My impromptu 2 1/2 month trip to Milan, Italy....and everywhere in between....with my boyfriend Shane :)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Conclusion

Jumping back a few days, Shane and I got up early to head to the airport in Milan. We had between us two large suitcases, two huge backpacking backpacks, a rolling carry-on suitcase, a camera bag, and a parcel box containing his Venice mask. I was happy to be leaving, one of the more minor reasons being to get away from the cleaning guy who was starting to annoy both of us. (Shane went back to the room one night around 9pm and he was in there cleaning our windows! Really? At 9pm? He also knocked half of our plastic spoons on the floor.)
To get to the Linate airport we had to take a metro and a bus. It wasn’t too difficult, and we didn’t get in bad moods over the effort this time, probably because we had a lot of time and therefore weren’t rushed. We had to rearrange stuff once there to make the 23 kilogram limit, but we did it, and we didn’t have any problems getting our carry-ons through. Whew! One obstacle down! We met up with Ryan at the airport, who we are finishing out the trip with.
Once to London we discovered that the metro we needed didn’t go all the way to our stop on the weekend due to construction work. Because of this we had to take both a metro and a bus. The traffic was terrible, probably mostly due to the construction, and by the time we got close to our destination after what seemed like days, people were getting so aggravated the driver was letting them out in the middle of traffic.
Once we found our hostel and dropped off our stuff, we went sightseeing. London was so nice in that everything was in English! It also has some cool architecture. I’d like to go back and spend more time there some day. This particular day it was windy and slightly rainy, so we didn’t stay out long.
That night the light in our 20-bed dorm room stayed on until around 3am, and the music from the bar right below us got progressively louder and louder. Thankfully this hostel had personal curtains to pull around your bed for privacy and darkness. I was especially grateful for this around 5am when some people came into the room and were talking and laughing as if it were day and they were the only ones in the room. It was so annoying. I can’t believe how people can be so inconsiderate sometimes.

Sunday, March 21st
The next morning we spent quite a while trying to buy online tickets to get from London to Oxford, Oxford to Luton airport, and back to London from Dublin. The bus ride to Oxford was great because it was a double decker and we snagged the front seats in the top floor. It was a great view.

Once to our hostel, which conveniently was very close to the bus station, we dropped off our stuff and explored Oxford. I really like it there. It’s a college town to say the least, and has that small relaxed feel to it. No wonder so many writers stationed themselves in the peaceful corners to write books. Shane and I watched a funny couple of fire performers in the middle of the street. We also ate at a Mexican fast food restaurant very similar to Chipotle, which I love.
That evening we did something that was a first: we worshiped in a Catholic cathedral. To be more clear, it was Evensong, a very popular type of choir well-known in England. It was a little under my expectations actually, as the choir was good but not excellent; I felt my academy choir could have easily out-sung them (but we were extra good, not to brag or anything…!)  In between them singing random hymns, the congregation (us) had to recite quotes in the bulletin, listen to the priest read Bible texts, and kneel to pray 4 times in one hour. (They have it good though, they give you padded mats to kneel on.) It was more of a vespers program, the way I see it. And while the choir was a bit un-breathtaking, they were still good, and I’m glad I experienced it. The end where the priest somberly floats out with a predecessor carrying some type of wand or stick out in front of him was kinda creepy though. Almost felt like I was in a cult. Maybe it was just because of the fact that we were surrounded by candles.
Once back at the hostel we started talking to the 3 girls who’d just settled into the room and discovered quickly that one of them lived in Redlands, California! When I told them that I went to Loma Linda University (practically in Redlands) they exclaimed, “So did we!!!” Turns out they all went there for the Dental Hygienist program and graduated the year before I got there. If that wasn’t crazy enough, Shane asked them if they knew one of his friends he went to high school with who had taken that program at LLU. Not only did they know her, one of the girls had lived with her for a year! They also knew her husband, another high school friend of Shane’s, and they had gone to their wedding (Shane had considered going but hadn’t.) Wow!! Such a small world! I don’t think they’re Adventists, but I should have asked.
We ate at a Thai restaurant that night, and slept pretty good other than one of the guys in our room whose cell phone rang LOUDLY at about 3am and he took the call right there in bed! When he finally left the room, I’m pretty sure he locked himself out because I thought I heard a knock a bit later. Maybe it was mean of me but in my grogginess I thought it served him right. I didn’t hear anyone let him in, but I didn’t think to look at his bed either when I got up the next morning, because it was early and dark.

Monday, March 22nd
Like I said, we got up early the next morning, around 5:45, to make the 6:30 bus to Luton airport. We made it there without a hitch, both to the bus stop and the airport. The flight to Dublin was a short one, only about an hour, and there were no free refreshments because it was a cheap-o RyanAir flight.
Once in Dublin, it was raining. And cold. Boo. We found the bus we had to take, and made it to our Kinley hostel after passing it once. It was a big place, and we were on the top floor of about 4. No elevator. Our “room” was actually a big long one with partial wall separations containing 2 bunk beds each, and that was our room. It wasn’t bad, except the light was for the entire room, not just ours.
We went to eat then. We ate at a Mexican restaurant that gave really small amounts of food for quite a bit of money. I wasn’t satisfied. Then we went out sightseeing. I was cold and not very happy because I was exhausted over too little sleep the past couple nights. I knew in my mind I was going to possibly forego sightseeing for the whole day just to keep my sanity. Plus I frankly just didn’t care. After a while one cathedral looks just the same as the past 50 you’ve seen, and documenting your trip via pictures loses its appeal. Not only that, I was ready to go home! I didn’t want to be in yet another country still, even if it was Ireland. In my opinion, Dublin isn’t the best representation. So later on when we went back to the hostel to check online where to go, I opted to go take a nap while Shane and Ryan went to see the castle and a park. Turns out it was a good choice on my part, because I slept wonderfully and Shane said I hadn’t missed much anyways. I felt rejuvenated after that, and we went food shopping since the hostel has a self-service kitchen. We made full plates of pasta and bought snacks for the next day for less than our Mexican meal earlier had been.
Shane and I went to the front desk to buy shampoo for showers after that; the friendly and helpful desk worker gave us some instead of making us pay for it (we hadn’t brought our own because it was too big to pass security at the airport.) That night we turned in fairly early, around 9:30 or 10. Even though I had taken a nap, I slept great, and the noise was very minimal due to being above everything else. Thank you front desk worker!

Tuesday, March 23rd
We were able to sleep in a bit, getting up around 8:30 or 9. Breakfast was slim—toast and drinks—but we ate a lot. We took another bus to the ferry, which would get us over to England again, and from there we would take a train to London. The ferry decision was a bit of a dumb move on my part, as I forgot that I get motion sick. And the ferry ride was about 3 hours long! Actually until this point I never really knew how long the ride was—I left all the planning up to Shane and Ryan, I was just along because I had to be. As the boat pitched and shook its way across the sea way more than any ferry I’ve been on, I took advantage of the plush bench seat, Ryan’s herbal muscle relaxants, and my wadded up jacket. This made the trip shorter, and if I daydreamed enough through my semi-consciousness, I could forget where I was and therefore not get sick.

We ate soup while we waited for our train after the ferry. Once on we had to make a pit stop halfway to London, and just our luck we discovered all trains to London were being cancelled. Shane and I got hot chocolate and muffins to eat at a coffee shop, then spur-of-the-moment were made aware that we could take a different train which connected to another train headed for London. Since we didn’t fancy being stuck in this little pit stop all night, we took that option, and it worked in our favor. Not only did we sit with a friendly Irish guy with a thick accent who liked to talk, we were actually ahead of our previous schedule too.

That night we stayed in the same hostel and same room as before, and the lights were turned off (by Shane) at a decent hour this time. The noise wasn’t bad, and we got some decent sleep.

Wednesday, March 24th
The day we’d been waiting for!! We got up and took our time getting our things packed up and ready to go, since our plane didn’t leave until 2:30ish. Two metros and not much hassle later, we were at the Heathrow airport checking in. Once our bags were in tip-top shape after losing some weight (haha) we headed for security. That wasn’t too bad. In fact, we couldn’t have gotten by any easier. Neither of us lost anything, made the beeper go off, or got patted down. We are seasoned travelers.

