Thursday, March 19, 2009

traipsing about

Ok friends, the time has finally come. I will be departing for spring break TODAY. So, I may not be able to update you all until the final leg of the journey, or more realistically, once I return to Italy. I did go to Verona and Bologna this past weekend, but a quick write up on that will come later. Just know I saw Juliet's famous balcony and took a trolley ride through the city, then did some Ferrari shopping in Bologna. The usual. Anyways, I am often to Edinburgh tonight, where I will stay for four full days, departing Monday for Dublin. After remaining on an Irish holiday, I will hit up London by Thursday afternoon, staying in the land of fish and chips until coming home Sunday. If this all sounds exhausting, imagine how I feel! And since I am flying the ever pleasant Ryanair (you know, the luxury airline provider?) I am taking basically nothing along for the ride. Think two pairs of jeans and several T-shirts. This ought to be interesting, but it's time to be a real traveler. Anyways, midterms are over and life is good, so if only my last load of laundry would finish so I may pack my few remaining belongings...Ciao for now.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Flashing lights

 As you well already know, I have been on hiatus now for two weeks. Where have I been you may be thinking? What debauchery have I gotten myself into this time? How have I managed to survive without updating all you wonderful people who so ardently follow me?  And more importantly, how are my laundry experiences shaping up thus far? Well, the answers to these questions and more (aside from the last one of course) are quite clear: I am involving myself greatly in every aspect of being a foreigner. This, in my opinion, entails taking advantage of all the fabulous places in which Europe seems to keep throwing in my face. Now all this may sound exciting and new, but the process of actually planning and executing said missions is anything but easy, for they take someone with gusto to really follow through with. And I admit, yes, it is taxing, but as I have said in previous posts, someone has to do it, so who better than me. And since it’s my life, I better suck it up and get to it.

Ok, ok, so joking aside, I really have been very busy in the past two weeks and I apologize for not informing all you fine family folk of my incredible experiences sooner. However, I have set aside all night to thoroughly bombard you with amazing stories that will take place in two subsequent blogs; therefore, you can then fully grasp the gravity of all this ‘stuff’ (so much so that when you tell other people, they’ll actually think you were here instead). With that, I implore you to take a seat, make sure the kids have a good movie playing and while you’re up, grab a beer, because baby, this is going to be one long night…

Wednesday, March 4 to Sunday, March 8:

Having booked this Parisian holiday far in advance, the details of the trip became a bit muddled in my mind as the date of departure grew closer and closer. I knew the general days and remember being excited when I first got the flight, but after that, other events seemed to eclipse my initial joy. Now, flash-forward to last Wednesday when I was sitting in class and drumming my fingers in anticipation to just leave, craving to travel and finally take a trip that gets me out of Italy. Well, that is exactly what happened and the occurrences that comprised my four days of travel were anything but mundane.

 Having a busy day Wednesday, one that included two presentations, I was already stressed over school, let alone my night of travel that lay ahead. So, attending class straight from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., I was fidgety and a bit unfocused, but had to remain calm or I would undoubtedly explode. So, leaving my anthropology lecture an hour and a half early in order to run (and I do mean run here) to catch my train by 4:37 p.m., I was made even more nervous because if I missed this, my flight would also be royally displaced. Needless to say, I had my fingers crossed tightly. 

Jogging through the streets, I dodged into my apartment and grabbed my bag before heading to the station, boarding my train minutes before it actually pulled out. I’d like to think I am lucky I actually made this. Sweating and panting a bit, I sat quietly, munching on an apple and banana to suffice my hunger. Arriving at the airport two hours later (this is only after I got totally lost at Pisa Centrale, the stop where I had to change trains in order to get to Galileo Galilei Airport) I was required to go through a song-and-dance-like routine provided by the leading airline in all the land: Ryanair (I am joking, you see).  Battling online check-in fees, checked bag fees and generally having luggage that was overweigh by one kilogram (2.2 pounds), I was frustrated beyond belief. And after having to pay some ridiculous surcharge for a mistake I made, I was not a happy camper. 

 Although the personnel were not understanding in the least with how heavy my bag was (you see this is how the company makes all its money) they did provide me with some much needed humor. Helping me sift through my bags, they pointed out objects I could jam in my pockets, making everything work without me having to open my wallet yet again. Several high-fives later and after the exchange of some Italian ‘goodbyes’ I was off. Security was a breeze and afterwards I had ample time to contemplate life, learn a fourth language, read a book, discover why giraffes’ tongues are black and generally stare off in to the distance, because my plane was over an hour late in boarding.  Sarcasm aside, I was pissed. But, that’s just what you get for having to pay such cheap airfare rates (by the way, if you were wondering, I am no longer angry. I was just really hungry and not prepared to spend money on cheap airport fodder when Parisian delicacies such as Duck Confit and Nutella crepes were but hours away).


