have had while abroad and for that I am thankful. I also knew that I would be having a Thanksgiving dinner of my own with my host family and two close friends! A couple months back at dinner, my host mom and I were talking about Thanksgiving and I mentioned that I would love to celebrate the holiday with them and cook the meal (even though I've never cooked a full Thanksgiving meal solo). My host mom was super excited about this and said that I could invite some friends over if I wanted to. We decided on a date for the dinner, which was this past weekend, and soon my friend Nick and I started planning the menu. Thankfully, Nick loves to cook and is really good at it so our chances of having a successful turkey dinner were much higher than if I had cooked it on my own. 
     On Friday, neither Nick nor I had class so we spent the day shopping for everything we would need for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. We were planning on having turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, stuffing, cranberry sauce, green beans, and we even baked two pies (because you can't just have one dessert at Thanksgiving, right?). We managed to get almost everything from Monoprix, a French grocery store, and the fresh market. Everything except cranberries. I don't know anything about where cranberries are grown, but boy are they impossible to find in France. All the stores we tried had dried cranberries, but none of the regular ones except for the American store called Thanksgiving Dinner (clever name, I know…) thats located near the Marais, or the Jewish quarter of Paris. After spending the day shopping, Nick came over and we baked one of the two pies. We made an apple pie and it smelled amazing! 

The best mix possible: apples, cinnamon, brown sugar 

If only you could smell it through the screen

      Saturday was technically our "Thanksgiving Day" and where I would normally be up at 8 AM, this time I actually slept in because we were planning on having our turkey feast at night around 8 PM. Nick and I met up at 11ish to pick up the turkey from the market and grab a couple other things. Let me just say that picking up your turkey at an open-air market is completely different than picking up a turkey from your local grocery store. For starters, my host mom had to place an order in advance for the turkey to be prepared because it still had it's butt feathers, neck, and head on it. So thankfully we had didn't have to deal with that except we did still have the neck on it…but I won't go into those details because Nick was the one who dealt with that. After picking up the last few things, Nick left for the Marais to get cranberries and I went home to drop off our turkey. I then did the healthy thing and went for a run because I knew I would be feeling stuffed and grossly unhealthy after dinner. At 4 in the afternoon, Nick came over and we started cooking. We decided to make the sweet potato pie first, then bake the turkey, and then the stuffing at the end. Meanwhile, we were cooking multiple different pans of things on the stovetop but after 4 hours we had a full edible meal that was great!! 

A little egg yolk fiasco 

Here goes nothing! 

Sweet potato pie

Little taste of home with Mom's stuffing recipe
While everything was cooking, my friend Willa came over and my host family, friends, and I were able to hang out in the kitchen, drink, and talk. It was great because my host parents got to meet two of my best friends here and my friends got to meet my host family. Finally, at 8:40 PM our dinner was complete!! Plus, the French eat late anyways so really this was perfect timing!
Nick cooked while Willa & I enjoyed hanging out 

A job well done

Nick, Willa, and I 
My amazing host family!
The delicious sweet potato pie (and ice cream of course!)

The best host parents a girl could ask for!

A little cheesy, but Thanksgiving is about all family and pictures? Right??
       The night was wonderful and as corny as it sounds, I couldn't stop smiling the whole time. It was better than I could've even imagined. We had delicious food (and tons of it) along with great company. There were so many times throughout the meal where all I could think about was how lucky I was to be living in Paris with a host family as amazing as mine. I am so grateful for the time that I have had with them and just thinking about leaving them in two weeks devastates me--they're a second family to me and I couldn't have asked for anyone better. We spent the night deep in conversation about things that ranged from where we go to school to what we thought about French politics…and bonus it was all in French. The evening went til 12:30 and I enjoyed every minute of it! I couldn't have asked for a better international Thanksgiving!
       Today, was a lazy day in the morning. We woke up late, had brunch, and lounged around for a while. Then this afternoon, my host dad and I went out to pick up our christmas tree!!! First Thanksgiving and now Christmas?! Love it! This was especially exciting for me because it was the first time in maybe 15 years that I have picked out a REAL christmas tree. Since I was really young, we have had a (beautiful and realistically looking) fake christmas tree so I haven't been able to pick one out in a while. But, today was the day! We were going to go out as the family except my host brother was really tired and my host mom opted to stay home with him. When my host dad and I got back with our tree, my host mom's mouth dropped. She said that they have never had a tree as big as this one! Except, in my opinion the tree isn't really THAT big…but at least it's not a Charlie Brown tree. We decorated the tree, danced & sang christmas carols, and indulged in leftover Thanksgiving pie. Which brings me back to my one word to describe the weekend: bliss. I got to celebrate one of my favorite holidays even while I'm abroad, I got to partake in the preparation of another great holiday, and I got to have my friends and host family get together over good food. What more could I ask for?
The Unveiling of the Tree!

