Tag Archives: tours

Part 6: Paris — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 5: London

Why Paris?

This was the city I must visit on the trip. I had wanted to go to Paris since I started taking French in freshman year of high school. It was a city that was always talked about and seen in pictures and movies, but never been. Learning more about the language and the culture with every school year just fueled my desire and dreams of “being French” and being surrounded by every stereotypical and unique aspects of the French culture. This visit was fifteen years, more than half my life, in the making.

Itinerary

  • Friday 24 October: Arrived in Paris, checked in to hostel, visit Eiffel Tower
  • Saturday 25 October: Walked by Notre Dame, went up the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Champs Élysées, nightlife
  • Sunday 26 October: Musée d’Orsay, crêpe, Seine, Pont des Arts, Ladurée macarons, Jardin du Trocadéro, Tour Montparnasse 56
  • Monday 27 October: Louvre, Sacre Cœur, Moulin Rouge, Parc Montsouris, Eiffel Tower at night
  • Tuesday 28 October: Last Eiffel Tower visit, departed Paris via Gare Lyon train station

My Impression

Clearly, I had a lot of expectations of Paris, which I was very aware. That’s why I kind of reverse-psychologied myself and lowered my expectations. In the end, it netted out even: there were parts of Paris that I liked/loved, like the Eiffel Tower and the “French-ness” of the city. And then there were parts that bothered me, like the grittiness of the Metro stations and the random wafts of urine in certain corners by the Seine.

Of course, four days were not enough to fully experience the city, so I would definitely return and spend more time exploring different parts of the city. But the realness of Paris as a typical urban city sort of diluted my longtime dream of living in Paris. But if I was asked to live there, I wouldn’t mind giving it try either.

Getting There

I took the Eurostar train from London’s St. Pancras International station. I wrote briefly about it in my London post.

Waiting for Paris train at St. Pancras International station.

I sat at a table seat on the train, thinking that I could meet people on the way. But everyone pretty much kept to themselves, and since I have long legs, it was a bit uncomfortable having to adjust where my legs were with the person sitting in front of me.

On Eurostar train to Paris.

The train was packed, and there were so many little interactions and incidents during the train ride that I was afraid it was a foreshadowing of what’s to come in Paris. There was an incident where a child’s hand was caught between siding doors during boarding. And there was a mother who had trouble getting her two kids to behave and to stop bothering the passengers sitting across their table. They were somewhat entertaining to watch during the ride to see what kind of trouble they could get into.

After going through the tunnel for a not-too-long, not-too-short amount of time, the train emerged into a gloomy sky and fields of unremarkable muted greenery. There was nothing I could point to that would tell me that I had entered France.

Accommodations

I booked my stay in Paris at the St. Christopher’s Inn, Gare du Nord. It’s a really nice and organized hostel that I wouldn’t mind staying again if I had to book at a minute’s notice.

The location was quite convenient, just about one block from the Gare du Nord station, which was also where my train from London to Paris ended. Ironically, it took me longer that it should to find the hostel because it was a bit tucked in on a side street.

The room

I stayed in a four-person coed ensuite dorm. My dorm mates were two young women from Brazil and a man from the Middle East. The women knew little English, and the man knew more. There were two bunk beds, a table with a chair. There were also hooks but the women from Brazil already claimed/used them when I arrived. The window looked out to the central atrium with the hostel restaurant/bar on the ground floor.

Top bunk at St. Christopher's Inn.

I stayed in the top bunk, and at the head of each bed, there were a French power outlet, lamp, and two USB outlets! That was by far the best bed set up at any place I stayed during the trip, not even just for hostels. Each bed even had curtains for privacy.

Under the two bunk beds were large wire baskets on casters as our lockers. To get to it, it must be pulled out from under the bunk bed almost all the way, then the top hinges open. It’s kind of hard to get to, especially if the space in between the two bunk beds was obstructed by people or people’s things. It’s a neat idea to save space, but it’s sort of a poorly designed experience. Plus, it’s all-metal structure made it noisy to put in or take out locks.

The bathroom

The bathroom was pretty standard and clean. The only ventilation was a tucked-away fan above the shower, so after someone showered, the bathroom got very steamy and took a while to clear out.

Bathroom at St. Christopher's Inn.

For guests who stayed in non-ensuite rooms, there’s a dorm-style bathroom with individual toilet stalls and shower stalls. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to use it since I had my own bathroom, but I used it a few times when my bathroom was occupied.

The staff

The staff was quite professional and competent. They were quite knowledgeable and helpful. They mostly spoke English and well. It occurred to me that this hostel was probably run by an English-speaking company and are welcome by and popular with English-speaking guests.

I decided on the day of to get a Skip-the-Lines ticket of the Eiffel Tower through a company they were partnering with, and the staff got on the phone, asked for a few pieces of information, and booked a spot for me in the early afternoon. It was pretty convenient and helpful.

Common Area

On bedroom floors, there were a few couches in the hallway for small groups to hang out in. Since guests only had access to their floors, there were plenty of closed doors between the first floor and the guests’ dorms. Many of those doors required the right credentials to get pass, and having to go through the doors just made me feel trapped in a maze.

On the ground floor, there’s the Belushi’s restaurant/bar, where there were bar tables and stools throughout the floor along with regular tables. They served free breakfast in the morning, become a “regular” restaurant for lunch and dinner, and slowly morphed into a bar at night. After a certain hour, the staff migrate the guests to the basement floor to continue the party while they clean up the emptied Belushi’s for the next morning.

There was a laundry room on the top floor, with multiple washing and drying machines. The instructions were easy enough to follow but had a small learning curve of how the whole thing was set up. Instead of putting coins in slots at each machine, they went into one central register and guests press the button for the specific washer/dryer they wanted to use. Also, the machines only took a certain denomination of coins.

Wi-Fi

Sweet, sweet Wi-Fi! The Wi-Fi speed at this hostel was unbelievable. The hostel prided themselves on having really good Internet speed for their guests in their rooms. I managed to back up a good amount of my photos while using it. The Wi-Fi worked in the common areas as well, but once outside of the hostel, the connection dropped pretty quickly. It made me want to stay at the hostel instead of going out to explore Paris as much as I could.

Impression of Hostel

St. Christopher’s Inn was a really organized, well-run hostel. It sort of reminded me of Pariwana in Cuzco, Peru in terms of how tight of a ship they ran. But the Wi-Fi was amazing, the dorm looked clear, and it’s located near a major train station. One thing that could improve would be that the bar staff could be friendlier. Again, I wondered if it was a French thing, even when I tried to withhold judgment for as long as I could.

Getting Around

After arriving in Paris at Gare du Nord station, I immediately got a Paris Visite five-day pass at a ticket counter. While in line, I practiced the sentence I was going to say multiple times, “Je voudrais acheter le billet « Paris Visite » pour cinq jours.” And it worked like a normal interaction. In my head, I did a little happy dance. If that was the only French sentence I successfully communicated for the trip, I would be satisfied and a little proud.

First of many Paris Visite 5-day metro ticket.

With the ticket, I could ride the Metro anywhere within zone 1 to 3, which were concentric circles moving out from the center of Paris. That covers most of the major sites in Paris.

The problem with these tickets were that they get demagnetized very easily. Since they’re so small, it felt inconvenient to have to pull out my wallet every time, so I kept it in my pants pocket with keys and coins. The ticket got demagnetized twice during the five days, and I had to have it replaced at a station each time. The first time, the staff was kind of nice about it. The second time, the staff (at another station) was yelling at me in French, and when I had a blank look, she pulled out some coins and clinked them together to illustrate that the ticket got demagnetized because of rubbing coins. I also heard “clés” uttered so I figured it’s coins and keys. And when the staff replaced the ticket, they had to report it on a form in a binder and staple the ticket to the form, along with all the other malfunctioning tickets.

Note: the Paris Visite ticket could be used for the short shuttle ride up to Sacré-Cœur.

Other than the Metro, I mostly walked. I took a taxi after a night out at the bars with a fellow hostel mate.

Climate/Clothing

  • Time of year: Late October.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.
  • Cool when it’s cloudy. Warm when it’s sunny. Long sleeves and layers are recommended
  • Chilly once the sun went down.
  • It sprinkled a few times during the few times.

People

I had heard so much about the French people being rude. I could see why people say that, but from my brief experience, I think the reputation was misunderstood.

Generally, the people were fine. Yes, I had a few incidences where I received some less-than-pleasant interactions. But I also experienced really friendly customer service. That mix is more or less the same everywhere, including Cuzco, South Africa, and Beijing.

I think what Americans regard as rude was just honesty and straight-forwardedness. Americans’ high level of customer service seemed to be a luxury around the world. It’s true in Peru, it’s true in South Africa, it’s true in Beijing, and it’s true in Paris.

To be fair, I’m a little biased by my half-life fantasy to visit Paris and France, so I may have given the French a bit of slack and lowered my expectations based on what people said. Still, I think my impression and outlook are still valid: be nice and treat people with respect, and you’re more likely to receive the same.

Language

I started learning French in freshman year of high school and continued for all four years. I also took one semester of it in college but was too committed in my major to continue. Still, I was always fascinated with the language and kept up with what I knew over the years and tried to learn more when I could.

Even though I still lacked enough vocabulary and confidence like the other languages I learned for the trip for me to carry a conversation, I felt that I had greater expectations for French since I knew it the most, except for maybe reading Chinese. But for the most part, I spoke English there, and most people would be either fine communicating in English or would make an effort to.