Once through security, Shane and I bought a smoothie and some Pringles to tide us over. Checking on to the plane was a bit more of a hassle, as this was where they went through our carry-ons and did a mandatory pat-down. Women in one line, men in the other. The woman who looked through my bag was a bit curt and unfriendly. I put my bag on the table and looked at her. She looked back at me. “Open it.” I opened it. “Open the laptop.” Opened it, put it back in. “Close the bag.” Closed it, opened the next pocket, and the next. Came to the large interior, which was stuffed with souvenirs packaged up for safekeeping. “What’s in the small bag?” “Souvenirs. All souvenirs.” “Open it.” I opened it, a curt nod from her even though everything was packaged up in bubble wrap and paper—either I must have seemed trustworthy or she was too lazy to rip open every little thing. After being patted down, during which she literally could have missed a football-sized bomb hidden in my shirt for the lettuce-leaf-effect patting she did, I waited for Shane. His person went through every little thing, even cutting open the box to see our Venice mask. But he made it too, and neither of us had to part with anything.

Once through with security, they loaded us onto a bus (I hate this European system) to go to the plane, and once at the plane they left us in there like sardines in the sun for 5 minutes while they apparently readied the plane. Once they opened the doors I was the very first one running up the stairs and into the plane. I have a thing about that. I like to get my spot and luggage area staked out. Luckily for us—I don’t know how—but Shane and I were in World Traveler Plus seats, midway comfort between First class and Economy…or Coach, not sure what the correct term is. But we had more leg space in front of us, a leg rest on our seat, and better headphones for our movies. In general I didn’t feel cramped at all, which made me extremely happy. We also got an entire luggage compartment to ourselves.

We spent the flight purposely staying awake so as to get on the Pacific time zone schedule. It wasn’t hard because it was daylight during the entire flight this time. We watched movies, ate Pringles, and watched more movies. By the time we landed I felt pretty awake still.

Getting our checked luggage took forever…not because they weren’t sending it out, but rather because there was so much luggage it just took forever for ours to appear. Once we got it and walked a few steps, they took it right back again on another belt line because we had to take a train to a different section of the airport! Inconvenient and annoying. We found the second luggage claim belt and Shane’s uncle who was picking us up, and thankfully the luggage appeared fast this time.

On the way to Shane’s dad’s, where we were staying for a couple days before driving back to Cali, I called family, then laid down because I wasn’t feeling the best. Flights then car rides always make me feel a bit nauseous. I must have been more tired than I thought, because I kinda fell asleep for the rest of the 2.5 hour drive. When we got to the house, I went straight to bed—lack of a night was finally really catching up to me.

I slept wonderfully, even waking up once and having no clue where I was. I thought I was back in Europe, but when I realized I was in America at the farm, I had one of those happy moments like when you see you have several hours left to sleep before you have to get up.

We have one more day here before driving back to California. We went to Costco and Ross today, and I also got to drive my car. It feels like it’s been a whole year! And best of all, we got some yummy Grandma food once again, and I am now getting to use my laptop without having to share with Shane! Ahh, the things you take for granted unless they’re taken away. Appreciate them always.

Well, this concludes my blog, as of course the Italy trip is over and I don’t have anything else to say. It was a great experience. It was a hard experience. It was an experience I will never forget about. And I’m glad I could share it with you…thanks for tuning in and for your faithful support throughout our Italy and Europe adventure! Ciao!  :)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

One step closer to home!

We officially made it from Italy to London! Even with all our massive suitcases while switching from hotel to metro to bus to plane to metro to bus to hostel.We met Ryan at the airport; we're all finishing out these final days in the UK together.

Tomorrow we all head out to Oxford where we'll spend the night then hop a morning bus to Luton for our flight to Dublin, Ireland. One night there, a long scenic train ride back to London, then off to America Wednesday morning! 

I will backtrack and give the details later, but I thought everyone might like to know we're safe and sound, one leg of the final journey down. :)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

America The Beautiful

I'm more than ready to go back to America. It's time.

I miss the conveniences, such as knowing exactly what something is when I look at it in the grocery store, or being able to go to just one store--preferably Wal-mart--and get everything I could possibly need rather than going on a mad hunt through 5 tiny, measly-stocked shops. I'm tired of trying to decipher restaurant menus to determine if the pasta contains pork, and I'm tired of the coperto (cover charge) that comes with the luxury of sitting while I eat.

And the hotels....the price of the one we're staying in would get us a grand room with a jacuzzi tub in America. But no, the hardwood floors (they don't seem to believe in carpeted rooms here) are frighteningly saggy, the large beds are actually two twins pushed together (another typical European shortcut), and the toilet is the kind you actually turn a knob on the wall to make water gush into the bowl until everything [hopefully] goes down. 

My mom sent me an email last night with a book excerpt that I found really hilarious because it's so true: 

Don't get me wrong, after being back in America for a few weeks or months, I'll probably be whining about how I wish I were back in Europe. In fact, I think 3 months is about the turning point; the first two months you're still in novelty-land, but the third month is the homesick month. After you pass that time hurdle, it starts to feel more normal to be living in a foreign country, and you actually begin feeling more at home. At least that's how it was for me when I was in Poland for a year. As happy as I was to be going home, I had begun to feel at home in Europe. 

Notes to self for next time though: 
#1--Don't travel for more than 2 weeks at a time
#2--Travel more like a business woman with a hotel room and rolling suitcase rather than a homeless waif with a youth hostel and muscle-spasm-inducing backpack
#3--Go when you have more will help accomplish #2

Six more days. I can do this. For now, I'm going to try to avoid the cleaning guy who peeks around the corner at me every time he goes to use the elevator. 

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Week 3 of 3

[I guess I never actually said on here that we found out we can’t travel in Poland because it’s one of the ONLY countries our Eurail pass doesn’t cover! I was pretty disappointed, as we were right beside it and couldn’t go in. Strange that the country I spent a year of my life in is the one place I can’t go back to this trip. On the bright side, I found Yogobella yogurt in Czech Republic—my favorite when I was living in Poland.]