The excitement that comes from putting the first ornament on!

We picked a lucky tree

     I don't know if I could really do justice in words how I felt this weekend, but I do know that in fourteen days it will be one of the hardest goodbyes I have to say. The longer I'm in Paris, the more I don't want to leave. It will be a bittersweet moment for sure. I'll be going home to my family and friends, many of whom I haven't seen since May or August, but leaving Paris and the people who have made my study abroad experience so wonderful will definitely be difficult. But until then, I'm not going to think about it! Plus, this weekend I'm off to Dublin and Belfast to visit one of my family friends. So cheers to that! 


Sunday, November 24, 2013


   I know, I know I bet you're all surprised that there is another blog post coming so quickly after my previous one! Well here it is and its about: you guessed it…Portugal! In my last blog post, I mentioned that on our last day in Italy Nick left to go back to Paris and I left for Portugal. Well, Nick actually left in the morning and my flight wasn't until 9 pm so I spent the day in Venice all by myself. Let's just say there was a lot of wandering around, sitting on benches, and riding the Vaporetto. I definitely consider myself a people person and I really don't like being by myself--traveling, especially. So my flight to Portugal couldn't come sooner! Plus, I was going to be seeing my favorite people in the world so there was that excitement too! I got to the airport a little early because a) I was getting bored (I know, you're probably thinking how can you be bored you're in Venice?! Well trust me, it's possible!) and b) because I was so excited I figured why not get there early just in case. At 9 pm, I hopped on my flight and touched down in Portugal at 11:30 only to walk out of the arrivals section to one of the most classic Mertens Family scenes: Dad waving, Andrew waving even more excitedly to embarrass me, and Mom & Chris excitedly walking over to me. It was great!
   We grabbed a cab and headed to our apartment that we would be staying in for the week. We caught up, hung around, and ate loads of my favorite American chocolates that my mom brought over for me…sadly, they didn't make it past Monday. My brother's friend, Norman, who we've known since elementary school met up with us in Portugal since he's teaching english in a village in Spain. One thing I love about traveling with my family is that it's so relaxed and low key. We woke up late the next morning because everyone was getting used to the time difference, grabbed lunch, and did what our family does best…explored Europe by bus. My dad LOVES these guided bus tours, so naturally we had to buy tickets. Now I know, they scream "TOURIST" but I have to say that for someone who isn't going to be in the city for a long time, they do a pretty good job of getting you around and showing all the city has to offer in terms of monuments and such.
My favorite boys!

Lovin' the bus life!
 We rode around on the bus for a bit before deciding to take a shuttle bus up to the top of this castle that overlooks all of Lisbon--it was absolutely beautiful!
The view from above
Andrew, Chris, Norman and I 

Family photo + Norman

   After walking around a bit, we headed to a cafe to grab some drinks. Both Chris and Norman ordered hot chocolate which was basically a melted chocolate bar in a mug…Oh my god it was heavenly. I had half of Chris' and finished off Norman's. It was unreal.
Pure happiness

    Later that afternoon we walked around, went shopping a bit, and grabbed dinner. Everyone was pretty tired so we went to bed early and woke up a little bit earlier than the day before. The next day we went to the Santa Justa elevator. Yup, you read that right: an elevator. Lisbon is known for its hilly terrain and in the 1800s they decided to build this elevator to help connect Baixa Square to Carmo Square. At the top of this elevator is a platform where you can see all of Lisbon which was really cool. Similar to the lookout on top of the castle except now you actually get to see the castle. 
The elevator in all it's glory
    The rest of the day was spent using our bus passes to stop at different places in Lisbon. We stopped at the Belem Tower which was built in the 1500s as a watchtower for incoming boats. Andrew, Dad, and I decided to venture inside and go to the top which was a mistake. We got to the top and saw all it had to offer which took 5 mins top and then waited in line for 45 mins to go back down the small winding staircase. When we finally got down, we hopped back on the bus and took it around for a little longer before making our way back to the apartment where everyone ended up taking a nap and having a small homemade dinner. 
Belem Tower
Sunset from our terrace

