Friday, August 13, 2010


It was a shock to everyone the day I announced that I was going to leave. I had told my housemates, and myself, that come sunday I was gone. Yet for none of us did it truly click until the night previous. Nothing had been absolutely, deterministically clarified until that day, nonetheless, I had felt it coming. Somewhere in the back of my mind a voice had told me that my original plan of traveling to Sicily by myself were not going to work out. This made it all the easier for me to agree, with that sentiment, and when it was proposed that I visit a family friend in Budapest, I was quick to pounce. Through my travels I found having insider information from natives on any particular local was invaluable. Instead of being faced with the blank stare that foreign cities often give foreigners, I would be welcomed with open arms. This would in turn lead to a far deeper and richer understanding of the culture and history of a particular place. You have a greater opportunity to ask questions, which lets you borrow their eyes for a bit, and try to begin to see a city as they do. You are more effective in your search for what is worth your quickly perishing supply of time. These, and a host of other advantages, convinced me to visit family friends instead of traveling alone.

By 9PM on Sunday night, the train began to creek, squeak, moan, and give way, like a teenager who at first doesn't want out of bed, but after a little coaxing is well out the door. The car was without lights, but that was hardly necessary after the first few minutes when our eyes got used to the darkness.
I was seated next to a Scardinian
-I'm no italiano he said to me. It didn't make a difference either way to me, though he was adamant about that fact. I'm schardiniano, do you know where that is? I responded in the affirmative, and a grin broke from his face.
-I Pietro, as he puts fourth is hand. he was cordial, and friendly, and clearly had been drinking for some time before entering the train. He was not drunk, but only entertainingly tipsy. The conversation rambled on about many things he assumed we'd have in common, and I attempted to carry it with him. It was my knowledge of American rap music and Italian punk rock, or rather my ignorance thereof, that rusted the gears of cultural exchange, and before they became completely stuck, we were interrupted by some classmates of his.
Bacchanal cries issued fourth as the door was swung open. They carried on their shoulders what appeared to be plastic tanks, around the size of a gas tank for a grill in the states, the dark liquid sloshing about. After a bit of course joking I was introduced and immediately became subject to their requests to try their sardinian wine.
-We go to the agra-school of Sardinia, they said, justifing their school trip to the famous islands of the Dalmatian coast by the adriatic sea, as an exchange with a croatian agricultural university in Split. Having learned from wisdom that drinking on a long trip, especially one in which you are traveling alone, is a dangerous idea, I politely refused. At this, my new comrades became disheartened. I knew this day was bound to come, the day I was the party pooper. As they continued to the next train car, shouting in Dyonesian revelry, I began dialogue with the other members of our car.
What happens when you put two croats, a Portugese man, and a Spaniard in a train car? They argue about soccer.
What happens when you add an American to the mix? They argue about politics.
Perhaps this is just me, something to do with the kind of person that I am, but I have yet to meet a european that didn't have something, positive or negative, to say about American foreign policy. Usually, that opinion is either coupled with a severe lack of historical understanding or a deep cynicism. Often both. Sadly, those who are often a little better informed have become too cynical to hope enough to work for change. Those who are less informed are too poorly equipped to know the amount of difference that they can make. This was the state in which I found my traveling companions as they asked me about how I felt about the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, about the debt crisis, about America's role in Europe.
Obama's health care plan was applauded by the EU citizens, who were in turn shocked by my negative response to our president's fiscal planning. They were eager to blame Bush for all the countries woes, but were perturbed by my unwillingness to defend our previous president. -If you all want Obama, I'd love for you to take him off our hands, I said. I went on to explain that his policies were not only taking more power than the government is responsible for, I believe they will cause greater problems than the ones he is trying to solve.
-That's just what the government is supposed to do, they said. They're supposed to take care of us. They are responsible for the poor.
When his words began to aim towards this, I saw as through a misty glass a hint to the problem. The words rang with the thud that comes when responsibility is dumped from one pair of shoulders to another. The clarity struck me then. We have lost our sense of personal responsibility. Poverty in our communities, cities, states, and nations is not just the responsibility of governments- it's our responsibility. Every one of us, individually, has a vested interest, an obligation morally to our communities. Governments can help, and have an important role in administering Justice, to see that no one is abused, fraud is not perpetrated, and contracts are upheld. Ultimately however the responsibility lies on our heads. When anything more than the minimalist state appears, problems like poverty are amplified in society.
At this a well-meaning Croat said to me, but what can I do? You mean well I can see, but how much can I change? What can one man do? his companion chimed in, his raspy voice stabbing cynicism.
So I said, I know I've made a difference. I know I can change things. I've seen it. In fact, whenever I've seen change, whenever I've seen people helped, it's been because of a few individuals, who have taken the responsibility. My boldness impressed the Spaniard, shocked one Croat, and the other Slav laughed in mockery. The disbelief in the stare the jovial croat reflected the social memory of his country, where, in the name of the proletariat and the state dissenters were brutally oppressed. Against the organization of a mobilized state, the strength of every man was sapped away.

