Thursday, April 10/Friday, April 11
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Meeting up in CDG with Dave and Estelle was a breeze. Our flights were early. We got bumped up to a Fiat Multipla from the Doblo that we thought we were getting. It's pretty ugly, but that style of car is VERY common here. Calum stayed at their hotel, so after we met up with Estelle and Dave we took off in the direction of where we thought it was. There were roundabouts every 3 seconds which I managed to careen the Multipla around at the same speed I would have in the smart. In the process of eventually getting lost and calling Calum, I succesfully managed to drive the thing in reverse through a flowerbed trying to get turned around. Tonight in Brussels we walked around for about 4 hours. I drove all the time so to walk around it finally"hit me" that we are here! I have been watching every single car that goes by. I'd say 95 to 98 percent of vehicles are Diesel. Walibi was such a nice park. Vertigo was breathtaking and there were no crowds so we could just stay on. Saw 4 TGV's on the way up to Brussels. We're so tired but it's a good start to the trip!
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All photos, April 10/11
Saturday, April 12
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So, today we went to Toverland. We slept in about one hour later than we had hoped... We started driving and were texting Estelle to figure out if Arianne wanted to come or not. They stayed that night in Aachen (took the train Friday night). She decided to skip it. When we got there, Troy, the big new GCI
woodie, was closed! It was ok though - it opened at noon. Booster Bike put the biggest grin on my face. I can't think of a more fun coaster I've ever gone on.
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Troy is like Thunderhead at Dollywood. It even has a station fly-through! It's even bigger and faster! Thumbs up. We met up with 6 people I know from a German theme park forum and spent the rest if the day with them. They also had a ride called a Wiegand Bobcart. Imagine a self-powered alpine slide with a third rail. Pretty cool! We decided that with Troy opening late and us sleeping in, there was no point in rushing to Phantasialand for only 2 hours. We would have only got on a few rides with no chance to enjoy the atmosphere of the park. Next time!
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One of my favourite little memories of today was at the end of the day, we went back for one last ride on Booster Bike. There was a group of little kids who were re-riding it over and over, and each time before the launch, they would all scream out a countdown in Dutch until we took off.
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On our way to Aachen, we passed back into Germany and the speed limit suddenlt vanished. BMW's and Mercedes' were flying by us. On a section that wasn't too busy, we decided to see what the Diesel engine in our Mulltipla could do.
. We gave up at 180 km/h. It's probably not designed to go that fast. Despite no limits, most people drive 120 km/h. In Europe, everyone seems to be a really good driver. I think you have to be.
Our hotel in Aachen (and Aachen itself) is a dramatic change from everything else on this trip so far. Wheras until here, everything was hurried, super cramped or ultra fast, Aachen is a beautiful smaller town with lots more room and it's obviously a much slower pace of life. Really nice, quiet place. We would have slept great, except the beds were so uncomfortable that I think Dave and I only slept for a few hours.
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Today we'll pick up Estelle and Arianne, then pick up Calum in Brussels at the Atomium, a huge building left over from the 1958 world's fair.
All photos, April 12
Sunday, April 13
Sunday was another one of those days where, at the end of it, the morning seemed like it was the day before. We started out by leaving our small hotel in Aachen, and driving to Estelle's friend Margot's house. That's where they stayed the night before. Their house was typically European; part of a row of what we would call townhomesn joined together, but so tastefully decorated. I recognized their dinner glasses from IKEA as I have the same ones.
. They have a Golden Retriever named Ginger. A really nice couple!
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After a brief stop in Brussels at the Atomium, we picked up Calum and continued to head South into France. We hit the road and set the GPS (which, by the way, has been a lifesaver) for TGV Haute-Picardie. We passed back from Germany into the Netherlands, then back to Belgium, and finally back into France in less than an hour. Borders here are like passing into a different state or province in North America. You just drive through. After grabbing a bite to eat at a service station, we stopped in a strange cul de sac off the highway beside a large field. Arianne climbed on top of the car to get a better view. We talked and kicked our feet in the dirt for 15 minutes or so... When suddenly she yelled "Here comes one!". With no warning, it was right there. Eurostar type 393 was on us, slamming by at 300+ km/h. The noise is indescribable. There is a really deep bass thump that hits on top of that super high-pitched "pew pew pew" you hear as each car breaks by the air. We stood in shock for a moment.