I still said short phrases like I would for the other languages, like “Bonjour.”, “Excusez-moi.”, “Merci beaucoup.”, and “Au revoir.” But whenever I did try to say something longer in French, I would get a response in French but I couldn’t understand it. So I would have a blank face, and they would pause and try to repeat in English, rendering my attempt to communicate in French practically useless.

The one time that I actually had a “conversation” was outside of the Musée d’Orsay when a man just started asking me in English if I was Japanese or Korean, and I responded, “chinois”. He was a little surprised and impressed that I spoke French, and he continued to ask me things in French. I forgot what else he asked, but it was probably along the lines of where I was from and how long I was in Paris. He did compliment me at the end that my French was good, and I thanked him. Conversation success!

Tours/Sightseeing

Eiffel Tower

Photo slideshow:
Paris - Eiffel Tower - LBT 2014

I loved the Eiffel Tower. I visited it every day I was in Paris. I must warn those reading this that this will probably increase your expectations about it, so for your enjoyment, please lower your expectations back down. At the end of the day, even I agree that it’s just a hunk of metal.

Eiffel Tower Visit 1: 24 October 2014

Soon after I checked in to my hostel and settled in, I decided I had to see the Eiffel Tower that day, even though it was getting late and sort of drizzling. I figured out which train to take and made my way there from Gare du Nord.

As I was getting close and a few stops away, I was debating whether to look out the train windows to get my first glimpse at it as soon as possible, no matter how small, or save my first look until the perfect moment. I sort of did this with the Freedom Tower in New York when I rode in on Amtrak, as a symbolic moment that I had really arrived in New York. My answer was sort of a combination of both, where I inadvertently saw the top third peeking out between two buildings. Seeing the small sliver of it actually added to the anticipation of finally seeing the thing in its entirety.

After getting off at Bir-Hakeim station, there was still a decent walk to the area around the Tower. Even during that walk, I could see it in glimpses, getting larger and taller. Once I got close enough, I couldn’t stop turning my head every second while walking down a parallel street. The weather was cloudy so the first time I saw the Tower in its full height was a bit anti-climatic and less powerful than I had expected. Still, I continued to walk down the Champ de Mars stretch farther from the Tower to get a good full-height photo. I took my selfies and daily video recordings as the drizzle started to become more like rain, prompting me to head back.

Finally with the Eiffel Tower!

Eiffel Tower Visit 2: 25 October 2014

I saw somewhere in the hostel promoting skip-the-line tickets for the Eiffel Tower, among other tours. So I asked reception about it and decided to book a spot for that day, within a few hours actually. I originally wanted to go the following day so I had some time to check out the city and got a lay of the land before I headed to the top of the tower. But the opportunity was there and I took it.

The staff took care of the reservation on the phone, asking just a few pieces of my invitation to complete the process. I paid for the reservation and got a printed receipt with instructions for meeting up.

Since I had a bit of time, I got off at Pont de l’Alma station and took the scenic route and strolled down the Seine before turning at Avenue de la Bourdonnais, but even that street was nice to walk down as well. I could see the Eiffel Tower peek out and be framed perfectly between the buildings separated by the crossroads.

I checked in at the Easy Pass Tours office, which was a nice little modern-looking space. I was given a plastic tag for my tour and was told I could wait at the benches in the back, and that we could use the free Wi-Fi. I had to use the restroom, and they directed me downstairs in the basement. It was bit of a narrow space on the floor below, but the bathrooms were fine to use. Waiting at the benches, I connected to the Wi-Fi and the speed was pretty good.

After more people joined me on the benches, the “tour” started, where one of the guides welcomed us and collected our tags. I suppose those tags were meant to make sure we were reporting to the right tour, although at the time, it was just one tour, and there were only five of us.

The guide explained the process, but I didn’t fully understood until afterwards. Basically, he walked us to the Eiffel Tower, gave us our tickets and a cheatsheet of landmarks that could be seen from the top of the tower, led us to the correct (and seemingly exclusive) line, and left us to our own. Before he left, I somehow thought he was going to be with us the whole time. It occurred to me later that this was a Skip-the-Line ticket instead of a full tour. But I was fine being on my own.

Skipped the lines to go up the Eiffel Tower.

I went through security, although I felt that they didn’t bother to check my bag. Before we left the Easy Pass Tours office, the guide mentioned that we could not bring scissors or padlocks. I had a small pair of scissors that I left with the staff, but that probably didn’t actually matter. That’s not to say security wasn’t tight.

Front of Skip-the-Line Eiffel Tower ticket

Back of Skip-the-Line Eiffel Tower ticket

There were two levels in the first lift cabin. When we entered the waiting area, there was someone counting people to make sure there was enough space on the lift. Once the bottom waiting area (where I was) was full, visitors started filling the top waiting area above us. The lift moved diagonally, because it was essentially going up the leg of the Eiffel Tower.

This first lift stopped at the first floor and then second floor. There there were signs to move get to the second lift, which took me to the top. I could see there was already a long queue for the second lift, but I somehow ended up in a queue that got me right in one of the lift cabins and headed to the top.

Elevator ride up the Eiffel Tower.

It was a cloudy day, so visibility was moderate. I recognized a few places but Paris had very few large landmarks or landscapes that one would bother to point out. There was a room in the center that apparently was the office of the architect, Gustav Eiffel. It had semi-creepy figures of people from the time, including Eiffel himself. There was also a window that sold glasses of champagne, which was perfect for couples, I suppose.

North/east view of Paris from Eiffel Tower observation deck.

As much as I’d like to spend more time at the top, there was little else to do. So I went back to the second floor and checked out the gift shops and other stores. I really wanted to get a souvenir but resisted the temptation. I also spent some time on the first floor, trying to find good shots.

Glass floor from first floor of Eiffel Tower

By then, I was pretty done with the Tower. I decided to walk downstairs and not have to wait for the lift. On the way down, there were posters illustrating the history of the Tower and how other towers in the world took inspiration, like the Tokyo Tower. I also got to see the intricate and beautiful lattice work inside the tower.

Inner Lattice work of Eiffel Tower.

Eiffel Tower Visit 3: 26 October 2014

After buying tickets for the Tour Montparnasse 56 observation deck (see below), I headed to the Jardins du Trocadéro across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower to enjoy my Ladurée macarons (see Food section). It was a sunny late afternoon, and I took some nice photos and videos of the Tower with lovely fountains.

From Jardins du Trocadéro.

After that, I headed back to Tour Montparnasse and checked out another elevated view of Paris, this time with the Eiffel Tower. I took the advice of the staff and came back just before sunset so I could see the tower in daylight as well as at night. At the top of the hour, the Eiffel Tower shimmered in the distance, continuing to impress me with its beauty.

Sparkling Eiffel Tower after dusk from Tour Montparnasse 56.

The Tower shimmered for five minutes at the top of every hour after sunset, until midnight, I think.

Eiffel Tower Visit 4: 27 October 2014

I originally had no plans to visit the Eiffel Tower, because I had already seen it three times and I thought that should be enough. But after my visit to Parc Montsouris (see below), I had some extra time, so I thought, “What the heck?” and went down their again. It was past sunset and getting close to the top of the hour. I knew the roads from the Champs de Mars Metro station to the Eiffel Tower pretty well by now, so I took the shortest route and ran to the base of the tower to catch its shimmer. The shimmer was beautiful from afar, and it was more beautiful up close.

Twinkling Eiffel Tower.

I was glad to have made the last minute decision to come to the Tower and see the lights up close. As I was about to head to the Metro station, I walked past the foot of the tower, looking up at it on my left, feeling its majestic presence, almost as if it was watching over me. At that moment, I felt pure joy. The only other time where I felt that was twenty days prior, when I walked down the field of the park in Albuquerque looking up at the balloons, excited for the trip ahead of me.

I think the Eiffel Tower had that effect on me because of its placement in relation to everything else. There were no other buildings nearby to take its thunder. For at least a mile out, everyone could get a clear view of the Eiffel Tower next to only the sky. From every angle, the tower looked as sturdy, confident, present, and permanent as it could, commanding respect from everyone while also looking over the city.

Eiffel Tower Visit 5: 28 October 2014

On my last day, I figured I should continue my streak and take a look at it one last time. On my way there, I encountered another clipboard scam (see Champs Élysées). I was also a pretty clear target since I already checked out of the hostel so I was carrying my luggage on my back. But this time, I was 100% unfazed, and walked by many of the clipboard holders as if they didn’t exist.

I walked to the Jardin du Trocadero for my final Paris daily video. The fog covered the top of half of the tour, and there were only a few people at the Jardin. While enjoying the view of half of the Eiffel Tower, I ate my croissant.

I crossed the bridge back towards the Eiffel Tower, and I decided that I would allow myself one tiny souvenir of the trip, because it’s the Eiffel Tower. At one end of the bridge was a popup shop selling souvenirs. I picked up a tiny brown Eiffel Tower keychain for a few Euros.

The one souvenir I allow myself.

Arc de Triomphe

After the Eiffel Tower, I walked to Arc de Triomphe from the Seine. It was surrounded by a giant traffic circle, and the only way to get there was to go underneath through a tunnel. The tunnel was pretty wide, lined with nice walls with large boards posted along the way that explained the history of the Arc.

There was a long line on one side of the tunnel, and I thought it was to get out of the tunnel to see the Arc up close. But I saw other people kept walking so I walked some more. I saw the line ended at the same opening as where other people were freely getting out. It turned out that the line was to go inside the Arc, whereas the outside was free access.

