Friday, August 5, 2011

the actual end.

11 july 2011

we arrived in paris around 7:30pm local time. our bags were still at florine’s, but we definitely needed to eat some dinner before we went to pick them up. we stopped by a restaurant near the station and ate a quick meal before heading over to florine’s place. she met us there and we visited for a while as we reorganized our bags to transport. we finally made our way across town and got to our new host’s flat around 10pm. his name was mikael, and he lived in a teeny apartment on the top floor of an old building (of course). once we arrived and got our stuff settled, he invited us to go sit by the seine and drink wine. um…. yes. he led us to an awesome little spot on the bank and we watched the boats go by. eventually, we kept walking, ending up near the islands. we stopped and got berthillon ice creams on the île de st. louis and then walked over to the île de la cité to look at notre dame in the moonlight. we went back to the right back and got bikes to ride home. :) rachel rode on mikael’s bike and i had my own. it was so fun to ride through the deserted streets of late-night paris. we got back pretty late and got ready for bed. rachel and i slept on the pull-out couch, and we all slept so hard! i barely woke up when mikael got up early for work.

12 july 2011

my last day. rachel and i had planned to go check out the pompidou center, so we got up and prepared for our day. we got our bikes from the little bike terminal down the street and rode over to the museum. unfortunately, the pompidou was closed on tuesdays. blast. we sat in the plaza for a while, and listened to an awesome jazz quartet play. rachel and i even got up and danced for a minute, which earned the applause of all the spectators. we got our bikes and took a long tour down the seine. our first stop was to check out the shakespeare & company bookstore, one of my favourite places on the planet. i bought a copy of “screwtape letters” and we continued on our way. we did think about going to the d’orsay, but the line was so long that we ended up bailing. we walked across the pont des arts and looked around the tuileries, including the carnival. we walked along the rue de rivoli, “window-licking” (great french saying) and enjoying the weather. we eventually got some bikes and made our way through the place de la concorde and down the champs-elysees. we went and checked out the gallery atop the louis vuitton building and walked by the parisian abercrombie & fitch, which is confusingly popular. since my quest to find the best tarte aux framboises in france began at the café ladurée, i figured it was only fair that it end there as well. we had a little dessert treat, which i savoured as long as i could. i did have a fleeting moment of meaningful sadness as i took my last bite… it was so good, and i didn’t want it to end – but i had to take that last bite. just like my time abroad. we paid and stopped by the virgin megastore so i could grab a cd. finally, we headed back and met mikael, and the three of us went out to a last dinner. he brought us to a really good restaurant right around the corner, where i accidentally ordered an entrée of raw meat. whoops. he bought us a bottle of champagne and we had a really interesting and provocative conversation. after dinner, he took us on a bit of a pub crawl. at the first bar, we tried these shots of caramel vodka, and then had watermelon mojitos. the atmosphere was really cool – very nashville. the next place was pretty empty, but still cool. he ordered us these daiquiri-like drinks, which were alright. finally, around 2, we headed home. i stayed up to finish packing and blog a little. i considered pulling an all-nighter, but i did go to sleep eventually, for just a couple hours.

13 july 2011

d-day. i woke up around 6 and got my stuff together. rachel came with me to the airport shuttle stop next to the opéra, where we said goodbye. i boarded to get out of the rain, thinking about how paris was crying for me. the airport was uneventful – i checked in and went through security, arriving at my gate in plenty of time to buy some food and use the internet. my flight was at 11am, so we started boarding around 10:15. 

after 180 of the best days of my life – countless adventures and friends – i was going home.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

the end, part two. london again!

8 july 2011

florine was sweet enough to let us leave our big suitcases at her flat while we spent our final european weekend in london! we left the flat in time to get to the gare du nord at 10am. since we were taking the eurostar, we had to got through customs and security. after a bit of a border control scare regarding our lack of OFII stamps, we got on our train and were on our way to…

london! the train ride through the chunnel was so cool! it just got dark for about 20 minutes and then boom! england. the transit was so much smoother than our february journey! god bless trains. we got off at st. pancreas, where tristan met us. he rode the tube back with us to the flat, where we settled in to rest f or a little while. we left around 3pm to meet shane at the liverpool street bus station, as he had to ride the bus into down from the airport. i was so excited to see him! i introduced him to tristan, and then tris and rachel went back to the flat while shane and i set out to explore. our first stop was the V&A museum, where we got to play and learn! there were some fun, interactive “discovery stations” – it was a really cool museum. we headed out to find some food and a place for shane to get a haircut. on the way, we stopped so he could buy some shoes to replace the ones that were practically falling off his feet as he walked. we continued our wandering, stopping in several awesome bookshops in covent garden. soon, we stumbled upon a super trendy, very cheap hair salon. i sat and waited while shane got an 8 pound haircut. the best part was that several of the stylists were french! but shane the pansy was too shy and intimidated by the beauty of his stylist to actually speak to her in french. lol. after the haircut, we kept walking – i think we covered the entirety of london that day! – and started looking for some indian food for dinner. rachel was going with tristan to meet some of his friends at a pub on the river. we headed back to the flat around 10:30pm, arriving in time to catch the end of the movie the gang was watching. around midnight, everyone started heading off to bed. i stayed up for a little while, talking to shane and using the computer. it was so lovely to get to spend the afternoon and evening with him – we had an awesome day. it felt like a total bonus, considering the fact that when we said goodbye in galway in may, we thought it was for a few years!

9 july 2011

this was a supremely excellent, very literary day. shane and i got up around 9 or 10 and got ready to leave the flat. we took the tube to victoria street station, and hopped on a big, red bus to oxford! yes! the trip took about 2 hours, and it was a lovely ride through the british countryside. we arrived in oxford around 1pm and found a spot of lunch – i finally got to have a pasty and it was delish! shane and i sat in a square and listened to a busker while we ate and waited for rachel and tristan to arrive via motorbike! once they got to town and found us, we all took a walk up the main street. they grabbed something to eat and then we made our way to one of the many colleges in town. it’s no wonder that oxford is such a destination for higher education – there are so many colleges there! we walked by the gorgeous bodleian library rotunda and then i bought a ticket to go inside the divinity school. it was there that the dance rehearsal scene from harry potter and the goblet of fire was filmed! it was an absolutely gorgeous room – i love the architecture in oxford. we also saw some kids in slytherin robes. :) shane and i snuck into the courtyard of a dorm complex, just to get a peek, and oh my word – it was so, so very beautiful. stone buildings covered in ivy, bright grass, spiral staircases… we couldn’t believe it. we finally tore ourselves away and went to meet back up with rachel and tristan. the four of us continued meandering, checking out another hp-related college – we saw the “great hall” and the courtyard where malfoy gets turned into a ferret! loved it. i really wanted to go see christ church before it closed, so rachel and tristan napped on a lawn while shane and i ran across town. technically, it was closed for a wedding (of the dean’s son!), but shane and i snuck in for a quick look before we were kindly asked to leave. :) the last item on the list was the eagle & child pub, where the inklings writing group met – including c.s. lewis and tolkien! i saw their signatures and soaked up the awesome atmosphere for a while. around 6:30, shane needed to start heading back, so we made our way to the bus stop. we got back to town around 8, and the two of us ran over to top shop so shane could exchange some shoes. we made it back to the flat around 9, and shane pretty much left right away for this evening soirée. rachel and i got ready and then made our way across the thames to go see the classic “hamlet” at shakespeare’s globe theatre!! we had such awesome seats – front row of the top tier! the show was a nighttime performance – midnight, actually. we rented cushions and settled in for an awesome production. the cast was small – they all played at least two or three roles. rach and i both really enjoyed it, being the total english nerds that we are. after the show was over, we walked back across the millennium bridge and caught a black cab back home, finally arriving around 3am. shane stayed over at his friends’ place, so he wasn’t home. but i had chugged a coke to stay awake at the play, so i ended up being up for a while. i took advantage of the time different to talk to drew for a while – bonus! it was such a lovely day – one of my favourites during the whole trip! i finally fell asleep as the sun was rising over the gray east-london rooftops.

10 july 2011

needless to say, we slept in a bit on sunday… tris woke us up around 11 to go check another item off of our to-do list – a full english breakfast! it had bacon, eggs, beans, sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms, toast, and tea… yum. i ate the whole thing, too! shane was home when we got back, and we rested for a while, trying to digest a little big. around 1, rachel, shane and i walked over to brick lane to check out all the sunday markets. we stopped by the petticoat lane market before heading over to spittalfields. it was so hipstery and cool! we spent several hours in the area, just exploring. eventually, rachel and i headed back to rest. i watched the us women’s soccer match with suzy, which was heartstoppingly dramatic. tristan made this delish fondue for dinner with roasted veggies, meats, and bread. we all sat around the table and hung out for a long time. i ran down the street to get ice cream / strawberries for dessert. we were expecting another couchsurfer around 10 – my friend katherine! she was staying in london for her last few days in europe, and tristan, as is his natural reaction, said “the more, the merrier!” she ended up taking longer than expected, showing up around midnight. i was so excited to see her! i introduced her to everyone and we all went to bed around 2 or so.