Calum, Arianne and I wandered further into the field while Dave and Estelle stood guard of the ugly Multipla (not that anyone would want to steal it anyway). When we did that, a small van came over to where we were from the TGV station (which was just visible from where we were standing). After some hurried conversation between her and them in French, we got the message that they warned us that it would not be a good idea for us to cross the fence onto the tracks. Duh.
. All in all, we saw 13 trains in about an hour and a half. Standing in that field watching TGV-Atlantique, Duplex, Thalys and Eurostar rush by under the blue sky and clouds is something I will never, ever forget, and for me was easily the highlight of the trip.
It was time to keep moving, though, so Estelle took over the driving to take us into Paris. Once we got downtown I quickly realized that I could not have done this. I don't understand how anyone could drive here. Finding the rental car drop-off was virtually impossible but we got there eventually. Checked into our hotel and Dave, Arianne and I headed to Foire du Trone to meet Paul!
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It was now raining decently but we tried to keep our spirits up. Soon after we arrived, and thanks to Calum's Blackberry, we found Paul near the Mondial Capriolo, Maxximum. After giving him a hug, I looked over, and to my delight, New Comer was loading/open! This is the Mondial Inferno that was down for a few weeks. I had no idea if it would be open. Excitedly and with some hesitation, we all paid our 2.50 Euro at the "Casse" and climbed aboard the massive gondola. The operaor smiled and changed the music, acting as not only a ride operator but DJ as well. Paul and I took up seats in the last row of one gondola, while Dave and Arianne went to the other. The ride, mechanically, is like a Top Scan, but the configuration where you sit is quite different. The entire construction is also much larger. Without wasting any time we were off, some 25 m in the air, hurtling head first toward the ground, but so smoothly. It would turn out to be the best ride at the fair.
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Everyone loved it and right across the midway was Extreme, a Top Scan with an unusual eagle theme to it. I didn't think anything of getting on it after riding Shockwave so many times, but baulked a bit at the 5 Euro price. Dave asked if I had riden anything other than Shockwave and I said no, and he smiled and offered me the outside seat.
That turned out to be a mistake.
I had no idea. I had no idea it would run THAT much faster. Like 3-4 times more intense than the hardest or fastest moments on Shockwave. The operator kept taunting us, making us think it was over, only to send us back in the air again at maximum speed. It wasn't fun anymore - it was brutal torture. We stumbled off and looked for something a little toned down to do... And found a big weird portable coaster called King. After watching it cycle once, Dave daid "it looks terrible. So let's ride it" and we did, and yes it was terrible.
At this point we were all soaked, cold and exhausted from not only the rides, but the stress from earlier in the day. We got in touch with Calum and Estelle and decided to join them at the Eiffel Tower. Before we left, I hesitantly forced myself to go look at Insider, a Mondial Shake. I really wanted to go on it, but was feeling so lousy after Extreme. Paul surprised me by saying he'd give it a go, so we paid the 3.50 and hopped on.
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Insider was great! Like a really fast, smooth Breakdance with two more axes of rotation. The operator was friendly and fun and really worked the ride, so to speak. It was a great way to end the night at the fair, and with that we headed back to the Metro.
The Paris Metro intrigued me because it is so closely tied to the system in Montreal, which is my favourite. Many of the lines (but not all) use rubber-tired trains that bounce along concrete or steel I-beam guideways. Line 14 is the newest and the most technically interresting, for the hardware and also the software that controls the trains. Because they are fully automatic, there is no driver's cab, and so at the front and back of the trains is a large glass window with seats. There are also no headlights, which I can't even describe how eerie that is. The control system, Calum tells me, is famous in the computer world because it is the first system, anywhere, that is absolutely 100 percent fault tollerant; there is no way the computer can crash or make a mistake, it's impossible.