So I went outside and suddenly became aware of how large the Arc was. It was really wide, really tall, and it had a lot of ornate details at different surfaces, including figures, motifs, and text. From what I could gathered by the engraved texts, it was a memorial of sorts. Other than the sheer size of this structure and the amount of seemingly perfect detail on it, there was little to draw me in. Therefore, after looking around a few times, I left and moved on.

Champs Élysées

It didn’t occur to me until I got to Paris that Arc de Triomphe was at one end of the Champs Élysées. That made it convenient to go from one famous Paris spot to another.

The Champs Élysées was basically a long strip of big stores and restaurants on both sides. And the sidewalks were crowded with people.

It was mid-afternoon and I had yet to eat lunch, so I was sort of looking at restaurants to see if any of them interested me. But I realized it was a tourist area so I figured all of the restaurants are overpriced and crowded, so I just kept walking aimlessly down the strip for about twenty minutes before I decided to go somewhere else and get some food.

Scam attempt

While on the busy sidewalks, I got approached by a young woman with a clipboard asking me if I spoke English. I said yes and she proceeded to show me the paper on the clipboard, which was a form with the words “blind”, “deaf” in the title. I figured it was something she wanted me to sign, since that’s sort of common in the States. But I wasn’t sure what my foreigner signature could achieve. Also, while I wasn’t grumpy from being hungry, I had little patience for stuff like that at the moment. Besides, something about this felt a little bit uncomfortable. So in the split second, I shook my head and started walking away. The woman let out an angry, frustrated sigh and walked away.

After that weird encounter, I moved away from the busy foot traffic to the side of the building to check my phone. An old lady next to me signaled for my attention. At that point, I was very hesitant to interact with anybody because I felt vulnerable. So I turned to the lady, cautious of what she was about to do. She pointed at the young woman with the clipboard and wagged her finger definitively, saying, “No!” I didn’t know what she meant, but I didn’t want to engage and continue the interaction, so I looked at the woman with the clipboard, pretending to acknowledge her message, and looked back down at my phone.

At first, I thought the old woman was scolding me for refusing to help the deaf and blind, and that made me feel bad. In retrospect, and from reading tourist scam stories online, I realized that the old lady was actually advising me “No” to engaging with the scammers. That sort of made me feel bad as well because I kind of ignored her. But overall, it was fine because I avoided becoming a victim of a scam, and I was fortunate to have people watching the backs of tourists like me.

Musee d’Orsay

I heard there would be a long line to get in the museum for visitors without a tour, so I woke up early and tried to get there half an hour before opening so I could hear the crowds. But that morning was one of the two times my Metro Pass got demagnetized. The Musée d’Orsay metro station did not seem to have a staffed booth within the turnstiles, so I couldn’t get help because I couldn’t even exit the station. After it took me ten to fifteen minutes to realize this, I hopped on the next train, got help from the staff to reissue my Metro Pass, and got on the train in the other direction back to Musée d’Orsay station.

When I got there, the museum was about to open, and there was already a line formed. Fortunately, it was a relatively small line, and I got inside pretty quickly. It was a bit chilly too so I was glad to step inside.

Tip: For some reason, I was looking for Wi-Fi while waiting in line, and it turned out the museum had free Wi-Fi. I had little use for it at the time, but it was just nice to have. I even got a moderate signal after I left they museum and was hanging out outside.

The security bag check and ticket purchase process was pretty painless, and I got inside pretty quickly.

There were three floors: ground, second, and fifth. I thought it was strange to skip floors like that, but I believe the other floors were offices. I started at the top floor and worked my way down.

The Impressionist gallery was neat because I learned a lot of about it in French class, and there they were in abundance.

A Lost Camera

At the end if the Impressionist collection, I hung out for a bit in the lobby by the giant clock and some sofas. I noticed a digital camera in one of chairs with no one else sitting close enough to it to be theirs. I wondered if I should have waited for someone to claim it before I drop it off at some lost-and-found. I decided to look through the photos to find any identifying information so I can maybe contact them. But all I found were pictures of college students who seemed to be from Berkeley. I felt a bit of hope because they’re so close to San Francisco, but realized there’s still no way to get this back to them.

Fortunately, as I was almost about to drop it off with the staff, I saw a young man who was in many of the photos, walking towards me. I waved at him, with the camera in my hand. He felt relieved, and I felt it, too, through him. He took the camera, stood next to me, and raised his hands aiming the camera at both of us. He said he wanted to have a record of the person who found his camera. For some reason, the camera didn’t work, so he pulled it back and tried to get it working. By that point, the moment had practically passed, so I played it modest and said it’s okay that he didn’t have to do it. He seemed to understand the semi-awkwardness of taking a picture with a stranger he literally just met ten seconds ago, but he did mention that now he was sad he won’t have a record of it.

Looking back, I thought I should have let him take the photo of us to have a record, not at all because I wanted to be remembered as a hero, but because it would’ve been a good story for both of us, and it would’ve been funny to see that picture pop up online somewhere and be reunited somehow.

The (Almost) Rest of the Museum

I made my way down to the second floor as well as the ground floor of the museum, looking at almost every room. Honestly, it was way too much to look at in a few hours. By the end, I “skimmed” the pieces by walking pass them without stopping, almost like scanning down each aisle at a grocery store. Still, I skipped a few sections that I figured I would have little interest in.

Tour Montparnasse

Getting Tickets

One afternoon, somehow I was in the neighborhood of Montparnasse, so I figured I should check out how and where I would get tickets to get to the observation deck. I originally planned to go up the following day because I had other plans, so I wanted to know if I could buy a ticket one day and go up the next day.

It took a few tries to find the ticketing center. Once I found it and went in, I noticed there were very few people there. I asked one of the staff in French if I could buy a ticket today and returned tomorrow. She said no, and went on to explain in French. I semi-understood that, and she could tell, so she paused for a moment and tried to figure out what language I spoke. She somehow figured that I spoke in English, so she explained that I could not go up today and also tomorrow. So I either said something incorrectly in French or she didn’t understand my question.

Then I asked a slightly different question, in English to be clear, whether I could buy a ticket now and come back later. She said of course, so I decided to just do that. She also highly recommended going up fifteen to thirty minutes before sunset, so I did just that.

When I returned later, the place was a little more crowded. There was a line after the ticket counters to wait for the elevator. There were three or four elevators, but only one was for the observation deck. I could see office folk coming out of the other elevators, as it was the end of the work day.

Once I got to the indoor observation floor, the same staff who helped me earlier greeted and directed everyone including me to the right path. She recognized me and asked if I was Japanese. I said Chinese and she very quickly said “Ni Hao” (“hello” in Mandarin). My instinct was that it felt unnatural, and I deduced that she thought I was visiting from China. So I started correcting her, saying I was actually American, but by that point, I was already walking past her along with the other visitors, and she just nodded with a smile.

Observation Deck

From Tour Montparnasse 56 observation deck. (West view)

There were two floors, one inside, and one on the roof. The roof floor had glass panels installed all around, but not completely fencing every inch. That made taking clean photos difficult. Also, there were smudgy hand marks on some of the glass panels. There were large illustrations on each side of the floor pointing out some of the places in the distance, which was useful to a certain extent.

From Tour Montparnasse 56 observation deck. (East view)

There was a giant circle in the middle of the roof floor for people to sit on. After checking out all sides of the view and took my pictures, I sat down and wrote on my log a little bit. Then when the sunset was getting close, a crowd gathered at once corner, trying to take their perfect sunset photos. I joined them, of course, but realized that my phone could only do so much, so after a few shots, I stepped back from the crowd.

Sunset, Eiffel Tower, and Paris from Tour Montparnasse 56.

The few minutes after the sunset was also beautiful, as the colors of the sky were more saturated without the strong glare of the sun, and the city still had enough details. After that, most smartphone cameras were too weak to take any more good shots.

But I still stuck around and logged some more on the giant sitting circle under the gradually dimming sky. Suddenly, I heard some noise on one side of the floor, and I realized it was because it was the top of the hour, so the Eiffel Tower had twinkling lights just because. I took shots as well as I can, glad I stuck around for this.

Sparkling Eiffel Tower after dusk from Tour Montparnasse 56.

Soon after, the darkness set in along with the cold, so I went downstairs to the indoor observation deck. I hung out there for a while, checking out little displays explaining the history of the tower and whatnot. I also used the deck’s free Wi-Fi to figure out my options for dinner. In the end, I got two chocolate croissants and a chicken sandwich from the Paul bakery at Montparnasse-Bienvenüe Metro station.

Louvre

Because experience with Skip-the-Lines Eiffel Tower session from Easy Pass Tours was so easy and simple, I decided to do the Louvre tour through them as well. I booked a spot directly from their website, but I did not get an email confirmation. I went to their office and got it sorted out quickly, and the staff was very nice and professional about it. It turned out I misspelled my email address.

Meet Up at Arc De Triomphe du Carrousel

The next day, I took the Metro to the Louvre to meet up with the tour group. For two reasons, I ran late and thought I missed the tour: 1) Once I got off the train at Palais Royal – Musée du Louvre station, I could not for the life of me find the exit to ground level. The regular exit would led passengers straight to the underground mall leading to the Louvre entrance. 2) Once I got to ground level, I couldn’t find where I was supposed to meet my group. The tour confirmation said to meet at the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which sort of confused me because I knew it wasn’t the giant Arc de Triopmhe near the Champs Élysées, but my data-less phone could not look in the map where this Arc de Triomphe was. So I had to look at maps and signage in that underground mall to the Louvre for clues. I was getting redirected every which way and the anxiety of missing my tour was adding to the pressure and stress. Finally, I figured out where it was and rejoiced at the site of a person in the distance wearing a red shirt along with a few other people standing around. I checked in with him and we waited for more people past the meet-up time before starting the tour.

