Brenda McGrath


Blog #1 – Coping With Jetlag

 Let me begin by saying that I’ve never flown across multiple timezones before. I flew to Brazil when I was eleven, but there was only an hour time difference there, so it was no big deal. I always heard people talking about jet lag, and I thought I understood the concept of it and how to avoid it. I knew that when we would be landing in Paris, it would be approximately 8 am there, but approximately 2 am in Pittsburgh, so it would feel like bedtime even though the day would really just be beginning all over again. I thought I had it all figured out on how I would deal with it. I thought, “No big deal! I’ll just take a sleeping pill when we get on the plane, sleep the whole way there, and feel good as new when we land.”

Unfortunately, this plan did not work. First of all, even though I had eaten before arriving at the airport, I was famished by the time we boarded the plane. So, I decided to wait until dinner was served before taking my Melatonin, assuming they would serve dinner soon after boarding. I was wrong; it was a good two hours before we ate, nearly a third of the way through our flight already. After eating and finally taking my Melatonin, I waited for it to kick in… and waited, and waited, and waited. It never did. I counted sheep, I moved myself into any position possible in my tiny seat to try to find a decent comfort level, but despite my best efforts, I didn’t sleep for more than thirty minutes at a time on the plane, getting maybe a total of two hours of sleep.

 Sunset from Airplane

I’m finishing this blog the next day, as I literally fell asleep sitting up while typing it last night at 9 pm London time. Seriously, jet lag is no joke. That being said, I would like to discuss tips for dealing with jet lag once you have it – because really, it seems like it is too difficult to simply avoid it altogether.

  1. Don’t over caffeinate. I know a lot of people drank a lot of coffee to try to get rid of the jet lag, and it only made them crash harder. You’re going to be tired no matter what! Instead, drink a lot of water. Your body will thank you for at least staying hydrated when it is so tired.

  2. Nap. Nap as much as you can. On the bus ride tour from the Heathrow airport, I’m ashamed to say that I promptly fell asleep for the duration of the bus ride. I physically could not hold my eyes open any longer, as guilty as I felt. But when the bus stopped and I woke up, I felt a lot better! The nap gave me just enough energy to make it through the rest of the day’s activities.

  3. Naps are helpful, but do not take a really long one! If you sleep for hours, you’ll ruin your chances of your body getting used to the new sleep cycle in the new time zone. Set an alarm if you think you won’t be able to limit your nap time. Just push through the tired until the end of the night when you can finally lay down, go to sleep, and stay asleep. Then, by the next morning, you should feel fully adjusted to the new time zone, and the jet lag should be merely an unpleasant memory.

Follow this advice, and jet lag should be much easier to cope with.

Au revoir!

Blog #2 – London Food

 One would think that considering the United Kingdom is not extremely culturally different from the United States, compared to other countries in Europe, the food would be relatively the same as what we’re used to eating back home. And on one hand, that’s true. There are plenty of McDonalds, Burger Kings, Pizza Huts, Starbucks, and KFCs. There are plenty of Chinese takeout places, and convenient stores filled with the same types of candy, chips, and sodas we’re used to. But if you look further than that, you will find many differences in not only the types of food found here, but also how food is treated and viewed here, and how different the general restaurant experience is.

Let me begin with the different types of food one can find here. The most obvious thing that stood out to me as I first began to explore London is the amount of Indian restaurants. I imagine this has to do with the fact that India was once a British colony. There is an Indian restaurant on almost every street, some very cheap and casual, and some very fancy and expensive. While Indian restaurants aren’t necessarily rare in the US, they are not nearly as common as they are in the UK. Also, the Indian food I tried here in London is hands down the best Indian food I have ever had, even though I have had some great Indian food in the United States. Now, it could be that I just got lucky in finding a great Indian restaurant for a very reasonable price. However, I have a feeling that this is a standard that many restaurants around here would share.