Saturday, March 6th
We spent the morning on the train to Budapest. At least our Sabbaths on this trip are usually filled with sitting on a train looking at nature, where we already have snacks to eat and don’t have to pay for anything. I will certainly be happy to be back in America though where I can dress up and go to church every week and the sermon will even be in my language. I don’t know how people who have no weekly “rest day” set aside do it; when my days and weeks run together like this I feel like something is missing.
We found Activity Hostel easily enough once we got to Budapest, even though the reviews complained that it was hard to find and not well marked. Well it wasn’t well marked, but we like to think of ourselves as smarter than most. It was a small place on the 4th floor of a bland gray building, but it was cute and cozy. Our 10-bed room was booked to full capacity with a group of Asian girls and American girls. Shane was the only guy in that particular room. Makes up for the time in Interlaken when I was the only girl in a 6-bed room. Awkward is the word. The two rooms on either side of ours were fully booked too. Must have been because it was the weekend.
That evening we went out in search of food and night pictures. We ended up giving in to familiarity and eating at KFC. Shane wanted to find the chain bridge and the Parliament building, so we hopped on the metro, got off and headed in the direction of the lighted buildings. Some pictures and a cool castle-looking thing later, we realized that we really weren’t in the right spot, so we got back on the metro and went the other way. By this time I was freezing (Budapest is almost as cold as Vienna, but without as much wind), so we headed into California Coffee café (yes, tourism sucked us in again) to get something warm to drink. We ended up ordering a veggie bagel sandwich with tomatoes and chive spread, a blueberry muffin, and hot white chocolate. It was probably one of the best snacks I’ve ever had, or maybe it was because I was really hungry. Either way, it was a relaxing café and I got warmed up by a yummy drink. After that we got discouraged by the fact that we still weren’t sure where the sights we were trying to find were, and that it was getting colder, so we went back to the hostel.
My night didn’t start out too well. Our room was full, which meant lots of extra noise both at night and in the morning. When I finally did go to bed I happened to be next to a closed-off door to the room of the group of guys who were watching a soccer game over their laptop speakers. And you know how that goes. I could hear every little sound even with my earplugs in. To make it worse, our doors had frosted glass panes, and the 24-hour reception desk light on the other side shone through the whole night. The pillows were tiny and slightly lumpy, but at least they were softer than Hostel Elf’s. I finally fell asleep and it wasn’t too bad. Around what had to be 3am two girls came back from partying.
Sunday, March 7th
We slept in a bit and got up around 10, took showers, and set out to find breakfast. It wasn’t the best of mornings. We were both somehow annoyed and frustrated, especially over the ever-present debate over where and what to eat. Shane says that it’s easier for me to decide because I’m pickier about what I want to eat, whereas he’s the one with the money so I always feel that it’s up to him to decide what we can afford. The end result is both of us getting really frustrated and annoyed at each other, which begins an hour or so of either the mutual silent treatment or conversations that consist of short, snappy, sarcastic sentences. I’m pretty sure we have this same spat in every single city we go to. But we have been getting better since, thanks to a serious conversation regarding what we really HATE the other doing when it comes to restaurant decision-making.
We ended up going to the California cafe again, where I had exactly what I’d had the night before, minus the hot chocolate and a caramel muffin instead of blueberry. I did that because Shane had wanted to try it the night before, so I figured maybe sharing it would make him happier. It didn’t really work, and I got a headache because it was so sweet. Later on the metro I decided to swallow my pride and be the first to make amends. Sightseeing together really sucks when you’re at odds.
We found the chain bridge and the Parliament building, taking pictures briefly before headed to St. Steven’s cathedral, where we paid to go to the top for a view of the city. These two days we were in Budapest were forecasted to be sunny, but partway through the morning the sun disappeared and it started SNOWING! Huh?! Where’s the blooming SUN??!
Back at the hostel later, we heard the others talking about how the House of Terror was free that day because it was the first Sunday of the month. We had opted to not go because of the cost, but if it’s free…..! I pawed through my blogs of Poland to try to find the name of a really awesome smoothie/pie café Lydia and I had found last time in Budapest, but to no avail; I hadn’t written the name down. While browsing though I read that I had actually been to the House of Terror before…and had found it boring and a waste of building space. But being free, we went anyways.
I felt the same about it this time as I had last time. The explanations weren’t even in English, and the vast number of rooms containing pithy little plaques and occasional videos made both of us feel that they were making something out of nothing just trying to fill up the rooms. At one point it felt like an art exhibition. You know, the kind that contains one painting per wall and you wonder how they sell anything. The most exciting part of the whole thing was the downstairs jail cells, including a tiny claustrophobic stand-up one that Shane thought would be fun to lock me into. What a great boyfriend.
That evening we ate at Pizza Hut, sitting next to an American guy in marketing and advertizing for the film industry. Within the first couple introductory sentences we found out that he lives in San Diego and went to CalPoly just like Shane! Of course that was several years ago, but still, what are the odds?! We had a nice conversation throughout the meal. It was apparent that he was 10 times wealthier than us when he mentioned staying at a 5-star hotel down the road, his scheduled 1-hour massage later that evening, and his advice to pay just 2000 Forints ($10) extra at restaurants to get exceptional service. He also cautioned us about safety and theft when we mentioned we were staying at hostels. That kind of annoyed me. It’s obvious that hostels are way more secure now than they were back when he stayed at them, but still, his friendly warning sounded slightly uppity to me. Not like we can afford your 5-star hotel which “pays off the gangs and mobsters to stay away from their guests”. We’re lucky just to be here!
When it came time to pay the bill, the waiter handed it to us and pointedly brought to our attention a paragraph written in 5 languages on the inside of the bill cover: “It is customary in Hungary to tip your waiter 15% for service.” We didn’t tip him.
Following Pizza Hut we went back to the bridge and Parliament building for night pictures, then decided to check out a pub that was supposedly a big tourist attraction in Budapest due to its uniqueness. I relied on Shane, as usual, to deliver us to the correct place. It was snowing again. After he said 3 times in 3 different blocks that it was “somewhere in this block”, I began to notice that we were venturing into what looked like gangster land, and suggested that we walk toward some lights instead of dark alleys. We eventually found the place, and it looked for all appearances to be a deserted, run-down building that housed axe-murderers or the occasional homeless. But we followed another couple into the doorway, through 3 sets of thick rubber flaps, and were suddenly in the midst of a cave-like, darkened pub. This pub is unlike any place I’ve ever seen, in that it is so random. High tables covered most of the floor, while a back corner was occupied by low red velvet couches. Candles were lit everywhere, and colored lights shone above the bar. The only other lights in the place were very dim, some coming from odd nick-nacks covering the walls, such as a cat-scan of a skull, and a mannequin wearing underwear made out of a candy-necklace. Nothing in the place matched; it was a hodgepodge of this and that. Some of it was unique, some was romantic, and some was disturbing.
After we had taken in our fill of the low lighting and cigarette smoke, we headed back to our hostel, making a spur-of-the-moment detour to Burger King for a late-night snack.
That night the room on the other side of us was loud, and once again the receptionist did nothing about it. She actually even told me, when I went to ask her to turn off the overhead light, that it was ok for me to tell them to be quiet if they disturbed my sleep. Uh…..isn’t that what YOU’RE getting paid for? I just said, “Yeah, they are pretty loud” and went back in my room. Let her deal with them, it’s her job. I’m not sure if it was her doing, but about 30 minutes after I went to bed the noise in the next room suddenly quieted.
Monday, March 8th
We slept sorta late again and got up after everyone else was already making tons of annoying noise packing their suitcases for checkout. The first thing we did was take a bus to a park of sorts outside the city….it took a looong time, but the bus was warm and the sun shining down on me made me happy, so I actually enjoyed it. The park turned out to cost money—at lot of money actually, for what we actually got. Basically the “park” was just a bunch of statues and sculptures that you took pictures of and then left. But Shane and I made the best of it by making goofy poses in our pictures with the statues. We even climbed on a few…probably would have gotten reprimanded or kicked out had we been caught, but the place was like a ghost town. We waited for the bus back into the city after that, which took just as long as it took to get up there.
We explored an indoor market after that, which was colder than it was outside. Following this we humored me by visiting the second-hand shop right next to our hostel. I’m a sucker for those things, but I was disappointed this time. It contained nothing but old-lady coats and dresses (no offense anyone), and didn’t even have any shoes. Probably a good thing in the long run; I don’t need the extra stuff nor do I need less money.
When we got back to the hostel everyone was gone except for the slightly creepy-looking 40-ish man in our room who had gotten there the night before. Oddly all he seemed to do was sit on his bed all day sleeping or bumming around on his laptop.
Shane and I had been looking forward to one thing in Budapest the most: the thermal baths. This was the night we planned to do it. And I have to say it went a lot better than the last time Lydia and I tried this—when we both accidentally left our bags full of crucial things on the metro. (We found them in the end.) Shane and I found the baths without a hitch. It was freezing cold, but the baths were oh so warm!
The baths consisted of a lukewarm pool, a cooler lap pool, and a hot steaming pool. We stayed mostly in the hot steaming pool, which was hot enough to enjoy without me feeling like I was going to suffocate. (I can’t take hot tubs for very long because they make me lightheaded after a while. Sad.) Men could be seen floating around poring over a chess game, and others enjoyed the sprays of water flowing from a statue of a naked woman and a goose. The lukewarm pool was fun because in the middle was a circular canal containing jets to propel you through. Shane and I had fun being goofy in that one, making everyone either smile at our youthful enthusiasm or stare like we were stupid. We didn’t care. It was fun.
The sauna was extra hot too—unfortunately my flip flops broke in Berlin, thus only Shane had his and he stubbornly refused to wear them out to the pool. So we both burned our feet and acquired who knows what fungus from running in and out of the sauna, and I’m positive I burned my butt before I got smart and sat on my towel. Hands down the hottest sauna I’ve ever been in. I could only last 5 minutes, both because of the heat and the sight of 90-year-old men in too-small speedos lying out like lizards in the sun.
We watched a movie AND a show when we got back to our hostel that night. Reward for a long and good day. The man who had been in our room was gone when we went to bed, and never came back that night.
Tuesday, March 9th
We got to the train station an hour early (we will never miss a train again!), and decided to have Burger King for breakfast in the interest of staying warm. We supplemented our cappuccinos and fries with the groceries we had gotten that morning.
When we finally did get on the train, we found a good table seat and were stowing our backpacks away when a bald man pushed passed us in the aisle. Noticing that he seemed a bit disgruntled, I watched him as he reached a scrawny younger guy coming up the aisle from behind me. There was a moment’s silence while the older man grabbed the younger man’s collar and said something to him in a low voice. Then he started almost silently punching him in the face! (I guess it doesn’t ever sound loud like in the movies.) My first reaction was wanting to stop this shocking turn of events, as well as to remind the guy that he WAS beating someone up in the midst of others. So the first thing that came out of my mouth was a profound, “WhooOAH!!” You know, the kind that changes pitch in the middle because you’re appalled. I don’t think it helped things, but after this the younger man cowered in a seat while the other man stood over him, speaking in low tones and occasionally throwing a punch. Shane and I stared for a while before he pulled me back down the aisle away from them. We wanted to stop it, but there was nothing we could really do, especially without knowing the situation. No one else in the train car did anything but stare either. It didn’t last long—after a while the man pulled the guy up by his collar and roughly shoved him ahead of him down the aisle and off the train.
I was just mute with shock for a while. Being fairly sheltered throughout my life I’ve never actually seen anyone get punched in real life, and it was disturbing, Especially since the man was so much bigger and the other guy was obviously not trying to fight back. We came to the conclusion that perhaps he had been trying to stow away on the train and the man, who was dressed in a white collared shirt, was a train authority who had been trying to catch him. If so, it was still a very unprofessional move to punch the guy in public, or at all for that matter. I couldn’t get the image out of my head for several minutes after the train left the station. I felt so bad for the younger guy.
After what seemed like the entire day (it nearly was), we reached Salzurg, Austria. We found our way to YoHo Hostel (which turned out to be the same one Lydia and I stayed in, but I didn’t remember until I got there and recognized it…weird) and got checked in to our room. A girl was sleeping in her bed. It was like 4pm. What’s with every room we stay in having a random girl sleeping at all hours of the day? Plus she was sleeping with all her clothes in the bed around her, like a nest. Even more weird.
We went out in search of a restaurant, opting for an organic one we read about online. After passing it up several times, we found it and got ready to order…until we found out they didn’t take credit card. We didn’t have cash with us so we decided to go somewhere where they took cards. We ended up giving up on anything spectacular and went into this crowded Italian place. The ONLY thing they had there, besides salads, that wasn’t laden with seafood or pork was lemon pasta. We both tried it and…it was delicious! It was basically fettuccini with some type of white lemon sauce, with 3 huge slices of lemon sitting on top. I was pretty proud of myself for liking it, as I have discovered the older I get, the pickier I get. (Shouldn’t it be the other way around?)
I called my parents via Skype that night. Can’t wait for cell phones again!!! By the time we went to bed, our room was full. With girls, minus Shane. Haha!
Wednesday, March 10th
We got up around 10. Seems to be a reoccurring thing of late, and I gotta say I think it’s because we’re simply drained. Three weeks straight of jumping from place to place is just too much. I lost the desire to get out of bed in the mornings right after Vienna. It’s just too cold. And I’m tired of having to go outside and take pictures all day in that cold.
We set out for the train station, which would be our landmark for starting our self tour. Unfortunately we hadn’t brought our Rick Steves book, so we had no idea where to start. And Shane hadn’t worn his gloves or his hat, a fact that I hated; it had snowed the night before. We ate at McDonalds for breakfast because it was the closest thing. Becoming a more common occurrence lately it seems. After that we decided we should go back for our book, and I secretly decided Shane wouldn’t go back out without his gloves or hat either. By the time we got to the hostel we had talked over what we really wanted to do. It was cold outside. The wind was blowing and frankly a self-tour didn’t sound fun. The Sound of Music bus tours were expensive, but they were an option. I’ve always wished I’d gotten to do one the last time I was there.
Eventually we decided to bite the bullet and do it. I was excited. I heard that they show the movie on the bus, which was good cause Shane couldn’t even remember if he’d seen it! You can’t go on the Sound of Music tour if you haven’t seen the movie! But guess what, he did. The tour bus turned out to be an 8-passenger van, and there was no movie on board, just a jovial man who had an oddly funny sense of humor. We were joined by 3 women from California, a girl from New Zealand, and a couple from….we never found out where. The tour took us through the town, to a few spots the movie was filmed, and then out of town to the lakes. The lakes were absolutely gorgeous, nestled in between mountains and cute towns. We stopped for an hour at one of these towns--the town that sported the wedding cathedral featured in the Sound of Music. Our tour guide kept raving about the apple strudel in a café there, so we all ended up going to have some. Shane and I made a meal of that and soup. It was good. The soup that is. The apple strudel was, well, better in America. The cheese one was incomparable as I’ve never had it before, but it was good. In addition to being good, it was all so sweet that I got a terrible headache.
The rest of the evening after getting back we spent hiking up to the ridge bordering the river and taking gorgeous pictures of the city. Much better camera than Lydia and I had when we were there, so I’m sure the pictures turned out great. Once back at the hostel I tried to read a book (A BOOK!!) that I got from the book exchange shelf, but my headache had turned into a mean migraine so I ended up going to bed after a sweet Shane rubbed it for me.
Thursday, March 11th
We were at the train station getting ready to leave for Verona, Italy when Shane realized that he’d left the camera charger plugged in the wall at our Amsterdam hotel. We’d wondered about this previously, but the camera has such a long battery life that we were just now needing to charge it again. Unfortunately the battery probably wouldn’t make it through the rest of our trip. Bummed about this, we decided we could only take a few pictures in Verona and Venice (yes, we were doing them over again). But on the train to Verona Shane mustered up his courage and asked a young couple sitting near us if he could use their Canon battery charger. They said yes, and we got to charge it for a little under 2 hours; plenty to last the rest of our trip. Yay!!
Once to Verona, we were able to use the bus tickets we hadn’t gotten to use the last time around. The B&B we were staying at this time wasn’t hard to find, but there was no one there when we rang the doorbell. (Seems like a reoccurring thing for B&B’s in Verona.) We found an internet café and used Skype to call them, but no one answered. It was around the time we’d told them we’d be there, so we went back to try again. Luckily there was a woman there this time, taking the place of the owner as I guess he couldn’t make it. She didn’t speak too much English but she spoke enough to get by. She was very helpful and informative. The B&B was nice. It had a huge kitchen which was self-service, meaning we could cook in it, which we did. We bought angel-hair pasta and sauce and ate like kings that night. The breakfast was also set out all day, so we were able to snack as we pleased. We actually only saw the owner once the entire time we were there for 3 nights. It was more like living in a house. There was another couple there from England/Canada who were really friendly.
Friday, March 12th
The next morning we toured Verona. It was beautiful weather, warm compared to what we’d been going through, and the day was fabulous for that reason alone. We bought the Verona card for 10 Euros, which allowed us to enter 15 sights “free” of charge. We didn’t get to them all, but we got to the main Romeo & Juliet sites. Verona is a nice peaceful city, and we got some great pictures.
We ate the leftover spaghetti that night, again having a feast.
Saturday, March 13th
We used this day to take a day trip over to Venice once again. It was a beautiful day there too, much warmer than our previous trip to Venice. We spent the afternoon walking around taking pictures and enjoying the sunshine. That night before we left for Verona again, we scurried around buying souvenirs before the shops closed. We (or I should say Shane) bought a beautiful Venice mask, famous here. (But if we get married someday it will look great on OUR wall :)
The day was pretty good--relaxing and stress-free other than wasting time on boats getting to the other little islands that were unimpressive. Maybe we just didn’t go to the right one, I don’t know. The second stressor came when we got on the boat to head for the train station. About 2 minutes into it I realized that I’d left my gloves in the boat waiting area….again!! Now if you remember, I left my LAST pair of gloves on a boat last time we were in Venice. I’d bought the new pair in Berlin and had loved them. We jumped off the boat 2 stops later and ran back to the place I’d left them, but alas, they were gone. Someone must have taken them, which burned me up. I at least hope they needed them more than me. I was pretty bummed about my gloves this time around, maybe because of my own negligence, or maybe because I’d just bought them and they weren’t cheap and flimsy but rather nice warm wool ones. Shane tried to cheer me up, saying we would get even better ones in America, but I was kicking myself for being so irresponsible again. Note to self: never put down my gloves when I’m in Venice!
Despite the delay, we got to the train station in time to take an earlier train, which was good because it made more stops and took longer than the one coming to Venice. We took turns reading out of the book we’ve been sharing and eyeing the drunk guy who was talking way too loud. I slept amazingly that night.
Sunday, March 14th
We took our time getting out of the B&B, since no one was around to kick us out at the 10:00 checkout time. Upon waiting for our bus, we realized that we’d have to wait half an hour; possibility of missing our train not a happy thought, we walked to the other train station, only to find that the 12:00 train didn’t go there--just one at 12:30. We were heading back to Milan. Finally. I can honestly say I’m ready to be done traveling. We only have one more week in Milan, then 4 nights in London and Ireland before flying HOME!!! I’m so excited. My excitement is only lessened by the ever-looming thought of having to cram for boards. Oh, and the fact that we have no home to move into in California yet. But God will provide.
On the train home I got annoyed at these two guys sitting across from us who acted like I was a TV. Them and the woman behind me singing out loud to her music that sounded like a creepy tribal chant.
Once “home” we found our hotel that we’ll be staying at for 6 nights. It’s not that great compared to what we could have gotten in the U.S. for that price, but it will do. The most annoying thing is having to go to first floor to get internet.
We went over to Ryan’s to get the rest of our luggage he’d been keeping for us, ate pasta at a restaurant, and went out in search of more souvenirs and groceries. Milan isn’t great for souvenirs we discovered, but we did stumble on a fun-looking carnival to browse through. On the way to buy groceries several more men on the metro stared at me. Do I have food on my face? Do I look extra attractive today…or extra ugly? I didn’t think it was either, but regardless it was extra annoying to me for some reason. I finally did what I’d been wanting to do all day and gave one frizzy-long-haired guy the raised eyebrow look that said, “Uh, excuse me, can I HELP you??” He turned and stared blankly out the door at a dark tunnel wall for the rest of the metro ride after that.
We bought food and stuffed it all into our tiny mini-fridge and outside on the window ledge. Home Sweet Home. I miss having a kitchen already.
And that concludes our 3-week trip! Hope you’ve enjoyed it! But there’s still a bit more to come of course. For now though, I will hunker down and attempt to get back into the groove of studying for Boards.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Week 2 of 3