Waiting to start the Louvre Tour.

The Louvre Tour

When the tour started, the man in red handed us headsets so our guide, Jacque, could speak to us without yelling and without us having to follow really close. I had been in guided tours in the States but without headsets and information inevitably get lost, so I thought this was a neat idea, even though it seemed to be quite a common thing tour did.

We followed Jacque to the entrance, had a bathroom break, was told that was our only one because it was super crowded and it would be hard to stop and wait, went through security and the entrance together because we didn’t have any physical tickets because we were in a tour.

Jacque took us through galleries after galleries of sculptures and paintings, many of which the styles I had learned in school. All the galleries were pretty filled with visitors. I tried to stay close and in front to make the most of the tour, like a teacher’s pet. Jacque was pretty classy and pretty French. He clearly seemed knowledgable about the pieces and their history, and he was unfazed by the crowds. He was a pro and could tolerate the hectic conditions he had to work in presumably every day.

He led us to the Mona Lisa painting and gave us plenty of time to work through the crowd to get the closest possible picture of it. I knew ahead of time that it was a small painting and fenced off a couple feet out, so I didn’t try to get as close as I could and try to admire the painting. I took a selfie from far away and called it done.

As close as I cared to get to Mona Lisa.

He then led us to another painting, the Coronation of Napoleon I. I had seen that painting in a textbook, and the fact that it was humongous really got to me, and I just had to take a selfie with it, even though I had little emotional connection with it previously.

Saw this in history class.

Then we looked at more paintings and sculptures and the tour ended sooner than I thought, although I was getting restless. I continued to check out other galleries throughout the museum, including the apartments of Napoleon III, which was so grand and elaborate that it helped almost transport me to the past to picture how life was like to live in spaces like this, seeing the furnishings as usable pieces instead of preserved museum objects.

More so than Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre was way too large to check out in a few hours, let alone a whole day. There were sections that I simply did not have time or brain power to explore. Next time, I may have to visit with someone else, commit a full day there, with plans to have lunch there as well and take a few breaks in between.

Sacre Coeur

I heard little about Sacré-Cœur before arrive in Paris, but one there, I had heard so many references to it as a major tourist spot, especially for pickpockets. So with a bit of extra time, I paid it a visit.

I got off the Metro train at Abbesses station and went up the seemingly endless spiral, decorated stairs to the exit. Then I walked to the bottom of the steps on Rue Tardieu. I bought a quick snack to go at a convenience store, then I decided to take the little cable car up the hill using my Metro Pass instead of walking up (The spiral steps up Abbesses drained me).

Unsurprisingly, there were a lot of people at the foot of the church, sitting on the steps. I weaved through and tried to get a good view of Paris. I desperately looked for the Eiffel Tower but it was blocked by houses and trees to the right. One of the reasons for going up here was to get a nice panoramic picture with the Eiffel Tower. I probably could have if I went up Sacré-Cœur, but it felt like too much of a hassle, so I began walking down on the west side of the church.

I noticed a little square, Place du Tertre, which had little restaurants and shops around it. I also saw that’s where the Dali Museum was, and I made a mental note to go later, but I forgot.

Moulin Rouge

Continuing the road down from Place du Tertre, I made my way to Boulevard de Clichy, noticing many crêpe shops along the way. But I felt the shops looked too low quality to warrant a try, or that a quick glance at the menu did not include ingredients that I wanted.

Once I got to Boulevard de Clichy, my expectations for the Moulin Rouge strangely but appropriately lowered. Sure enough, I turned the corner, expecting a giant, iconic mesmerizing windmill. What I saw was a short, skinny weathered red silo with skinny wooden frames, sandwiched between two flat, white buildings. This was in the afternoon, so perhaps it was meant to be seen in the nighttime. But the letdown of this view was beyond rescuing that I quickly left the area.

Parc Montsouris

One place I wanted to visit in Paris that was not iconic or wildly famous was Parc Montsouris. It was the location of the final scene in one of the short films in “Paris, je t’aime”. The short film illustrated an American woman’s trip to Paris, overlaid with the audio of her reading out in French (but with an Americanized accent) her experience to her French class. Most of the short film was funny, but in the final scene, where she visited Parc Montsouris to have her sandwich, she had an enlightening experience and fell in love with Paris.

Link to the short film from “Paris, je t’aime” (No longer available? Let me know in the comments.):

I did not necessarily go to this park to have the same experience, but I still wanted to see this place in person and to see what I could get out of it. When I got there, it was already past the time of day from the scene the movie, there were already people sitting on the bench that the character sat on, and it was too cold for anyone sit on the grass like in the scene. But it was late afternoon so the playground was full of children playing, just like the movie. Overall, though, it was far from the movie, but I still documented my visit with photos and videos. Then I stuck around the park and wrote on my log a little bit to savor the moment.

From final scene of 14e Arrondissement in "Paris, je t'aime".

Parc Montsouris, the final scene of 14e Arrondissement in "Paris, je t'aime".

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

Photo slideshow:
Paris - Food - LBT 2014

Croissant, crêpe, crème brûlée, and macarons. The four major French food groups. I had them all. Just kidding. I’m sure there were other French foods more significant than these, but I did have them while in Paris. I may have gotten cheaper versions of these foods, but they were decent at worst.

Crêpes

Ham, egg, and cheese crêpe at Le Royal Orsay

I had a crêpe from a cafe next to Musée d’Orsay. I learned about crêpes from French class, and I only knew it in the sweet form, with Nutella. I had a big Nutella phase and got so sick of it I didn’t have it for probably ten years. So I thought I should try a savory crêpe and ordered a simple ham, egg and cheese crêpe. It felt pretty mundane. It’s like eating ham, egg and cheese with a bit of thin pancake. Plus, the crêpe was slightly overcooked/too crispy for my taste. I’ll stay with my sweet crêpes, thank you.

Macarons

In line for macarons at Ladurée.

I had heard about Ladurée’s macarons being really good, so I scoped it out one day when I was near Musée d’Orsay. When I went inside, I was a bit intimidated because the place looked really fancy, there was a line, and the anticipation of me being next gave me anxiety that I had to speak in French to get my order. I stumbled a little bit with my French, quickly revealing that I was American, but the lady helping me was nice about it while I tried to decide which of the many choices I wanted to get.

Macaron selections.

I got six macarons, all different kinds. I had macarons before and felt the hard-soft texture unusual. I thought it was because they were lower quality so I figure that the macarons from Ladurée, a popular and seemingly really fancy and therefore presumably high quality place, would be better. They were a little better, yes, but the texture still weirded me a little. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the raspberry flavor one, as it had the right balance between tart and sweet.

Croissants

I got a plain croissant at a local bakery near the hostel and chocolate croissants from Paul Bakery at Montparnasse-Bienvenüe Metro station. They were both decent. It’s hard (though not impossible) to mess up croissants. More or less unremarkable.

Crème Brûlée

Self-assembly crème brûlée.

I assumed that nice crème brûlées were served in restaurants, and I had little intention to go to a restaurant just to get crème brûlée. So I got it in a grocery store, because why not? I was in France, and they sold crème brûlées in grocery stores! I had to try it. I tried it once, and that was enough. It was basically a glass jar of custard that I poured burned sugar crystals over to simulate the cracked texture. It was a little bit sad. The taste was fine; it’s just so far removed from a proper crème brûlée.

Other Foods

I got some snack foods from grocery stores that I couldn’t get elsewhere. I got chocolate covered marshmallows because I heard it was a thing. The first ten to fifteen pieces were good, but I had to finish the bag and I got a little sick of it near the end.

I came to love the grocery chain Carrefour and Carrefour City. They were probably the most equivalent to local American grocery stores, where they had a good enough selection, and the consistent branding promised a certain level of trustworthiness.

After passing by a Middle Eastern fast food shop to and from the hostel every day, I gave it a try and got a schwarma. It was decent, a little filling, though a little bready.

While waiting for my first Metro ride, I got a glazed waffle from a vending machine because it was so unique. It had a light sugary glaze, but the rest just tasted like almost-stale waffle.

Getting out

I took the Metro to Gare d’Austerlitz near the inner east side of Paris, then walked across the Pont Charles de Gaulle bridge to get to Paris-Gare de Lyon station for my SNCF train to Nice.

For some reason I assumed the Metro station was connected to Paris-Gare de Lyon train station, as most major stations should, but all the closest Metro stations to Paris-Gare de Lyon were a couple blocks away.

Paris-Gare de Lyon was a medium-sized station, with a few train lines, a few stores at platform level, and a few stores under the platform, half occupied and half vacant. Even though I was “inside” the station, it was exposed to the outside so it was kind of chilly.

From My Travel Log

26 October 2014, 10:30am, Paris, Musée d’Orsay, Impressionist Floor

  • Impressionist art: so light and uplifting. Maybe that painted a rosy picture (no pun intended) of Paris and France from when I was in high school.
  • The progression in style throughout the years is like thickening the pixel of a digital image. But then again, all paintings are only representations of other things; they’re only oil molecules, atoms, neutrons and protons and electrons. What matters is what is left: how it makes us feel.
  • Still trying to think that Parisians and French aren’t rude, just direct. Their looks are very direct as well.