Another thing that you can find at even more places in London is fish and chips. Again, it can be found anywhere from small street vendor carts to large, expensive restaurants. This is not surprising, considering it is a signature British dish. However, I didn’t expect it to taste so different here than it does in the United States. Any time I have had fish and chips back home, it has been greasy and soggy, making me feel very weighed down after eating it. However, the fish and chips we were served at the restaurant our second night here was the complete opposite. It was delightfully crispy, the fish was perfectly flaky, and it didn’t weigh me down at all even though it was deep fried. I can now understand why it is such a popular dish here – it really is so delicious.

The general restaurant experience also is very different here. It took me a few times sitting down in a restaurant to get used to this, but in Europe, waiters are not rushing around to take your order, serve your food, give you your checks, and get you out. They want you to take your time and enjoy your food. Waiters also are not nearly as personal with you as they are in the US. They don’t tell you their name, constantly ask you if you need anything, or try to impress you in order to get a high tip. Of course, many restaurants here include the tip in the bill, but the waiter still acted this same way even in the restaurant I ate at that did not include the tip. I find this interesting because it makes the restaurant experience more about your personal experience sitting and eating food with your friends, rather than just the waiter trying to get a high tip and then get you out so they can get a tip from the next customer. You have to actually ask the waiter for the check – otherwise, they’ll just let you sit there chatting and enjoying yourself all night! Overall, I must say that I genuinely enjoy London’s way of eating out much more.

Au revoir!

Blog #3 – Last Day in London

 Today was a very memorable last day in the beautiful city of London. We began with a tour and Q&A at Bloomberg. To be quite honest, knowing that Bloomberg was a financial and economic news company, I thought that this visit would be boring and disinteresting to me. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was quite wrong – it was actually one of the most interesting visits we have had on the trip so far. To start, the space itself was modern, open and inviting, and the cafeteria with self-serve espresso drinks, frozen yogurt and a huge variety of snacks surely didn’t hurt. Aside from that, all of the people who spoke to us were phenomenal. Carly, the first woman we spoke to and who gave us the tour in the end, was friendly and witty. The two women who we had a Q&A with offered loads of insight and interesting stories on what it is like to work in this sort of company. It was overall an extremely valuable experience that we should all feel lucky to have.

After this, I wanted to spend the whole day exploring London since it would be our last day here. We decided to start with Abbey Road. A few of us took the tube over there, excited to get our pictures taken in such an iconic place. When we arrived, we were surprised to find how difficult it actually was to take a picture there, considering traffic was constantly coming in from either side, and standing in the middle of the road long enough to snap a good picture was risky business. However, we were able to manage, and actually got a rather good shot. Afterward, we had lunch at a fantastic restaurant. I had a brie and polenta tart that was absolutely delicious – definitely one of my favorite meals on the trip so far. Brie and Polenta Tart

At this point, it was getting rather late, so we decided to rush over to the National Gallery before it would close. We were only able to walk around for about an hour, but I’m so glad that we made it in time, because I saw some truly memorable paintings. I absolutely love seeing very old, historical artwork, and the fact that some of these paintings dated back to the 1500s and even earlier was really special. My favorite piece was a very large painting of one of Henry VIII’s wives, Jane Grey, about to get beheaded. Even though it is a gruesome subject, it was beautifully done with such intricate detail. I also have a great interest in the history of the Tudors, so it really caught my eye.

After this, we finished up the evening hopping around some local pubs and sampling a lot of their house beers. It seemed like a fitting way to end our stay in London, and it made for a relaxing evening. I was also able to have one last taste of authentic fish and chips. While I will miss London very much, I cannot wait to depart for Paris in the morning. I can’t wait to see what adventures France has in store for us!   Au revoir!