11 july 2011

last day in london! rach and i were scheduled to leave on the 4pm train back to paris. around 9am, i woke up and packed my backpack up all the way and left with shane and katherine around 11 to go see kensington palace and the peter pan statue. (tris said he would bring my bag to the station, the angel.) the three of us explored the gardens and surrounding area. the palace itself was beautiful – red-brick and very regal. it was where diana had liived with william and harry. people had left all kinds of notes and cards attached to the fence – including 50th birthday cards for diana, which was sad but charming. they really loved her – and the rest of the royal family, as evidenced by the absolute obsession with the royal wedding. the peter pan statue was really cool – and shane was so excited to see it. we were supposed to meet tristan and rachel at the station at 3, so we left the park around 2:30 and took the tube over to st. pancreas. rachel and tris had just arrived. we all said goodbye, which was really sad. it was hard to say goodbye to shane again, but not as bad as the first time. i was still pretty torn up though. and tristan was so sweet as well. rachel and i went through security after our goodbyes were over and held our breath as we practically tiptoed through customs, because of our missing OFII stamps. the woman in france had made us so nervous, but it ended up being a total non-issue. the eurostar waiting area was pretty nice – we hung out for a little while before getting ready to board our train. it was kind of like boarding an airplane! rachel was in the seat right behind me, so once the train got settled, i asked the girl next to me if they could switch, which she kindly agreed to do. shortly, we were on the way back to franceland, for the very last installment in my epic voyage.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

the end, part one.

6 july 2011

since our flight was at 9, we had to leave at 6am to catch the bus to the airport at 6:30. all went well, and we jumped through all the necessary hoops to get on our flight. and as we took off, another chapter of my adventure closed…

after a short flight, (which we both slept right though), we arrived in lyon. we had a bit of a layover, so we grabbed lunch and chilled at a table for about 2 hours. the train came at 1:15, and we were in paris by 3:15! magical. since our CS host wasn’t at home, we left out things at the consign while we walked around the area. we reposed in the place des vosges (one of paris’ most beautiful plazas), soaking up the lovely parisian summer sun. after our rest, we took a walk around the quarter. i showed rachel our flat from last summer and we looked in several cute vintage shops. around 7, we went back to pick up our stuff from the station and head to florine’s apartment. we got there without any problems, and she is so cool! her flat is beautiful as well, so cute and well done. she complimented us on our french and then we went to buy things for dinner. it was a simple, romantic, classically french meal – meats, chess, fruit, salad, bread. we talked for a long time and then went to bed fairly late. yay CS!

7 july 2011

a grand day in paris! we woke up around 10 and ate some breakfast. the get-ready time took longer since rachel washed her hair, so we ended up leaving around 12:30. we went straight to see rachel’s friend emma and grab lunch with her near the ‘tour de montparnasse’. after her lunch break, rachel and i did a big walking tour of the city, since she’d forgotten her passport and couldn’t get into the d’orsay for free. we walked so far, eventually landing at the arc de triomphe. after a big of shopping, we made our way back to florine’s. we ended up doing the same thing for dinner because the previous night was so good! we stayed up talking again, and then packed our bags for london in the morning!

Friday, July 29, 2011

when in rome..

2 july 2011

we took advantage of the luxury and slept in.. around 10h, we woke up and semi-dressed. our breakfast window closed at 11h, so we went down and had our “italian breakfast” – a pastry and a hot drink. we came back to the room to get ready, starting our day of touring around 13h. we headed to the nearby “ancient rome” section of the city. the colosseum was only 10 minutes away on foot! we stopped by to evaluate the line and take a few pictures. since it was super long, we walked around once and then went down the street to one of the b&b guy’s restaurant recommendations – and true to his word, it was delicious. after our late lunch, we made our way back to ancient rome, opting to visit the roman forum and paladine first. it was really incrediblew to walk around the same streets and paths as the ancient romans – including emperors like nero and augustus – literally the stuff of legends. i especially enjoyed the panormaic views from the hilltop garden. we decided to round out the ancient day by heading back to the colosseum.. with our forum ticket, we got to skip the lines.. so we pretty much walked straight in. that is one impressive structure. it was really almost surreal to actually be there.. i’m so easily excited by historical or literary significance! i really liked walking around all the different levels and trying to recreate it in my mind. we went back to the flat for a while afterwards and then walked to a great pizza place near the train station for dinner. one of the waiters asked us out for drinks, which we politely declined. haha! we got gelato on the way home (of course), and then stayed up talking and hanging out until midnight or so.

3 july 2011

a lovely roman day. :) we got breakfast around 10h30 and then i took a shower. we headed out around noon, planning on getting some picnic fare and going to the park. we took the metro for the first time, which was average. it started out very impressive, but got more annoyinga s teh trip progressed. we got our food at a grocery store adn made our way up to the roman version of central park, aclled villa borghese. we came out of the metro at a totally randomplace, so we were pretty underwhelmed and confused at first.. but we soon came upon the real park adn we were quickly impressed! the park is enormous and so beautiful. we ate our lunch adn then lounged on the grass for a while, reading and napping. around 15h30, we got up and walked around for a bit, eventually finding a sweet rowboat pond with sooo many turtles! it was only 3 euro per person for 20 minutes, so we took a boat out and paddles around, goofing off and having a blast. we considered going to the museum of modern art nearby, but it was 8 euro.... so we checked out the free, temporary exhibits outside. the a’c units blasting cold air were myfavourite part. after all the park fun, we made our way to the down-town area – piazza del popolo, piazza della pagna, the spanish steps, and some very croded streets. we did a little shopping before going to check out the trevi fountain, which is indeed mindblowingly detailed and impressive. it was also ridiculously crowded. we snapped a few photos and then escaped to calmer streets. the next few hours, we just wandered around, stopping to see the piazza de venizia, the vittorino, the pantheon, have a great dinner at a routard-recommended place, and then end up at teh piazza de novalo. we saw a breakdancer who had more abs than we knew existed. he asked if we wanted “to party tonight”, which we found highly amusing. guess he noticed us staring... whoops. we made our way back to the flat on foot, which was great because we got to see all the ruins all lit up at night. the colosseum and forum were especially awesome! :)

4 july 2011

independence day, italian style. i slept until about 9h and woke up randomly. since i couldn’t really fall back asleep, i sent out some CS requests for paris. i woke rachel up around 10h30 and we went down to our breakfast bar for our tea and pastry. mine was super chocolatey! after breakfast, we came back adn got ready for the day. we left around 12h and walked dwon tot he metro. our first goal was to check out the line situation at the vatican. during the walk from the metro to the entrance, we were offered tours by probably 30 different people. i talked to one guy for about 3 minutes, and that seems like the most frustrating job ever! people just ignore you, all day long. or worse, they get irritated or aggressive at you. yuck. we finally got to st. peter’s square and soaked up the atmosphere for a few minutes before getting in line. there are two separate entrances.. one tot eh plaza/basilica and one to the museum, on the opposite side of the “country”. we opted to just visit the basilica on that day, so as to more evenly distribute the time spent waiting in lines. it actually went super fast though.. 20 minutes from the back of the line to the door! we even went through “border control” – aka airport security sensors. the basilica itself is just amazing.. the amount of detail, decoration, and just general opulence was incomprehensible. the best part of it by FAR was seeing the ‘pieta’ in person.. literally a dream come true. i stood and stared at it for a long time before finally breaking away. we popped by the vatican post office to buy stamps and a couple postcards. once those were sent off, we meandered around for a bit, sort of looking for food but also sort of wandering. we eventually found a trattoria and sat down to eat. the bill was, as usual, 20 euro. i don’t know how we kept doing that, but it’s easy to split! my spaghetti carbonara was good but super heavy. after lunch, we went to a botanical garden where i promptly laid down on a bench and took a nap while rachel read. once i finally woke up, we walked around the park for a while. on our way out, the guard at the little ticket office signaled to us and handed us two big books about ecosystems and forest fires. we were super confused (and amused!), but ended up giving them back because i didn’t want to carry them around all day. the objective for the afternoon was just to explore the neighborhood, so we wandered the streets, checking out bookshops and eating gelato. around 19h, we stopped to check out a bar i’d found online called the ‘café friends’. once we finally figured out what ‘happy hour’ entailed, we ended up having dinner AND drinks for 8 euro each! we got to get little nibblies from a rockin’ buffet – two little plates each (with seconds!). plus, my drink was great. so that was a big win. after ‘dinner’, we got to pretend to be glamorous at a film festival on the isola tiberna. we lounged on some beanbags at this swanky riverside bar thing and drank sodas. ballin’. we started the slow journey home around 22h and came back to watch flight of the conchords on rachel’s computer until bed. :)