Sunday, 28th
We got up that morning and ate a surprisingly filling breakfast at the hostel, then set out to rent bikes and do a bike tour! I was super excited about this, because Berlin is a big city and it’s just not fun walking everywhere. The place we had wanted to rent bikes and possibly even join a guided bike tour was currently closed because they were, well, on their bike tour which we had missed. So we rented bikes from another place and went out on our own. That was a fun day. We got rained on and our bums were sore by the end, but it was worth it.
We went back to the hostel and ate another really good meal, then watched more TV shows on the computer. As we did this, a couple girls with thick English accents came into their room beside ours. (Our “room” was actually divided into 3 dorm rooms with no doors on the individual rooms, but one main door leading to the hallway.) After a while we smelled what we knew was cigarette smoke, and rolled our eyes at the fact that they were smoking in the rooms when it was obviously not allowed. But they soon left. An hour or so later they came back in with about 3 guys, and again we smelled smoke. That was it. I wasn’t going to sit in my bed and choke to death from inhalation. So I went over and asked them rather timidly if they were smoking. In hindsight I should have just said, “Hey guys, please don’t smoke in here” (you’re ruining my life), because after a loooong pause, one of the girls said, “No.” Uhh….ok, do they really think I’m that stupid? I paused and then blurted the first thing that came to mind. “Ok well, it’s just that every time you guys come in here it really smells like smoke, and it kind of wafts over to our room…” The same girl waved her hand nonchalantly, “Oh, well we smoke outside and then the stench just…sort of follows us.” I said ok sorry, or something apologetic like that, then went back to my room, feeling stupid for how I’d gone about it. They were probably rolling their eyes at me now. Oh well, we decided it didn’t matter as long as it kept them from doing it again. Who knows, maybe they really were telling the truth, but I doubt it.