Blog #4 – First Impressions of Paris

When the Eurostar Train first pulled into the Paris train station, I was very surprised to find that the first thing I saw was graffiti.  Tons of graffiti lined the walls leading up to the platform the train pulled into.  After being in London and seeing no graffiti there, with everything being so pristine, I expected Paris to be very similar considering they are two places where the people who live there take great pride in their city and want to preserve their culture.  As we got onto the coach bus and drove away from the train station, I continued to see graffiti for some time, but as soon as we got further away from there, everything became much cleaner.  As we entered the heart of Paris, I couldn’t help but marvel in awe at how beautiful all of the buildings are, whether they were some of the more famous historical sites or simple apartment buildings.  All of them have such an old, romantic look to them, and it reminds me why Paris is called the city of love.

The first site in Paris we stopped on our bus tour was the iconic Eiffel Tower.  eiffel towerI should say that I have been obsessed with the Eiffel Tower since I was a child; in my bedroom I have two pictures of the tower on my walls as well as many smaller decorations portraying it.  So, in the moments leading up to seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time, my expectations were incredibly high.  It did not disappoint.  Pictures simply cannot properly portray the size of the tower; it really is huge.  I couldn’t help but just stare up at it in awe and in disbelief that I was actually seeing it in person, not just in pictures.

After this, we went to see Notre Dame.  This site is so much more than just a church – it is an exquisite piece of architecture with so much careful detail, I can not even imagine the time, effort, and talent that must have gone into crafting it.  I loved hearing our tour guide, Vincent, explain the meaning behind each individual character sculpting on the outside of the building, such as the saints, the kings, demons, and gargoyles.  This portion of the building tells a story, with the demons pushing and dragging sinners to hell as the saints protect those who should be granted access to heaven.  Even though I am not a religious person,  I love seeing such beautiful, ancient work.

After having free time and then a wonderful dinner, we took a moonlit boat cruise around the city on the Seine River.  I absolutely loved this, despite the cold wind constantly blowing off the water! It allowed for a completely different perspective to see the city from.  It was also amazing to see the Eiffel Tower at night, for the whole thing lights up and a spotlight shines down from the top of it.  The boat also drove right by iconic buildings such as the Louvre and the Conciergerie, the prison where Marie Antoinette lived her last days. Seeing these places from the boat allowed for a much better, clearer view of these sites, especially because we could see them without being crowded by other tourists.

Overall, my first day in Paris was fantastic, and I can’t wait to see what I will experience the next few days here! Au revoir!

Blog #5 – The Museums of Paris

Today we had the option to get free tickets to either the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay, or the Eiffel Tower.  Almost everyone, including myself, chose the Louvre.  I went with a small group to see this world-renowned museum at about 3 in the afternoon.  When we first got there, I was absolutely blown away by the size of the museum.  I had seen it from a distance on our bus and boat tours, but being right in front of it was very different.  It truly is massive and magnificent, being an old palace that formerly housed the royalty of France until Louis XIV made the Palace of Versailles the primary royal palace in France.  Apparently, the young people of Paris love reveling in the great beauty of this palace as much as I did, for when we got there, the lawn was filled with college age Parisians sitting barefoot on the grass, having picnics and wine.  Since it was a beautiful, sunny day in Paris, we decided to join them and rest our feet for a while, sitting on the grass and enjoying the sunshine, before venturing into the massive museum.

Once we finally went inside, we knew right away that we would not be able to even make a dent in seeing everything there.  It’s just too big.  So, we decided to start in the section with Italian paintings to see the famous Mona Lisa.  On our way through this section, I found myself staring in awe at the grand ceilings and walls. It is not at all hard to believe that royalty once lived here; the decor is truly incredible.  Finally arriving at the Mona Lisa was very exciting.  monaAs such a famous painting that I have seen in pictures and films all my life, it was something special to see it in person.  We all took some pictures of it, then decided to move on to another section of the museum.