5 july 2011

last full day in rome! we got up and had our breakfast at the bar down the street. after our pastries, we came back to get ready, leaving around 13h. we took the metro up to the vatican again and stopped by a little market to buy some picnic stuff. after dodging all the pesky tour guides, we had a lovely picnic in st. peter’s square. it was pretty crowded, but we got a good spot right in the middle of the plaza. after lunch, we walked over to the entrance to the vatican museums. usually, there is a wicked long wait – and as it was 15h on a weekday in the summer, i expected the worst. but when we rounded the corner to the entrance plaza, there was literally not a person in line. so much for all those guides saying that their tours helped you skip the insufferable lines! we walked straight through security and were only a few people back in the ticket line. plus, with our international student ID cards, the price was only 8 euro. not bad at all. the rough part came later, when we were herded like sheep through the stuffy, airless corridors. i still enjoyed it so much, though.. nearly all of my favourite renaissance paintings and sculptures are there – especially the school of athens by raphael in the room of the signature. i saw so many of the works we had studied in my art history class in angers. the greatest part, of course, was the sistene chapel. how michelangelo laid on his back on scaffolding (of his own design) and painted that masterpiece will never cease to amaze me. it was just incredible. after the tour, we sat in the courtyard, soaking up the sun and trying to decide where to go next. we opted to make one final big walk across the city, so we set out to walk by the castle st. angelo (of angels and demons fame), across the bridge, and all the way back to the hotel. it took about an hour, but it was a great way to say goodbye to the city. when we got back, we laid down for about an hour, until we got hungry. dinner was just down the street at a restaurant with a 9 euro menu! i had lasagna, roast chicken, and salad. nice. it was a lovely final meal in italy.. a ‘last supper’ if you will. :) the hotel manager had recommended a gelato place nearby, so we walked around for a while before getting our last italian gelatos. :( the place was enormous, and PACKED.. obviously very popular. we went all out for the final go, getting the large ‘three scoop’ cones – i had some funky flavours too; rice, mandarin, and nutella. my final flavour count was 25! here they are; strawberry, lemon, kiwi, biscotti, mango, papaya, cherry, chocolate, cookies, tiramisu, apple, peach, raspberry, pineapple, apricot, wild berry, chocolate chip, strawberries&cream, strawberry yogurt, blackberry, pear, vanilla, mandarin, nutella, rice. NOMS. we packed up 95% of the way and got ready for a verrrry early morning..

6 july 2011 – italy

since our flight was at 9h, we had to leave the b&b at 6h to catch the bus to the airport at 6h30. all went well, and we jumped through all the necessary hoops to get on our flight. and as we took off, another very wonderful, delicious, enriching, and inspirational chapter of my adventure drew to a close.

**for pictures from this post, see the facebook album!*

one whirlwind day in siena, and the epic failure of the italian rail system.

thursday, 30 june 2011

thursday was an easy travel day. we got all packed up and left the flat aroud 9h15. our train to siena was at 10h10, and only an hour and a half long. out host in siena was a super cool, hipstery italian guy named giuseppe. he met us at the station and led us up the EIGHT escalators that brought us from the station at the bottom of the mountain to the city at the top! they had just finished building the escalators a few months before.. until then, you had to wind your way up the streets! no thank you. once we got to the top, he led us around the corner to his beautiful tuscan villa of a building. we dropped our stuff off in the flat and then went out or a walk around ton. talk about winding streets!! yeesh. that place was super confusing.. i never even tried to navigate with a map. there is an awesome tradition in siena called il palio, and rachel and i were lucky enough to be there literally 2 days before the event. for il palio, 10 of the 17 city neighborhoods, called 'constrade', participate in a horse race in the city centre. the race is crazy - a bareback, no holds barred (except eye gougin), frantically fast-paced frenzy.. three laps around the square, as literally thousands of spectators look on. i highly suggest you read the article i linked.. it's so interesting!! we walked through a few constrade on the way to lunch, and i loved seeing all the different flags. giuseppe brought us to his favourite little restaurant for lunch.. the outdoor tables were on a hill that is SO steep.. the front legs of the tables and stools were on stilts! i had a little bit of vertigo while we ate, because i felt like i was going to tumble over the table and down the street. my penne pasta was so good! after lunch, we walked with giuseppe over to his university, taking the scenic route to check out some great views of the city. he brought us all the way to the library, which is housed in an old church and is therefore awesome! we left him to study for a while as we walked around some more. the first thing we did was stop by an internet cafe to look up where to find a tourism office and check our emails, etc. once we had all the information we needed, and a little map, we set out. we ended up walking the entire length of the street which supposedly had the office on it, but we never saw it! instead, we ended up at the university of siena's school of social and political sciences. it was so hot that we decided to go inside, just for kicks. great decision! we got to use the free bathrooms, AND we bought ice cream for student prices! that ice cream cookie sandwich was truly excellent. we eventually tore ourselves away and continued on our wandering. we eventually came across the duomo cathedral, so we took the opportunity to go in and see it. the church is really unique as far as cathedrals go - it's all black and white horizontal stripes inside, plus an absolutey unreal marble floor. we also visited the baptistery, which i recognized from ap art history in high school. i've REALLY enjoyed getting to see all of the art that i've studied.. it makes my schooling seem more worthwhile and applicable. after the duomo and the baptistery, we headed back towards the main plaza, called piazza del campo. we stopped in a book shop, but not too long afterwards, we heard crazy loud singing coming closer and closer to the plaza. we went outside to check it out, and saw one of the constrade leading their horse to the plaza for practice! they were following it, singing the neighborhood fight song, looking like football hooligans. all the followers were separated - men first, then women, then children. i loved it. it was the turtle neighborhood, which i knew because there was a turtle shaved into the hair on the horse's flank! rachel and i followed the parade to the plaza, because we had to meet giuseppe at 18h30. we sat around on the plaza for a while, waiting for the practice runs to start. but then it started to rain.. which washed away the dirt layed down for the track. so the horses couldn't run. :( we left around 19h30 to buy stuff for dinner. giuseppe made an awesome quiche with potatoes, zucchini, and ham. we rested while it cooked and then ate together. around 22h, giuseppe's friend osman came over and we all went out for a bit. we walked back to the main plaza, where we sat and hung out for the night. some other friends of theirs came over for a while, and it was cool to talk to them. i was so tired and spacey at around 1h30 that giuseppe decided it was time for us to go. i skyped my mama for a minute before collapsing into bed, pretty much dead to the world.

friday, 1 july 2011

slept lateish, until maybe 10. i needed it, though! the morning was chill – we had a small breakfast and i took a shower before packing up. we left around 1pm to catch our train to rome.. we got there with no problems, with enough time to buy some snacks for the road at the grocery store. when we got to the platform, however, things started to get crazy. first, the train doors wouldn’t open. giuseppe inquired, and they said they weren’t sure if the train would leave at all, because there was no engine car! how they could lose an engine car, or how the cars even got there in the first place, escapes me. but anway.. next, it started raining. and when i say it started raining, i mean that the floodgates of heaven opened above us and unleashed a torrential downpour the intensity and suddeness of which i hadn’t seen in years. for about 25 minutes, it RAINED. marble-sized hailstones, green skies, booming thunder, rapid-fire lightening, crazy wind.. yeah. here is a short clip of what the cafe where we ate lunch the previous day looked liked during the storm. as the storm calmed a little bit, the train finally acquired an engine car and the doors opened for us to board. we finally made it to chuisi, the town where we were supposed to make our connection to rome. except with the delay, we missed the first connection by about 30 minutes and had to wait an hour and a half for the next one. so we played cards and drank hot chocolate in the station cafe. the train to rome came on time, but changed platforms literally at the last minute (which i brought to the attention of two american travelers who were standing patiently at the opposite platform, looking down the tracks). we were only on that train for about 30 minutes before it came to a complete stop in the middle of nowhere. clearly not good. we ended up sittign there for at least 45 minutes, due to a “railway systems failure”. fail indeed. once we FINALLY got to rome, we hurried to the b&b, which was about 15 minutes away by foot. the owner had been expecting us around 18h, but due to all the delays, we didn’t get there until around 20h30. whoops. he was so sweet to wait for us, and even took the time to quickly go through his list of recommendations, marking them all on our free map. we rested in the room for a few minutes, cranked the little air conditioning unit to blast cold air, and then headed out again. my grandparents were actually on a catholic pilgrimage trip to rome that week, and it was their last night! we went over to their hotel and visited for about an hour. it was so nice to see them and hear about their time in italy! they had a really early flight, though, so we let them go to sleep. we went to dinner at a restaurant just down from our b&b.. i had fettucine with meat sauce and it was delishhhh. after such a long day, we came back and pretty much went right to sleep.. in our lovely cool room! :)

Friday, July 8, 2011

the disneyland of europe and a renaissance capital - the middle of italy - venice and florence.

