August 2007


Ten years ago, after much begging, cajoling, pouting, and crying, my parents let me go away for the weekend with my friends to Michigan. We had just graduated high school and were desperate to go be off on our own, unable to wait the two months until we went off to our various colleges to try living without our parents.

We were a group of boys and girls then, and this co-ed sleepover aspect was doubtless a big part of what made my parents so apprehensive about giving me permission to go. Ultimately, they realized that 12 boys and girls sleeping in sleeping bags in one communal living room was about the worst place for teenage sex, so they finally caved.

I got a horrible sunburn; the worst I’ve ever had. My then-crush threw my nice new sunglasses in the lake and was mad at me for being mad at him when we couldn’t find them. Princess’s brother had bought us pre-mixed strawberry daquiris in freezer pouches, and when we split the six pouches between the 12 of us, Murphy took two sips and asked, “Am I drunk yet?” It was an awesome time, an exhilarating freedom that I can still vividly remember a decade later.

Three years ago, the core group of girls from that trip decided to revive the tradition, and ever since we’ve had a girls weekend in Michigan every year. Horty flies out from Seattle, bless her heart, Murphy comes in from New York, and the rest of us, who are all based in Chicago, pile into cars with loads of beach crap and games and wine and tequila and head to Murphy’s grandparents house in Michigan.

So it was that this weekend I piled myself into Princess’s little Subaru and drove to the Third Annual Girls Weekend in Michigan. We drank too much wine, cooed over Horty’s newly-pregnant belly, skewered marshmallows on sticks and roasted them, and marveled that we’ve managed to keep alive, through six different colleges, three different grad schools, six totally divergent career paths, three marriages, two babies (one in utero) and two cats, this tradition of getting together every year for a weekend.  I’m amazed and blessed to know such an interesting, smart, funny group of women, and we’re all lucky to be able to make this a priority, to preserve these friendships that would be so easy to let fall by the wayside.

Our 10-year high school reunion is scheduled for some time this fall. They’ll rent out a bar, we’ll pay some absurd amount for open bar cocktails and a few hours of awkward chitchat with the people we knew back when- but for me, the real reunion, the one that matters- that happened this weekend.

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What the hell, Chicago?  What is up with the muggy-ass, bathwater-warm, sticky humid unpleasantness?  What is up with the daily rainstorms?  The never dry-ness?

I ask because there is some sort of MILDEW INFESTATION in my washing machine and all I really want to do is throw open all the windows and air this place the fuck out, but since it’s pretty much mildewy and humid outside, too, I really don’t see that helping.

I promise we are clean people.  I have no idea what has caused my washing machine to smell irreparably of funk.  Can anyone give me a suggestion as to what to do about it? It’s times like these I wish we still had a landlord to call to fix stuff.

Well hello. Been a while, hasn’t it? I’ve been gone three weeks and am paler than I was when I left. That’s my kind of vacation, kids.

In three weeks, we went to 8 European countries. To spare you all a long long long post about what we did when, with pictures, I have come up with a strategy, a way to pare three weeks of stories down to one (hopefully) manageable post.

I’m giving myself one photo per city. That’s it. I tried to select one photo which is funny, or typical, or strange, or which summarizes our experience with the place. These are mostly not photos of monuments. There are some nice photos of monuments over at my place on flickr, if you’re interested. But it turns out the best travel stories rarely involve the best-known tourist sites.

Paris

I studied abroad for a term in Paris in 1999, and have been a few other times and I really really like the bread there. And the cheese. And other stuff. So when we first started planning this trip, I made John promise we could go to Paris. We rented a cheap little flat in Paris and spent a week eating, walking, eating more, stopping for a cocktail, and then doing some late night snacking, all with a pretty incredible set of sights in the background. It was awesome to be in a place that is different, but where you’ve been before, and are a little comfortable, and don’t feel the pressure to seeitalldoitallrushrushrush. We did very little rushing, in fact, during our week in France.
Clock, Musee d'Orsay

I took approximately 34 pictures of this clock. You can look through it and down onto Paris! That’s Montmartre in the background! I realize that my love of the Musee d’Orsay makes me a totally predictable American tourist, but I can live with that.

Bruges, Belgium

We had originally planned to go to Brussels to enjoy moules and frites and lots of beer, but one of John’s colleagues suggested Bruges instead, and boy am I glad he did. Bruges is full of canals and charm and chocolate shops, and is an excellent place to spend a day and a half (but probably not more. We had pretty much exhausted the town by the time we left. Excellent shopping, though.)
Beer, Bruges
We made it our mission to drink an unreasonable number of Belgian beers during our time in Belgium. We were there for less than 48 hours and I had 6 and John had 7. Bear in mind that Belgian beers are strong, and that we didn’t do any late-night beer binging- this was strictly a lunch and dinner drinking affair. I am pretty impressed with us. This particular beer wasn’t the best tasting, but it was the best photographed.