My plane did eventually come and after boarding in a torrential downpour, I was on my way to the lights of gay Paris. Although rough at moments, the time we actually spent in the air was quite enjoyable. I accomplished some Sudoku and took a breather as several rows of Italian girls screamed behind me about how this was their first flight ever, meaning they were all more than a little nervous. And to make things even better, when the plane rocked and shook (and let me say, I was convinced at one point we were going down too) the woman beside me began praying and crying a bit. Couple all the aforementioned instances together with flight attendants trying to sell scratch-off lottery tickets, pre-packaged foods and overpriced beverage cards, and you had a rip roaring good time. You can understand my delight when I actually arrived in Paris.

But if running, a train, and a flight weren’t enough modes of transportation for you, I then had to take an hour bus ride in to the actual city. Quite queasy at this point and feeling the effects of an empty stomach, I was really, really ready to settle into my humble abode, nestled in the center of Paris’s red light district. How cozy. However, seeing the Eiffel Tower poke up in the distance, blazing in hues of gold and orange, was enough to make any famished traveler alert and fully awake. I had, finally, arrived.

Taking a metro (yet ANOTHER transfer, gah!) I was at my hotel in less than ten minutes and ready to go out and see what Paris was all about. I met Emily, a good friend from Pittsburgh who I was rooming with, and we began making all these lofty plans to really begin to experience the European nightlife. However, after wolfing down some pizza (I know, I was in Paris and ate Pizza) and some French fries (at least they have French in the title?) Emily and I decided to just hit the sack. Hey, I was exhausted and needed my rest for Thursday. Leave me alone!

Our room, quite small and with several stray hangers, walls caked in yellow paint and two single beds, was a far cry from four-star luxury, but after awhile I did begin to actually like it (especially our small ledge off the two French windows, the place where we stored food that wasn’t supposed to be in the room. Oh well, we weren’t allowed wine either, but we snuck that too!). Rebels.

Now, the following four days were truly a blur of activity and I have the blisters on my feet to prove it. But instead of recounting every minute detail, I will hit the highlights in my favorite way imaginable. A LIST! Are you ready? I know I am…

Thursday: Emily and I awoke to breakfast at the hotel (which they provided every morning and of course, we ate every morning) and consumed croissants, bread, jam, juice and tea. Afterwards, we headed to Sacre Coeur (you know, where the movie Amelie was partially filmed?) and strolled along beautiful walkways to this gorgeous church and overlook for all of Paris. Afterwards, we made our way to Notre Dame, where we awed in the absolute grandeur that is this magnificent church. Taking a million pictures and walking around a bit, we then met another friend from Pittsburgh (this one studying in Paris) for lunch. Following some pretty badass food (I ate a Croque-Monsieur, basically ham and cheese, but so much better than that) we headed back out into Luxembourg Park and the surrounding beauty for the day. Hiking nearly all afternoon, I bought Emily a yellow rose for her twentieth birthday, which we celebrated later that night with wine, coconut bon-bons, fruit and homemade sandwiches in our room. So classy. Also, we managed to get at Musee d’Orsay, a great museum housed in an old subway station and complete with priceless Monet’s, Van Gogh’s and anything else you could dream up for sculpture and paintings.

There was so much art and beautiful scenery surrounding us, but at this point we were really feeling the effects of a rather long and overly involved day. However, we did pull ourselves up in order to go to the Moulin Rouge, which was literally two steps from our hotel. Beautiful, but not that similar to the movie’s portrayal. We did think about seeing a show there, but the cheapest was 89 euro and I was NOT prepared to drop that kind of money. The outside was just fine for me. Also, if you were wondering, our area was not that bad at all. Yes, there were some sketch people, but mostly just a lot (a lot) of sex and drunkards. Hey, it made for some amusement at least.

Friday:  Rising again at 8:30 a.m., after going to bed at 2 a.m., we were ready for another day of fun and traveling. Today, my friends Lauren and Traci joined us and we again walked the city and hit some major spots every tourist has to go. In the afternoon, we headed towards the Eiffel Tower and upon exiting the metro station, saw the looming beauty right in front of us. It was awesome. I never thought I would think something like that was so cool, but let me tell you, it really was. Climbing the nearly 600 steps to the middle of the tower, we decided to use the stairs in order to make the experience more personal. Boy, did our feet hate us. However, the views were amazing and after we made it up, we were thankful we had the memory. Taking an elevator to the very top (visitors weren’t allowed to walk any further) we gawked in amazement at how tiny the city looked from such a high point. Everything was gleaming and despite the frigid temperatures in Paris, the sun felt so good.  