The Eiffel Tower was neat to see. I didn't have much interest in going up it, seeing it below lit up was great at night. Reminded me of Mean Streak. We didn't stay long before heading back to the Metro, then saying bye to Paul, before retiring to our hotel to get a short sleep.
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I'm writing this while racing through the French countryside at 300 km/h on a TGV-Atlantique in first class. There are about 400 kids in 2nd class on this train going to Futuroscope as well, and I have to be honest, I'd rather be sitting with them, yelling in excitement instead of sitting here in dead silence with business people trying to hide the huge grin on my face.
All photos, April 13
Monday, April 14
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The alarm couldn't have sounded worse going off at 5-something AM. We had to get to Gare Montparnasse on the other side of the city for our 8h20 departure by TGV to Futuroscope in Poitiers. We hurried our morning chores and I spoke comfortably with the receptionist at the hotel in French making sure payment was all set for our rooms. Arianne and Estelle opted to stay the day in Paris instead, given last night's wash out.
I expected monday morning rush hour on the Metro somehow to feel more busy or crowded, but it wasn't. People were in a hurry, sure, but it's eerily quiet. The system is so old that there are walkways and tunnels with stairs to get everywhere. The signage is good but it's still incredibly confusing coming into it for the first time.
Arriving at Gare Montparnasse we checked in at the counter and logged the use of our day rail passes. Heading to the platform for our train, we came up behind a group of a few hundred elementary school kids who were excitedly walking parallel to the long, 20-car consist that made up our train. We knew we got the right train; class trip to Futuroscope, most likely!
Sitting in first class was very comfortable, but it was dead silent. That could have been due in part to it being so early, but I wished at that point I could have sat with the kids, who undoubtedly nearly as excited as I was to go for a ride on the world's fastest train. Instead, I had to try and hide the huge grin on my face and resist the temptation to cheer when my GPS showed us reaching 300 km/h. Our train was express to Toulouse with only one stop - Futuroscope - so we raced at top speed along the fields and farms, including the ocassional bunch of wind turbines.
When we decellerated into Futuroscope TGV I did a bit of a double take; looking out the windows revealed a view of nothing but farmland. It wasn't until after we got off the train and it moved out of the way that we got a glimse of the park. The shining glass corners of huge square and triangular geometric buildings glinted in the morning sun, the air crisp. We found Dave's sister shortly after, in the station building. She is 7 months pregnant and took a night train from Madid to meet us at the park. We set off along the long curved bridge that spans the highway, linking the park to the pride of French rail.
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The first building we came across housed Dances avec les Robots (Dance with Robots). This is a huge building which houses 10 KUKA robocoasters inside. We rode while Kristin watched from the balcony.
The park reminds me of a mix of MarineLand and Epcot Centre. It's got the halmarks of both; from Epcot's permamant world's fair feel to Marineland's sprawling, pristine lawns and pathways. The park in one word is weird. In a good way. There are no less than 6 separate types of IMAX theatre here, and I'm sure just as many simulators. We thought we might end up running out of things to do, when in fact we ended up missing things because there was simply too much to do!
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Word of advice: avoid French mustard. It's hot. I had a hot dog and nearly spit it all out at the first bite.
. There were, as strange as this sounds, cats literally all over the park. They looked well fed. One of the best rides was Animaux des Futur, and it was part moving dark ride, and part virtual reality. Each person gets a pair of special binoculars and a sensor that goes on your hand. You can pick up virtual 3D animals and pet them and so forth. The effect was really convincing!
The two-screened IMAX theatre was really interesting. It opened before Soarin' at the Disney parks, and Dave and I both though that it was sort of a premature version of the same style of effect. At Futuroscope, this theatre has a second IMAX screen which is positioned under the floor of the seats. The floor of the entire theatre is made up of glass panels, so when you're flying over mountains, you can look down and it gives a better sense of perception.
