The Leftons Take Europe, 2015-16 Edition

Hello everyone and happy belated 2016! I suppose my New Years resolution of writing more prompt blog updates is off to a rocky start, but the year itself has been pretty great. I’ve officially signed the papers to stay in Japan for a second year and I’m pretty happy about it. I’m hoping another year will give me a chance to improve my language skills and keep exploring, and I really like my school and teachers. The adventure continues!

But for now I’ll take some time to look back on the holidays, and the week I got to spend with my family in Europe. Fair warning, I’m putting the whole 10 days into one post, so this might get a bit long….

Anyways, this was the trip that almost wasn’t, what with the Paris attacks and general panic over the state of the world. At one point my mom called to tell me the trip was off, but two days later it was back to, “no, let’s wait and see.” I’m very glad that annoyance over having to discard our plans won out over anxiety about the state of the world, since in the end the world seems to have kept on going, and we all survived the journey.

The family in Dublin, in front of a famous church (either St. Patrick's or Christchurch.... I can't remember now)
The family in Dublin, in front of a famous church (either St. Patrick’s or Christchurch…. I can’t remember now)

This is not to say that the trip was easy. The journey was long for all of us. I took off on Christmas Eve and flew from Miyazaki to Osaka, where I had to spend the night. After a lazy day that ended with me being scolded at a Japanese Starbucks for attempting to charge my computer (yes, it was as strange as it sounds) I set off on the second leg of my journey: Osaka to Hong Kong, then Hong Kong to Amsterdam. I had a bit of deja vu when I realized that exactly four years ago I was making almost the exact same journey from Hong Kong to London to meet my family for the holidays on Pac Rim. It’s funny how much things have changed since then, but have also remained the same… Anyway, once I made it to Amsterdam I had a nice long layover before I finally made it to Dublin, where I met up with the family.

Presto and the Abra Kebabra
Presto and the Abra Kebabra restaurant

It was great to see everyone, though of course we were all beyond tired the first few days. We only had two full days in Dublin and both of them were fairly quiet. We all took a  walking tour of the city that was very informative, though the guide was a bit long winded. We saw Trinity College, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin Castle and several other historic old buildings. It was all very interesting, but by the end we were feeling a bit oversaturated with information, and of course more than a little tired.

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The family in Dublin, in front of a famous church (either St. Patrick’s or Christchurch…. I can’t remember now)

Day two didn’t quite go as planned,since mom woke up in the middle of the night with back spasms. She and dad had quite a night going to and from the hospital, and of course when morning came they were both set on staying in bed. So Katie and I took the day to explore on our own. It’s not often that we get to spend time one-on-one, so I was glad to have a chance to catch up with her. We walked around parks and in and out of shops before ending up at the Guinness Storehouse. The tour was nice, but since neither of us are particularly fond of Guinness or interested in how beer is made, the whole thing was a bit lost on us. The view of the city was cool to see though, and many of the exhibits and props for old Guinness ads were fun to take photos with.

All in all our stop in Dublin was very short, and I think everyone decided that was fine. As cities go Dublin is perfectly nice, but it’s really the countryside that draws people to Ireland. Sadly we didn’t have time to get out of the city, so I’ve put Ireland back onto my list of places to go. Next time I’ll just rent a car and take in the scenery, and I’ll do a bit more research into holidays. This time we had the bad luck (well, really just poor planning on my part) of arriving in the middle of a bunch of bank holidays, and just about everything was closed.

In any case, after leaving Ireland we landed in Edinburgh, Scotland, our main destination. Mom’s back was mostly back to normal, though she spent most of our trip dealing with the side effects of the drugs the doctor had given her. In light of everything she went through, she was amazingly resilient, though of course we all wished she didn’t have to be. But in any case, it was good to arrive with our family members in better shape than before, and I was excited to see what Edinburgh had to offer.

I can’t speak for the rest of the family, but I found Edinburgh to be an utterly charming city. The architecture was gorgeous and gothic, the accents lovely, and the food surprisingly good. We spent a fair amount of time wandering the Christmas markets, which was a fun, seasonal treat (and who doesn’t love mulled wine and chocolates?).

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Our main purpose for visiting Edinburgh was to join in the New Year’s festivities, and so on our second night in the city, December 30th, we all bundled up to join a massive torchlight procession through old town. There were so many people when we showed up, that mom got a bit overwhelmed and decided to watch rather than participate in the procession itself. Katie and I jumped right into the crowd and waited in line for about half an hour to have our torches lit before finally making the journey down the hill and into town.

