The Best of 2013

I LOVE a good year end wrap up. I live for the music mash-ups, the youtube year end review, and the dozens of pop culture lists that sprout up just before year end. So of course I was not going to let this opportunity pass without writing our own year end review. We had an amazing year! Yes it had its trying moments and stressful times, but looking back those times pale in comparison to the wonderful memories we made on the road.

We were lucky enough to spend time in 8 major cities in 6 different countries between the 2 of us. We thought we would wrap up this crazy year with the best of the best, and some of the worst from around the world. Here are our winners!

Experiencing The Christmas Markets

Rows and rows of Christmas goodies 
Christmas time is huge here in Western Europe. A nice change of pace after spending last Christmas in Japan. It's nice to drive around and see Christmas lights, Santa Claus decorations in the windows, hear Christmas music, and all the familiar things that remind you of the holidays back home. The Europeans, however, have a unique tradition that we don't have in the states (at least not to this extent): Christmas Markets. I feel so lucky to be over here in the month of December, when these extravagant festivals take place.

My First Hostel Experience

Last week we set out for Cologne, Germany. To make the most out of Nathan's one day off a week we made a last minute decision to drive up on Tuesday night and sleep in a hostel so we could wake up in Germany, feeling rested and ready to go instead of driving in on Wednesday morning. So many of our friends who have traveled Europe did so via hostels, so we were really led to believe they couldn't be that bad. Nathan made the arrangements so he was the only one who had even an inkling of what to expect. We were 3 Americans who, prior to this, had never seen the inside of a hostel, and with the exception of Nathan we had not even seen the website to know what we were getting ourselves into. 

Upon check in we were told we have beds "4, 5, and 6" for Devin, (Nathan's teammate) Nathan, and myself. I thought, "hmmm, that's an interesting way of telling us where to go," but I remained calm. I realized that we were not staying at the Hilton, and I realized that some hostels have shared facilities. However, it was a Tuesday night in December, so I expected the hostel to be pretty vacant and for us to have some privacy. 

We made our way past the lobby and to the stairs, which smelt like someone had a recently failed attempt at making spaghettios. We found our room number and flung open the a set of feet at the end of a bed, and the sound of snoring. Shoot. We looked closer and noticed 3 sets of feet in a dark room with 6 twin beds. One of the men sleeping rolled over and glared at us as we stood in the doorway with the hallway light behind us. This is the moment when my panic set in. Nathan, being the most adventurous by far, had not hesitated to go on in, pick out a bed, and start making himself at home. While Devin and I stood in the doorway, jaws on the floor, just starting into disbelief for what felt like an eternity. There was no way I was going to enter that hot, muggy room with 3 strange men in it whose faces I had never even seen and listen to them snore while I guarded my bags all night. Devin said he would take the car back to Luxembourg (2 hours) and drive to meet us in the morning. Nathan was just chillen in the dark with his new friends wondering what the hold up was for the rest of us. 

After a little hesitation and some extra euros I convinced the less then thrilled front desk worker to upgrade us to a private room. To get to our new room we walked down the 2nd floor hallway which had such an unbearable smell that I was considering driving back to Lux with Devin. We finally took a turn down a different hallway and arrived at our (semi) normal smelling room with 3 twin beds. The bathroom was down the hall and we were sharing it with whoever else was asleep behind the doors we were passing. 

With not much to do in the room, we went down the lobby to grab a couple beers. The guys saw a roach, which they pretended was a roach to keep me from completely losing it until they later told me it was actually a mouse. There were a few other weirdos in and out and using the wifi in the lobby at 3 AM, which I imagine holds true at every hostel. We went back to the room, slept with the lights on, touched as little as possible, and left first thing in the morning. 

Now I am not saying that I will never stay in another hostel again. Nathan has already informed me that we will give it another shot and we will, at least once, sleep in a communal room. (He is really about the "experience.") I just hope the next one is a little less weird, a little less smelly, and a little more rodent free!

The only photo I snapped in between running from mice, and trying not to touch anything. 

A European Thanksgiving

This Thanksgiving, even though we are living in a country where Thanksgiving is not celebrated, we were able to in spite of many obstacles, prepare and enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. We have so much to be thankful for!

-We are thankful for the US Military Base, which allowed us to shop for American Thanksgiving staples you can't buy here, like a Turkey, sweet potatoes, green bean casserole, and cornbread

-We are thankful Jess knew how to cook a turkey, which is not an easy task

-We are thankful our families back home shared all their recipes and advice for us girls cooking our first Thanksgiving dinner

-We are thankful our giant turkey fit in the oven, and that we were able to find a way to cook our American size portions in a European kitchen

-We are thankful Jill and her family opened up their house to all of us crazy Americans

-We are thankful for all the friends we have made living in Luxembourg

-We are thankful to be living so close to so many other Americans who make this feel like home

-We are thankful to have the ability to purchase and prepare a meal so large that it couldn't be finished by 12 people (10 of which are athletes) and we are very thankful for Thanksgiving day leftovers.