I also realized something else on that train. Americans have a large reputation in europe. We're arrogant and opinionated. We're lazy and overachievers. Most of all, we're fat and uneducated.
It was on this train ride that I realized that there was something missing from all the insults europeans can throw at us.
They call us anything, but no one will ever deny we're powerful. We've pulled Europe out of two world wars and three huge economic crises. We have our military bases all over the world. Our navy protects the world's shipping. Our air force protects the world's skies. Our citizens die on the front lines of the world's fight against the spread of terrorist organizations and we uphold freedom and justice while most of them sit on the sidelines. That is not to say that many other nations have not contributed to our effort. Many european nations, especially the UK, have seen the danger that faces all of us, and have been a great help. Many others fail to see their responsibility to the world around them. But I digress.

All this, before we were but meters away Trieste, on the slovene border. The lamps in the train cars were needed for the passport control officers in the other countries we'd be traveling through. Although the train makes the same trip back and fourth from Venice to Budapest, the Italians didn't trust the slovenes, croats, or hungarians with their lamps. So they had them removed at trieste, and we reached the border in the dark. When the Slovenes saw this, they decided it was not possible to check for passports without the lights so we would need to wait before entering their country. We were then asked to enter the dining car so that our train car could be detached and a new one added on. My proximity to the door allowed me to get my bags quickly, and soon find one of the few open seating areas at the furthest end of the dining car. That car was packed. People were sitting on tables and on the floor, and there was neither space to move nor breathe. At first, the excitement awakened us all. Groans and loud talking erupted and bubbled from within the crowd, but before long, the late hours depressed the temperature of the conversations, falling from a rolling boil to simmer. My new conversation partner was a croatian girl named Anga Hula. She was nice and talkative, and taught me some croatian. The first word she decided to teach me was Otoreindaningdag, chosen because of it's notorious difficulty for non-croat speakers. It means ear-doctor. In response, I taught her the spectacularly long adjective, supercatafragelisticespialidoscious. She was dumfounded, the conversation moved on, and clearly, in this contest, I won.