The only other sections we made it to were the Greek and Medieval sections.  The Greek section was mostly old sculptures, with some various pottery as well.  This is not the kind of thing I find particularly exciting, but it was still neat to see it since there is so much history behind it and it is so old.  The Medieval section is what really excited me.  We had to go downstairs for it, and once down there, everything looked completely different.  Gone were the grand ceilings and wall art.  Instead, there were thick, heavy stone walls, with very little lighting.  As we walked further, we actually arrived in what was once part of the dungeons of the castle, and we could actually walk into one of the little cells.  I found this really exciting, because it honestly felt like going back in time and history, since there was absolutely nothing modern down here to remind us of the present day.  I love the history of the medieval times, so this was a real treat for me.

By this point, we were all very tired and hungry, so we found a restaurant nearby and spent the next few hours eating dinner.  Then, we found out that the Musee d’Orsay was free tonight after 10 pm, so we decided to go see that as well.  I must say, in terms of the artwork itself, I liked what I saw at the Musee d’Orsay much more than the few paintings we saw in the Louvre. Impressionism is my favorite type of art, and that is what is mostly in this museum, so I really loved all of the paintings.  Some of my favorite artists’ paintings were featured there, including Monet, Renoir, and Seurat.  Seurat’s paintings in particular were my favorite that I saw here, because I love the pointillism style.  Overall, however, I cannot really say which museum I preferred, because they are both so incredible with so much history in both of them.  Paris is a truly amazing city for art since it holds both of these wonderful museums!

Blog #6 – Disneyland Paris

Today we had the marvelous opportunity to go to Disneyland in Paris for free!  I had never been to any Disney park, not even the ones in the US, so I woke up this morning bouncing with excitement and didn’t stop until we arrived there.  Upon arriving, we were greeted graciously by our hosts, and were fortunate enough to have a very interesting presentation by them about the public relations aspect of working for Disney.  We had multiple speakers, all of whom added unique perspective and input to the lecture.  I was especially intrigued to learn about how when Disneyland Paris first opened, they were perceived very poorly by the people of French.  Learning about how they had to turn that opinion around and make people think of Disneyland Paris in a positive way was very interesting.

disneyAfter the lecture, the best part came – getting to visit the park!  Since I had never visited a Disney park before, I had no idea what to expect.  As soon as we entered the park, I was overcome with excitement when I saw the big pink Sleeping Beauty castle.  I didn’t even know what was in it, but I knew I wanted to go there, or at least take a picture in front of it.  However, everyone agreed that the first ride on the agenda should be Space Mountain.  After grabbing a quick bite at a restaurant nearby, me and a few others headed over there.  We were all pleasantly surprised to find the line was nonexistent; the park was relatively empty due to the fact that it was a weekday and somewhat rainy.  We didn’t have to wait in line at all – we got right on the ride, and the excitement began.

Again, I had no idea what to expect.  This ride was like nothing I had ever experienced before.  Once inside the roller coaster cars, they shot off quickly, rather than the typical slow start to roller coasters.  We climbed a large hill, entered complete darkness, and then a series of steep drops and upside-down loops began.  I screamed my head off the entire time, but I was really having so much fun.  It was definitely one of the best roller coasters I’ve ever been on, and we rode it again before the night was over.

After Space Mountain, we rode the Buzz Lightyear ride, the Merry Go Round, the famous Teacup ride, and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which was especially fun.  Then, unfortunately, it started to rain pretty hard.  We decided to grab a soda and browse the shops for a while, waiting for the rain to stop.  In the busy shops, our group got separated, and I couldn’t find them after that.  So, Nathan and I spent the remainder of the day on our own.  Even though it continued to pour down rain, we decided to push through it and ride some more rides, because when would we ever have the chance to be in Disneyland Paris again?

The first thing we did was the Haunted Mansion.  This ride carried us in a tiny car all through a haunted house.  Even though it wasn’t very fast or very scary, it was really fun seeing all of the ghosts and other things in the house; the animations were really impressive.  After this, we went on Thunder Mountain and the Star Wars ride.  These were both pretty mild rides, but still fun.  Then, we decided to go to the other park, the Disney Studios.  Unfortunately, however, we found out that this park had already closed at 6 pm, so we weren’t able to see anything over there.  Since it still had not really stopped raining, we decided to end the day there, and left.