 Making our descent, we made our way to the Champs Elysees (fancy shopping street in Paris, framed at the top by the Arc de Triomphe) and wondered a bit before I separated from the group and forged my own path. Strolling along the streets, I saw Paris by night and everything was just spectacular. I even bought a CD at the Virgin Mega Store, which was actually quite mega. Happy as a clam and with my new ‘Israel in Egypt’ soundtrack (I couldn’t find this ANYWHERE in America, yet discovered it in the first store I entered in France) I made my way back to the Eiffel Tower for some nighttime fun. The tower, which lights up and sparkles every hour on the hour, was absolutely breathtaking (I had Kanye West’s song “Flashing Lights” in my head the whole time). And people were just so happy, sitting in patches everywhere and generally being content with their lives. So after taking some pictures, I had to just sit and watch as the whole scene unfolded before me.

 Staying downtown for a good two hours, I met up with my friends to go salsa dancing later that night, which didn’t prove to be that fruitful. I did attempt this style of dance however, but for those who know me, I am awkward enough when not moving around like a fool, so I enjoyed a beverage. Afterwards, I slept well, very, very well and dreamed about all the amazing things the following days would hold.

Saturday: Today, the four of us had plans to go to Versailles, the ostentatious palace of Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette, which was, as I just said, quite palatial. Dripping in gold and stretching miles and miles, the whole estate was like something out of a fairytale. We spent much of our time just wandering outside, but to actually enter cost a bit much for my blood (13.50 euro), so Lauren stayed, Emily and I went to visit Pere Lachaise Cemetery and Traci, well, she needed a nap. So we all parted ways and met later that night for Traci’s twenty-first birthday extravaganza! Jumping a metro, we picked up two more of Traci’s friends, also in Paris, and living in a horrible part of the city. After we got nearly accosted on the street and virtually killed (details can be given upon request), we chose a restaurant suitable for the birthday girl herself. With a view of the Eiffel Tower, I dined on steak and tap water, as we talked and laughed throughout the night. 

 Quickly paying and wanting to stake our spot for the light show, we headed out and bought a bottle of champagne to ring in the big day. Popping the cork in front of the Eiffel Tower as it lit up on the hour, we drank and had our pictures taken by some German people who were kind enough to document the night for us. The whole experience was quite magical and definitely something I will remember forever. We then watched some break dancers get down and again, had to eat some crepes. God, this city rules.

Sunday: For our last and final day, Emily and I again went to Pere Lachaise Cemetery, because previously it had been closed, and we just aimlessly wandered around through such graves as Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde. It was raining pretty hard, but this just added to the ambience of the whole scene. Afterwards, we headed to Shakespeare and Company, a tiny bookshop selling all kinds of titles and genres, and quite frankly, this was one of my favorite parts of the trip. I loved rummaging through stuff like this and the whole place was quite small and confined, with books just scattered everywhere. Leaving the shop, we then headed to The Louvre and viewed priceless artwork such as the Mona Lisa (which wasn’t that great, because it is really small and quite frankly, not as beautiful as everything else in the museum).  Spending almost four hours there (I kept looking out for Tom Hanks and the rest of The Da Vinci Code crew), we decided to grab a fast dinner at Quality Burger (so much better then American fast food) and got out bags to head home.

The whole four days was one of the most memorable experiences I could have ever had and there are tons more stories, but I am sure by this point you are quite overwhelmed and ready for a break. So, I’ll leave you for now, but get ready for more outlandish episodes to come soon, because next week starts spring break, and that includes London, Ireland and Scotland. I am sure, as you can imagine, I will have loads to say. But for now, go rest your weary eyes and remember how much I love all of you. And, if you think I am ever doing too much, just remember I am having all this fun for each and every one of you too. Miss you all so much...

The Cadillac of Bikes

(This is the second post in a series of two blogs. Enjoy!)

Friday, February 27 to Sunday, March 1:      

This weekend, like many others, started in the train station of Santa Maria Novella (a mere stones throw away from my flat) and the place where trains can transport a traveler just about anywhere in the region of, oh, say, all of Italy. So, deciding to go to Verona earlier in the week (this you may recall from my last passage) I went to the area where tickets are sold and information can be obtained. Stepping up to the bigliterria (or ‘ticket window’ for all you English speaking folk) I inquired after when the next train to Romeo and Juliet’s iconic setting was due to depart. However, after speaking in some broken Italian and learning that the next train wasn’t for two hours, myself, Traci and Lauren (comrades in all my escapades throughout Europe) settled on a destination a little closer to home and quite frankly more suitable for a day trip starting out at around 2 p.m. (hey, don’t judge us, we went out the night before!)