26 October 2014, 12:30pm, Le Royal Orsay (next to Musée d’Orsay)

  • Just ordered a crepe all in French! But I pointed at the menu.
  • Pointilism takes that expanding pixel idea to an other level/methodical calculations.
  • Someone from the States, maybe USC and Berkeley, left their camera at the fancy sofas outside of Impressionism floor (when I wrote last entry). I asked myself what I would do if I had lost it. I tried to look if there’s a way to get the camera back to owner by looking at pictures, but there’s no contact info. I would have dropped it off at the gift shop and left a note on the sofa to go to gift shop.

26 October 2014, 5:43pm, Paris, top of Montparnasse Tower

  • Just watched sunset from top of tower. Some couples are drinking champagnes, more are taking pics and kissing. Paris is a city of love because people want it to be a city of love. The sunset is romantic because it makes us feel romantic; otherwise it’s an illusion of a star’s position relative to a rotating planet at a particular point, with the atmosphere of the point on the planet changing the hue of the sky that looks different from most of the daytime sky. I’m not being cynical. It’s just my current reality. I wish I was with somebody and have those feelings where it naturally makes me have public displays of affection, a desire to capture moments together during sunset, when on holidays, or whatever else. I hope the next time I come back, I will be with somebody I really love and live out that fantasy.
  • Twice today, I talked to someone in French and I was asked if I was Japanese or Korean. Then I told them Chinese. It caught me by surprise but now I think people are impressed with whatever French I know and want to know where I’m from. But I realize now that when I tell them Chinese, they’ll assume I’m from China. So next time that happens, if it happens, I need to add that I’m from the States.
  • Today: took train to Musée d’Orsay, but ticket demagnetized. I tried to speak French to get help, and it seems to lead to (obviously) responses in French, which led to me to look flustered and forces the other to speak English. I consider it progress. Then had a savory crepe. Walked down Seine, went to Ladurée. Went to Eiffel Tower, got Louvre tour sorted out, and inadvertent discount even though it’s my fault.

26 October 2014, 7:20pm, Paris, Metro #4 towards hostel

  • Then went to get Eiffel Tower sticker, walked across bridge to see other side of Eiffel Tower. Took more pics. Ate macaroons. Love strawberries/raspberries flavor. Walked to Passy station to head to Montparnasse. Went up tower. Took more shot. Took sunset shots. Wrote in notebook. Watched Eiffel Tower in blinking lights at 6pm. Then went to 56th floor to look for supermarket or food places. Then went to Montparnasse station to buy sandwich and pastries. Now on train back and prob won’t go out and clean up my luggage or something.
  • A week ago Sunday 10/19: Just arrived in Tromsø after JNB -> FRA, FRA ->OSL, OSL -> TRS, 19 hours of traveling. Europe for first time.

27 October 2014, 4:51pm, Paris, Montsouris

  • At the place where Carol from Paris Je T’aime were in last scene. The bench was taken and the sun went lower than from the movie. The setting is pretty similar otherwise.
  • I can’t fall in love with Paris like this, not in this moment, not when there’s a small chill in the air, when the sun’s already behind the trees. The scene was just that: a scene, from a movie.
  • That said, there are a few moments where I really enjoyed being in Paris. When I walked right by the Eiffel Tower on the way to Easy Pass Tours and felt the presence of the Tower over me, taking me in and sort of my breath away. When I walked the small streets of Le Marais two days ago and Montmartre this afternoon. It just reminds me of Macau, except bigger and more enjoyable with seemingly relevant shops.
  • I am torn about Paris. There are likable parts for sure, but there are part I just prefer not to have, like the grittiness of the subway, although I don’t mind that of NYC for some reason. I can’t stand the spontaneous waft of piss or worse when I walk up or down stairs or in an alley. Other things I can probably get used to. And if I can choose, I would live in le Marais, although I haven’t fully explored the non-tourist parts of Paris yet.
  • I do love that almost everyone dresses so nicely. I am for sure bringing that back with me home, although people in SF are so laid back.
  • I could totally get used to speaking in French as I learn more.
  • San Francisco is still home, the comfortable, practical, enjoyable, makes perfect sense, choice. I have to spend more time myself in Sydney to see if I really like it. It’s nawing at my consciousness to go back so I’ve got to do it.

30 October 2014, 9:37pm, France, outside of Nice, on train to Ventimiglia

  • I haven’t mentioned this on the log, but I’ve said it a few times to others. But ever since arriving in Paris, I felt very tired of traveling and want to go home. But knowing that there’s a whole other half of the trip I haven’t been to and haven’t done was enough to snap me out of that thinking and continue. I still feel tired but I’m not going to let that stop my trippy. It’s just too silly.

23 November 2014, 11:17pm, SF Home, bed

  • I also met up with Mike, Danny and friends for meals and catch up. I ate an open-face sandwich in honor of my smørbrød in Norway. I had a macaron for Paris. Got some almond milk ice cream; it’s alright.

Thanks

  • Reception
  • Flavia and Bachira, Assam, my dormmates
  • Cody, 19-year-old Midwest student I met at hostel
  • Montparnasse girl (who helped me out with tour ticket and said “Ni Hao” (hello in Mandarin) when I came back.)
  • Musée d’Orsay camera guy (who lost camera momentarily)
  • Musée d’Orsay random French guy who was impressed with my French
  • Ladurée lady who tried to explain the small box of macarons situation
  • The staff at Tata Burger
  • The guide who brought us toe Skip-the-Lines Eiffel Tower entrance at Easy Pass Tours
  • Felix from Easy Pass Tours
  • Steve and Jacque from the Louvre Tour
  • Bartenders at Belushi’s (at the hostel)
  • Breakfast staff
  • Metro staff
  • Two ladies from Metro staff who helped me and yelled at me for demagnetizing my Metropass.
  • Korean guy and Spanish couple who helped me take a photo on other side of Eiffel Tower

Tips

  • If you are even slightly crunched for time, I recommend getting a Skip-the-Line ticket to go up the Eiffel Tower. I also recommend booking a tour for the Louvre to avoid the lines and to get someone explain the artwork. Afterwards, you’re free to roam around the museum as long as you don’t exit, since you don’t get a ticket for being in a tour.
  • Go up Tour Montparnasse, the only skyscraper in Paris, about 30-45 minutes before sunset, check out the views while it’s light out, watch the sunset, then watch the Eiffel Tower shimmer at the top of the hour (for five minutes).
  • If you get a multi-day Metro pass, make sure you don’t keep the ticket next to coins or keys; they get demagnitized very easily.
  • The restroom at the ground/commerical floors of Montparnasse station charge a small fee and were staffed. Even then, there’s a line, especially for the ladies side. To be honest, for a paid service, the experience could be better.
  • Avoid people with clipboards. They’re most likely scammers. They’ll probably lead with asking if you speak English.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Paris, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 4: Tromsø, Norway — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 3: South Africa (Kruger National Park)

Why Tromsø, Norway?

The northern lights. In my research, there were a few places one could go to have a good chance of seeing the lights, like Iceland, Norway, and Finland. I chose Tromsø after reading brief reviews of each of these places.

Itinerary

  • Sunday, 19 Oct: Arrived in Tromsø, art museum, northern lights tour
  • Monday, 20 Oct: Tromsø Bridge, Arctic Cathedral, northern lights tour again
  • Tuesday, 21 Oct: Tromsø Museum, bus ride to Tromsø University and back.
  • Wednesday, 22 Oct: Depart Tromsø

My Impression

Tromsø was a lovely city. It is an incredibly normal city, because it is. People just lived out their lives. It’s apparently a college town, and it’s also known for tourism for northern lights. It is pretty cold, especially in more remote areas in the region at night.

Part of me wants to find a reason to return and just stay for a little longer to get a better sense of normal life. I think checking out the midnight sun on Summer Solstice would be a legitimate reason to return.

Getting There

From Johannesburg, I took three flights:

  • Johannesburg to Frankfurt on Lufthansa
  • Frankfurt to Oslo on Lufthansa
  • Oslo to Tromsø on Scandinavian Airlines

The whole route took about 17 hours.

From the small Tromsø airport, I was going to take the bus across the island to city center, but it was Sunday and the buses either don’t operate or were much less frequent. So I resorted to use the shuttle service offered at a booth at the airport. It costed me 70 kroner, which was about $10 USD at the time. I thought it was expensive at the time because 1) I had heard that Norway and Scandinavian countries were expensive, which was true, and 2) my research showed that taking the bus would’ve costed only 40 kroner or so.

Accommodations

Since I had heard it was expensive to be in Norway, I briefly looked up hotel prices before moving on to Airbnb. Fortunately, there were enough options to choose from, and my final choice ended up pretty good. Location-wise, judging by the maps, I thought it would be a bit too far from city center. But as I found out once I got there, it was really close and totally walkable.

The listing I booked was someone’s house. It seems that the owner wasn’t there, but her late-teen/early-twenties son was, so he opened the door for me, showed me the room, and left me alone for pretty much the rest of my stay. Actually, he opened the door for me, asked me to wait in the living room while he went back to his room to finish doing whatever he was doing that involved typing loudly on his keyboard, then he came out and showed me my room. Regardless, I was just very grateful to have a place to stay.

Room

My room was pretty basic. It had a bed with sheets and comforter, a nightstand, and a window with somewhat broken curtains. There were closets and armoires, but they were filled with the owner’s stuff so I assumed it was off-limits. So there was limited room to hang clothes, but I somehow made it work. I had brought portable collapsible hangers and I just hung my clothes behind the bedroom door and on the door handle. I also brought a rubber clothesline with suction cups so I stuck it on the mirror on the closet and hung my laundry to dry.