-We are thankful that after 5 years of dating, 1.5 years of engagement, and 3 months of being married we were finally able to spend our first Thanksgiving together! Every year in the past we have been in different cities, states, or countries due to basketball.

-We are thankful for the amazing meal and celebration we shared with all of our new friends!

A Day in Brussels, Belgium

Nathan had a midweek day off so we took a short drive up to Brussels; the city of french fries, beer, chocolate, and waffles. Seriously, could they possibly pack anymore good things into one city? We sought out to try the best of all 4, and see some of the famous landmarks, all in a days time. 

The trip took about two hours, and we drove straight to Maison Antoine; a famous friterie. We knew it was going to be good by the crowds of locals surrounding the small food stand. In case you are wondering, a friterie is a small kiosk or restaurant whose cuisine is centered around french fries. (Can you believe they have a word for that? Can you believe we don't have these in Texas!?) Although they had a pretty large variety on the menu, every customer ordered the same thing. A paper cone full of french fries, topped with your choice of sauce and served with a tiny fork.

Europeans really like mayo on their french fries (like in the picture above.) Nathan and I both opted for ketchup instead. 
Nathan with his cone of Belgian french fries

I also ordered a hot dog, which came on a baguette. So European.  

The line around Maison Antoine 

Five children, all with a cone of french fries
This place was pretty good, but for being the most famous friterie in a city that is famous for french fries, I was a little underwhelmed. I expected the french fries to knock my socks off. And they were good, just not great. However this place was pretty authentic, so I will blame it on my American taste buds because Belgian french fries are different then American french fries both in texture and taste. 

Up next, a little sight seeing. We visited the famous Atomium, as well as "Mini Europe" which is a park featuring replicas of all the famous landmarks across Europe. So basically, we have seen it all, we can pack up and go home. (Kidding, of course)
The "Atomuim." A famous landmark museum and lookout tower (inside each ball!) 
Bird's Eye view of the grounds of "Mini Europe" 
Then we were off to the Grand Palace area. This area of Brussels definitely had a 'Times Square" feel. The streets were filled with shops, restaurants  bars and tons of tourists. This area was my favorite of the day and I would love to spend more time here. The area appeared to have some pretty impressive shopping, and some of the most amazing bakeries I have ever seen in my life. Not to mention the dozens of  dual chocolatier/macaroon shops. Anyone with a sweet tooth would be in heaven in this part of the city.
The Grand Palace. Lit up and breathtaking at night. 
Belgian Chocolate, and Belgian Beer. Check and Check! 
We topped off the night with what we believe was a very authentic Belgian dinner at T. Kelderke which consisted of beef stew, more french fries, mussels, and mashed sweet potatoes. Mussels in Brussels sounded like a good idea when trying to eat like a local, but turns out mussels are kind of gross.

The best part of the entire trip was the Belgian Waffle we had from a street vendor for dessert. I could have skipped all the other meals we had in Belgium and just ate these all days. I could skip every meal in my foreseeable future and eat nothing but Belgian Waffles all day everyday. These things were A-MA-ZING. 
My Belgian Waffle, hot and smothered in milk chocolate. 

Where the Heck Are We?

Upon telling people we are living in Luxembourg, the response I receive most often is, "Oh, Germany?" Followed by a very close second of, "Is that in Belgium?" Which led me to draw the conclusion that our friends and family have no idea where we are living. Not that I am one to judge. I honestly couldn't have pointed it out on a map before moving here. But in my defense, you have to be really paying attention to spot Luxembourg on a map.

So here are a few fun facts about where we will be residing for the next 6 months. Beginning with clarification of the point I brought up earlier: Luxembourg is not in Germany or Belgium. It is in fact its own tiny country located between Germany, Belgium, and France. 

When I say tiny, I mean really tiny. It is the 20th smallest country in the world. Driving from one end of the country to another would take approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes (according to Google Maps). So, thats probably about the time of your morning commute in Houston. The population of Luxembourg is about 600,000 and the capital city is Luxembourg City. We are residing in Ettlebruck which is about the second largest city outside the capital. 

It is a tri-lingual country and the 3 official languages are Luxembourgish, German, and French. So when locals are speaking, not only can I not understand what they are saying, I can't even figure out what language they are speaking in. Luckily everyone we have met so far also speaks very good English. 