As the evening wore on, we took one final ride on the planetarium type attraction and all 3 of us fell asleep in the comfortable reclined seats, staring into space. The long walk back to the TGV station across the bridge gave us a chance to say goodbye to Kristin and we waited on our platform for the train, watching 3 more rush past at close proximity in the mean time.
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We boarded and sat with Calum who had spent the day in Poitiers and got on at the stop before us. The ride to Strasbourg was long but very relaxing and gave us a chance to visit. The bar car attendant was the first snob we met the whole trip (told us there was no food left, then served some to French customers, then told us he had no change for the vending machines, then gave some to the locals). Ah well. We were hoping to have a fun dinner on the train and instead scrounged around for enough coins to buy some kind of little cake snacks from the machines in the car bulkheads.
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I dozed in and out of semi-consciousness as the train slowed on the local tracks approaching Strasbourg. The tram system here is by Bombardier and pretty incredible. I used to hate light rail, but if it looks like this, it's amazing! We took the tram to a stop close to the hotel and walked. There is a gorgeous ancient cathedral right around the corner from our room and the building itself has twisting passages and turns. In fact I think every room is on a different level.
We're once again totally exhausted and going to head to bed now much later than we had hoped.
All photos, April 14
Tuesday, April 15
Tuesday we woke up in good time and made our way via the tram to the train station where we were to pick up our rental car. The thing with the tram system is that because they come so frequently, there is this sense of urgency that "we have to to get on THIS one!". So we bought our tram tickets at the kiosk as one was arriving. But as we handed themn out it started to leave and Dave got separated from us, with one of our tickets. So, Arianne and I went back to the touch panel to get another ticket, but the attendant was refilling the machine. 2 more trams came, one right behind the other before we finally managed to get on one. The interval was seriously like 1 minute between them! We met Dave at the next stop and got to the TGV station as the rental car desks opened.
"You can have ze Renault Clio. Eet ez a French car." The lady told me. I smiled.
It was tiny but good enough for what little driving we ended up doing. Getting to Europa Park was a breeze, and we arrived shortly after opening and met our guide for the day, Matthias.
The first thing that hits you about Europa Park when you come in is the uncanny resembalance to Disney World/Land. The entrance is modelled after the entrance at the Magic Kingdom, but instead of the steam train, the Monorail (from Expo86 in Vancouver!) runs overhead. There were lots of roller coasters to ride, but since the crowds were not heavy, it would be possible to do everything in one day.
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Matthias first took us to EuroMIR. This ride is in the Russia section of the park. Like EPCOT, the park is made of different countries that are all represented with different themed buildings. One thing I forgot to mention is that almost all the rides at Europa Park are built by Mack
GmbH - this is because Mack
owns the park and also uses it as a showcase for their new concepts. As a result, many of the rides have unusual or unique features that often never make it out beyond the park gates. EuroMIR is a good example. The ride itself is the definition of weird. Giant mirrored-blue glass towers stand out of the ground with track snaking around them, fronted by a full scale mock up of the MIR space station. In the queue (and on the ride), trance music thumps out a regular catchy beat that everyone in line invariably ends up tapping their feet or swaying to.
The ride starts out with a circular lift system, which consists of a long, and very tall spiral of track around a central rotating cylinder. A large wheel that sticks out of the front of the train engages a bar on the drum, which "screws" the train up the lift. While this is happening, each of the 4 cars on the train start rotating in the opposite direction, all the while that crazy techno music blasting out over speakers, strobe lights illuminating the interior of the tower. It's totally strange, and feels like some kind of forced dance party. At the top, the cylinder becomes exposed to more ex Space-Race era Russian components, before you're pushed out a sliding door into the rest of the circuit. It's fast and fun, with the cars sometimes electrically rotating to change direction. I'm not entirely sure what the point or what the theme of the ride is supposed to be, but I like it!
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While walking by one of those games that you shoot a gun at a series of targets, Matthias suggested I take a picture of him and Dave in front of it. I didn't know why, but I did anyway. He said to use the flash (which I never do), so I did... as soon as I took the photo, every target on the game activated, making an impossibly loud racket! We ran away laughing hysterically!
