There is popular book entitled, "Oh the Places You'll Go" which would seem an apt one to use as I blog about my epic trip across Europe with my bff, Carol. However, I have chosen a play on those words for my title, as what I think of most when I look back on the last 2 weeks are not the historic and grandiose buildings and sites, but rather are the FACES of the beautiful people that crossed my path.
At the very outset of my adventure, there were issues. And by "issues" I mean "major flight delays, missed connections, and cajoling for a different route to arrive to Europe" issues. I saw many people at the airports and on the planes. I have always loved to just "people watch" and the delays at the airport provided me with lots of that. I met a beautiful Brazilian lady with her 2 children who happened to be siting across the aisle from me on the long flight 'over the pond'. I spoke with her briefly in Portuguese and it was fun to see her face light up as she asked me if I too was from Brazil! I remember the look of love and concern she had for her daughters as they restlessly journeyed to England with her.
As soon as I got off of the plane and made my way through the security and customs lines, I came out to the "greeting area" where the super happy and smiling face of Carol greeted me! Never mind that she had been planning on me arriving at 8 am, and it was now nearly 3 pm, she was just patient, understanding, and excited to see me. That sure made me light right up. I wish everyone could see that look of excitement on another's face as they are greeted!
Then begin a cacophony of faces, faces, and more faces as we started what would become our daily use of public transportation. Metro, buses, subways and trains. I love the hustle and bustle of people as their lives intersect for nanoseconds all at one juncture. I saw people of every race, color, and creed. I was in my own little 'people Heaven', as it were.
We toured all over London for the next two days. I remember the face of a young man, who seemed to be traveling home from work, exhausted. He had just boarded the crowded metro and found a seat. Only one stop later, an older lady got on and he instantly stood up to offer her his seat. I saw the look of satisfaction on his face, as well as the look of gratitude on the older lady's.
I loved the look of friendship and familial concern on the face of my adorable cousin, Ciara as she lovingly guided us and hosted us around her hometown of London and as she gathered of her own bedding supplies to build a bed for me on her living room floor. She was amazingly gracious!
I remember the looks of bewilderment on the faces of hundreds of tourists quietly walking around the V&A museum as they beheld artifacts and priceless pieces of art and history surrounding them like ancient cries from the dust: 'remember me', 'see what we have left for you', 'learn from us'.
I recall the looks of annoyance on the faces of the drivers that were forced to stop as we tried to get the 'perfect Beetles shot' of us crossing Abbey Road. I remember the faces of tourists and of locals as we walked throughout so many other wonderful places in London such as: Picadilly Circus, trafalgar Square, Waterloo, St. Paul's, the Millenium bridge, Big Ben, the Globe theater, the Shard, the London Eye, the Thames River, Kensington palace, Prince Albert Concert Hall, St. Jame's garden park, Hyde Park, Buckingham palace, Westminster Abbey, Sherlock Holme's famous address, the Monument to King George, Knotting Hill, Portabello Street shops, and of course, King's Cross Station platform 9 3/4!
I enjoyed the look of excitement on the Sister Missionaries' faces as three gals walked in off of the street into the Visitor's Center! They were adorable and kind-hearted and I prayed for their successes with the good people of London.
Then, as we finished the London bit of the trip, we boarded the famous Eurostar train that speedily took us through the tunnel to France! We spent most of the first day on a trip to Versaille. Oh, Versaille. What a glorious sight. It is hard to describe the enormity of Versaille, but I shall try (via the interwebic world of information).
"The title of “world’s largest royal domain,” as measured by the total area of the property, goes to the Palace of Versailles. Versailles’s grounds cover 87,728,720 square feet, or 2,014 acres, including 230 acres of gardens. The palace itself contains 721,206 square feet of floor space."
And I kid you not when I tell you that you should have seen the faces on the cows when Carol and I popped up before them from behind an obscure area in the back of those 230 acres after jumping the moat and scaling the wall into a farm we were trying to get to! It may not have been the most rational or maybe even legal way to get there, but boy did we create a memory (and FOUR VERY TIRED FEET) that day!
After a whole day of Versaille, we took in the vista from atop the Sacre Ceour Church. It is beautiful and has a lovely view of all of Paris. There were so many faces from all over the world walking reverently through the gorgeous cathedral and talking excitedly outside of it. I enjoyed seeing them all.
We walked until we found a little cafe on a back road that was serving fresh crepes. It was my first experience eating real French savory crepes. I must have had an interesting look on my face when I first saw the plate being brought to us with a brown crepe. I had no clue that they were made from buckwheat! I thought that they were quite tasty.