Luxembourg is famous for a few things, mostly financial related. It has the highest GDP per capita in the world. It is home to notably low unemployment, and notably high minimum wage. So along with all of that comes a high standard of living, and very happy inhabitants (rated one of the safest, and happiest countries in the world). You may have also heard of Luxembourg because it was a major location in the Battle of the Bulge during WWII. And Radio Luxembourg was apparently a pretty big deal back in the day.

One of the things that makes us most excited about Luxembourg is the close vicinity to other major European cities. When living in the wonderful but humongous state of Texas, we drive for hours to arrive at another major city in Texas. But here we drive a few hours in any direction and arrive at an entire new culture. The cities of Brussels, Paris, Cologne, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and Zurich are all reachable in a shorter drive then the trip from Houston to Dallas. 

And it will be our happy little home for the next 6 months! Ill be updating the blog frequently with stories of our survival and exploration. 

A 48 Hour Whirlwind

Lets start from the beginning. In order to do that we need to back up 48 hours. That's right, 48 hours. Not weeks, not a month, or something in between like I always pictured this happening. Two days.

Nathan was on a golf trip this weekend and set to return Sunday evening. Sunday morning I wake up to a text that saying, "We need to talk." Since we are newly married I knew he wasn't breaking up with me (as that text is often assumed) and I knew it was going to be some kind of news about a deal. However, in the past few months there has been a lot of "news" about deals, and lots of "talks" that we needed to have about various places. But every other discussion in the past few months has fallen through in some form or another. Something in my gut told me that this one was going to be different, but I still tried to remain calm and not get my hopes up. 

In the next few hours that passed we learned the details of an offer made by a team in Luxembourg. By the time Nathan got home there was not much left to discuss. We were apprehensive about a few things, but we learned (through a not so fun experience) that if you hesitate, the opportunity can disappear very quickly. So we accepted! Only one not so minor detail - they wanted him there ASAP. 

Nathan arrived back home around 3:30 Sunday evening. The team asked if he could leave tomorrow (Monday). He told them that was not enough time to even gather his belongings and get to the airport, much less say goodbye to his family, so they insisted on Tuesday. 

Needless to say the following 24 hours were a complete whirlwind of errand running, laundry, research, and packing. Imagine all the things you do and how much time it takes to prepare for a trip. Now imagine how much more you do for an international trip. Now imagine going on a 7 month international trip and knowing that once you arrive they don't make anything your size, so if you need it you better have it. 

Somehow we managed to pull it off. Nathan's life was condensed into 2 very large suitcases. He was able to spend time with his family, say goodbye to most of my family members, and squeeze in one last date with me. 

This afternoon, almost 48 hours exactly from Nathan deciding to accept the offer, he was on a plane departing from Houston to Luxembourg.

This opportunity is something we have been hoping and praying so hard for. I know that we are extremely lucky to have the chance to live this crazy lifestyle. However, that made it no easier to drop my husband off at international departures today. But instead of moping around in his shirt and easing my pain with french fries and chocolate ALL day, I decided to fill everyone in on whats going on! There are so many of you that we would have loved to tell our exciting news to personally, but honestly, our heads are still spinning.

I will be joining him in Luxembourg very shortly. I have to hang back to wrap up a few things, and gather anything he left behind. We also have to figure out my very complicated visa situation. We thought all of that would be easier now that we are married, but (surprise!) it is still very confusing and difficult to figure out. Plus, lets be real. I think its pretty obvious there is no way I could have packed to move to Europe in 24 hours. 

Phuket, Thailand: Yep, I still can't believe I did that.

The Flying Hunaman in  Phuket, Thailand. 

My stomach still tightens a little when I watch the videos above. We came across a zip lining attraction online and decided it would be a fun thing to do while in Thailand. Nathan has been zip lining once before, but I was a first timer. But neither one of us had any idea what we were getting ourselves into. The attraction did not have a website, but the reviews on Trip Advisor were good, so we went for it. 

Once they got you in a harness, there was no turning back. We moved so quickly that there was no opportunity to turn around, be scared, or exit the course. Looking back I am glad there wasn't, because there were a few times I would have been out of there. I am glad I hung in though because the views were incredible, and we had a blast.  Looking back, it seems more scary then I realized at the time. I am not sure I would be brave enough to do it again, so I am glad that I did it once. I think the tour guides sensed my fear, because they really enjoyed teasing me, running up behind me to scare me, and giving me extra crazy pushes off the platforms. 

