E-mails from Alex on his Tour
Sent: Monday, May 19, 2008 2:46 PM
Subject: The Pre-Launch Note
Well, it’s T-minus 48 hours and counting before I’m in the air on the way to Europe! This is incredibly exciting. I’ve finalized most of my itinerary; I’ve got hostels booked all the way through the end of June. I’m leaving myself a couple of weeks in July to play with but will most certainly be in Paris on Bastille Day. I’ve attached the itinerary to this note; please feel free to forward it to the Ramsey contingent if you’d like. If anyone knows of some folks that I could email at the last minute about staying someplace in France for that last week or so, I’d be much obliged, but if not, I can easily hostel my way around.
Thanks again for everything, Jay, and rest assured that I’ll be sending you updates to send to the family throughout!
Subject: Alex Brussels/Amsterdam
Sent: Tuesday, May 27, 2008 12:30 PM
Just dropping you a quick note from Amsterdam to let you know that I’m both alive and incredibly well; the trip has been a ball thus far and will, with all luck, continue to be in the next couple of days. As I’ve got about ten people cued behind me for this computer (it’s the only free one in the hostel I’m staying at), this will probably be brief, but Brussels was an interesting place and Amsterdam is absolutely incredible. This has to be one of the most beautiful cities I’ve yet visited in Europe, and certainly one of the most… entertaining. And they call Vegas “Sin City”… But such vices are both pointless and a waste of the fixed amount of capital I’ve got at the moment, so I’ll leave them to the rest of the collegiate population that’s here visiting the city. It’s sad, actually, the number of people my age that come through Amsterdam Central Station and headed straight to the nearest coffee shop versus the number of people that have seen Starry Night in the Van Gogh museum or the old tree at the Ann Frankhuis. They’re missing out on what could be one of the most (if not THE most) cultured and storied cities in Europe!
Be sure to let Tryon know that I’m keeping a daily journal (in written form, of course) and that – if I get the time in Frankfurt – I’ll type up the whole thing thus far and send it off to him for the website. I know y’all must be dying for an update at this point and I’m so sorry it’s got to be this short BUT rest assured that you’ll have a much better one in two days time.
Thanks again for everything, and any prayers, well-wishes, and general good vibes would be much appreciated!
Sent: Tuesday, June 03, 2008 12:49 PM
Subject: Alex Flachsbart’s–Ramsey Great Ideas Tour
After about two weeks of traveling in relative incognito through continental Europe, I thought I should probably send a much more thorough update to assuage those secret fears that I am actually in Las Vegas and that I’m just making up this stuff about Amsterdam and Brussels. (I’ve also got pictures on the way tonight if I can figure out how to work my cousin’s memory card reader; I thought the family might enjoy some of the shots I’ve taken of the trip thus far.) I have physical journal entries for each day I’ve been on the trip thus far (so Tryon, I’m assuming you’ll want those for the website and as soon as July rolls around I’ll transcribe each of them so that we can have a bit more specific description of the events as they happened), but for brevity’s sake I’ll offer a slightly more condensed version here.
So, without further ado, let me launch into the complete narrative of what has become the most unique – and, without question, best – travel experience of my life. I’ll begin with this. As I was sitting in the airport in Philadelphia waiting for my plane to take off, I suddenly realized that this would be the first time in my life that I would be traveling alone for an extended period of time. I’d been overseas before, true, and I’d spent small amounts of time by myself overseas, but never anything even remotely resembling the week of hard travel through the Benelux Countries that I was about to undergo. I must admit that it took some getting used to. Not having someone to share the sights and the experiences and the culture was a bit depressing, at first, but after a day or so I realized that (as long as I kept it updated constantly) I had – if nothing else – the journal for company, and quite frankly, traveling alone has a hundred advantages over the type of group travel I’ve done in the past. Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve had the opportunity to at least attempt to plug myself into the local scene for at least a day or so and figure out what it’s actually like to be a native of Brussels or Amsterdam or Frankfurt. But I’ve left plenty of time for myself to enjoy the more touristy side of the experience too. But back to specifics.
The flight over was rather long and boring (I mean you can only watch the animated version of Beowulf so many times…), but the minute I stepped off of the plane and into an overcast day in Paris, I knew the adventure had begun. After shepherding two American study abroad gals to a taxi at Gare du Nord (their three oversize suitcases per person for a month made an interesting contrast to my forty-pound backpack for two months…), I was off on the fast train to Brussels! As I’d never been east of Paris before, the scenery – or at least as much of it as I could pick out going 120 miles per hour – was stunning. A very short two hours later, we rolled up to the Gare du Midi and I hopped off the train and made a beeline for my first hostel. That is to say I THOUGHT I was making a beeline towards my hostel. It was actually more of a zigzag and it was by no stretch of the imagination in the direction of my hostel. This whole wandering process (with the pack that seemed to grow heavier by the moment) took up the better part of an hour and a half. See, it would have been a whole heck of a lot easier if I’d realized two things before I set off: 1. Brussels has not one but TWO official languages – and my map, for some reason utterly unbeknown to me, was in German. So with three different versions of the same street names to work with, finding my way around wasn’t the easiest feat in the world. (As an aside, I’ve simply given up on street names since I’ve gotten here and am now relying on sheer dead reckoning navigation to find my way around.) But after a few quick prayers and a fortunate turn down a back alley, I finally arrived at my hostel, got checked in, changed, and hit the town. I spent most of that first day wandering around and getting a feel for the city. Brussels is… well… interesting. I’ll give it that. The gray pall of the overcast sky and the whole three language navigation conundrum probably didn’t do too much for my first impression of the place, but even in the intervening days I still found that the city was just somewhat dull. I came up with a formula for determining the tourist value of a city that’s held pretty true ever since: if there are more travel planning agencies than tourist destinations downtown, you’re probably in a working city (i.e., Frankfurt, Brussels, Hamburg, etc.). If there are more tourist destinations than travel planning agencies, you’re in a tourist town (i.e., Amsterdam, Florence, Rome, etc.). If there are too many of both to count, you’re in a mega-city (Paris, London, etc.). So after realizing that I was about to spend three days in what amounted primarily to a working city, I figured I’d try to get all of my touristy stuff out of the way quickly so I could appreciate life as a local for a greater amount of time. The Grand’Place (Brussel’s ancient town square) was, of course, amazing. They were actually having their city Jazz Fest that weekend so I got the chance to (on my local stuff day) just sit around for a couple of hours, drink Leffe Brun and listen to jazz. THAT was awesome. But the highlight of the touristy portion of the day was almost certainly my exploration of the Musee des Arts et de l’Histoire where, for some strange reason, absolutely no one was there. I had one of the largest (and, I might note, most interesting) museum collections I’d ever seen completely to myself. It was the strangest feeling in the world. Other than its incredibly relaxing parks, though, Brussels doesn’t have a whole ton going for it; the EU buildings are modern and inaccessible, downtown is cramped and overrun by touristy restaurants, and the monument for which it’s famous (the Atomium – a gigantic 15 story replica of an atom built for the World’s Fair in 1958) was more than a little bit odd. In any case, the highlight of the second day was my exploration of a very small, Mom and Pop-style authentic Belgian lambic beer brewery where they walked me through the process they use to make a very unique brand of beer which hasn’t been brewed on a widespread basis since the 1800s. And the tasting afterwards was quite delicious. All in all, Brussels wasn’t a terrible town; it just isn’t a place I’d recommend going unless you’ve got a very specific reason for going there.