Deciding on the small city of Lucca, we jumped a train for a mere five euro and headed, once again, through the rolling hills if Tuscany. However, after arriving some two hours later, we departed the station and quite frankly were clueless as to what to expect of the day (because let’s remember, we picked this place on a complete and utter whim and had no idea what we were getting ourselves in to). I’ll be honest, my first impressions, though limited, were dismal, mainly because there appeared to be one single street, framed by quaint houses and leading, well, to no where. We walked for a bit and entered a rounded archway, which of course meant we were now actually entering the city through the old “city walls.” Yet once again, we encountered a single street, in addition some sad little house hanging laundry from the windows (it haunts me everywhere I go!) and a few people strolling about. Not much excitement to be seen here, seeing as how I view these things on a daily basis here in Florence. Nevertheless, we persisted, but it was at this point I began to regret coming to Lucca in the first place, because while I don’t need some thrilling experience everywhere I go, It would nice to have some entertainment to fill up the day. So, in asking some locals where the best place to eat was, us vagabonds made our way around a corner and there, we finally saw what Lucca was all about.

Met at first by a large piazza, complete with merry-go-round and gigantic statuary, we soon took in all the sights and sounds as we chose a place to stay for lunch. Settling on a small pizzeria and trattoria, we sat and relaxed for a good hour, conversing over calzones, pizza and Coca Cola light, all things Italians seem to obsess over. And upon referencing a map hanging on the wall for some direction, we made our way back out into the city to explore. However, we soon find out we had been strolling on the outskirts of town and in reality only had to jump over two streets and a roadway to actually get at the city. Silly, silly tourists we are.

Ok, so after heading to some gorgeous churches (St. Michele most notably) and peeking through gates and hidden doorways, we decided to get some dessert. Rummaging around a bit and getting sidetracked by nearly every new window display I met, we settled on a sweet little escape offering nearly everything under the sun. What was my poison you ask? 

Well, I chose a coffee and cream filled pastry topped with a single coffee bean, so delicious. However, after gorging ourselves on beauty and Italian delicacies, we departed the main area of Lucca, which was bustling with people and activity, to head towards the sprawling green park that lay just beyond the city center. Once there, we took refuge on a stone wall and could quite literally see into the distance for miles. Rolling green hills, warm sun, people chatting and a wonderful panoramic view of the entire city of Lucca. “Perfetto,” as the Italians say. Perfect. However, it wasn’t until after some sun bathing and a light stroll that I spotted how we could spend the duration of our day in Lucca. Bicycles.

Taking note of the various visitors and city-dwellers all on bikes, it seemed like a good idea to explore via and alternate mode of transportation.

So, descending our precipice, Lauren, Traci and myself headed for the nearest rental spot and made our selections. For less then three euro, we had an entire hour to use and abuse these bad boys and let me tell you, mine was definitely the Cadillac as far as bikes go. Cream and brown, it came complete with a leather seat AND working bell. I was in heaven. Traci and Lauren? Not so lucky. This was due to the fact that they initially chose a two-seater (hilarious to witness, let me tell you) but not quite so practical. And after only riding nearly a foot, they toppled to the ground, prompting them to give in to choosing two individual bikes for our jaunt. Now, we were ready to hit the road. Circling the city by way of a giant, two mile-long path, the three of us passed historic edifices, beautiful city views and picturesque countryside’s spotted with homes; all scenes which made riding a bike totally worth the little money we had paid. Although the trip was not entirely smooth, because Traci and Lauren almost crashed several times (they claim to have forgotten how to ride bikes!) but aside from this, we had a blast and made the loop twice before returning with some beautiful memories and what’s more, a refreshing day. Following the retreat, we of course had to get gelato and snap several more pictures before catching a train back to Florence and preparing ourselves for Saturday’s festivities, which included a ballet in Milan. Thrilling, I know.