Space Heater

There was a space heater right outside my room, which was the exact model I had at home (small world moment), and while it wasn’t so cold that I need it at night, I used it to dry my clothes during the day. But it sort of stopped working at some point so I thought I broke it, but it worked again the next day, so maybe it overheated.

Bathroom

The bathroom seemed like a normal house bathroom, except I noticed and LOVED the floor was heated. Even though this was the only home I had been to in Tromsø, it must be standard to have heated bathroom floors. It just made the place feel even more homey.

The shower was also worth mentioning just because the powerful water pressure combined with the hearty hot water totally warmed up my cold bones from being outside; it was almost an experience. I almost didn’t want to leave the shower, partly because I would have to feel cooler air by contrast.

Another thing I did notice was that the trash can was very full. I figured because with just a young man staying there, keeping things clean was probably a much lower priority. It would’ve been nice to make sure the communal areas are decent enough for Airbnb guests, though.

The bathroom also included the washing and drying machines. There were so many nobs and button on the washing machine that I had to look up the obscure brand and model online to try to find an English version. Finally, I managed to select the most basic one and just made sure my clothes at least get some sort of rinse.

Wi-Fi

So far on my trip, I had experienced “slow” Wifi by American urban utility standard. I was relying on the Internet to backup my photos and videos from the trip because I knew I would take more picture and videos than my phone could store. Plus, I wanted to have a backup just in case I lost my phone.

My Digital Storage Plan

I had set up personal cloud storage as well as Dropbox and Google Drive, and even Microsoft OneDrive if I really needed to. And during the trip, I would upload my photos whenever I had access to wifi and power source, so basically my hostel or hotel. When I got to South Africa, there were so many days of files I had yet to backup because the internet speed was so slow that my phone was approaching its storage limit. I even bought a flash drive at the Johannesburg airport, hoping to find a computer somewhere in the next few days and transfer my files more quickly.

Sweet European Wi-Fi

When I left Johannesburg and landed in Frankfurt airport for a connection, I tried to get on the airport wifi, expecting the typical, spotty, basic Internet speeds that airport wifi had. Instead, when I turned on my personal cloud app, I could see the progress bar for each file zoom by every two seconds or so, and I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was unfortunate that my connection was boarding soon, so I tried to milk the service as much as I could until I really had to board. I didn’t know if I would get such fast Wifi again. I was desperate and thirsty, clinging on to the wifi. It was a bit pathetic but I didn’t care. Sweet, sweet Wifi!

So when I got to the Airbnb house in Norway, I was equally happy to find out the Wifi was also fast. Hooray, European utilities! For a brief moment, I contemplated staying in the house the whole time and use the Wifi, but I knew that was silly and not realistic. Still, I took advantage of it as much as I could and backed up my files whenever I had the chance.

Getting Around

Downtown is relatively small; it’s very walkable. The streets were also pretty empty, not too many people or cars. It’s as if everyone went out of town for the week. Maybe it’s like that all the time, I don’t know.

Tromsø is a long-shaped island with large hills toward the center. To get from one corner to another, driving is recommended, especially in the cold. I bought a multi-day bus ticket from the bus station downtown the day after I arrived (because I arrived on a Sunday), and I just took the bus everywhere. One time I crossed the bridge to check out the Arctic Cathedral and other things, another time I took it to the southern tip of the island to visit the Tromsø Museum, then I took the bus in the wrong direction and got a tour of the other side of the island and ended up in Tromsø University.

Climate/Clothing

  • Time of year: mid-October.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

During the day, it’s “comfortably” cold. By that, I mean I wore about three layers of long sleeves with a good pair of leather gloves and was okay when I was continuously moving. It was okay to keep the head uncovered for a short period of time outside. But a beanie or hat should be worn for longer duration. My face, exposed to the cold air, got a bit numb after a while, especially when there was wind. The wind definitely gave me a good fight to keep the warm in.

"It's, uh, pretty cold in Tromsø."At night, especially out in the middle of nowhere during a northern lights tour, when we stood in place outside waiting and watching for the lights, it was much easier to get really cold. Clothing wise, I wore an extra top layer; that was sufficient. For bottoms, I wore thermal underwear. The fact that I felt normal in my legs meant that it was a good thing I had them on.

Shoes — Bring Good Boots

I arrived in Norway a little bit unprepared in terms of footwear. For my six-week world trip, I brought a pair of breathable hiking shoes and a pair of loafer-type shoes for versatility. Let’s just say if I were to go to Tromsø again, or anywhere very north or very south, I would invest in a pair of well-insulated boots. On my first northern lights tour, after standing for ten to fifteen minutes, my feet started to really feel the cold. There were multiple stages of them going numb and more numb, and when I thought they would become better if I just shuffle my feet in place, I was very wrong, and they just became more numb than I thought were possible. And then they got even more numb, to the point where I was wondering if I still had those legs, if they would recover if I ran back to the bus right then.

Back To the Bus

At one point, probably thirty minutes in, I couldn’t take it anymore. The lights were really pretty and everyone was expecting better ones to come. So I got back to the tour bus where there was a heater going. As I tried to warm up, I grabbed the plastic shopping bags I got from my souvenir shopping earlier that day and double wrapped my feet and stuffed everything back into my shoes. I had also worn two pairs of wool socks already. After maybe ten minutes, I hesitated leaving the warm tour bus but I still made it back to the group to try to enjoy the lights, but they were mostly gone. My feet were still numb, probably less so but I could feel them quickly getting back to where they were before. The plastic bags didn’t feel like they worked.

End of Misery

Fortunately, soon after I returned the guides decided to head to another location so we got back on the bus, and I got a bit of a chance to warm up. The second night, I was smarter, in that I wore the plastic bags before starting the tour, so I had time to properly insulate it better, so I suffered less. It may also have been that the temperatures were slightly warmer, or that it was more cloudy, or that we went more inland and away from the sea breeze.

Losing the Airbnb House Keys

When I checked in to the Airbnb location, I was given two keys with a wooden keychain with “Airbnb” written on it. I thought that was cute. On my second northern lights tour, we stopped on the side of the road to catch the northern lights flying above us. I took out my phone from my pocket to take pictures. For the trip, I got a heavy duty double layer phone case and attached it to a retractable keychain clip. So it was kind of bulky and taking it out of my pocket took some effort at times. The pocket also had the house keys in it, and I think that was when I dropped it. I may also have been wearing gloves and would not be able to feel the things falling out of my pocket.

I noticed that my keys were missing in the middle of the tour. In typical fashion, I checked and rechecked my belongings, every nook and cranny of my bags, around and under my seat. I also started thinking about how I would be able get back into the house, especially if I would get back to town from the tour at around midnight and the host’s son would probably be in bed and I would feel bad for ringing the doorbell.  

What to do?

I knew that if I were to have a better chance at getting back into the house, I had to act fast and contact my host, which meant I had to be sure I lost the keys and give up a little bit of hope that I could resolve this myself, and also pride for having to admit I lost the keys. I agonized repeatedly over whether I should write the message to my host or I should risk it and ring the doorbell after midnight to get the host’s son to open the door. I also thought about how much of a hassle it would be, let alone costly to replace the locks on their doors. The thoughts in my mind were starting to get out of hand, so finally, I decided that the right thing to do was to contact my host as soon as possible.

Corresponding with the Airbnb Host

Fortunately, the bus had Wifi and I contacted the host through the Airbnb app, writing a long message thanking her for hosting, and explaining the situation and apologizing many times. After sending the message, I continued the tour and tried to enjoy the northern lights. But it was difficult with the incident on my mind, along with an uncertain near future. It reminded me of Albuquerque after I lost my wallet and I tried to enjoy the balloons but it just lacked the shine of pure happiness. To my surprise, about an hour later, the host responded and told me she arranged with her son to leave me a spare set of keys. I felt so lucky. It improved my mood for a few minutes, and then I reminded myself that I still lost the keys, and I should make up to my hosts somehow.

Second Chance

With the new set of keys, I guarded it very closely. I attached it to my retractable belt clip and made sure it’s still in my possession throughout the following day. That evening, the host’s son asked me for the keys back, and as I gave it back to him, I apologized and he straightly said it’s okay and that it’s not like I did it on purpose. I appreciated his lightheartedness at the situation.

Thanking the Host

Earlier that day, I went to the souvenir shop, “The Best Souvenir Shop in Town”, and bought a few keychains, one wooden and one plastic to give my host a choice to replace the one I lost. Then I got a card and gift bag from a bookstore. Finally, I went to the grocery store to get some chocolates. I also included some cash meant to cover the cost to get new keys. Right before I left the house to head to the airport, I gave the gift bag of things to the host’s son, who seemed really surprised. He either really was speechless or didn’t know the English words to express his thoughts, but before he had a chance to express them, I left the house and headed to the airport.

People

The people are generally very nice. Some have better customer service than others. There were also different levels of patience as well as ability to communicate in English. No one was particularly rude, although there was this one time when I went to the cable car station, hoping to get up to the top of the mountain, and finding out it was closed for the week. I still managed to get into the lobby with no one inside, until a man came out from his office, and I asked in English to confirm that it’s closed. The man said yes with a stern face so I left the awkward situation and made my way out of the parking lot. I turned around and noticed the man watching me from the window.

Language

Even though I was only going to be in Norway for four days, and that I heard people in Norway spoke English (which they do, maybe at 80-90% ability and speed), I still wanted to learn Norwegian so I can somehow put it to good use. Like with the other languages that I learned for the trip, I had little chance or time to practice speaking it with other people beforehand. I only listened to the audio lessons and practiced in private. I jotted down the words and phrases that I learned so I could be familiar with how they looked and get a better understanding of the grammar structure.