Thinking that the girl was probably talking bad about me (I’d heard her talking trash about other girls earlier, swearing up a storm), I was surprised when they both stopped by our room on their way out the door. “Hello! Are you guys going out tonight?” “No….we have to get up early in the morning to leave.” Plus we’d just done two loads of laundry and were in the process of folding it all. “Well so do we!” they appealed. Then Shane asked where they were going, and the girl said, “We don’t know yet, probably just going to find a place and get totally [sloshed].” They were already drunk. “Well have fun!” we said. They left and we continued folding laundry and washing clothes.

Not two hours later there was a loud banging on the door, and for the next 15 minutes or so people were going in and out of the room, which we ignored for the most part. I happened to notice at one point though that one of the guys was Security. During all this I heard the girl who had lied to me earlier swearing up another storm, obviously mad at some girl and sounding very upset. Not long after, there was another loud banging on the door and we looked up to see men rolling in a stretcher! After a while we saw a limp form being carried out and placed on the stretcher. It was the other girl who had been pretty friendly earlier, and she was passed out, “looking like death” as Shane said. We could only assume alcohol poisoning. My guess is they didn’t get to leave early the next morning as planned.

Monday, March 1st
We were headed to Prague, Czech Republic in the morning, first eating breakfast and making some extra cheese and egg sandwiches to go. We got on the metro and headed to our train station about 30 minutes early, but about halfway through we realized we probably weren’t going to make it—there were a lot of transfers and it felt like the metro was stopping at every single metro stop in Berlin. So we decided to get off a couple stations early in hopes that the Prague train would stop there on its way through. No such luck. So we got back on the metro after several attempts. It seemed every time we ran up the stairs to catch the metro we needed, the doors were closing and it was pulling away. We finally got to the station about 10 minutes after the train should have left. Just to be sure, we went to the platform….and didn’t see on the schedule where the train was supposed to go to Prague at that time at all. That’s when Shane looked at our schedule again….and we realized that the train had left at 36 after, not 28 after! We could have made it if we hadn’t stopped at that one station!! GAHHH!!! We had nothing to do but count it as our loss and be proud that at least it was the only train we had missed thus far. We sat in front of shops in the station sipping Starbucks to keep warm while Shane worked on a paper for school.

Once we actually arrived in Prague it was so nice for me to know exactly where to go to get to Hostel Elf, the same hostel Lydia and I stayed at twice previously. We had claimed Prague and Hostel Elf to be our favorites of all, and I really wanted Shane to love this place too. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite as great as I’d remembered. Perhaps it’s because I’m getting older and pickier, or maybe it was because I wanted Shane to love it too, but I was disappointed in a few things.