friday, 24 june 2011

we had to check out earlyish from the hostel, so we woke up around 7h30 and got ready for the day. we were all packed up and ready by 8h15. after a quick breakfast and some internet time, we paid and continued on our journey – and let me tell you, lugging my suitcase around over cobblestones is no picnic.. i so wish i had a nice backpacking backpack!! we got to the station in verona just in time to catch the super cheap train to venice – win! the trip took about 2 hours, but it was so beautiful! fields, hills, cute houses, the whole bit. we arrived in venice at 12h15 and our real adventure began. since my CS hunt had been largely unsuccessful, i had looked up several hostels in the city.. but made no reservation, figuring we’d just show up and hope for the best. so we got out of the station, walking into the disneyland of italy (possibly even of europe) – everyone lives there, no  one visits. 50,000 tourists PER DAY. that’s 588 tourists per actual resident per year. for comparison, there are only 9 tourists per parisian resident each year, and paris is the most visited city in the world. this is a tiny city that is a VERY popular destination. the canals are really mindblowing though.. i kept having little realizations, like ‘when you call a taxi… a boat comes.’ or ‘if there were drive through places here, it would be AWESOME.’ anyway, from the station, we took a waterbus (!) to the island of guidecca, one of the main islands of the city. we went to the first hostel on my list, which is the biggest in venice. it was very easy to find, but the boat bus took forever to get there. when we finally arrived, we found out that they were booked. completely. the woman gave me a list of other places to try and wished us luck. uh oh. two of the places were also on my list, but they were far away. we tried the closest one, about 10 minutes away on foot but on the same big island. it was so windy along the waterfront that it was actually difficult to walk! plus, having our bags with us meant carrying them up and over every bridge. and in a city with that many canals, bridges come frequently. (there are actually 409 bridges in venice, i was curious). after a huge spiral hunt, we finally found the place… but couldn’t figure out how to get it! there was a code, and we didn’t know it. we sat and regrouped just for a minute, but while we stood there, another traveler (identified by large backpack – jealous) walked up, looking like he was in search of the hostel as well. as it turns out, he’d been looking for a place to stay since 7h30 that morning (uhh oh), and had just come from the big hostel, who sent him here. i told him where the place was, and that we didn’t know how to get it. eventually, we just yelled over the wall to someone, and they told us the code. once we got into the complex, we learned that it was in fact not a hostel, but a student residence. and they rent rooms out to travelers… from mid-july to september. that didn’t help us. our new friend (francisco from mexico) decided to join forces with us to look for a place. we left and stopped at a little café to get lunch. i ate quickly and left rachel and francisco with the bags at the café while i ran back to the first hostel and asked to use a computer. the woman was nice enough to let me look up some other places to stay. i sent off a message on CS and wrote down the name of one other place before all of the computers suddenly shut off. perfect. i went back to the café and said our best bet was to go to the train station, where there was an accommodation service. during this whole escapade, i’d been calling the hostels, trying to inquire about availabilities. except no one was answering! i tried my luck one more time, and finally got someone to pick up at a hostel across town. she said they had 3 places – great! except it was 2 male spots and 1 female. dang. francisco was stoked, though, because he’d been searching forever! the hostel was near the station, so when we got off the boat, we wished him luck and sent him on his way, fearing that the beds would be taken before he got there. rachel and i went into the station and checked out the accommodation service – which was only for fancy hotels. the cheapest room they could get us was like 150 euro per night… no thanks. the girl was sweet enough to show us on the map where the cheaper hotels are, so we walked down one street with a few one star places, which got progressively cheaper as we got further away from the station. we stopped in an internet café to send out some more CS messages and look for other places. as we left, i spotted another little one star places tucked in next to a restaurant. i asked, and they had a room for 58 euro! since we were splitting the cost, that wasn’t much more than a hostel would be, so we took it. hooray! we checked in and went to drop our bags off. the room was SO SMALL, but it fulfilled our need for a place to stay, and it wasn’t exorbitantly expensive. after a little rest, we started out to go explore the magical city of venice. the canals are really just incredible.. the 409 bridges connect 117 tiny islands that make up the floating lagoon city. it’s so cool! since it’s all canals and stairs, there are obviously no cars. it’s weird once you realize that there are no motorized vehicles around. i loved all the boats – the waterbuses called vaporetti, sleek watertaxis, personal boats, and of course, the ever-charming gondolas, which are awesome but doubtlessly ridiculously overpriced. we admired them from afar and took lots of pictures. throughout our walk, i also loved the super confusing directional signs. it would be impossible to have normal ones, though, because there are SO MANY ways to get everywhere. since all of the tiny streets and canals are not named on the map, we just wandered in the general direction of the centre, winding out way through the giant maze of a city. we saw loads of gorgeous buildings and bridges, many shops and restaurants, and SO many people!!! i’m pretty sure that there were a few cruise ships that had docked for the weekend, so there were a lotttt of tourists. we finally ended up in st. mark’s square, one of europe’s most beautiful plazas. there is a ridiculous number of pigeons in that plaza. i guess they know that food comes from tourists! we people-watched for a while, went to look at the waterfront, and then headed back into the maze. we stopped at a little restaurant for dinner. i had ravioli, crossing another item off of my “must eat in italy!” list. after dinner, we went back to the hotel to rest  for a while, and then went back out for gelato a little later. the room had a teeny little air conditioning unit, so we didn’t have to be uncomfortably warm all night!

saturday, 25 june 2011

our only full day in venice, but we had no real plans except to keep on exploring. we check out of the hotel at 11 and brought out stuff down the street to the hostel we’d found the night before. it was a pretty run-down old place, but the people were nice and they had an opening for two. plus, it was cheaper than our room. once we got settled there, we left and took the waterbus all the way down the grand canal to the very end, getting off on the opposite side from st. mark’s. we checked out a really neat church and walked around for a while, eventually ending up at a sweet café where we had lunch. the café was in an awesome location – right on the canal, at the foot of a big pedestrian bridge, with a gondola stop next door! we sat at the corner table, practically on the water. with the sunshine and the bright pink flowers in the planters, it seemed like we were in a movie. we had a reasonably-priced (for venice) lunch and then continued on our way. during the super-hot, tourist-filled afternoon, we went back to the hostel for siestas. i skyped and blogged for a while, and rachel sent more CS requests and took a nap. when dinnertime rolled around, we went down the street to a place that rach had found online, which supposedly had great, cheap food. it was indeed fairly priced, and decently yummy! after dinner, we took a lonnnnnng final walk around the city, all the way to the opposite end. we got a little lost at the end, even, because there were so many dead ends! around 21h30, we decided to take a waterbus back home. the boat took forever to come, and then the journey itself was crowded and long. by the end of it, i wasn’t even feeling up for gelato. :( we got back to the hostel and went pretty much right to sleep.

sunday, 26 june 2011

moving on again! i didn’t know the check-out time for the hostel, so we slept until 9ish. we took our time packing up and finally left around 11h. since we didn’t really want to lug our bags all over the place, we just went straight to the train station. i bought our tickets to Florence on the 13h train and then left rachel with our pags while i left in search of food. i came back with some pizza and two drinks, and we proceeded to have a lovely train station picnic, people watching all the while. around noon, i went to get some gelato – we both had pineapple and raspberry – YUM. the train came around 12h45, which was nice because it was air-conditioned, so we got on early, settling in to our little compartment for our three hour trip. we were alone at first, but as we got further from venice, the train filled up. i spent almost the whole journey writing or reading my book, so it went quickly. we arrived in a very hot, bright florence at 16h30 – my plan had been to take a bus to the flat, but none of the lines we wanted left from that station. dang. so, we started on foot, going by the very detailed google directions that i’d luckily written down earlier. after 20 minutes of walking, we somehow ended up back at the train station. double dang. i called our host, and he gave us vague directions. he’s Italian, but he wanted to speak in french so he could practice.. which led to a very disjointed conversation with less-than-helpful advice. we wandered in what i believed to be the correct general direction until i was too tired and frustrated to go on. i texted our host where we were sitting and asked him to come find us. we waited about 4 minutes, and then there he was! thanks to the changing street names and illegible street signage, we’d unknowingly walked within 50 yards of the place for about 30 minutes.. infinite dang. after climbing 4 flights of stairs (of course), we finally got to the flat. i tossed my bags in the room and drank about a litre of water. we sat and rested for a while until our body temperatures cooled down. around 19h, we took the bus downtown to do a little tour before dinner. it was so amazing to see the duomo – that building is incredible! so unbelievably detailed and intricate. we continued looking around until around 20h45. the bus back to the flat was about 20 minutes late, so we ended up not getting back until nearly an hour later. for dinner, alessandro (our host) made some lovely penne pasta with cherry tomatoes. i spend the night killing mosquitos – i had 10 by the time we left to get gelato, which earned me a free scoop! we walked the 10 minutes to the gelateria, where i had apricot. yum. :) we walked back to the flat and sat up just for a little while. everyone else went to bed, but i stayed up to video skype drew for the first time in weeks! except rachel’s computer has a very testy microphone, so he couldn’t hear me. i ended up typing to him while he talked back. it was silly and frustrating, but still totally worth it. i went to bed around 01h, feeling like i was sleeping in a sauna. rough. we had our own room, though, so at least i only had to have minimal pajamas!