As I said, since I heard most Norwegians could speak English, it was a bit difficult to 1) figure out who could speak it, and 2) have enough confidence to speak Norwegian instead of giving up and default to English. Every new interaction started with the awkwardness of those two factors, but that quickly went away when I just made the call to speak English, or that the other person seeing my appearance rightly assumed that I would be more comfortable with English. It was also easy to default to English when the casual greeting “Hi!”was pronounced the same in Norwegian (“Hei!”). Once in a while, I threw in a “God dag!” (“Good day!”) and then proceed with English. And I got pretty good at the end of an interaction with “Har det!” or “Har det bra!” which was a common phrase equivalent to “Have a good one!”

Knowing when and how to use phrases like that sort of redeemed the hard work I put in to learn the language, and to me, it showed the other persons that I made an effort, and hopefully threw off one or two people a little bit to wonder if I really knew Norwegian.

Tours

Photo Slideshow: Norway - Northern Lights - LBT 2014

I looked up tours for northern lights and there were a few companies who did them, and a lot of search results tend to lead to TripAdvisor reviews. So I used them to help narrow down the companies to choose from. I ultimately chose NorthernShots Tours because of the great reviews as well as their promise that if they couldn’t see the lights that night, we could return the next day for half price.

Actually, originally, the package I bought promised a second tour for free if I couldn’t see the lights the first night. But on the day of the tour, I was contacted by the company asking if I wanted to switch to the less expensive package. I agreed to it, and because I got a reissued credit card, they couldn’t refund to my old card, so they had to refund me in cash.

I walked to the pickup spot that evening, which was right outside of the office near downtown. As I was going through the process to get my cash refund, I learned that the company was created by a couple of young passionate photographers who wanted to share their love for the northern lights by driving visitors around the area and take pictures. I thought the guys were really down to earth and genuine, and they made the experience as pleasant as possible. Judging by their accents and brief chats, I also learned that they were from other places in Europe, like France and Italy.

The Bus

We rode in a big charter bus, which was much larger than I thought. Based on my experience on the trip so far, I thought I would be in a large van with uncomfortable seats. But instead, only about half of the large bus was full, so I got to sit in my own pair of seats. I noticed that there were a few groups of middle-aged Chinese tourists on the tour as well, which surprised me because Tromsø seem like a place Chinese people would visit, and it’s so cold that all I could picture were middle-aged Chinese people like my relatives scoffing at the idea of traveling to such a place and would prefer to go elsewhere warmer and with more landmarks to see in the daytime.

There was also wifi on the bus, which felt like such a luxury, even for the States. And a small bathroom was in the mid-section of the bus, right next to the mid-bus exit door. It surprised me that a bathroom could fit in that little nook, but it did! It’s small but very usable. These guys were prepared, and they got the right equipment.

The Tour Starts

The tour started at around 6pm, and one of the guides explained the agenda of the tour and then gave a history of northern lights. The ride to our first spot probably took 45 minutes, and right before, the guide explained how to set the cameras settings to capture the lights perfectly. I didn’t pay too much attention since I was going to use my basic iPhone 5s camera, and the settings were quite limited.

Literal Cold Feet

The first place we went to was by the water somewhere west of Tromsø. We had to get around a rocky and muddy hill in the dark to get there. Once there I started feeling the cold setting in, most notably my feet, partly because I was underprepared with footwear and wore my breathable hiking shoes. Basically, my feet felt numbing cold like I never thought were possible. They experienced alternating phases of cold and numb, but every phase more intense than before. Shuffling my feet did little to help.

It got to a point where it was too uncomfortable to think about anything else and my brain started wondering if my feet were still there, as if they had been disconnected from my body. I worried I did irreparable damage to my feet, so I decided to get back to the bus to try to warm up. The tour package offered professional northern lights portraits by the guides, and since all I brought was my iPhone 5s, I wanted to get a good photo of me and the lights to remember the experience. According to the guide, the lights were pretty good but less than optimal, so I took that as a good time to warm up in the bus for a little bit and come back out when it supposedly got better and get the portrait then. Still, the guide said to not go for too long because I might miss it.

Back to the Bus

Another visitor who also wanted to warm up in the bus made the little dark hike with me back to the heated bus, where the driver was comfortably waiting. I expected immediate relief once I stepped inside, but it was much more gradual, and actually slower, than I thought. I took the opportunity to take the plastic shopping bags from my souvenir store visit earlier that day to wrap my feet, which already had two pairs of wool socks. I figured it could probably seal in any heat that was escaping. It felt really silly but I had to do everything I could to keep my feet alive.

I waited in the bus for probably ten to fifteen minutes, watching faint streaks of green in the dark sky through the tinted windows. I imagined the hassle and discomfort I would experience if I had to put my layers back on and step out of the warm cocoon of the bus and into the chilling cold outside. My comfort was more important than a bucket list goal at that point. But finally, I snapped out of it, telling myself that I had traveled all this way not to sit in a bus. Actually, it was also because the other visitor wanted to go back outside again. So we rejoined the group, and my feet quickly restarted the process of becoming numb again. The plastic bags were of little help.

Apparently the conditions were not improving, and the lights were starting to move away. I missed my chance when everyone was getting their portraits taken, and I missed the last of the good lights while I was in the bus.

Snacks and Hot Chocolate

Some time in the middle of the tour, we took a break as the guides went outside to prepare hot chocolate. They had brought large containers of hot water and packets of powdered hot chocolate, and they were mixing them one cup at a time as quickly as they could. I was impressed at the level of service these guides were providing. They seemed to genuinely care for their customers. In the mean time, trays of cookies were also being passed around on the bus, where people could take as many as they want and there would still be enough left over.

After the break, we resumed the tour and visited other locations, stopping on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. The lights didn’t seem to be getting better, so I asked the guides if I could get a professional photo. The guide said the lights weren’t ideal, but he would try his best. At that point, I just wanted some visual proof that I saw the lights.

Northern Lights in Town

By the end of the tour, I became relatively good at spotting the lights and distinguishing it from long streaks of clouds, because they looked very similar, especially if the lights were weak. So after we got dropped off from the tour, I walked back to my Airbnb house and to my surprise, I saw thick streaks of green right above the street, freely dancing in the sky. I thought it was just clouds at first because I thought it was hard to see the northern lights with light pollution. But it moved and changed form too quickly to be clouds.

Seeing this made me feel so special and lucky, partly because there was no one around to confirm what I was seeing nor to share this moment with, so the lights felt like a private show, in public, just for me.

The lights were visible in town!

Second Tour

Aside from the freezing feet, I had a good time on the tour with these guides. And since I had nothing else planned the following night, and I got the refund from the previous night for going on the cheaper tour (which was half the price of my original tour), I figured I should do the tour again for a second chance to get a good portrait.

The second night had a much smaller group than the first; there were only five or six people, but we still took the giant bus. We went to the opposite direction toward Finland, but it was a cloudy night so seeing the lights would be more difficult regardless.

Since this was my second consecutive night, I had more experience spotting the lights from inside the bus earlier in the night. At one point, I asked the guide to confirm that what I saw were the lights, and he confirmed that it was. (Teacher’s pet moment). Actually, the lights were so active that he decide to make an impromptu stop on the side of the road to take pictures.

I got my professional portrait but it was next to the front of the bus with its lit sign. Still, learning from the previous night, I had to take what I can get. I also tried to take some selfies with my phone using a camera app that could adjust the aperture and shutter speed. Of course, the quality was lower and more blurry from my ever-so-slightly moving arms, but it actually turned out better than I expected. Also, it was the wrong time to experiment not smiling in pictures and being more pensive and dramatic. That was also the place where I believe I lost my Airbnb house keys.

Professional photo:
Professional shot (Second night)

Selfie with iPhone 5s using ProCam app:
Overexposing the shot on my camera to make sure I get something.

Later in the tour, we went to an open field and the sky was partly cloudy. We were probably there for an hour or so, and the clouds changed just as much as the lights. We were excited to see the clouds part or the lights become stronger, and then became disappointed whenever either of those improvements reversed. I helped a friend take photos of him and his girlfriend with his commercial camera, and he returned the favor and emailed me those pictures. That was also when I was dealing with the lost keys and thought more deeply and philosophically about life and the cosmos while being in the middle of nowhere looking at the lights.

Overall, both nights of tours were good. The guides were really cool folks who were passionate about photography and treat the patrons as special guests. I would do it again, and I would try to be more prepared with footwear and camera gear.

Museums and exhibits

I occupied my time during the day by going to different museums and exhibits throughout the city. Some were really abstract (Tromsø Kunstforening), some were very contemporary (Perspektivet Museum) and current with recent events around the world, and some were more standard museums, like the Tromsø Museum, which had a permanent exhibit on the local Scandinavian natural history. It had really simple but effective models illustrating specific ideas, like the comparison in scale between a particular whale and human being. The image alone said a lot without words. American museums should take note.

Simple yet effective display at Tromsø Museum.

I also visited the Arctic Cathedral, an iconic building in Tromsø. The admission was 40 kroner which was around $5. I felt that it was a bit pricy because it was more or less just one big room with unique architecture. There was very little else to do, unless one was religious. I stayed there a bit longer than I needed because I paid so much for it and I should at least enjoy it a bit more.