Waking up at the crack of down, I headed to Santa Maria Novella at 6:30 a.m. in order to meet the group of local university students who were also attending the trip. Once there, I met Angela, a sweet Italian woman from Pisa who said she would be joining us for the day. Excited and a bit shy, she and I waited for the rest of the students who arrived dressed to impress and ready for a day at the ballet. However, little did Angela know, she would not only be a guest, but also lead the entire day, due to both Francesca and Cristiano (organizers for the excursion) having to take a ‘personal day.’ Almost missing the train because we didn’t have tickets, Angela hurriedly made some calls and met Cristiano in order to obtain some details pertinent to our plan. I knew it was going to be a long day after this. From the station, we made the nearly three and a half hour trek to Milan for a day sure to be full of excitement. 

 Resting on the train and preparing mentally for the chaos that was about to ensue (it was fashion week AND carnevale in Milan) I anticipated a fun-filled time, even though the morning had already proved to be a bit crazy. Ready to escape Florence, I knew everything would be just fine. Boy, was I wrong. Exiting the train, we were immediately swarmed by people and had to rush to the metro in order to actually make our way to the theater. Traveling with a group of nearly 15, it was rather difficult to all remain together, but somehow we managed the feat. Crammed on the subway, we held on for dear life as we continued on to the main piazza in Milan, one crowned by the main cathedral in the city, a stunning beaut bathed in gothic architecture. Rushing off the subway and up several flights of stairs, I was met head on by the giant beast, stretching nearly an entire city block and gleaming after an extensive renovation project that wrapped recently in earlier years. The square, jam packed with people in costume and with confetti hanging in the air, seemed to me, insanity personified. I took one picture before a man grabbed my hand, slapped some kernels of corn in my fist and held my wrist to the sky. What the hell was happening here? Suddenly, I was swarmed by pigeons all eating out of my hand. Flying rats I say.

Disgusting. And if that wasn’t enough, he wanted money following the act, thinking me lucky to have gotten the chance to partake in such an activity. The nerve. After him came a street seller who grabbed my other arm and proceeded to tie a bracelet on around my wrist. He had an arm covered in them and though I persisted, he wouldn’t take “No” for an answer. And yes, if you are following along with the main theme here, he too wanted a little something. I declined, and after he got huffy and pleaded a bit more, he left to try and pursue some other na├»ve tourist for their spare change. Che stress. After battling through the crowds, we entered the huge open-air shopping district and stopped to spin on a spot in the floor that was supposed to bring good luck. From there, we headed towards the theater and waited in will call for our tickets. After receiving our stubs, we were given some free time for lunch and general wandering (which is something I have become quite good at!). Sitting down for a quick lunch, my friends and I met with a rather rude wait staff that informed us Coke was six euro and water was five.

I was parched and just ate a sandwich. But this is Milan they said. Our main waitress also tried to steal money from us, but I guess this is Milan too? Hm. After leaving, I walked around and did some window-shopping, which proved distressful because I am poor and having money is an integral part of living in this city, but that’s besides the point I guess. Now, to answer the all-important questions: yes, people in Milan are all beautiful (young and old) and yes, they all dress impeccably, but they have absolutely no manners. Bumping in to me and throwing glares, I felt totally unwelcome and the several stores I did enter, I felt as if I was being measured by the amount of status I seemed to possess. This whole scene was not to my liking. Besides, Milan is a very industrial city that is much bigger than Florence and quite frankly doesn’t employ that quaintness which captivates me so much here. Oh well, I suppose.

 Returning to the theater, the group of us found our seats (nosebleed section and behind giant columns) and decided to stand for the duration of the performance.

On a side not however, the ballet was a beautiful piece of work. Acted out in the Scala Theatre, we enjoyed the spectacle of Coppelia by Leo Delibes. The story, quite fanciful and full of drama, was split in to three acts, with two twenty-minute intermissions breaking up the length of the score. Yet, in picking my favorite scene, this would definitely have to be when all the puppets in the doll maker’s house came to life and began dancing together with the central ballerina. The whole show was just magical (think Tim Burton, with composition by Danny Elfman a.k.a. Edward Scissorhands).

Following a standing ovation, we had to book it to the metro in order to catch our train back home, so running once again through the crowds of people, I stopped to take several pictures before I was shooed into the subway by Angela. From there, we boarded the train and had a very lengthy and somber ride home. I was thankful, to say the least, to return to Florence.

The whole experience I must say was quite enjoyable, but looking back, the day was a hectic mess of occurrences which make living abroad all the more stressful and frankly, more real. Angela handled everything like a pro, however the chaos read on her face all day long. I think she needs a good glass of wine and some down time to recuperate fully.

 As for me, I am planning to head to Paris this Wednesday, so no rest in the coming days. But I suppose I wouldn’t have this any other way. It just makes me wonder at times,  ‘is my life real right now?’ And then, I just look around.