monday, 27 june 2011

the boys have a maid come once a month, and monday was her day. ale said it would be best for us to be gone and out of the way, so we had a rather early wake up call. we got dressed and left right on time at 9h. it was going to be a hot day, so we’d planned to do lots of inside things. we caught the bus downtown (after another long wait!) and got all the way to the duomo before realizing that shorts aren’t allowed inside. whoops. we watched loads of girls in shorts and skirts get turned away, and then buy a scarf, from the vendors waiting next to the door, to use as a sarong. smart vendors. we walked across the ponte vecchio (florence’s only remaining medieval bridge, from 1345!) to the pitti palace and boboli gardens. except they’re closed on Mondays. so much fail! since it was so hot, we sat next to a fountain in a nearby plaza and watched some seriously cute children run around and play. once we got hungry, we went in search of a restaurant I’d heard about online. it was delicious, and super cheap! only 4 euro for a dish of pasta. i had tortellini in a meat sauce and it was awesome! the little trattoria was so cute and charming. after lunch, we slowly made our way back down the river towards the uffizi gallery, one of europe’s greatest art museums. it houses mostly renaissance art, and it is awesome. we got there around 13h30, only to find out that two of the four main galleries had special closing times that day – 14h. of course. the good news was that the following day, all the museums in the city were open late and free after 19h! sweet! so we made plans to come back. we were pretty tired from all the walking and the crazy heat, so we headed back to the flat. except i had unwittingly used up the last of my phone credit, so we couldn’t call the guys and ask them to come meet us. we ended up waiting outside for a little while until the other flatmate, raffaele, came back. he let us in and we got to have our rest time. i even took a nap, because i was so exhausted! i got up around 18h and we all walked to the store to buy a few things for dinner. i also bought a bag of frozen peas to use as an ice pack, because I’d started to develop shin splits. bad news. i still had two weeks in Europe at this point, and i was worried that my legs wouldn’t make it! ale made another great pasta dinner – carbonara. we sat in the kitchen talking and listening to music until bedtime at 23h. it was another HOT night.

tuesday, 28 june 2011

we had a much more successful art day on tuesday. we slept later and spent the morning looking for a place to stay in rome, in addition to other computer things. we left around 13h and made our way into town. our first stop was to go to the market and get some snacks.. I’d gotten several more mosquito bites, so i was pretty uncomfortable. my mom had suggested rubbing banana peel on the bites to alleviate the itch, so we figured we’d give it a go. we got some water and fruit and then looked at all the market stalls for a while. our next goal was to visit the david gallery, but the line was SO long! we opted to come back later in the evening. we walked down the street to the duomo instead, finally getting to go inside! it is absolutely spectacular, but i will say – the outside is more amazing than the interior. and the dome itself is mindblowing! we looked around for a while and then rachel chilled in the plaza while i climbed the bell tower – all 414 steps! i had an amazing view of florence from the top, and an up-close look at the dome. once i finally made it back down, we wandered our way over to the area where the evening’s restaurant is located. we finally found it, realizing that we’d literally walked by it the day before. we also went looking for another place on our list, called mama’s bakery, which our friend ariel had recommended to rachel. we didn’t find it, mostly because it had closed a few hours earlier and the rollers were down, covering the store front. sigh. at 19h, we went and got some excellent pizza from ‘gustapizza’ – mine was a bit undercooked but still good. the night’s plan was to visit as many museums as possible, because it was a ‘museum night’ and they were all free and open late! we started with the uffizi gallery, which houses ‘the birth of venus’, ‘venus of urbino’, and LOTS of creepy baby Jesus renditions. it was an excellent museum, and we had a fun time walking around it! we left around 21h and went straight to the david gallery, fearing a long wait. except when we got there, we literally walked straight in. there was NO ONE there! and just earlier that day, the line had been down the block. silly tourists. the rest of the gallery is cool, but the david is truly breathtaking. i still can’t get over the detail and size of that work. amazing. rachel commented that the look in david’s eyes really gives the statue a whole new meaning. we looked at some more creepy infants and then called it a night. we almost missed the bus due to our gelato consumption, but we ran on just in time. we got back right at the same time as ale and raffaele, so we walked up together and rachel and i prepared for another night in the hot box. it was a rough one, and we slept very little. only one more night left… :\

wednesday, 29 june 2011

a pretty relaxing day. i tried to go easy on my shins, so we didn’t walk as much (but still a fair bit). the only things left on my list were the santa croce church and mama’s bakery. we left the flat around 14h and made our way to mama’s for a late lunch. i am so glad we persisted in our search, because that place was awesome. i had a mini cupcake an a bagel with cream cheese and strawberries – NOM. we got some cookies to go and headed back across the river to santa croce. due to wardrobe choices, rachel couldn’t go inside.. but she didn’t really want to pay, so it worked out. i visited by myself for about 30 minutes. i saw the tombs of galileo, Michelangelo, macciavelli, and dante. wow! the church itself was under construction, but still very nice. i got back out to rachel and we went to get a drink\use the wifi at a café nearby. the drinks were fine, but the wifi didn’t work. ah well. we meandered back to the piazza della signoria, where we discovered a huge outdoor stage with a ballet rehearsal taking place on it! very entertaining. dinner was at a restaurant called casalinga, recommended by that nice german couple in verona. it was very good – reasonable prices and yummy food, but pretty cold service. we had a lovely meal and then went back to try to watch ballet, but the show was over. instead, we headed back to the flat and got ourselves ready for the next day’s departure. my final mosquito bite count was 74. our last night in the hottest apartment EVER!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

old friends and shakespeare - the beginnings of italy - pavia and verona.

monday, 20 june 2011 - italy

the train ride into italy was glorious. so many snowy alp peaks!! it was exactly what i’d wanted to see. :) it was neat to see the evolution from german switzerland to italian switzerland to italy itself. we got to milan around 15h and took the next train to pavia, sean’s home for the semester. we arrived around 16h30 and it was a long walk to sean’s dorm, with my bags and the blazing heat. not the most pleasant stroll of my life. we stopped by the store to buy some (room temperature) drinks on the way, finally getting to the dorm around 17h. we sat around and tried to cool off for a bit (rather unsuccessful in a non-air-conditioned room) and then ventured out to find some pizza for dinner. we each got a margherita (that’s a cheese pizza for you non-italianos) from a place around the corner. 3 euro for a decent sized pizza – not bad at all!! we brought the pizzas back and at in the room while we watched ‘clue’ – which is a great movie! I had no idea, but i really liked it. around 21h30, it was gelato time. I got strawberry and lemon, which tasted exactly like strawberry lemonade (duh) and it was AWESOME. we walked around as night truly fell – the perfect time to eat gelato, according to sean, because the cold treat is still refreshing but it’s not going to melt in the glaring sunlight. perfect indeed. we walked all the way to the river and then made our way back, twisting and turning through all the little side streets. we got back and started a long rummy tournament, which ended up in a 510-510 tie. of course. our last course of action was the nightly mosquito hunt – sean’s kept a kill log throughout the semester, and it’s sitting around 65 right now. the room was pretty sweltering, but we eventually got to sleep.

tuesday, 21 june 2011

the first official day of summer and the longest day of the year! we went and shared a croissant from the breakfast vending machine downstairs and then sat around watching videos online and reading until lunch. sean took me to the caf for lunch, where we split one meal – gnocci, turkey, roast potatoes, bread, and a dessert! so much food! it was delicious, too. i met a few of his friends, and then we continued exploring the city. it was so hot! we saw the castle, sat by the river, and sweated off about 10 pounds before retreating indoors for a few hours. miraculously, the air conditioning unit was working – first time ever! we had some gloriously cool air for many hours – about noon until midnight. I did some planning for the rest of my trip in italy and then helped sean get his trip to france organized. we watched some colbert report and daily show once our planning was done.. the best video that we watched was an interview with one of my favourite human beings, jon stewart, talking to chris matthews of fox news sunday. you should watch the interview here. once it had cooled down enough outside, we went to sean’s ‘usual’ pizza place – where they know him and his regular order! the pizza was great – nice and crispy, saucy, and cheesy – typically thin. yum. we ate at sean’s favourite spot – the benches where he ‘likes to sit and watch children’ (creepy, much?). my friend and travel buddy rachel was coming to meet us in pavia tuesday night, so we headed over to the train station around 21h. we were there just in time to see everyone get off of her train.. except rachel. i figured she’d just missed the connection, so we decided to come back when the next train from milan arrived. except she didn’t get off that train either. the last train from milan arrived at 12h10, so we waited for it nervously.. and then, there she was! i actually didn’t see her get off, but i definitely heard her shriek my name! miraculously, after many trials and tribulations, she made it to pavia. we got her some food and then caught up for a while before going to bed. it was definitely tight quarters, but we got through it! :)

wednesday, 22 june 2011

a fairly easy-going travel day, if a bit too hot. we all woke up at various times and eventually left the dorm for good at 11h45. we stopped by the post office while sean got lunch and then popped by th e bacnk and the market on our way to the station. by the time we got there, we were pretty drenched in sweat after dragging our bags all over creation. rachel and i got our tickets to milan and said goodbye to sean before getting on our 13h25 train out of pavia. we transferred in milan and arrived in verona about 3 hours later. yes, fair verona of romeo and juliet fame! the transit to the hostel started out rough with some bus confusion, but a sweet woman showed us from the bus stop to the hostel, giving us tips about the city along the way. we climbed up the hill to the beautiful villa hostel, checked in, and layed down for an hour before dinner. we ate at the hostel, which ended being inexpensive but still great! after dinner, we went and got gelato and explored the city. the architecture is so beautiful and different! it made me really excited to see the other cities in italy. we made it back around 21h30 and took showers. there were three finnish girls in our dorm room, in addition to two german girls and a woman from quebec. my first real night in a hostel, and it was just fine!