Overall, Disneyland Paris was amazing.  Even though it rained the whole day and I didn’t get to see the entire other park, I absolutely loved everything that I experienced.  All of the rides are so impressive, and I can really see how Disney is truly an adventure for a whole family.  All day, I was watching both parents and children having equal amounts of fun.  It really is a spectacular park!  I hope that someday soon I can visit one of the Disney parks in the US so I can compare experiences.

Au revoir!

Blog #7 – Historical Sites of Normandy

We arrived in the region of Normandy today around 1 pm. Our first stop was Arronmarches, a little town right on the coast. When we first pulled up on the bus, the first thing I noticed was the vast beach. Even though it was a very cloudy and chilly day, it was beautiful. However, I didn’t go down to the water yet because we only had about an hour to eat lunch. I ordered some delicious mussels cooked with Camembert cheese at a small restaurant nearby, and they were by far the best mussels I have ever had! It makes sense, since this region is known for both its seafood and its cheese.

After lunch, the next stop was Omaha Beach, where the American soldiers arrived on D-Day. Here, we did go down to the actual beach. We walked through the sand, and Vincent described to us exactly where the soldiers came out of the sea and where they ran through the shore. He described to us how most of them were sick from being at sea, cold, and weighed down by their heavy gear, having to run quickly through the shore while being shot at by German soldiers. I tried to imagine what this might be like, and I simply couldn’t. I will never be able to understand what all of the soldiers went through that day.

After walking along the beach for a while, we went up to the cemetery where the fallen soldiers are buried. I was amazed by how many graves there are. They never seem to end. I couldn’t even see the end of the cemetery; it just seems to go on forever. The sight of all of the graves really put things in perspective for me. When Vincent told us how many soldiers died here, I couldn’t picture it from just hearing a number. But by seeing all of these graves, I could clearly visualize each grave as a person, and I was able to better understand just how many deaths occurred here. What really affected me was seeing so many graves for soldiers with unknown identities. They simply read, “Here rests in honored glory/A comrade in arms/Known but to god.” It just made me sad to think that so many soldiers lost their lives here and then weren’t even able to be identified to their families.normandy

Spirits picked up a little when we traveled to another beach nearby, Pointe du Hoc. Here, we were able to see up close and personal many physical remainders of World War II. There were so many giant holes in the ground from bombs being dropped. Also, the bunkers where the German soldiers stayed during the war still stood here, and we were actually able to walk through them! It was incredible; it felt like walking through history to me. There were several underground tunnels connecting one bunker to another, but I didn’t walk through those. However, I walked through all of the other bunkers, exploring the small rooms and again trying to imagine what it might have been like to stay here. It did feel a little eerie to me since it was the German soldiers who stayed here, but this was definitely one of the most interesting experiences I’ve had on this trip.

Tomorrow, I will get to experience even more history at St. Malo for our last day of the trip. I can’t wait! Au revoir!

Blog # 8 – French Food and Dining

 Throughout our stay in France, I have found that French dining is very similar to dining in the United Kingdom in the sense that it is very slow and people take their time. It is also similar in the way that servers in restaurants don’t try to be personal with you as in the US; they simply take your order and bring your food. However, beverages in France are very different from those in the UK or US. First of all, most restaurants will not serve you tap water. If you ask for water, they will typically bring you a bottle of Evian or other mineral water, and charge up to five euros for it. Drinks in France are extremely expensive! Just a glass of Coke at a restaurant could cost you five euros; sometimes it’s more expensive than the beer. This was the thing that surprised me the most when I first went to a restaurant in France. The other thing that really surprised me was how small their coffees are. If you order a coffee, what you really get is an espresso shot in a tiny glass. The drink situation was the only thing I genuinely didn’t like about France; I can’t wait to have the coffee I’m used to when I get home!