Here is our adventure at the Flying Hunaman, Phuket, Thailand: 

The first hike up to the zip line course

Too bad you can't see the fear on my face 

I love the view in this picture. Nathan loves my crooked helmet! 

Some of the intensely steep stairs we were constantly up and down. 

If you look closely you can see people zipping in, climbing down the tree, and zipping off the other side. 

Skateboard zip you had to do in pairs

More high and narrow walkways  
Nathan repelling. We both agreed this part was one of the scariest. 

Sounds a little crazy, right? This is the zip Nathan is on in the video above. 

Phuket, Thailand; A slightly less glamorous look

So as I mentioned in my previous post, Thailand was a dream. Definitely one of the most beautiful places I have, and probably ever will visit. However, in an effort to "keep it real" I have to share some of the slightly less glamorous parts of our trip that nearly blew my mind. Obviously people in Thailand have an extremely different lifestyle then people in the US, so consider this your daily dose of culture.

Upon arriving , I quickly found this friendly notification placed in our room.

If you know me at all, you know that I found this note extremely unsettling. Sharing a private beach villa with a gecko? Ain't nobody got time for that. I made sure the doors were shut tight through our whole stay, so we never had any visitors in our room, but I took the picture below on an outside wall near the pool.

Excuse me, but that is entirely too many geckos in that small of an area. 

A second extremely shocking cultural difference we noticed in a cab ride one day. Driving is the main form of transportation in Thailand. We even saw a few Ford and Chevy pick up trucks. And motorcycles were abundant, more so then any other place I have been. However, with all these cars around we never noticed a gas station. Well at least not a typical gas station. Instead we started to notice these small stands on the sides of the road: 

Yep, that is for real. That is how people fuel their cars and bikes in Phuket, Thailand. If you look closely you can see an arrangement of different size bottles sometimes resembling former liquor bottles. These stands were usually placed in front of small personal businesses, adjacent to food stands, or even in front yards. We saw several people make purchases and pour the bottle into their bikes before taking off again. 

Although I have no pictures to demonstrate this, it is also worth noting how extremely hot and humid Thailand was. I know, I know, I live in Houston, so I should be used to this. But in Houston we have AC, like everywhere. In Thailand, air conditioning is a rare luxury. Even at our resort the only place with AC was our room. The restaurants and even the front desk were open air. When driving down the street you could see people relaxing and watching TV or napping outside under a tent or a tree for shade with nowhere else to escape the heat. 

I truly loved every second of Thailand, and I wouldn't change a thing about our trip. Not even the bugs, the lizards, or the heat. Sometimes its nice to take a step back from the 5 star resort, soak in a little culture to see how people on the other half of the world live. 

A week in Phuket, Thailand

We had planned on taking a trip to another country before returning to the states. There is always a chance of us not returning to Japan, so we had to take advantage of being on that side of the world. We bounced around between a few different locations including Korea, Vietnam, China, and Malaysia before finally landing on Thailand. I have to give all the credit to Nathan for this one. He did all of the research and he was the sole chooser of our destination, flight arrangements, and resort. He told me he had chosen Thailand, but I actually did not know where exactly until a few weeks before our departure.  

He chose Phuket because after spending 6 (9 for him) long cold months in the city, surrounded by sky scrapers and subways, nothing sounded better then laying on a warm beach and just relaxing. We had done all of the walking and sight seeing we could handle and we really just wanted to go somewhere beautiful and relax. We were also excited because Thailand was known for being inexpensive when it came to food and especially shopping. So to sum it up, it was going to be warm, sunny, relaxing, and cheap which is the complete opposite of Osaka in every way. 

Thailand did not disappoint. It is the most scenic country I have ever visited. The clear waters and white sand beaches are completely surrounded by mountains of green jungle and the views are breathtaking. Everywhere we went we were met with Thai traditions; fresh papaya, guava, and mango juice, cool refreshing towels, and the bows accompanied with the greeting S̄wạs̄dī.

Enjoy the pictures below from our stay. It was hard to narrow down which ones to post! 

A welcome gift 
Our jacuzzi  
A nice view of our resort. The area pictured was where we had breakfast, and at night it was a Thai restaurant. 


Where we ate lunch most days

The water was "dangerous" every day we were there except for one, when we were advised " Do Not Swim." 

That breathtaking view I mentioned 

Part of our resort, taken from the beach

Thai fruits were served everyday  

Thai fruits are weird. 

The resort all lit up and stunning at night

A few of our Thai appetizers

The most gorgeous flowers I have ever received  

The size of that butterfly = unbelievable

Heading to the beach cocktail party 

I was obsessed with these red elephants (in case you cant tell from the rest of the pictures)