thursday, 23 june 2011

we had a lovey day visiting verona. we ate our complimentary breakfast of two rolls and some mediocre tea and then headed out. our first stop was the office of tourism, where we got a map and itinerary from the information desk. we followed it around, seeing the roman arena, the main shopping street, and juliet’s house! the arena is awesome, in a big plaza with lots of cool architecture and loads of cafes . the inside of the arena is built out like a theatre, so there are still shows there! mainly operas and concerts, I think. juliet’s house wasn’t exactly what i was expecting (no huge mansion or garden pools!), but it was still very beautiful and the balcony was great! rachel was less impressed, i think. we walked through the same plaza from the night before, checking out all of the market booths, and then continued on to see the statue of dante and the tombs of the lords of verona. since we had to be out of the hostel until 17h, we just wandered aimlessly. i went in and visited the big church – it was awesome! so ornate and stoic. there were even ruins of one of the first christian churches there! very moving. after the church, we walked by the river for a while before going back to the big plaza for lunch. we each had a pizza and tried what appeared to be the most popular drink in all of italy – the bright orange spritz aperol. it was okay – white wine and aperol syrup with and orange slice. after lunch, we walked back to the arena plaza to go to the post office and eat gelato. i had mango – yum! i got my stamps and we decided to go back to the hostel a little early, even though the dorm was still closed for cleaning. I asked to go grab a few things, bringing down rachel’s computer, my book, and some snacks. we sat downstairs and used the wifi for a while. some guys from the program staying at the hostel talked to use for a little bit. around 16h30, we walked up the big hill behind the hostel and took in the beautiful panoramic view of the city. i read my book, occasionally looking out over the red tile roofs and winding streets. it’s such a romantic looking place. we headed back to the hostel around 17h30, so rachel could shower before dinner. i continued reading – dracula is a very engaging book! we eventualy left for dinner at 7. since we really had no idea where to eat, we just walked around looking at menus unti one struck our fancy. the place was packed! since it was ‘informal’, we shared a table with another party at first, but they left not long after we sat down. the restaurant was very charming, with all outdoor seating and hand-written menus on water-coloured parchment paper. really cool. i had the greatest lasagna of my life – it was outrageous. for dessert, i had a strawberry topped piece of cheesecake. seriously the best dinner ever. a german couple sat down with us during dessert, and we talked to them while we paid the bill. they told us about sardigna, a region in southern italy, which sounds incredible. it’s definitely on my list. they also gave us the name of a restaurant in florence. they were such a nice and ridiculously attractive couple. we left them to enjoy the rest of their meal and took a stroll around verona, stopping to sit on a bench as the sun set. we started heading back around 22h, with the crucial scoop of gelato on the way back. refreshing papaya, as a palate cleanser! the nighttime view of verona and the river was really breathtaking. it was one of those surreal “is this real life?” moments. we got back to the hostel and talked to some guys from colorado who had just arrived before packing up and going to bed.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

eating chocolate and climbing mountains in switzerland!

thursday, 16 june 2011

my travel to switzerland took about 6 hours. i had to change trains 3 times (once with only 6 minutes!) but it all went splendidly. i pulled up to st. gallen feeling very adventurous and excited. something about the crisp blue lake and the hint of alps stirred my emotions. one of the best parts about this leg of my journey was the fact that my friend sean from high school would be joining me! he has been studying in italy this semester, and we'd been hoping to find a way to meet up over here in europe! so, switzerland it was. i'd given him (rather vague) travel plans, but he was there waiting for me at the station when i arrived! i love when things work out. :) it was so great to see a familiar face after a few weeks of only meeting new people! once i arrived, he showed me where to find an ATM, where i made a withdrawal and got some monopoly money.. i mean, swiss francs. due to their eternal neutrality, i suppose, the swiss don't  use the euro. they still rock the franc! it was so cool to see the brightly coloured bills and huge 5 franc coins.. and very bizarre to hold a coin that was worth more than 7 dollars! we waited a few minutes for our CS host, marilyn, who was meeting us at the station after work. she showed up on her bike and helped us find the right bus to take before biking her way up the giant hill to her flat! we tried to buy tickets on the bus, but the machine was only in german, and we never did figure it out.. whoops. it was only three stops, though.. marilyn met us at the top of the hill at her place. after 4 flights of stairs (my CS hosts are ALWAYS on the top floor!), we were finally home! the place was lovely and spacious with a great view of the city. after sitting and talking for a while, sean an di went out for a wander. we walked for about 30 minutes along the mountain side and then came home, verrry hungry and tired. a friend of marilyn's named florianne came over for dinner. we ate chicken, salad, and potatoes, with an awesome strawberry, meringue, ice cream, and whipped cream dessert combo - DELISH. we decided to go out for drinks, so we walked down to the centre, ending up at a bar called 'rock story'. i tried the 'standard' st. gallen beer, which was alright.. i miss bulmer's though! the walk back was drizzley but nice. once we got home, sean and i watched videos online until really late, playing the youtube game. we also researched the amtrak train system in the states, which is preeeetty horrendous. unless you want to spend 100 hours on a train from vancouver to miami! :)

friday, 17 june 2011

friday was our touring day in st. gallen. marilyn and her flatmate nadja left early to go to work, so sean and i didn't get up until around 9h or so. we made an awesome breakfast, using the peanut butter i'd gotten at the commissary in germany and honey to make one of my favourites.. peanut butter and honey toast. YES. such a great treat! i took a quick shower and got dressed, and even got a blog post up before we left! so productive. around 11h, we headed down the mountain and mad our way to the tourism centre to get a map and directions to the post office. turns out, the directions were short, because the post office was next door. we walked over and i bought some stamps for my collection.. even though i speak little to no german, and the woman spoke no english! hooray for hand gestures. we headed from there to the downtown area, which is SO cute. all of the buildings along the little shopping streets were adorable and so very swiss looking! i actually had the feeling of being in disneyland for a while.. it just seemed so charming. we wandered around a little before stopping at the stiftsbibliothek - which was the reason i decided to go to st. gallen in the first place. it's a GORGEOUS medieval library, in the top 100 most awesome libraries in the world. so i was pretty excited. we found our way to the ticket desk, bought our tickets, slipped on some felt slippers, and went inside. the baroque architecture was crazy.. it was so ornate and beautiful. i got reprimanded for taking pictures, but truly, i couldn't help myself! we had to wear the slippers so that people's shoes didn't make noise or scratch the floors. after the library, we visited the lapidarium, where all the old bits of stone from bygone eras of the abbey's facade were housed. we watched a 17 minute video about the history of the complex, all in german, which was funny. after the lapidarium, we visited the cathedral, which was SUPER frilly and fancy. sean, in typical form, made a corny joke - 'i wonder if they were totally 'baroque' after finishing this place..', which made me laugh. :) i bought a small slab of swiss chocolate and we continued on our way. the weather was so fantastic - we found a (rather dangerous) playground and bought some sandwich stuff for a picnic. our last feat was to climb a giant hill mountain thing after lunch. sean ran up the seemingly endless staircase, while i took the more roundabout gently sloping path. once we finally made it to the top, the view was amazing. there was also an excellent lake at the top of the mountain where people were swimming and sunbathing. we walked around for a while and then headed back to meet marilyn at the flat after work. i took a short nap and then read for a bit while she went to the train station to pick up the other couchsurfer who was arriving that evening - ernest from poland. the four of us went out to dinner, escaping the rain at a tex-mex kind of place. i had a salad, but it was pretty much swimming in dressing. meh. we left dinner and went to go meet marilyn's lovely mom! she came to town to come with us to marilyn's brother's concert that night. he is in a swiss-german hip-hop group called 90-44. it was interesting, but we actually had a really fun time! they're my favourite swiss-german rappers for sure. ;) even though the place was technically a nightclub, it was positively swarming with high school aged kids.. none of them even had the 'i can drink because i'm at least 18 years old' wristband. that got pretty annoying, so we headed home after her brother's set was over. we talked together until after 01h, but by then everyone was so tired that we all just fell asleep. 

saturday, 18 june 2011

we all woke up at varying times, finally getting ready to go by around 11h30. it was raining, so we took the bus to the train station. since we were leaving for luzern straight after lunch, i had my bags with me.. which made the bus ride very welcomed. ernest got some info from the tourist centre and then said goodbye to go do his touring. marilyn took me and sean to her favourite bakery for brunch. i ate my bread as i wrote postcards! we got back to the station after brunch about 20 minutes too late to catch our originally planned train, so we walked for the 14h train. marilyn said goodbye and we headed to our platform. the train ride itself was gorgeous - about 2 hours long, through the alps! we arrived in luzern around 16h30. our CS host evi met us at the station and we walked back to her flat, about 15 minutes away. luzern is actually a really touristy city, which i didn't know before planning to visit. it's really beautiful though, situated on a huge lake and surrounded by big mountains. evi's apartment was wonderful, with a huge living room were sean and i each had a couch! her roommate celine was super cool as well. the four of us sat and talked for a while and then evi suggested we start making dinner. we made potatoes gratin and salad and an awesome carrot soup! the soup was definitely my favourite.. for some reason, it just made me think of my grandmother, and i loved it! after dinner, we all played a never-ending boardgame until celine fiiiinally won. bedtime came earlyish, around midnight. i was just nearly asleep when drew texted me, saying he had a free hour and asking if i had time to talk. so, i called and we got to talk for about 45 minutes. it was so nice to hear his voice after nearly two weeks! it just made me more excited to see him in august. i finally got to sleep around 01h.