#1—Worst. Pillows. Ever. Like an oversized pillowcase stuffed only half full with hardened, clumpy cotton balls. I slept terribly. I realized that Lydia and I always brought our own pillows, so we never had to use theirs. #2—Hard beds. Shane is actually the one who thought this, I was fine. But he says he had to roll like a rotisserie chicken all night to keep from getting sore. #3 and probably the worst—the cigarette smoke. The upstairs lobby is a smoking area, and the hallways, rooms, and downstairs common rooms are non-smoking areas. However, the smoke wafts all over the place whether it’s smoking or non. Shane and I couldn’t sit downstairs and use the internet without choking to death on the smoke. It literally gave us both headaches and contributed to the sore throats we were developing. We opened the window and gritted our teeth against the frigid air in favor of airing the smoke out. You’d think they’d put some curtains at least over the doorway to the stairs. And even though the doors to the hallways were thankfully kept shut, one girl in our room spent the day in bed because she was asthmatic and the smoke flared it up. I just don’t remember the smoke being that much of a nuisance. Maybe it’s because Lydia and I were always gone during the days.
Thankfully Shane and I both had extra sleeping bags or the blankets would have gotten a measly grade too. Either way, I have a feeling maybe that was the last time I’ll stay in Hostel Elf. Kinda makes me sad.

We ate that night in a cool place up the street with great food. And it was a feast for what we paid, really. At least compared to what we’d been paying in other countries. Yet another reason why I love Prague.

Tuesday, March 2nd
We ate breakfast, which consisted of the same things they’ve been serving for 4 years—cornflakes, sandwiches, and donuts. I think the donuts are new actually, and the sandwiches are more than just cheese and meat now…they’re more like a subway sandwich. Unfortunately I opened mine and found a huge chunk of moldy cheese, and that was the end of it. Poor Hostel Elf, it’s just not getting very good marks this time.

We set out and had a great sightseeing day, even paying to go up to the top of the clock tower opposite my favorite building to take pictures of the city. We ate lunch at Bohemia Bagel, the same place Lydia and I ate once and loved. I loved it again this time too. I had the best yummy sandwich ever. I wish they had those in America.

A nap followed our sightseeing, and that evening we set out again for night pictures. We never actually found a place to eat for supper. We tried going back to Bohemia Bagel for their breakfast menu, but by the time we got there the kitchen was closing and it was too late to order elaborate things, so we just opted to forego eating since we were still filled from lunch.

Wednesday, March 3rd
We set out for Cesky Krumlov, a tiny town Lydia and I had also visited in the winter when snow covered the ground. Right now it’s just cold with no snow. We had to switch to about 3 different trains to get there, one of them being a slow but scenic 2-car deal that stopped in every little podunk town not on the map. I don’t remember doing that before. They also made everyone get off the train at one stop, switch to buses for about half an hour, and then get back on the train at a different station to continue on to our transfer destination. Weird. We finally got there and I was able to recognize the route to the hostel for the most part. Hostel 99, once again the same one Lydia and I stayed at. (Our whole trip in Czech Republic was a re-creation of Lydia’s and my experiences actually.)

We settled in at the hostel with the help of the dreadlock-haired, friendly receptionist guy. A sightseeing jaunt after that which lasted about 30 minutes (the Old Town is tiny), and lunch at Laibon, a vegetarian restaurant that turned out to be quite tasty even though the building itself had the feel of an Iraqi bomb shelter. The guy also said a big Thank You when he thought Shane was giving him a tip when he paid for the 133 Crown meal with 150 Crowns due to lack of proper coins. Shane just laughed and looked at him until the guy fished out the change. I know in Italy you aren’t supposed to tip, but I’m not sure about here. Oh well, we’ll never see them again.

We took naps again after that (hey, traveling and sightseeing every day for 3 weeks is tiring!), and for dinner went to the Katakomby restaurant at the Old Inn, the same one that…you guessed it, Lydia and I went to. It’s an underground place that feels like a cave with the waitresses dressed in medieval gowns. The food is cooked over an open flame in front of you. It wasn’t quite as good as I’d remembered (I’d gotten the same thing as before) because it was a different chef, but it was still very tasty. The waitress was a girl of very few words and gave me corn when I’d asked for garlic bread, so the cook had to toss it I’m sure.

Once back at the hostel I happened to notice in the living room corner a wicker basket that said “Lost and Lost!” I asked the receptionist guy if it was all things people had left. In other words, could I take stuff?!! Lo and behold was a pair of flat brown boots that fit me like a glove! (I’ve been wanting boots like that ever since I got to Italy.) Digging deeper in there, I also found a pair of earmuffs—the exact kind I’d also been looking for!! I could have bought some new in every country, but they were all too huge for my head. These were small and perfect! And upon even more digging, I uncovered a Billabong beanie for Shane and a long gold cardigan for me. The only thing I left in that basket was a single glove, a gray sweater that was too small for me (I’d considered it too though), and a bungee cord. Thank you Hostel 99!! I’m not at all above free handouts or cheap deals…garage sales and secondhand stores are my secret love in life. So this was a huge treat!

By now two other people had moved into the hostel, and I only saw the guy emerge from the room once the entire night.

Thursday, March 4th
We got up bright and early, leaving over half an hour to get to the train station, aka climb that wretched hill that caused Lydia and I to miss our train last time. No need to rush, because we actually got there with about 25 minutes to spare, so we sat in the warm station (I don’t remember that being available last time?!) until the tiny 2-car train arrived.

It took quite a while to get to Vienna it felt, and once there we had to take both a metro and a bus to get to the Palace Hotel, which is slightly out of town and located on a hill overlooking Vienna. We were placed in a 2-bunk dorm room facing away from the view (figures, with our luck) and there was no food around unless we went back into town. Which we did, eating at a traditional cuisine place where Shane had chicken weinerschnitzel with potatoes and I had grilled chicken covered in mushroom sauce with potato croquettes. Those croquettes were delicious—basically breaded mashed potatoes. That meal was kind of expensive and we were finished in probably 15 minutes.

We went straight back to our hotel and bummed there for the rest of the night, booking our hostel for Salzburg and figuring out train schedules. By this time I was feeling pretty sick with clogged sinuses and a headache. As usual, I got sick as Shane was getting well, and I had it worse. We decided we wouldn’t run ourselves ragged the next day. Thankfully we had the room to ourselves and I was looking forward to a peaceful night’s sleep for once.

Friday, March 5th
I slept amazingly but woke up feeling terrible. Sore throat, half-clogged half-runny sinuses, and still a headache. We ran down to breakfast 15 minutes before it ended at 9, having hurriedly made ourselves presentable and nothing more. Breakfast was pretty good for being free.

We dressed warmly with all the fixings and headed out to the bus stop. I could tell immediately that today was not going to be a good day for me. Even though I had taken some sinus medicine so as not to be drippy and miserable, the cold air was as frigid as I had remembered Vienna to be the last time I was here, and my sickness didn’t make anything better. Once on the bus and metro I felt a lot better, but the second we stepped out into the city from the metro station, that biting air hit me and I wished I could miraculously already be done seeing Vienna. The wind was mercilessly strong and frigidly cold. It really was the same as I remembered—the kind that went straight through your clothes. I remember saying last time that it was so cold I felt like crying. Well this time I did too. I officially hate Vienna in the winter.

Shane had the map and the guide book, but we still got lost trying to find the Opera House, me just trailing behind him trying to suck it up but doing a terrible job. I wanted to die. I just knew that I was going to get even more sick from this, and I worried Shane would too. He commented that I could just go back to the hostel while he toured Vienna, but I felt terrible leaving him there by himself to sightsee, so I insisted I was going to stay. As we made little progress and continued to get lost, I second-guessed my decision. I was trying not to cry. I felt horrible and my chin was numb from the cold. My nose was dripping and the medicine I’d taken was making me sleepy, but the wind whipping around me prevented me from really thinking about it. Shane stepped into a mall of sorts for me to warm up, and asked if I wanted to walk around inside. Even though he was doing it just for me, my eyes were filling with tears of self-pity so I didn’t answer. When he asked me again, sounding slightly impatient, I snapped “I don’t know!” then burst into tears. I hate crying in public, but there are just some times when I can’t hold it in. This was one of those times, and I stood there with my face to a center display bawling my eyes out, mad at Shane because he just stood there not doing anything. I wanted him to act like I thought a boyfriend should and comfort me, hug me or at least shield me from the public’s curious eyes. But he didn’t, and my self-pity gradually turned to surprisingly strong anger until I spitefully snapped at him for just standing there. This in turn made him annoyed at me, saying he just didn’t get me sometimes, and when he asked what I wanted to do, I said I just wanted to go home.