The next morning we got up early and headed to the Eiffle Tower. Carol was brilliant in the tricks of all things touristy-trapish and told me to get in the line for the stairs instead of the elevator. It was not only a shorter line but cheaper fees as well. I thoroughly enjoyed walking up all those stairs. With each one I kept thinking to myself, "I really can't believe that I am HERE. That I am INSIDE of the EIFFEL TOWER!" I must have had a huge smile on my face the whole time, because I remember my cheeks actually hurting from so much smiling that day.
We then got on the "hop on hop off" tour bus. It is really cool because you get earphones and they give you a spoken tour of everything in Paris as you drive by it. You are free to get off at any stop and back on whenever you want. I highly recommend it to anyone who may be heading to Paris. The one major stop that we got off for and spent several hours at was, of course, the LOUVRE. I was totally geeking out excited with how amazing it was to be there. Carol and I had a list of the top things that we wanted to see for sure, and we loved seeing them. We could have easily spent multiple days there and still not seen it all. I loved beholding the serene face of Mona Lisa, the mysterious face of the ancient Portrait of a Young Woman, the magnificent statue of Winged Victory, and so many others.
We made our way over to the famous and awe-inspiring cathedral of Notre Dame. Walking through it's halls was wonderful and I especially loved the carvings showing the life of Christ in chronological order. The beautiful face of Christ depicted beginning as an infant, all the way till the cross and after the resurrection reminded me of all of the good in the world that has happened because of His perfect life and His atoning sacrifice. I truly can't wait to gaze upon His face again one day. How glorious it shall be!
We chose to wait in a rather long line outside of the gates of the cathedral for the opportunity to pay to be able to ascend the spiraling staircases to the top of the cathedral. It was about 1.5 hours of waiting in line, as they only let up a certain number of people through the very narrow staircases to the bell tower and to the roof of the building. As we were waiting, I began to talk with the people around me in the line.
There was a beautiful couple just in front of us. They were from Iraq. They had been married for 5 years and were working and living in London. I really began to enjoy the couple and talking to them made me think that I could make friends with anyone throughout the whole world, because we are truly all brothers and sisters. At one point, something very simple yet amazing happened. It was super hot and anywhere you go you have to purchase bottles of water to drink, as there are no such things as public water fountains. At one point in our long wait, her husband left to go and buy her a fresh bottle of water. He brought it back to her and I could tell that she was so thirsty and so grateful for it. She hurriedly opened the cap and then as she was going to take a drink, she saw me there behind her, and she instinctively just looked at me, held out the bottle of water, before she had even touched it to her own lips, and offered it to me with a simple, "Would you like a drink?" I quickly told her, "No, but thank you." Then I pondered on what had just happened. This total stranger that I had only just met in a line a few moments before was thinking of me before herself, was offering me a drink of her brand new water even though she had no physical way of knowing if I could have been sick or anything, she just instinctively offered. And it was a sincere offer. I stared at her beautiful face as she drank down gulps of refreshing water in that hot sun. I marveled at the compassion in her beautiful soul and at that moment I made up my mind to try and be more aware, more compassionate, more trusting and more giving.
I loved finally getting to the top and touching the old bells in the bell tower and listening to their tolling, and climbing to the roof and peering down on the gargoyles, but when I close my eyes and think of that day, what I see first is that sweet lady from Iraq and the look on her face in that moment that she offered me her water.
We enjoyed some delicious French pastries that night and then boarded a train to return to London. Carol had her car waiting there for us and drove us to her home. Carol is so great at adapting to whatever situation she is in. She can drive on the "wrong" side of the road like a boss! And even in a stick shift where she has to shift with her left hand! I was completely in awe of her mad skillz. We spent the next few days at her lovely home on the Air Force base.
She took me to her ward where she is the Relief Society president and does a great job.
She took me to a movie on the base that was just plain fun. She took me to her interval training class at the gym where I mostly made a fool of myself and tried to not look like a completed idiot as my face was bright red and dripping sweat as I made up my own version to the exercises I couldn't really do.
She took me to a historic ruins place called Bury St. Edmund's.
She introduced me to the adorableness that is Cath Kidston. She let me join in on her family home evening with her cute children. I loved seeing their sweet faces each day I was there with them.
Tuesday morning we got ready and took off for the airport. We got onto our Ryan Air flight to Italy. Carol had already been to Italy, but this was my first time. Anyone who knows me at all, knows that visiting Italy has always been super HIGH on my personal bucket list. I was beyond excited to be literally on my way there! I could hardly contain my enthusiasm as we landed in Rome!
What a city. The first evening we walked around to things that were close to our hotel, like a few cathedrals and the very famous Trevi Fountain. As we rounded the corner to behold it, I remember the looks of disappointment on many faces as the fountain was blocked off with high barriers while it was under construction. Still, we made the most of it, took the obligatory photos, threw in the customary coin with a wish (yes, of course my wish involved Greg), and then made up for the disappointment by tasting my first ever LEGIT ITALIAN GELATO!