sunday, 19 june 2011

father's day in the states! sunday was a big walking day for us. we got up around 9h30 and drank coffee and tea with evi and celine. sean and i left to go explore around 11h. we walked to the old city and just meandered our way around for a few hours. i ate an apfelberliner along the way and it was awesome. we saw the monument to fallen swiss soldiers, which was a huge sad lion, carved into a cliff face. mark twain said once that it was the saddest and most moving piece of rock in the world. we also saw a beautiful old church, and about 40 swans at the lake! my favourite was the lion though... it was so beautifully emotive. we picked up some break at a bakery on the way home and went back to eat lunch. after a short rest, our next adventure was to climb a mountain! literally, we went on a big hike to the top of the mountain behind the apartment building. it was called sonnenberg - sun mountain. the math was actually a little challenging, so by the time we finally got to the top, i was beat tired. the views were so worth it though! the alps are so incredible. we went back to the flat the long way - and by that, i mean we got sort of lost in the web of paths on the mountain and ended up not where we intended. but it worked out just fine, because sean and i are expert homing pigeons. :) we ate spaghetti and salad at home with evi and celine. i took a longish shower, only to find out that we were going out to meet evi's friend pietr that night. drat. so i got dressed again and we went out to sit by the lake. pietr was nice, but a little overwhelming. and i don't think he's too fond of americans. i did get my gelato that i'd been craving, though, so that was a win. we left the lake around midnight, but pietr came back to the flat so they all hung out until around 02h, when i finally got to go to sleep!

monday, 20 june 2011

sean and i slept though the earlier train at 9h, opting for the 11h instead. after packing up and saying goodbye to the girls, we headed to the station. i bought my ticket and then went to get snacks at the grocery store while sean made his reservation with his eurail pass. we boarded the train and my swiss adventure drew to a close.. next stop, italia!!

Saturday, June 25, 2011

a little bit of home.

sunday, 12 june 2011 – germany

my next stop was a tiny village in western germany called mehlbach. and when i say small, i think there are like 100 people who live there. the reason it was on my itinerary at all was thanks to my boyfriend. or, really, his mom. when she learned i’d be in the neighborhood (ie – europe), she said i had to go visit their old neighbors from huntsville. they moved here just 6 months ago, but it’s the family’s third time moving to germany. drew suggested nancy, the mom, to me on facebook in february.. and we’ve been in contact ever since! she was more than happy to welcome me at their home for a few days, so it went right on my list. i said goodbye to katherine on the train and got off at the kaiserslautern station. it was easy for nancy to recognize me, considering i was the only person who got off the train! she flagged me down and gave me a welcome hug, which only confirmed my suspicions that i’d made a good decision in coming to visit! i love hugs. we walked to the car and drove back home. the village is about 20 minutes from kaiserslauten. their house is lovely – very new, clean lines, and in typical germany fashion, very sturdy. i even have my own room with a huge, real bed! the bathtub is gigantic, too. i met nancy’s husband ross and their temporary dog, a white german shepherd named apollo. a few minutes later, their boys came upstairs – don ross (12) and liam (10). they are both sweet kids, eager to talk with you and share their knowledge! i’d forgotten how influential the presence of a “cool older person” can be on young kids, though! they attached to me pretty quickly.
after a bit of visiting time, nancy and i left again to go visit the ramstein military base, except the visitor check in was a 2 hour wait! we decided to wait until later in the week to visit the base. she offered to take me to a town called trier instead. it was about an hour away, but that’s pretty standard for the area. we got there around 14h30 and wandered around for a couple hours. we saw the ‘porta nigra’, a roman ruin from the 2nd century ad. the town cathedral houses a very special relic – the tunic of christ. the cathedral itself is gorgeous – lots of detail and cool door handles! there was this awesome mechanical arm thing outside, writing out the bible on a big scroll in perfect calligraphy. we got some tasty ice cream, too. as we left, we walked through a little carnival – it reminded me of the main street festical so much. we got back to the house around 18h30 and nancy made a FANTASTIC dinner – steak, potatoes, salad, chocolate cake for dessert. so simple, so good. after dinner, we sat and talked for a while befor ei went and watched half of ‘a knight’s tale’ with the boys. after such a long day, i was exhausted by 23h and went to sleep in my big, comfy bed.

monday, 13 june 2011

since the night-night shades were down, it was tough to get up! i finally went downstairs around 9h45 and visited with the family. nancy had made crepes (bless her), so i ate a light breakfast. apparently, liam had eaten about 15 of them! tiny kid, too. i took a bath and then got ready for the day. nancy took me out to Heidelberg, also about an hour away. the town is so, so pretty and there was a castle tucked into the mountainside above it. the castle itself was totally different than what i’m used to seeing – made of the indigenous red clay brick and very stocky. we had to climb loads of stairs to get there, but the views were totally worth it. one part of the castle had an ‘exploding tower,’ which had been attacked by the french and blown to bits, thanks to the gunpowder stored inside. the view from the garden over the town and river was picturesque. we walked back down to the town and wandered through the streets before stopping for lunch. the restaurant was a mix of germany, Mexican, and Italian with a very rude waitress! i got chicken nachos. we left after ‘lunch’ and headed home. on the way, we stopped by the smaller military base near the house. nancy had to go in person to report a stolen GPS, which ended up being a big hassle. the two airment in charge of the paperwork were funny, though. after the police station, i finally got the experience the glory that is the commissary – it was so surreal to see american products and american prices. cheez-its, hershey syrup, poptarts, kraft mac n’ cheese.. everything. it reminded me how fat americans are though. we bought things to make dinner and headed home. when we got back, i started fixing dinner pretty much right away. i made the guacamole first and then made fajitas. they turned out well! the boys are quesadillas and nancy, ross and i ate the real meal. for dessert, i replicated the mascarpone/jam/strawberries idea from earlier. it was really nice to cook for my hosts, since they’d been so great to me! after dinner, i went upstairs to catch up on blogging before bed.

tuesday, 14 june 2011

i woke up around 9h30 and went downstairs to eat waffles with the boys. we all got dressed and the boys came with us to ramstein for the day’s outing. nancy drove us around and gave me a little etour of the place. we went to the base’s shopping mall, called the BX, to get a new GPS and some taco bell for me – yes. the taste of summer. i got a few souvenirs as well. it was super weird to be in such an ‘american’ place in a foreign country. i also go to use the library computer for a little bit while nancy and the boys went to get groceries. i just checked my emails and whatnot for about 20 minutes until they came back. once we got home, i took another bath (yay baths!) and read for a while before setting myself down to finish catching up on the parental visit blog. i even got through typing up my belgium post! i played rummy with nancy and ross until dinner time. she made this chicken dish with sundried tomatoes and artichoke.. SO good. after dinner, i got to take over the kitchen and bake!! i made chocolate chip cookies, mostly because they’re so easy and delicious. they went over well with everyone, and i got my baking fix! nancy helped me buy my train ticket to st. gallen, switzerland for thursday. i stayed on the computer, searching for couches and talking online, until about 23h45 and then went to bed.

wednesday, 15 june 2011

last day at the ratcliffe's! it was a lazy day. we basically sat around the house.. i cleaned a bit, did laundry, blogged, and worked on the computer. it was so cute, apollo was trying to fight with the vacuum, and then he would go hide behind an armchair if i 'attacked' with it. :) i finally got all my blogging 'caught up'! nancy and i went to the vogelwah base to pick up some forms and we stopped at the commissary as well. for dinner, we had p.f. chang's general chicken (i forgot the name!) and rice.. talk about a blast from america! it was delicious. i made a rockin' cookie sundae for dessert. we sat and watched top gear for a while, and then i went to go take one last bath. i finished reading 'the screwtape letters', which was phenomenal! i used the computer to do more couchsearching, but the internet died before i could post the last blog. whoops! i finished packing and fell right to sleep.

thursday, 16 june 2011

i woke up at 7h30 to finish my internet stuff.. once i sent everything off, i gathered all my belongings and we headed to the train station. nancy and the boys dropped me off around 9h outside the station.. we said goodbye for now and i continued on my way!

*germany was awesome, thanks in TOTAL to the ratcliffe family. they housed me, fed me, drove me around..  i could never thank them enough! i can't wait for them to move back to huntsville so i can see them again! :)

(up next, switzerland!)