    Our last full day in Portugal was spent in this small town called Sintra which is a 45 minute train ride from Lisbon. It's a small town that has many different royal buildings from castles to estates. At the halfway point of the hill, there is this Castle of the Moors that you can get to by walking up all these stairs. We opted out of that one since it would just  be another look-out point and decided instead to go to the castle which was up the hill. It was a pretty castle, but for the size of it I didn't think it measured up inside. Maybe I'm biased because I'm studying in France, but I think that the French have the whole castles and chateaux thing under their belt. 
Someone clearly lived in Florida for two years...

Potential Christmas card??
   After spending some time wandering around the castle, we went back down into town where we grabbed lunch and then walked around the town. We made our way back to the train station and returned to Lisbon, where we found a restaurant for dinner. This restaurant was definitely what you would consider a local neighborhood restaurant. No one spoke English and we couldn't speak Portuguese so there was a lot of pointing and guessing. The dinner ended up being pretty good even though no one knew what they had ordered! 
   The next day was spent lounging around and cleaning since Mom, Dad, and Chris were leaving in the afternoon. We had lunch at this delicious Italian restaurant and then said our goodbyes. Crazy to think I wouldn't see them til December! Andrew and I were leaving the next day so we decided to walk around and do a little shopping. Overall, it was a great trip! I LOVED seeing my family and being abroad with them is always an adventure! Hope all is well in the States and everyone is getting ready for Thanksgiving! 


Saturday, November 16, 2013

A little catching up to do...

Hello, hello! 
   Since my last post I feel like I have been all over Europe traveling through Italy, to Portugal, and then to Belgium. It has been a long couple of weeks but it has definitely been an adventure! Unlike my other posts, since there is wayyy more to write about, I will try and make this one short and sweet. 
   Where do I start? The last week in October was my fall break off from classes so my friend Nick and I decided to take the opportunity and travel through Italy. We both had been to Rome with our families once before so we decided to travel to places we've never before been to. The way the week worked out was that we would travel to three different cities--Cinque Terre, Florence, and Venice--and spend a day and a half in each. This worked out perfectly because as two college students who didn't want to spend all our money and all our time in museums, we had the time to wander around and explore. We started off in Cinque Terre which in Italian actually means "The Five Lands" which are located on the Mediterranean Sea. They're old little fisherman villages that are so beautiful! We stayed in Corniglia which is the village right smack dab in the middle. 
Corniglia from the boat
It is also the only one not right on the water, which Nick and I found out after getting off the train and hiking up the steep hill in the pitch black. That would be the first hike during our time there. The five villages are reachable by train or by trail. During our full day in Cinque Terre, we hiked from Corniglia to Vernazza and then to Monterosso al Mare. We met another American, Albert, who was backpacking through Europe. 
Nick, Albert, and I overlooking Vernazza
He came with us on our hikes which was great because we got to hear about his stories thus far and he gave us some advice on the other Italian cities we were going to visit. The views from the hike were amazing. We took a break at a look out spot which was beautiful! It was a cloudy day, but you could see the sun trying to come out and you could see where the land met the ocean. All in all, I found it breathtaking. 
The picture doesn't do the moment or view justice
From Monterosso, we took a boat to Manarola where we explored a bit but many of the shops were closed. We headed back to Corniglia via train and took the shuttle back up to the top where we showered and grabbed dinner.
Here's a map so you're not completely lost!
The next day was a "travel day" where we were able to morning and early afternoon in Riomaggiore before heading to Florence. We walked around a bit in Riomaggiore and grabbed a pizza to split before heading to the train station. We then took the train from La Spieza to Pisa Centrale and then to Florence. We arrived in Florence in the early evening and made our way to hostel. After checking in and resting a bit, we grabbed dinner at this Chinese restaurant that this elderly Kiwi couple we met in Cinque Terre told us about. Finding this restaurant was a miracle! The lady we met couldn't remember the name of the restaurant but described where it was in Florence and from those directions we managed to find our way. It was perfect because it was cheap and it was a change-up from the pizza and pasta that we had been eating everyday! 
Found it!!
We walked around at night got gelato. YUM. I'm pretty sure that we got gelato every night we were in Italy. Hey, when in Rome right? Or in this case, Florence! We sat on one of the bridges and ate our gelato before heading back to sleep. Florence was the start of my killer mosquito bites. That night, Nick and I woke up multiple times throughout the night to kill mosquitos that were flying around. I can honestly say I don't think I've ever been bitten that many times in one night or in the same place!! My arm was COVERED with bites…and of course Nick had barely any. 
Heaven on Earth