Other notable rides at Europa Park included Silver Star, the big B+M hypercoaster (which was a lot better than I had been led to believe, albeit a bit rattley), Poisedon (the large prototype half water ride, half roller coaster), and of course, the one and only Eurosat.
What can I say about Eurosat. My friend Michael had been talking about Eurosat for a few years whenever we hung out, and I didn't quite understand why he was so convinced it was a great ride. What little I knew about it beforehand told me it was some kind of enlarged kiddie-coaster in a ball that was supposed to look like a clone of Spaceship Earth at EPCOT Center in Walt Disney World (Florida). I knew it was supposed to have a decent soundtrack as well (like EuroMIR), and a space theme, so for that reason alone I was already interested. We queued up in the short line, and a moment later were riding an escalator up to the boarding platform.
Right away, we could hear the music (just like EuroMIR) filling the station, building anticipation. Train pulls in. Lap bars pop open. People jump out. People jump in. Lap bars down. Train dispatches. Repeat. Every ~30 seconds or so. The ride must run like 7 trains, I have no idea. It's NUTS! Matthias insisted for our first ride we must sit in the back, so that's what we did. As we dispatched up the lift (same as EuroMIR, big rotating cylinder thing), I danced around in my seat in the dark to the awesome music. "This isn't half bad!" I said to him.
When we pushed out the top into the building, all hell broke lose. The train tore through an impossibly convoluted and twisted set of dives, turns and sharp drops, getting more and more intense toward the end. The final turn into the brakes is taken so impossibly fast you'd think you'll come right out the side of the building. Screaming into the brake run and coming to a stop in one second, I burst into applause. AMAZING ride.
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Over and over we rode Eurosat for the rest of the day. It's my favourite coaster on the trip. I have so many favourite things on this trip, we really picked a fantastic assortment of places with such a great diversity of rides.
We decided that, because the Stuttgart fair was only open until 10pm (we didn't know this until today), we wouldn't try and push ourselves to go all the way over there and do that. So, we said goodbye to Matthias and drove back to Strasbourg. When we arrived at our hotel, I switched places with Calum, and he and Dave took off to go meet Mike T and his family at some fancy restaurant. Estelle, Arianne and I met up with Terry and Phyllis who had arrived the day before, and the 5 of us set off exploring the city and talking about our experiences so far, before settling on a very nice restaurant downtown.
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One of the things that has been really awesome as well is that for every thing we thought might not have worked out, something came along that was just fine instead. For example tonight, missing out on Stuttgart meant that we had an awesome time with the rest of the gang here in Strasbourg. So really, we didn't "miss" anything.
All photos, April 15
Wednesday, April 16
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We finally got to sleep in a little bit! Our alarms went off and we shot awake, because today was the day for smartville! Speeding off at 130 km/h (the speed limit in France), we soon found ourselves staring at the smart tower along the A4 at the Europole Lorraine; the home of smartville, production facility for smart GmbH. On arriving, Mike T and his family as well as Glenn and Cora had already arrived. It was so great to finally meet them after all these years. Again we shared some stories and took some photos, then went inside the Centre de Communication and got to see the big hall that showed off all the prototype cars that never got released, or versions of the real cars, like the roadster, or crossblade, that never touched Canadian soil.
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When Sabine showed up, our tour guide, we watched a quick video about the building and then headed by car toward the actual plant and parked. Obviously no photographs were allowed inside, so you'll have to use your imagination... but the facility is very, very clean and modern. The buildings themselves include the giant plus-shaped main assembly line, as well as the system partners who's facilities are mostly nested in the quadrants of the plus. This way, parts are delivered as they are needed on a just-in-time basis, so there is no storage needed by smart. Cars are built in a seemingly random order; coming down the line you could have a cabriolet, then a diesel coupe, then a mild hybrid, then a turbocharged BRABUS car with custom rims. Every car is built to order, so every car that we saw moving along the line was destined for an anxious customer waiting for his or her new car to show up.