At zagreb my croatian friends left me behind after traveling through slovenia. I was very lucky. They were a nice group, cordial and friendly. Full of smiles, even when not talkative. Not that any of us were in the mood for talking by 3 AM when we switched train cars, again. After a few much needed hours of sleep I awoke at the slovene border, and entered Heratzska. When she and the other croat girls in our cabin departed, I was joined by what appeared to be a clean euro-hippie, or a moderate 70's refined-ish rocker- long strait dirty hair in girlish s hoops hung past his shoulders and bell-bottem faded jeans. Rusty wheels screamed as a freight car cluncked on by. We were off again by 5:27Am, with the sun's first fingers attempting to color the sky anew, clawing at the bluegray canvascutting the mist with a painter's knife. Most of the homes appeared modern and stark.
6AM- The sun has risen and I'm speeding past Vrbovec.
6:11 Now at Krizevci, and I realize a very brutal fact: Hungarian trains are slow. very slow.
9 Am. I'm joined by an elderly woman and her son, attempting to communicate a question about our expected arrival time. Despite the language barrier, I was able to understand we'd be an hour late. I have not seen a land so green, lush and fresh, in a long time. Venice's blue lense has been stripped of it's potency as I'm pulled by it's shore and surf. Entering the carpathian plain, green now dominates my sight. Though the old lady and I couldn't talk, her unspoken kindness was plain. People look you in the eye and smile at you in this country. What a welcome to the old, eastern, block.
While on the train I made called my Uncle Adam. To be clear, he's not a biological uncle. When he was in high school, at the same time my mom was in high school, he went to America. He became a part of the family, and considers Pops, my grandfather, one of his closest friends. He told me where to go from the station to get to his appartment saying which sign I should look for on the tram car. I did find a tram car with the same name on it. However, it was going the opposite directiion. At the opposite end of Buda, Adam came and picked me up. After lunch we went to a bookshop where I sought out a complete history of Hungry. It difficult I have found to appreciate what you see if you don't know what you are looking at. Of all the countries of Europe, I knew hardly anything about Hungry, and I needed to fix this immediately. When I was tired from walking and taking photos over the next week, I was tearing through pages of The Hungarians, by Paul Lendvai. Tracing the history from the first migration to the Carpathian basin by Hungarian tribes to joining the E.U. I felt I gained a great understanding for the culture of Hungry over this week.

The next day Uncle Adam took me to visit his lakeside apartment at Balaton. These two places seem to characterize much of Hungry: busy, bustling, modern Budapest, and laid-back, country Lake Balaton, with the former quickly taking over the latter. The lake, one of the biggest freshwater lakes in europe, had dozens of boats on it and new development along its shores. It was beautiful, but exhausting, and we both felt like we were going to fall asleep in the car. That niight we went out to dinner with Sabine on a boat on the danube. It was beautiful, and after the walk around the city, I was sure I was going to love my week in Hungary.

Buda- Pest. The Twin-Souled City. What comes to mind at night on the Jewel of the Danube? Where sitting in a beautiful square, in front of St. Stephen's Basilica, a steel and glass modern on left, Art Noveau on right, overhearing an Aritha Franklin-playing piano-singer duet. Just after sampling an hungarian-alll-you- can-eat restaurant that served venison in a red currant sauce, red wine braised beef, tandori turkey, profierols, a variety of soups, all of it excellent - I had the equivalent of probably 5 full meals of food, a beer, and two 2 bottles of water for 20 bucks! Just one of those plates would have cost more than that in the states. The long and short of it: Hungarian food is delicious and cheep.
Budapest is in almost every fashion a capital city. It has the history, art, and architecture befitting the capital, long, wide streets, piazzas and public gardens. It has roman ruins. In the Szepmuveszeti Museum, there was a latin inscription saying, "Ars longa, Vita Brevis"- Art Lasts, Life is short. I was surprised by the number of italian artists, especially venetian ones (Veronese or Canaletto). In addition, Budapest also has a number of elegant bath houses, where club members and tourists can swim, get massages, and bathe comfortably. Their public monuments were incredibly impressive, and one of the most attractive things about the city. If one was to take the time to read up on the names engraved in marble and bronze around the city, there's no doubt they would have a fairly complete understanding of Hungary's history. Hero's square was magnificent. Larger than life size statues of the chiefs of the Hungarian tribes are saddled on their horses, led by Arpad, the first Hungarian king. On the pavilion surrounding the square stand the statues of other notable Hungarian leaders, prime ministers and Kings. On the hill near the church named after him is St. Stephen, the first Christian King of the Hungarians. In other places around the city there are two statues of Sisi, Elizabeth of Austria, who convinced her husband Joseph to create a dual-monarchy and the state of Austria-Hungary. There are generals who fought Turks, Austrians, and Russians, the three conquerers who oppressed the Hungarians most. Every morning I bought a light breakfast (a couple pastries, a bottle of water, and a banana) and some tram tickets from a convenience store and was off. I wasted little time and took hundreds of photos. I became a little obsessed with the Hungarian Parliament building, of which I probably took 100 photos. Its absolutely spectacular, and I encourage all of you to go there.