So he led the way to the metro, gave me a metro map, my ticket, and a 20 Euro bill in case I needed it. He refused my gloves even though he didn’t have any, and I walked away feeling miserable not only because I was sick, but because I was on my own to get back and I was leaving Shane to see Vienna by himself after I’d been nasty and ungrateful to him. I did make it back to the hostel just fine, and sat upstairs to write this blog. I realize now that it was probably a good thing I went back to the hostel, not only to maintain my health but because Shane and I just need our space every once in a while. Traveling together takes a toll because you’re together nearly 24/7 with pretty much no alone time. Lydia and I never would have made it through traveling together if each of us hadn’t just gone off and done our own thing every once in a while.

The great thing about Shane is that he always does something sweet to make it up to me after we’ve parted on bad terms. A few hours after I got back to the hostel he showed up with a McDonalds lunch and my favorite Starbucks drink, which he’d had them make extra hot so it would still be warm by the time I got it. He explained that he hadn’t done anything in the mall because he’d thought that would draw attention to the fact that I was crying, and he didn’t want to make a scene. It makes perfect sense and I appreciate his attempt to keep the spotlight off of me, but we’re now clear that I’d rather feel comforted than not have people staring at me. We both apologized for being unkind to each other, and everything was good again, just as it always is.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the hostel before going to an opera at the famous opera house. Standing room tickets, but it was cheap and the opera seats were sold out anyways. We hadn’t dressed nicely since we really didn’t have nice clothes with us, so we figured our nice pea coats would be a good mask. That is, until we were told by the ticket lady that we had to check our coats. We tried going in through a different door, and that lady said the same thing. So much for covering our grunginess. But coat check was free and it was apparent we couldn’t get in with them, so we did it. At the standing room balcony, we were told we would have to stand in the aisles because all the standing room “spots” were taken. Then upon further discussion, the guy told us he did have one spot. It was right dead front and center of the balcony, so Shane stood there and I stood behind him. It was perfect because not only were there no heads in our way, it was great for pictures and we had a translation screen whereas others in the aisle didn’t. The opera was 3 acts long and I’m glad we went, even though my feet hurt afterwards. It made Vienna worth going to for both of us.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Week 1 of 3

Monday, 22nd
We got up at 6:45am to give ourselves enough time to eat breakfast, get ready for the day, and do one last floor sweep before Alessandra came to check us out at 8. We were in the middle of our yogurt and cappuccino when our doorbell rang. It was 7:38. What! Italians are never on time, much less early! Our breakfast was strewn all over the table, our computer was on, our belongings were still sitting beside our half-full backpacks waiting to be packed, and the floor still had traces of dust. But what could we do but let her in? By the time we handed over the keys and left the apartment for the last time at 7:55, we had discretely finished eating, done dishes, packed up all our belongings, and gotten the compliment “perfecto” for our cleaning skills. Quite proud of ourselves too.
We made it to the 8:30 train to Como. The guy sitting across from me serenaded me with such gross nose-blowing I was afraid one would pop out and hit me in the face. Shane silently laughed out the window. The stop in Lake Como was disappointing, as it was foggy and raining. Our happiness being more important than a few cruddy pictures, we opted to get back on the train and continue on our journey into Switzerland. The train was late by 30 minutes, and just as we settled in for the ride, we stopped at our destination. The border was only 5 minutes away and we had sat in the freezing cold for so long just for this?? I guess so.
After another half hour wait in the border station, we continued on to Luzern, Switzerland. While Swiss trains are very nice, they make me motion sick because they bank on the corners. As if the simple turning weren’t bad enough, we had to tilt too. It was like a roller coaster ride that didn’t go fast enough to make the excitement overcome the nausea. I finally lay down and tried to sleep away my images of hurling. I woke up to sun-bathed snowy mountains. We finally made it to Luzern, where we took a Panoramic View train the 2 hours through the mountains to Interlaken, our stop for the night. The view was amazing. The only thing we disliked was that a lot of the snow was already melting. But we had a gorgeous sunny day and that made up for it. Hopefully our tons of pictures turned out well.
Our hostel in Interlaken was less than impressive. Apparently the good reviews were from those partaking in the extreme outdoor activity packages offered who were so exhausted upon returning to the hostel that they didn’t notice the sagging beds, lumpy excuses for pillows, awkwardly cramped rooms, or lack of curtains to keep street and car lights from blinding you out of sleep. And during the day they were gone enough to not notice how annoying it is to share a tiny bathroom with 6 others in your room, the sketchy internet connection, or the fact that you can get locked into your room when some idiot locks it behind them while you’re in the shower. Yes, that happened to me. I sat in that room by myself until Shane, who had the key, came upstairs from using the internet to find me sitting in bed looking morose. It’s a fire hazard, really, not having any way of unlocking yourself from inside without a key. Other than those things, the staff was friendly and the common area was cozy. But it didn’t make up for awaking to see a stranger’s sleeping face 15 inches from mine in the bunk next to me. Believer in personal space, anyone?
That night we walked around looking for a bite to eat, and found nothing for less than 15 francs per person. That’s about equivalent to dollars. It was more likely to see a 1-person meal for 25-35 francs. Because of this, we ate out of a grocery store again like we had been doing all day, and I suffered from that depressing feeling I always get when I haven’t had any hot food for a while. The feeling like I’ll never be full again, and that I’m withering away to nothing. For that reason, I can’t wait to get out of Switzerland.
Tuesday, 23rd
In the morning we got back on the Panoramic View train to go back to Luzern, our second night destination. On the way to the station Shane bought a Swiss army knife, because “you just can’t go to Switzerland and not buy a Swiss army knife!” With Luzern being only 2 hours away, we were able to get settled in our hotel early and go sightseeing a bit. We even ate at Burger King, getting two sandwiches, onion rings, and a drink for a whopping 20 francs. Expensive junk food, but it made me full and I felt more nourished. Unfortunately it gave both of us headaches, and we spent half the afternoon napping them off.
Afterwards we explored the town a bit. It’s very scenic; I actually liked it better than Interlaken. We sat on some benches beside the river and soaked in the fresh air and the mountain view. That evening we bought more grocery store food for supper, booked hostels for our next few nights in Amsterdam and Berlin, and figured out train schedules.
Wednesday, 24th
We got up early, ate the hotel’s breakfast, and opted to leave an hour later than planned so we could go see a lion statue Shane kept talking about. We got on the 10am train and headed into Germany. At a train station layover we ate McDonalds for a lot cheaper than our previous Burger King meal. But it still gave us headaches again.
We arrived in Bacharach where we planned to stay in a hilltop castle converted to a hostel. The problem was the climb to get up there. Looking at it from below it didn’t seem that bad, but 330 steps and several feet of uphill climb later, we were both sweating profusely and dying of burning leg muscles. I’m pretty sure that climb would be adequate for a professional athlete’s grueling work-out. Not to mention it was muddy from the rain, making it slippery and harder yet. Once at the castle, Jungenburg Stahleck, we were thankfully able to get a room even though we hadn’t reserved first. It was a cute 3-bed dorm room overlooking part of the valley. Just enough of the original castle interior had been saved to make it feel real, and we congratulated ourselves on staying somewhere cool and unique.
The town didn’t have much to offer other than cute, quiet streets and a gorgeous view of the Rhine. We took several pictures before heading back up (pant, gasp, wheeze) for supper. Supper was surprisingly good and consisted of either noodles or rice with a topping of pork-laden sauce….thankfully they also had a tofu sauce for those who didn’t eat pork, which we don’t. The side dishes included asparagus soup, corn salad, and canned pears. It was all very tasty and I got so full Shane had to finish my pasta for me.
In the reviews of the castle we were forewarned that it is a popular place for school groups to visit, and that they were often very loud. There was a group there with us, but we were assured that they were in a different wing and therefore wouldn’t be bothered by them. That night right after we went to bed around 10pm, we were rudely disrupted by the loudest yelling, screaming, door-slamming group of early-teens I’ve ever heard. No help in the fact that the castle interior echoes like a canyon. But regardless, these kids were LOUD! And rude. I couldn’t believe that they didn’t think to consider other guests, especially since some of them knew we were staying on that hall. Apparently the desk clerk forgot that one of the group’s rooms was on our hall instead of downstairs with the others. We put our earplugs in, prayed for mercy, and were given it. Only one short ruckus after that and we were able to sleep undisturbed.
Thursday, 25th - Saturday, 27th—Amsterdam, Netherlands
We awoke at 6:45, got ready to leave, and ate another simple yet tasty breakfast. A few pictures later and we were down at the train station, my legs shaking from the downhill climb with my heavy pack. Something is actually wrong with my knees. They’ve been having an internal intermittent ache for months now, but that hill made them feel old and dilapidated. When I have money again I’ll have to get it checked out. Maybe give myself physical therapy.
We hopped on the train and headed to Amsterdam, marking it the third day we haven’t missed a single train. Once there we found our hotel, which was in the World Trade Center. We picked it because it was unique—the rooms were lighted with colored LED lights, and had a switch that you could use to make the colors change, blink, or remain on a single color. Our room’s main color was red. It also had a TV which I discovered had 50% English channels such as MTV, news, cartoons, and movies. The beds were plush with down comforters, and I was tempted to just stay in bed all day watching TV. A downside to the room was that the glass shower had no shower curtain, and the bathroom itself had no door. Period. What hotel has no door on their bathrooms!? Not even married couples want to be able to hear or smell what’s going on in the bathroom. Thankfully I discovered public bathrooms out in the hallway, which I used gladly. The second downside to this particular room came the first morning at 6am. We had been unlucky enough to be placed in a room right above and beside a workshop of sorts, so our view from the window was just that—the inside of a shop. Not only that, but at 6am Friday morning all the workers came to work, and we discovered that the door leading from the shop to the WTC was right below our room….and SLAMMED shut every time someone went through it. Which had to have been once or twice every minute. It was so ridiculously loud that it jarred me awake every time. It gave me bad memories of my first college roommate. I tried to fish for my earplugs but they were wedged in the container so tight I couldn’t get them out without completely waking myself up. So I persevered in my attempt to remain asleep for another 3 hours while that stupid door slammed over and over again. The second night was better, since it was Friday night and no one works on Saturday. But I have a few choice points to make in my hotel review.
Amsterdam is a city made for those who like nightlife. But it’s also a city made for those who don’t want to feel sequestered by society’s rules and norms. Take, for example, the fact that both marijuana and prostitution are legal there. That being said, every souvenir shop you go into will be teeming with gag gifts centered around pot and the red light district. Amsterdam’s symbol is XXX, which you will see everywhere you go. It makes Vegas look like a kiddie playground. I have to admit though that we both liked the laid-back, happy attitude portrayed by everyone here. That could come from either the lack of rules or the fact that everyone was high, I don’t know. But either way, Amsterdam sets a good example in the good attitude department, if nothing else.
While there, we walked around the city streets taking pictures, ate a really good meal at O’Reilly’s Irish Pub, toured the Anne Frank house, and walked through the red light district. Now that was an odd experience. It’s not every day that you’re surrounded by something that is shunned by society in any other country or state that you go. And because of that, it feels very foreign and surreal. The red light district (centered around a church, of all things) is recognizable by just that—the red LED lights surrounding the doors to what reminded me of indoor stalls on both sides of narrow alleyways. In each of these glass doorways, the red light girls stand there in scanty lingerie for the viewing pleasure of whoever walks by, waiting for a customer. Behind them in their small, private, LED-lighted rooms is a simple yet inviting bed, a bathroom, a few decorations, and other…necessities…needed for them to do their job. No pictures are allowed of these girls; if they see a camera, they will slap the curtain over their door. After a round through these alleys I felt like I was in a different world. I wasn’t quite sure whether to feel shocked, intrigued, sad, or sinful. Maybe a combination of all. I couldn’t help but wonder, as I looked at these girls—some raising their eyebrows beckoningly at men, some standing there quietly looking out, and still some others puttering around acting bored—how they got into this business, and how happy they were being in it. I read that these girls make an average of 500 Euros a day. That’s pretty good, but it’s sad that so many girls do it because they feel there’s no other option.
On a more wholesome note, the Anne Frank house was simple and kind of sad. The rooms were bare, save for the museum’s descriptions on the walls, original pictures pasted on Anne’s bedroom walls, and the occasional sink or toilet. The hiding place was a lot larger than I had expected…an entire upstairs floor actually. I had always imagined it to be a tiny room. Nevertheless, it made me want to read the Diary of Anne Frank. I’m so glad we are past those terrible days too.
We spent all day Saturday on a train to Berlin. Once at our hostel that night, the Generator, we spent the evening eating, bumming online, and watching TV shows on the computer. I miss the luxury and comfort of the last hotel…