Inside the Arctic Cathedral.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

Smørbrød

The one thing I wanted to eat in Norway was a smørbrød, which is an open-faced sandwich. It’s a simple and common dish in Norway and Scandinavia; it’s probably so commonplace that I was making a big deal out of it. I learned about it in my Norwegian lessons, where I had to repeatedly order “et smørbrød” and “te” (tea). I became fascinated by it and looked up its significance in the culture. Smørbrøds could apparently get really fancy, but I just opted for the regular version, at a cafe near downtown.

I chose that cafe because I could tell from outside that they displayed the smørbrøds in a glass display case so I could just point and order. When I went up to pay, the language thing really made it awkward as I said what I wanted in English in a soft voice, a little embarrassed, and the cashier had trouble understanding. I wasn’t sure if she couldn’t hear me or if she didn’t understand English. There was also a problem with using my card. My card wasn’t the problem; it was me using a chip card on a chip-reading machine. It was the first country that I had use it, and the screen was displaying Norwegian, which I could recognize and could probably understand if I took some time deciphering each word. I think I did after the fact, as I pieced together the translation of the phrase by each word “TA KORT UT” (“Take card out.”), which I had learned in my audio lessons.

Finally, I got my smørbrød along with a hot chocolate. I grabbed a fork and a knife because I heard that’s how it’s supposed to be eaten. The smørbrød was really simple; it was a piece of buttered bread with a piece of salmon, hard-boiled egg slices, and some veggies. It tasted exactly as it looks. It was a bit underwhelming but I felt proud that I finally ate something that I set out to eat on the trip!

Other Foods

Photo Slideshow:

Norway - Food - LBT 2014

Since I was staying at an Airbnb, food was totally on my own. For snacks, I went to the grocery store and got packaged cakes, nuts, mini bread rolls, chocolates, and dried fish (which seemed to be locally produced). They were decent. Standard grocery store food quality, although the nut clusters (“Nøtte Godt”) were especially tasty, probably from the salt content.

I had trouble finding bottled water at first, so I bought a bottle of flavored water and winced every time I take a sip. The grocery store I went to twice was named “joker” at a street corner by the church. Ironically, I found out the evening before I left Tromsø that the building with the giant “Eurospar” sign two blocks from my Airbnb place was a big chain grocery store. I saw the same logo across the bridge earlier and noticed a parking lot in front with shopping carts. So I went inside and found a much larger selection of foods, including bottled water! I also got some chocolates for my hosts as a gift as well as souvenirs.

For meals, I went to places I felt familiar with. One evening, I went to a Thai restaurant near my Airbnb place (across Eurospar, to my ignorance) and tried to warm up with some spicy soup, though that didn’t work. I went to a medium-fancy burger place called Flyt and that was decent. Other times, I just went in convenience stores and bought pastries to bring with me.

Getting out

I had an early flight out Wednesday morning, so I walked to the 42 bus stop in the morning cold and crossed the island through tunnels to the airport. It was relatively convenient.

From My Travel Log

20 October 2014, 2:31pm, Tromsø Bibliotek (Library)

  • Tromsø is a lovely city. It’s cold but it’s real. Streets remind me of video games when you walk down a street and only a few people are there minding their own business. The bridges remind me of Macau’s bridge and the “small city” quality. The bridge walk reminds me of walking on the Brooklyn Bridge. The side of the Arctic Cathedral reminds me of the side of the Sydney Opera House.
  • Regarding languages, people at places I’ve visited have a high enough probability of speaking English that I have yet to really need to force myself to speak the local languages. Maybe after the fact I go over the expression over my head. Also, I don’t know enough to complete one interaction; if I knew how to ask the question, I might not understand the answer, which feels stupid to have asked in the local language in the first place.
  • I also seem to have trouble going into restaurants myself, and also not knowing which restaurants to go to. I’m relying heavily on the Internet to find good places to go. And when I’m on the road, I just choose whatever I find. * Languages I should learn: Dutch, German, Portuguese. Even though I feel very foreigner in all these places, I could see myself having a life anywhere, even cold Tromsø, but I don’t want to. Everywhere I can get used to provided I have enough time. I can imagine living in Europe for a while and just be a local. Maybe I do that for a year, four countries, three months each. We’ll see how I feel at the end of this trip though, to see how homesick I feel.
  • I realize I really like showers. I love good water pressure, warm water that hit the spot and heat up my bones. So far the two showers from my Airbnb hosts were good.
  • Tromsø, third international spot. I have yet to FEEL being in a foreign place. I either am really in my head during the moment or that it doesn’t exist anymore, the feeling of being in a place. Every place feels similar in some way; I am just at a spot on a typical Earth, no matter how beautiful the view is (like right now at the library looking at the mountains and the Arctic Cathedral). I think I feel it the most when I’m in “God mode” and can see from really high up, like a plane, but outside, or less contained. That’s why paragliding sounds like a good goal to achieve.

21 October 2014, 4:40pm, Flyt

  • Two and a half weeks ago, I saw hundreds of hot-air balloons fly into the sky. Just under two weeks ago, I witnessed the majestic view that is the Machu Picchu. Six days ago, I went on a safari and saw cheetah on a hunt. For the past two nights, I had seen the northern lights dance above me. Whatever happens for the rest of this trip, I must admit that I have been a very lucky guy so far.
  • One frustration I’m having in Europe, or Norway, is the credit card machines. It seems like most people use it with ease, but I’ve often had to let the other person copy the three digits in the back of the card, or sign the receipt when other customers didn’t need to. What makes it worse is the display reads out in Norwegian, and I was only able to decipher one of the gajillion messages they have, “Ta sort ut.” which mostly doesn’t help me make the purchase. Hopefully, I get more practice in England with English so I know what to do in France and Italy.
  • Took an accidental tour of Tromsø when I didn’t realize there’s a bus in the opposite direction when I left the Tromsø Museum.
  • Tromsø Museum’s exhibits are pretty good. Good for children with some parts.
  • Went to Thai restaurant last night. Didn’t know until I went home to check that you don’t tip in Norway. Oops.
  • Lost the house keys on northern lights tour. Apologized to host Ellen and fortunately got another set. Bought a bunch of stuff as gifts to make up for it.
  • Also, I don’t think Ellen is there, just his son Gunnar. I felt awful and it made the northern lights tours unenjoyable until Ellen replied that they have another set of keys.

Thanks

  • Shuttle saleswoman and driver
  • Shuttle riders who are serving in the army
  • Airbnb hosts, Gunnar and Ellen
  • Nazarene saleswoman who inadvertently helped me feel comfortable in Tromsø
  • OSL -> TOS flight attendants
  • Francesco x2, Helder (sp), Pedro (northern lights guides)
  • Julia and Harold (northern lights tour drivers)
  • Sales clerks (both really friendly and “real”)
  • Edwin and Christina (northern lights tour patrons)

Tips

  • Eurospar is a chain grocery store.
  • Bring well-insulated boots, along with layers
  • It is very cold.
  • The northern lights looks like they move slow but in twenty seconds they could disappear.
  • The northern lights also look brighter in photos because cameras can capture more light than the human eye can.
  • Listen to your northern lights tour guides; they knew what they’re doing. At least mine did.
  • Buses are nicely heated.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Tromsø, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Big Trip Weekly Status Update – Four Weeks Left

Lots of progress this weekend (and this week).

Packing

  • Still a lot of things I feel like I need to get, but my bag is practically full already. So I need to decide which will make the cut.
  • I did finally got the two pairs of shoes I’m bringing to the trip (one hike/walking and one nice/night out) that I have started breaking in.

Tours and Accommodations

These things kind of go hand-in-hand. I had to figure what I’m going to do at these destinations to figure out where I should stay. And some of these activities I’m purchasing tours for and they need to know where I’m staying so they can pick me up. I had already booked the Machu Picchu and safari trip, but they were multi-day and took care of accommodations.

So this weekend I’ve finally started looking at the three day trips that I needed to do: Get admission to the Balloon Fiesta in Albuquerque, going out to “chase” the Northern Lights and visiting the Great Wall. It’s also when I finally began relying on TripAdvisor, however confusing to navigate. After hours of shopping and agonizing over price and tour features, I’ve:

  • (Albuquerque) bought the tickets and confirmed an Airbnb request to stay near the event pickup/dropoff location
  • (Tromsø): booked a tour that should be a good deal and started looking at Airbnb spots near the pickup spot.
  • (Beijing): booked a tour for the Great Wall and reserved a spot at a hostel near city center and public transit.

If it wasn’t for my “Advanced To-Do List” I wouldn’t have been this organized to finally just suck it up and do it.

Flight Seats

I thought it was about time I select the seats on all my flights before all the good ones are taken. Well, the bad news is that because I made the reservation through the airline alliance and not individual airlines, I was only able to select seats for United and Lufthansa, which sort of heads the alliance. And also, I’m beginning to realize that more airlines are only allowing you to select your seats 1) if you pay extra, or 2) when you check-in. This is going to take more pre-planning and looking up Seatguru to make sure I get good enough seats for me to sleep on the longer flights. So for now, that’s almost everything I can do.

Next

This coming week, I have many things I need to tackle:

  • Apply for the China visa now I have an address for where I’m staying to put on the application
  • Really buy as much of the stuff I need as I can online so they arrive on time; otherwise, I’d have to go out and buy potentially inferior and unreviewed products in person.
  • Start looking at places I want to say for the rest of the places. I heard Europe has more options and can be done later but still.
  • Start figuring out how much money I need in each country and go get at least some of that money before my trip.

(25 days)

(I heard recently that Lufthansa’s worker’s having a strike.)

(Hodor and Bran won’t be in Season 5.)