It was honestly like the angels in Heaven were singing in my mouth at the first bite. It is truly as deliciously divine as I could have imagined.
The following morning we got up early and headed on the metro into downtown. This was the day of my actual 40th birthday, but I was too excited to even think about that little fact. We went to the USO office and got reservations for our day trip to Pompeii for the following day. Then we signed up for a private tour (and by private, I mean a group of 55-60 people) for the Vatican. Carol was so generous in paying for that for my birthday. (In fact, she is such a generous soul, that I cannot even count all of the ways that she helped me out on the whole trip - bless her HUGE heart!) By signing up for that group, we were able to bypass the enormous line of tourists that were standing around the perimeter of the entire wall of the Vatican City waiting to enter. They say that there are around 30,000 people that visit the Vatican each day! Holy cow - that was a lot of faces to walk by as we headed to the entrance!
The Vatican was beautiful, awe-inspiring, and generally just plain AWESOME! I loved being inside of the Sistine Chapel, seeing the residences of the popes, and going into St. Peter's Basilica. Standing at the spot where Peter, Christ's apostle is thought to be buried was just so cool. And then we quietly walked through the basement catacombs where all of the former popes from all of Catholic history lie in exquisite coffins with their stone faces memorialized in slumbering reverence atop them.
We spent the rest of the day seeing all of the sights in Rome that we possibly could get to! We saw the grandiose Colosseum, Campo de Fiori, Piazza San Pietro, Monumento Vitorio, Piaza Veneza, the Pantheon, etc. etc.
That night we found a restaurant to eat my birthday dinner at - I searched until I found one that would serve me gnocchi and creme sauce...just what I had been craving!
When the waiter found out that it was my birthday, he winked and kissed me on both cheeks and said he would bring me a special surprise at the end of our meal. When we asked for the tab, he brought out a plate. I had been praying my "surprise" would be gelato, of course. However, to our surprise, he had brought out two shot glasses of limoncello (a famous alcoholic drink from the region). Not sure which face was more disappointed - mine at realizing I wouldn't be getting free gelato - or his when I told him I didn't drink? I then proceeded to give the drinks to the friendly gay couple from New York that was sitting next to us! It was pretty hilarious when I think about that night!
The next morning we got up really early and got on the tour bus to go to Naples and Pompei. It was fun riding on a big bus and seeing the sleepy faces all around me as we traveled. Naples was pretty cool, but just such a fast stop and quick walking tour that we didn't have time to take in many of the sights.
Half way through the day, we stopped at a little restaurant where they fed us lunch as part of our tour package. They assigned us randomly to sit at a table for four. Carol and I quickly said hello to the couple at our table with us, and found out that they were from Spain and were on their honeymoon! I remember the beautiful face of this curly-blond as she showed me her wedding picture on her phone. She lit up with excitement and happiness as she looked at her brand new husband. I loved the equally enamored look on his face as he watched her talking to us. Even though it was only a matter of 30 minutes, I felt like I left that table with a new friend. In fact, today, through the modern miracle of technology, we are actually Facebook friends and we get to see each other's faces and get to know each other more through that medium. It reminds me of when I was a child, and we would have "pen pals", but today, not sure if any of my children would know that term!
After lunch we drove into Pompeii and began the tour around that incredible little city. Our tour leader was great and you could tell by watching her face that she really enjoyed being able to tell people the stories of this incredible place, her hometown. She was engaging and excited about the history she was sharing with us. Walking around that deserted location, all I can say is that it felt almost sacred - like we were meandering throughout the final resting place of so many of our brothers and sisters who were taken suddenly, like we were inside of this vast burial ground where last breaths, last dreams, last hugs, last everythings were blotted out. I was in awe at the drawings on the walls, at the ingenuity and sense of community that was there. I closed my eyes and could see the countless faces as they must have eventually huddled together and faced their imminent deaths. When people ask me what things stood out to me most about the trip, I would have to say that Pompeii was definitely one of them!
The next morning we left early for the airport and arrived at Carol's home where I began the sad task of having to pack up for my trip home. Carol and Dan graciously took me all the way to Heathrow and I really did my best to stay awake on the flight home to try and get my body fooled about jet lag. All the long flight back to Salt Lake I kept replaying in my mind over and over and over again what I had just experienced. It was like the dream that I had imagined it would be, but now it was a part of my actual life! I was (and am) so very grateful for the graciousness of my host and bff, Carol, for the loving gift of my sweet Greg who gave it to me for my 40th birthday, and for the many others who helped out with my family while I was gone.
Indeed, when I think back on my epic trip to Europe, I hope to always remember the many many beautiful places I saw and the many many beautiful faces I saw.