Monday, June 20, 2011

belgian waffles and a marathon.

wednesday, 8 june 2011 

...i got the 12h15 train to brussels via lille, and got to brussels in about 2 hours… gotta love those TGVs. i had barely finished my sandwich before the journey was over. the train for the second leg was a ‘eurostar’, which was fun. they did announcements in 4 languages – french, english, dutch, and german! loved that.
once i arrived, i had to find my way from the station to my host julie’s flat. the directions she gave me were good, but with my bags, it took me loger than expected. i got to her place around 15h15 and settled down for a bit – got some water, changed into shorts, talked to julie, etc. around 4, i left to go explore. i had no map, but since everything was new, i didn’t really have a direction picked out. i just wandered around and turned when i saw something interesting. there’s a big 50th anniversary park that was very beautiful. i saw some cute Belgian houses and buildings, and got an ice cream. at one point, i figured i’d gone far enough out of town, so i made my way back on a completely different path. my sense of direction was in top form! i wandered further downtown and saw all the EU buildings – HUGE. i felt like i was in a city completely comprised of EU offices. i walked for a solid 3 hours, taking little breaks here and there.

i got back around 19h and met the other CSer staying with julie. her name is katherine, she’s from alberta, canada, and she’s lovely! the three of us sat and talked, ate some soup, and then made dinner – chicken in a masala sauce. yum! after letting that digest, we did the dishes and got ready to go out. julie took us to the city centre (which i hadn’t yet seen!) for a little tour. she showed us the grand place, which is surrounded on all sides by beautiful 17th century Flemish buildings – it was breathtaking. we went to see the mannekin-pis statue, which is tiny! and got waffles. SO GOOD. we strolled around for a while, and stopped in delirium café bar for a drink. in 2004, it held the record for most beers available – 2004 beers! the menu was half an inch thick. seriously. i ot a light, fruity beer (surprise) and really liked it! i also very nearly guessed what part of england our bartender was from. just the wrong side of london… i said west ham, but it was fulham. we left around midnight and hopped on the metro home. when we got in around half past midnight, julie’s boyfriend came over and we all went to bed pretty shortly thereafter. i stayed up for a bit writing postcards, but went to sleep around half 1. it had been such a crazy day! wake up in paris with my parents, go to bed in brussels with plans to visit luxembourg with a brand new friend. three cheers for europe, traveling, and especially couchsurfing!

thursday, 9 june 2011

thursday was a walking day. our goals were to go to the museum of fine arts and buy stamps at the post office. we woke up around 10 and ate breakfast with julie. after some lazy lounging, we got dressed and left the apartment around noon. katherine and i decided to go on foot, so we could see the city and same some money too! the apartment wasn’t too far from the downtown “old” district.. if you go the right way. we rarely consulted the map so we ended up wandering a fair distance off the course. but we got to see some new parts of the city that way! once we realized that we were going the exact wrong direction, however, we checked our location and turned around. on the way into town, we stopped in a beautiful cathedral and also bought some chocolate gifts from cote d’or - julie had let us try some of the chocolate spread (à la nutella) and it was amazing! i got some from the ratcliffe family and a small box of chocolates for julie. we continued on to search for lunch, finally finding a kebab-esque place just off the grand place. after my last kebab experience, i went with a vegetarian pita. we went and got waffles for dessert – delish. we walked on to find the main post office, where i bough some stamps for my collection and some for postcards. we sent our mail and started to make our way to the art museum. after not checking the map again, we headed in sort of the wrong direction, but that brought us to the main cathedral on the hill! nice. we eventually made it to the mont des arts, where we sat and rested for a while. we finally got to the museum around 16h45, only to discover that it closes at 17h. whoops. the best part was when we looked just down the street, we realized that we’d walked about two blocks away a few hours earlier and not realized it. double whoops. we just laughed and decided to come back the next morning. our journey home was uneventful – we took the metro to avoid another long trek. i picked up some peppers and a courgette to go with dinner – the plan was just to have fries, belgian style, but i needed some veggie action! the meal was good, though, and we made a lovely dessert of strawberry sorbet, raspberries, and chocolate sauce. yes. after dinner, we hung out and then watched a movie online called “chaperone” – it was funny, in an awful movie sort of way. i skyped shane (who’s meeting us in LONDON next month!!!) and my mom briefly before heading to bed.

friday, 10 june 2011 - belgium

katherine and i woke up around 8h to pack up and be ready to go around 9h30. we walked to the metro, went to the train station downtown, and bought our tickets for later in the afternoon. once we got those sorted, we headed back up the hill to finally go to the art museum. the combiticket was only 3 euro, so we got it – magritte museum and the fine arts! the magritte museum was okay – none of his “known” stuff, but still cool to see. so much symbolism.. i think! we got through there by 11h15 or so and went next door to fine arts. it was also okay. i don’t love the northern school, so i wasn’t too overwhelmed. i did see “marat assassiné”, which made the 3 euro totally worth it. we looked in the museum of music but it was too expensive so we got sandwiches instead. we went back to julie’s at 13h to get our stuff and say goodbye. we got a bus to the station and hopped on our 2 hour (thanks to the TEN stops) train ride to luxembourg! i’d found a host for us there, and it was so nice to be going with a buddy.

*belgium was so great. i’d like to see more when i go back; ghent, brugge, antwerp. i loved the food – waffles and fries! – and the architecture. the people are very lively and kind. plus, i bet they have a great sense of humour once you get to know them – with the most famous landmark in the city being a tiny statue of a naked, peeing boy, i think you’d have to have a strong humour!

friday, 10 june 2011 - luxembourg

we arrived at the train station around 16h45 and waited about 20 minutes for our host chistian to show up. he had agreed to host us even though he was already hosting another guy, an american studying in Amsterdam. the other surfer, nate, was arriving via bus around 18h, so we dropped our stuff in christian’s car and went to get a coffee and kill an hour. he is such a nice guy! we had a lovely chat over our various drinks and only left when the employees kicked us out. we went and waited for nate, making bets on who he was as people arrived. his bus was late, but he showed up around 18h30. i was so convinced that a different guy was nate that i followed the guy for a bit. but nate showed up (not wearing the blue shirt that’d he’d promised to wear!) and we headed back to the flat. on the way, we stopped and checked out a sweet park behind the philharmonic. great view of the city, and some very interesting sculptures. we finally got back to the flat, dropped our stuff, and began preparations for our PASTA PARTY! christian had invited three friends over – tweety, chester, and bobbie – all filipinos, all amazing! we had loads of fun over our pasta. christian, nate, and tweety were al running various distances the next day, so they needed to load up on carbs. we had an awesome dessert of strawberries, mascarpone/jam, and crumbled shortbread…heavenly! they left around 23h or so and we all hung out until perhaps 1h before saying goodnight. katherine and i shared a room with a giant blow up mattress – nice!

saturday, 11 june 2011

marathon day! we woke up around 9h and ate breakfast befor e heading out for our tour around the city. i bought a stamp for my collection and we walked all over – even down to the valley floor, a neighborhood called ‘grund’. it was so beautiful, and reminded me VERY much of the island of sodor from thomas the tank engine – stone arch bridges with trains on top, colourful houses, valleys.. i don’t know, it was just all very sodor-y. :) we had a lovely morning – sheep’s milk ice cream from the market! – and then got sushi for lunch later. i even tried a few rolls! mostly, though, i ate pineapple. we headed bac to the flat so nate and christian could rest before their run 0 katherine and i napped as well. around 16h30, we left again. christian dropped katherine and me off downtown, and continued with nate to the ‘luxexpo’, where the race began. we had about 4 hours before they would pass our designated spot. there is an awesome pirate park where we played for a while to kill time.. the slide was so sweet! we wandered around, got mcdonald’s for dinner (with a free side salad!) and did some souvenir shopping. around 19h, we went to stake out our spot. runners started passing us around 19h45, and nate passed at 20h20. we never saw christian, though! :( we ran and caught nate again, and then cheered for random people until nearly 21h before we started walking to the finish line. it was a long walk – nearly 7km – but the night was so nice. we met up with christian, who finished the half-marathon in about 1 hour 44 minutes, and then nate came along a while later, finishing his first full marathon in just over 4 hours! amazing. we got lots of pictures. unfortunately for them, we had to walk about 2km back to the car, and with all the road blocks, we didn’t get back to the flat until around midnight. we were all hungry, so we ate hamburger patties and leftover pasta. everyone split off around 1h30, and katherine and i stayed up talking until about 3h.

sunday, 12 june 2011 - luxembourg

the morning came quickly again.. i got up around 7h30 to pack up. we all ate breakfast together and left for the train station around 8h30. nate’s bus back to amsterdam left at 9h, and our train was at 9h15. since katherine was going to a city nearish to mehlbach, my next stop, we got to ride the bus/train together until my stop! we had a nice stopover in saarbrucken, where i successfully ordered two pastries in german, only to realize that i didn’t understand anything after my initial order. oh well!

*luxembourg was a great example of having no expectations and then having an amazing time. it was all about the people – katherine, nate, christian.. even tweety, chester, and bobbie! plus, the city itself is so great. i loved the cute buildings and the old abbey in the grund neighborhood. all in all, it was another raving couchsurfing success that i believe will yield true friendships in the future.

--next up; germany!