In the end, the wait and the cold were worth it, because it really was an amazing sight. There were over twenty thousand people in attendance, and they all  created a river of light throughout the town, and I felt a bit of a rush from taking part in something so cool. Photos don’t really do it justice. By the time we made it down the hill we realized we were running a bit late to dinner (where we would meet back up with the parents. Being late would have probably meant inducing a panic attack, since none of our phones really worked). We gave our torches away to a few torch-less tourists and made it to the restaurant just in time.

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The next day Katie went rock climbing and the rest of us split up to explore or nap as we pleased. I decided to wander the city and see where I ended up. Edinburgh is a surprisingly walkable city, and I had a great time getting lost and finding myself in unexpected places. Taking time to just wander is always my favorite part of traveling, and while I love traveling with friends and family, it’s nice to have time for self-reflection. In the evening we met back up to have dinner and check out the official New Year’s street party.

The street party was cool, with five stages for live music and fireworks going off every hour or so from Edinburgh Castle, but in the end the cold was a bit much for us. Katie and I stuck around long enough to see one or two shows, but by 11 we noticed that the crowd was significantly drunker than we were, and our warm hotel room was calling. Not the most exciting of New Years Eve stories, but we had a good time and felt well rested in the morning.

Katie and I decided to kick off 2016 with a hike, so we set out from our hotel to climb Arthur’s Seat, a small mountain (well, ok, a hill) in the center of the city. I’d read that the hike offered 360 degree views of the city, and it definitely delivered. We also lucked out with the weather – a nice, mildly cloudy day in what was otherwise a bit of a cold and rainy week.

After the hike we met up with the parents and decided to tag along on a Harry Potter tour of the city. Edinburgh is where JK Rowling lives, and so the city supposedly inspired a number of people and places in the books. Below we have the “original” Hogwarts, the grave of Tom Riddle (or He-who-must-not-be-named), Diagon Alley, and a bit of Harry Potter inspired street art. The tour was fast paced and entertaining – we were all given “wands” at the start (someone had painted disposable chopsticks with glitter and string) which was very silly, but also cute. I’d recommend the (free!) tour to anyone who likes Harry Potter and finds themselves visiting Edinburgh. It was way better than a similar tour we took in London a few years back.

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Magic duel in the graveyard!

Our final days in Edinburgh were spent walking around, taking in the sites and eating our way through town. We saw the castle, of course, bought ourselves some tweed clothes, and Mom ate and liked black pudding, until she found out what it was (the not-so-secret ingredient is blood!).

On our final day in Scotland we took a tour of Stirling Castle and the highlands that turned out not to actually go into the highlands, but did bring us to a very pretty loch (which is a lake). Katie tried vegetarian haggis, we drove past the castle where they filmed Monty Python and the Holy Grail (though sadly we didn’t get to stop and go in), and I braved some serious wind and cold to get a full tour of Stirling Castle.

The next day it was off to Amsterdam. I think that all of us found this to be an extremely interesting city, but we were also a bit drained from all of the travel and time together. We took an extremely interesting walking tour of “alternative Amsterdam,” a less interesting canal boat tour, visited the Anne Frank house, Rijks and Van Gogh museums, and of course walked over canal after canal. I really wish we’d had a bit of extra time, since Amsterdam is gorgeous and fascinating.

But I think my favorite thing about Amsterdam was the food. No, seriously. The tour guides laughed about how Dutch food isn’t very good, but I beg to disagree. Pancakes, bitterballen, olibollen, stroopwafels, gouda! Given a few more days in Amsterdam, I surely would have gained about ten pounds from all of the delicious treats – especially the stroopwafels, which I made everyone go out of their way to find at a market near the Van Gogh Museum. We all agreed it was worth it, there’s not much better than a warm waffle-cookie with gooey caramel in the middle.

But in any event, after two days in Amsterdam, it was time to part ways. It was sad to go, but I think I do better with goodbyes when it’s not leaving St. Louis. There’s a sort of finality to leaving home that just doesn’t exist in quite the same way when we’re all traveling. Mom said she had the opposite feeling, since she can go home and distract herself with the dogs when I leave from home. I guess I’ll get to test my new theory when I eventually come back home later this year (still figuring out when that’ll be…)

So that’s it! A very long account of our family trip to Europe. See ya next time!

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