Saturday, February 20, 2010

I'm in Italy, I see France, I see Mont Blanc's large expanse.

Shane and I decided to spend our Sabbath in God's beautiful nature--the Italian Alps of Aosta Valley.

To do this, we woke up at 5:30am this morning (so much for a day of rest!) to catch the 7:15 train. We transferred halfway to another train that took us to Aosta, and from there a bus which took us the remaining way to Courmayeur, home of the famous Mont Blanc (which is actually in France but can be seen from Italy).

The scenery was beautiful along the way, with several castles proudly sitting atop hills with snow-capped mountains as a backdrop. Courmayeur was amazingly sunny and clear, although yesterday's snow piled almost as high as my waist! The views were stunning--360 degrees of majestic snowy mountains sparkling in the sun. A mainly touristic/ski resort, Courmayeur can easily be toured in about 3 hours, which is what Shane and I did.

So by and by I felt the urge to use the bathroom. Luckily for us there were men and womens bathrooms free of charge near the bus stop. As I walked into the women's, I heard the rather loud sounds of a woman "dropping off the kids"...complete with respiratory noises that I could only associate with a massive heart attack. Disgusted, I thought to myself how people needed to just practice verbal silence while using public restrooms. Then I walked into a stall....and understood completely. The "toilet" consisted of this:
Now think back, ladies, to that time(s) in your life when you were at a public restroom in which there were no seat covers, not enough toilet paper to put down, or you just plain couldn't bring yourself to place your bare skin on that seat that has housed who knows what diseases. So you assumed "the stance", which consisted of hovering an inch or two above the toilet seat while you completed your business. After a while your toneless thighs might have started to quiver as you defied gravity at all costs. Terrible memories, right?


This so-called toilet was ten times worse. Not only do you lack the luxury of resting your tired feet, your poor legs have to work 90% harder to suspend your body a mere 2 inches from the floor, all the while trying to ensure proper aim lest you have to stand there for 5 minutes pushing the flush button, praying everything will eventually go down. No hand rails even to hang on to for dear life when you just can't take the muscle burn any longer, and believe me you do need to persevere, because this is one toilet you CAN fall into. The last straw is having to take off all coats, scarves and long sweaters, lest your day is ruined when they fall into the path of destruction.

It is obvious to me that the committee who voted for that type of toilet contained very few or no women.
Needless to say, I was quite miffed to discover that the men's bathroom had regular toilets.

The rest of the day passed uneventfully on buses or trains back to Milan, all of which worked out very nicely for us time-wise. Although we didn't get home until 9pm. We spent about 9 hours today traveling for 3 hours of sightseeing. But it was worth it to me to see all that beauty. Thank God we had a decent trip this time that actually went according to plan. :)

Exhausted now, I am heading off for bed. Tomorrow is the big (and last) day to pack up before moving out of our apartment on Monday morning...after which we will be commencing our 3-week adventure around Europe. :) I will attempt to post blogs occasionally during, but no promises, as we only have one computer to share and hit-and-miss internet.