Amsterdam

Amsterdam is one of several cities we visited where the majority of our photos are of canals. Bruges, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and even Stockholm- our pictures have a decidedly maritime bent to them. But instead of a picture of a bike resting against a bridge over a canal, I give you this:
Smart Car, Amsterdam
This is a Smart Car. You will recognize it by its tiny size and odd shape. It is also backed into a parallel parking space. Crosswise. As in, it backed into a space that cars are supposed to parallel park in. Did I mention that it also backed all the way against the curb to achieve this, and that the curb, which was a mere three inches wide, was also the EDGE OF A CANAL? That is how bad parking is in Amsterdam, people- folks will back their car practically into the water for the sake of finding a place to park.

Copenhagen

We met up with my parents in Copenhagen, and proceeded to board a cruise ship that took us to all subsequent destinations. As a result of traveling with my parents, our photos from this point forward have a decidedly more “organized tour hotspots” feel instead of the “wandered down this random road and found a cool thing” angle we’d been trying to work earlier in the trip. You will see why this is important when we get to Russia.
Canal, Copenhagen
Remember how I said that many of our stops could have been represented by pictures of canals? Copenhagen was our winner because we actually bit the bullet in Copenhagen and took a canal tour. The bridges over the canals in Copenhagen are old and low, and the tour guide spent a lot of time saying “this next bridge is quite low, please duck” in addition to the standard “on your left you’ll see x, on your right, y.” We got stuck under the lowest bridge of them all and I thought my claustrophobic mother might die on the spot as she put her head between her knees and practiced deep breathing until we got moving again five minutes later. When we proposed a canal tour of Stockholm later in the trip she was, shall we say, not amused.

Tallinn, Estonia

Tallinn was very beautiful and its medieval old town was very charming and the whole thing was altogether very pleasant- but I have no pictures of it because we accidentally left our camera on the boat. We also left our wallets on the boat, so for two hours we wandered around charming old town, (whose only modern purpose appears to be to sell tourists trinkety crap and overpriced lunches,) wishing we had just a few euros to buy an ice cream or pay for entry into a museum or something. Maybe next time.

St. Petersburg

We spent three days in St. Petersburg. This proved to be sort of a problem, as I was busy studying for the Bar and didn’t research such trivial things as visa requirements. Turns out, to go ashore in Russia you have to have a visa, or be part of an organized tour provided by a Russian tour operator. We had no visa, and were stuck on the boat unless we signed up for the cruise’s “shore excursions.” So it was that we ended going on THREE organized tours, when really we would have much rather wandered around on our own. Once, I asked my tour guide if I could use the restroom while everyone else went to look at a mosaic and meet them back at the entrance. “No,” she said. “Unfortunately, you are not qualified to be in Russia by yourself.” Ah.

Which brings me to this picture, taken at the Hermitage. All the chairs at the Hermitage, which appeared to be there for sitting purposes, were strung through with gold ribbon, to prevent people from actually sitting in them. Which sort of figuratively summarizes my experience there:
Chairs, The Hermitage.
“Welcome to Russia! We have beautiful chairs here! Unfortunately, you are not allowed to sit in them.”

Helsinki

By the time we got to Helsinki, our camera batteries were nearly dead. (I forgot to pack the charger. Sue me.) I was convinced that every picture was going to be our last, which was particularly sad because we were allowed to roam freely around Helsinki, and the entire freaking city is one continuous band of beautiful, interesting, artistic, well-designed Scandinavian wonderfulness.

Fortunately, I did not run out of batteries before I snapped this at the “traditional market” which is suspiciously located right next to where the cruise ships dock:
Reindeer, minx, and fox furs. Also knives.
I really appreciate a sign that is so straightforward. No silly slogans or showy graphics here, oh no! Just a simple message: “We have pelts. Also tools for getting your own pelts.” But probably not for Finnish people, who would presumably choose to buy from pelt and knife dealers whose signs were in Finnish.

Stockholm

Our final stop was in Stockholm. To get there, we crossed back over the Baltic on a particularly unpleasant night that was filled with lots of boat jostling and rocking and roiling and a little bit of throwing up from all the jostling/rocking/roiling. By the time we finally got to sweet, sweet, Sweden, with its friendly blond residents and blessed solid ground, we were ready to take it easy. Until we saw what was in the lobby of our hotel:
Absolut Icebar, Stockholm
That, my friends, is the remnants of a night at the Absolut Icebar. It is a bar made of ice. The seats, the walls, the glasses- all made of ice. They give you a cute little moonsuit parka and ski gloves to wear, and you pile into a room that looks like a particularly well-designed and artistic walk-in freezer, and you drink signature Absolut cocktails out of glasses made of ice. Absolut Icebar was in the lobby of our hotel, and I took it as a sign that we were meant to pay too much for drinks and take pictures of ourselves looking like idiots in silver parkas drinking beverages made with blue curacao. It was delightful.

And so now we’re home. The washing machine is giving off a sour mildew-y smell, there are 19 pounds of mail to sort through, and tomorrow morning I have to go get one of those pesky moles removed. I miss vacation already.