Bad quality picture, but my arms were covered!! 
During the day in Florence, we wandered around a bit and went to the leather market that is just a little ways away from the Duomo. With the help of Nick's great bargaining skills, I got a new leather purse! After my exciting new purchase, we went to see the statue of David. We walked around the museum a bit, saw the statue, and then left to get pizza. We headed back to the hostel to relax a bit and then decided to go to the lookout point at Piazzale Michelangelo. We tried getting there for sunset, but sadly missed it! The view from the top was still pretty to see during the night! 

After trekking down from Piazzale Michelangelo, we grabbed dinner and gelato (anyone seeing a trend here?) and then walked around a bit. We headed back to the hostel where they were having a little get together and I met this guy who was from Wales but working on a farm in Italy. It was really cool to hear his stories and meet some of the other travelers there! The next morning we checked out, dropped our bags off at the train station locker, and then went back into Florence where we wandered around a bit. In the late afternoon we left for Venice via train and arrived in the early evening. This wouldn't have been a problem except that it gets dark really early. Venice is already a confusing city so the darkness only added to the adventure of finding our hotel. We were staying near Piazza san Marco in Venice which is pretty far from the train station. We hopped on a vaporetto which is a boat bus that took us to the stop. From there we wandered around crossing multiple bridges and eventually got lost. Oh, and we didn't have a map because they were being sold for 2 euros at the tourist office and well, we're cheap college kids! But a total miracle happened! We went into a grocery store we found and all of a sudden this girl comes up to Nick and asked if he went to Colgate. Turns out she goes there too and was studying abroad in Venice! She was really friendly and super sweet because she left the grocery store and took us to where our hotel was. After that we parted ways, she was leaving for a weekend trip to Rome in the morning and we checked in and got dinner. Guess what we did after dinner? Yup, you probably got it right. We walked around and got gelato!! Except it was freezing cold with the wind so we decided to call it a night early. 
The next morning we woke up, grabbed bananas for breakfast, and started walking around. Pretty much all you can do in Venice is go to museums, eat pizza/pasta, and get lost! We weren't really in the mood for museums so for most of the day we found ourselves walking down little streets and crossing bridges. 

Shameless selfie waiting for the Vaporetto

Since we were in Venice we figured we couldn't leave without going on a gondola…even though it was 80 euros! Well let me just say that it was the biggest waste of my 80 euros. We were on the little boat for maybe 25 minutes. Now, before anyone says "well didn't you check the prices beforehand?" you should know that all gondola rides are 80 euros but I guess it depends on the driver how long you go out for! It was a bummer in my opinion, but hey at least I can say I've been on one! 
View from our gondola: Realto Bridge
We were starting to get pretty tired of walking around and getting lost so we decided to ride the Vaporetto for a bit. Perfect timing because it was as my friend Leah would call it, "the golden hour" where everything is beautiful and lit wonderfully by the setting sun! We even saw the sunset from the boat bus. 

We of course, then headed back to our hotel where we hung out for a bit and then went to grab our last Italian dinner and gelato! The next day Nick would be leaving to go back to Paris and I was going to meet up with my family in Lisbon, Portugal! It's crazy how fast studying abroad is flying by. That week marked the "halfway" point of the semester! I'll continue with the rest of my traveling adventures in another post…don't want to write too much in one! Hope all is well in America and everyone is getting excited for Thanksgiving! Can't believe I won't be home for it this year, but I have offered to make a Thanksgiving dinner for my host family so we will be celebrating it over here! Don't worry that will be another blog post…