The food, on the other hand, was probably my favorite thing about France. Everything I ate here was delicious, and I mean everything. Even when I would pick up just a simple sandwich for four euros, it would have so much delicious cheese and fresh vegetables on it, it far surpassed anything I could get in the US for the same price. And goodness, will I miss the bread. Any restaurant we went to, we got a basket of bread with our appetizers and main courses, and we always made it disappear within minutes because it’s so delicious. It always tastes fresh and soft, and even better when you can dip it in some authentic French onion soup!

I have tried many new things on this trip. One of them was escargots. I had absolutely no hesitations about trying these, even though some other people find them gross. I was not disappointed! They had the texture of mussels and a nice fishy flavor, and they were served with a sauce on top that reminded me of a pesto. They were absolutely delicious. Another new thing I tried here was coq au vin, which is rooster cooked in wine. I had never even heard of eating rooster before this, but I knew I wanted to try it. Again, I was not disappointed. It was the darkest bird meat I’ve ever had, even darker than duck, but it was delicious. It was so rich and full of flavor, especially when cooked in good French wine. I really can’t say what my favorite thing I ate here was, because it was all so good, but the coq au vin is definitely up there. I’m going to miss French food so much when I go home; I feel like American food just isn’t going to taste good to me anymore. This just means I’ll have to come back to France very soon!

Blog # 9 – St. Malo and Farewell

Before our trip, I had searched for pictures of St. Malo on Google, because I had never even heard of it. I was so excited to find that it was a town surrounded by water and filled with old castles. It looked absolutely beautiful. So, I was very eager this morning when we departed for St. Malo; I couldn’t wait to see it in person.

In person, it was even better! I love castles, old building, and anything medieval, and that is exactly what everything in this town is. There is a castle with walls you can walk on surrounding one iside of the town. The view from the walls was amazing; I could see the whole beach, and the fort that stands on a small island right off of the beach. It’s called Fort National, and it also looks like a small castle! Unfortunately, the tide was too high to walk over to it, although if it had been warmer, I would have gladly waded through the water to get malo

Of all the places we visited, this town had the most stereotypically old European feel to me. There are barely any cars, so it’s very quiet and peaceful. It almost reminded me of going to the Renaissance fair; I kept having to remind myself that this is actually a real place where people live! All of the little shops, bakeries, and restaurants are just so quaint and un-modern – in a good way – that it feels like going back to a much earlier part of history. And I love it!

We had our final group dinner at a wonderful little restaurant. For our appetizer, we had fish soup, which is a specialty of this region, and it was absolutely delicious. I was very happy when the waiter offered us seconds! The main course was beef, which I don’t eat, so I got fish again, and I was very happy about it. The seafood here is so fresh since it’s right off of the coast. For dessert was cake, and those who had celebrated their birthday on the trip got a flaming sparkler in theirs. It was very exciting to watch! This dinner was one of the best just because of the fact that we all knew this was the last meal we would all be spending together. We all drank wine and sat around reminiscing about the trip, talking about our favorite parts, and how happy we all were that we got to come to all these amazing places and become friends along the way.

After dinner, we decided to visit the beach. Some were daring enough to venture into the water, even though it was freezing! I opted to sit on the walls instead and simply watch, and soak in the beauty that was all around me, for I would be saying goodbye to it too soon. I decided right then that I will without a doubt come back here again some time in my life. St. Malo really is one of the most beautiful and interesting towns I have ever been in, and I feel very lucky to have been able to see it, even if it was for less than twenty-four hours.

Saying goodbye to this trip is hard. It really has been one of the most memorable experiences of my life, and I’m so grateful for all of it. These two weeks are something I will never forget. Most of all, this trip has inspired me to go out and travel even more; it has reminded me that there is so much of the world that I still need to see!

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