The logistics side of thing is probably the most amazing here; the parts show up from the system partners in the exact order that the cars are built. So, 3 days ahead of the car being built, each system partner gets a list of what cars in what order will be built. So they can prepare their build schedules accordingly and deliver things in just the right order. It's brilliant and it seems to work perfectly.
Note: Virtually all the employes here are HOT.
The average age is something like late 20's to early 30's. About 1/5 are women, and most of them are employed in the more delicate tasks because as Sabine said, "women are better for that".
I'm not sure what else to write about smartville. Being at the factory, finally, was so surreal. It didn't feel real. So many people from all over met up at one place for the one thing we have in common and it was a great day. I don't think I stopped grinning from ear to ear. It was all a bit overwhelming which left me uncharacteristically quiet.
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Calum, Dave and I headed back to Strasbourg in the Clio and returned it at the train station, then checked into our new hotel adjacent to Strasbourg TGV (the station) and made arrangements to meet at 7pm for dinner with the rest of the gang. The 3 of us set off to the big cathedral in the centre of Strasbourg, and paid 4 Euro to walk up 66 m to the top of it. Parts of it were built in the 1000's (that seems weird typing it like that), and I think other parts as late as the 1600's and 1800's. Being a mechanical guy, when I look at stuff like this it frightens me a bit, because all these structures went up before the advent of civil engineering, FEA, or any other kind of structural analysis. I got a bit weary going up the steps when I saw how they were constructed and started thinking about the vertical loading on the centre of the spiral, but Calum reassured me that if it'd been standing for 1000 years, it'd probably be fine for another 30 minutes for us to get up and back down again.
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When we were at the top we realised we'd be late for dinner. Heading back, we decided to walk instead of take the tram and as a result we missed meeting up with the others. Which, as I said before, turned out not to be a problem because Dave and I ended up going off on our own, as did Calum. Dave and I got some food at a little corner shop and walked around looking for a place to eat. We sat on a large rock next to a boat lock surrounded by buildings lining the river. It felt like something out of a theme park, which made me feel embarrassed that so far before this trip all of my views of things like this have been in a theme park environment (ie, EPCOT). I half expected a MACK
powered mine train to come shooting out of the waterfall with a bunch of kids screaming on the train and see a Space Shot launch up over the top of a hotel.
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All photos, April 16
Thursday, April 17
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Our TGV ride from Strasbourg to Paris CDG would be the highest speed ride that we would get to take. So, I was actually really excited to be "going home", if only because of the means to get partway there. Everyone was up at 4h30 (!) as our early departure of 6h11 meant we couldn't be late. The station was right across the street from our hotel so we had no trouble getting on board and finding our seats. We had to make 2 stops. At the first one, Lorraine TGV, our train decelerated from 300 km/h and pulled left onto the siding. Before the doors had even opened, another train rushed by on the main line at top speed, right on our tail. And right after that, the boarding was complete and we shot off again to catch up, being inserted back onto the main line at precisely the right moment as so not to delay the next train which was coming down the line fast just a few minutes behind us. THIS IS TRANSPORTATION.
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We arrived at Paris CDG and said goodbye to Calum who had an earlier flight than us, and then checked in. Dave came with us to our gate and waited until it was time to board our Boeing 747-400 back to Pearson. Estelle and I had a great time on the way back, chatting about everything. This trip was so much more to me than the destinations, it was also about the journeys to get to those places and the friendships that got strengthened along the way. I said years ago that I wanted to ride trains in Europe with Calum and I got to do that. Dave kept me cool and calm whenever I got worked up over something that didn't need working up over and always knew the right thing to say to make me laugh. Arianne with her never ending dry humour lightening any mood. And Estelle being a constant source of not only motivation but inspiration in this trip but in her attitude toward everything in life. Without getting too mushy I am so thankful of the people I have in my life who I got to share this experience over the week with, in its highs, lows, and everything in between.
All photos, April 17