I would say that the past few weeks have been among the best of my trip as I have had the chance to reunite with several of the friends I made while traveling.
In Berlin we met up with my friend Sebastian, whom I met in Ukraine. Being a Berliner, Sebastian was nice enough to show Paul and I around the city. We got to see and do all the standard fare- the Wall, the Brandenburg Gate, and late night bars (though by Berlin standards we were done pretty early).
It was easy to spend a week in Berlin. It's also a surprisingly cheap city by European standards. Museums tend not to be exorbitant, a decent kebab can be had for under 4 euros, and relatively inexpensive beer from the market can be enjoyed on the street.
I went to Brussels for a few days after Berlin. There I had the good luck to run into Sebastian again. We checked out the Atomium (Brussels' overpriced vestige of the 1958 World's Fair), the European quarter, and met up with local friends of his to tipple. Belgium is worth the trip for the beer alone. The diversity of beers breaks up weeks of German lagers. As any enthusiast knows, they are also deceptively strong. It doesn't take many to feel their effects.
Being in Brussels also provided me the opportunity for a day trip to Flanders and few sites related to First World War. Ypres (Ieper in Dutch) was the site of some of the worst fighting of the war. The trench warfare and use of gas that typifies the Western Front was in full effect here. The fighting has been immortalized in the poem "In Flanders Fields" by the Canadian soldier John McCrae.
I visited the In Flanders Fields Museum and Menin Gate in Ypres and the Flanders Field American War Cemetery in Waregem. The museum occupies part of the Cloth Hall, an old Gothic building destroyed during the war and only completely restored in 1967. The Menin Gate commemorates all those British and Commonwealth soldiers killed around Ypres and whose bodies were never recovered, a staggering 54,896 names in total.
The American cemetery is the least visited of the three sites and the smallest American war cemetery on European soil. It's a tranquil and exceedingly tidy place.
The Netherlands was my next stop after Belgium. Taking the train between Brussels and Zwolle leads to an appreciation of just how flat the Netherlands is. The fertile green fields attest the country's role as one of the world's largest agricultural exporters.
Zwolle is off the normal tourist route. I spent three days staying with Anton, an incredibly hospitable, fun, and well traveled Dutchman I met earlier in Turkey. I was lucky enough to have Anton show me around town and introduce me to several typical Dutch foods. The best of these was stroopwafel, a delicious sweet made with two layers a dough and a syrupy filling. They are undoubtedly my favorite snack that I have discovered in Europe. Anton says that I am not alone in my affections.
Following Zwolle came the obligatory stop in Amsterdam. It's a very pretty city. Yes, the prostitutes and pot that fuel popular conceptions are easily found. However, by being sanctioned they lose a bit of their edginess. Amsterdam's red light district feels like a more honest, explicit, and paradoxically clean version of Vegas than the grimy red light districts to be found elsewhere with their local crackheads and heavy odors of despair.
Amsterdam offers more than sensual stimulation with its many museums. The downside is their consistently high admission prices. For a budget traveler like myself this means the need to be discerning. Following my interest in World War II and the Holocaust that has shaped much of travels so far, I visited the Anne Frank House and the Resistance Museum. The Anne Frank House is one of Amsterdam's most visited sites and incredibly moving. The individual story of Anne Frank is well-known and the feelings the house provides are visceral. What is most powerful though is the realization that the story of hiding, destruction, and dehumanization is one repeated millions of times across Europe. The Resistance Museum details the varied nature of Dutch reaction to Nazi rule. While focusing on the ways, big and small, that the citizenry resisted occupation, it also documents collaboration and complicity during the period. The museum seeks to present the moral, ethical, and practical questions that arise in the circumstances. It's an overlooked museum. The absence of crowds allows for more quiet reflection on the questions presented.
This all brings me to where I am now, Switzerland. After a brief stop in Luxembourg, I arrived via train yesterday. A few curious things occurred in the course of this transit that are worth mentioning. Some of the larger French train stations had a presence of uniformed and armed military personnel that I have not generally observed elsewhere. Upon arrival in Switzerland I had to pass through passport controls. This is not usual, being that France and Switzerland are in the Schengen area. I assume that this is all in response to the terrorist attacks in Paris the night before. These were fairly small things, but noticeable. The attacks otherwise have not seemed to impact daily routines in these parts. Though the sense of shock with what has occurred is obvious.
Here in Switzerland I had the chance to reunite with yet more friends. In Brussels I met two fellow Americans, Bianca and Emily. We realized in the course of discussing our travels that we would be in Switzerland at the same time. Further, they informed me that would be attending Europe's largest turnip festival in Richterswil. First of all, yes, there is such a thing as a turnip festival. For all I know, Räbechilbi Richterswil may be the only turnip festival in Europe. It is just the type of odd thing that makes traveling worthwhile. For the festival the town's residents hollow out turnips, carving designs in them, and place tea lights inside. With these spread everywhere, the town seems as if it's celebrating Lilliputian Halloween. What makes it great though is the parade through the main street of town. Floats covered with these turnip lanterns accompanied by bands provide entertainment for crowds squeezing to fit into the small town. My friends may have Sasquatch or Coachella to remember (or not remember), but I've got Räbechilbi Richterswil 2015 and that's pretty hard to top.
Thanks again to all the people I've met here in Europe who have made this such a memorable time.