My train ride back home was sincerely less eventful. I rode from Budapest to Venice, got the rest of my stuff from the house, walked back across the city, got on another train to Rome, arrived in time to run through the station to the furthest platform away, to catch another train to Orte. From there Alba picked me up, and we went home. My second extended trip to europe came to an end, but I have certain brought back much with me. This world is getting smaller by the minute, and we ought to embrace this change. We have much we can learn from their history, and much we can gain from their present to mutual benefit. We ought to present the nations of central and eastern Europe with more than an offer to become part of our treaty organizations. The best way to encourage them to continue on the path of liberty so newly started would be to spur trade. This could be done by offering to diminish or forego all tariffs of goods from countries that also will agree to forego all tariffs on US goods. The economic growth this would cause would certainly be to the envy of other nations, who hopefully will be inspired to create freer borders themselves. How well this will work with many countries is not certain, but in a modern country with a highly educated workforce and a good exchange rate compared to the dollar, like Hungry, this could be to our mutual benefit.
As a last word, I would like to say: "a magyar nok nagyon csinosak"- Remember that.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Spring Break 2!

The second spring break was an adventure that I wish I was still on. I didn't want that vacation to end, which is unlike most other vacations I take. Usually, after a week or so shuffling between hotels and hostels, after longs hours in transit, and after having been on my feet for more than half the day, every day, I'm ready for the comforts of home. This time was different however. Many hypotheses could be put fourth about exactly why that is the case, but in my mind there are no theories, only a simple answer.
I am certain that what made the vacation was my Dad. I had been looking forward to seeing him for a while and finally giving him a huge bear hug when I arrived in Munich confirmed my suspicion that this was going to be perfect.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Fist, getting to Munich.
My last night in Venice was hectic. It was a friend of mine's (Katy's) birthday, and, having been challenged the week before at Ingrid's birthday party that no one could successfully throw a surprise party for her, Laura (another friend) and I, rose to the occasion. That afternoon, while saying that I would need to get to sleep early for my early flight, we prepared. Our first thought was to make cupcakes- easier to eat and less to clean up, right? However, Italy has no cupcake baking materials of any sort. Plan B- regular cake. Then recruiting Fullerton and Cris, armed with balloons, sparklers, and the cake that I made, we surprised her at a little overlook at the northern end of Cannaregio, looking out into the lagoon. The party was a spectacular success, with the slight hiccup that we all thought someone else was bringing cutlery. In then end, we ate the cake via scooping it up with the plastic cups we brought. Our original plan of cupcakes ended up working out, despite our best efforts perhaps.
The next morning I took everything that was left in my fridge (bottle of milk, leftover salami, and an orange), my suitcase, and caught the bus to the airport. All was going smoothly until my flight went fowl.
I love puns.
In all seriousness however, a seagull flew into the engine turbine of my plane as it was landing the flight before mine. Needless to say, the plane was not going to take off for some time. After some rescheduling and a short train ride, I arrived in Munich around 3 PM that afternoon.
This brings us right back to my introduction, wherefrom I shall now continue.
I have not been to many German cities, I confess. I have spent many hours in the Frankfort airport and have visited my Uncle Herman in Hanau twice, but Munich instantly caught me as a very livable city. Wide sidewalks were filled with people eating outside in the sun, enjoying a beer and pretzel. The city seemed very new and moving, with a large youthful population. Perhaps living in a decaying city like Venice has made everywhere around seem more alive. Either way, Dad and I spent the afternoon visiting the major churches of the city and wandering through the central historical area. Much of it was bombed out in WW2, but in spite of this, they have rebuilt marvelously. Clearly, German nationalism had taken on a variety of more sinister forms, but it's so powerful because they have much to be proud of. That night we dinned at one of the places local munchers are most proud of: the Hofbrau. There I surprised my Dad when I asked, "aren't you going to finish that?", looking at the pork knuckle we were sharing. He responded, "Alex, I ate all the meat off of it". "Well, what about this part?" "That's all fat" "Oh." I then continued to eat one of the best parts of the knuckle. I can take these health risks because I know I'm not going to be back in Germany for a while.
The next day we got up and hopped on a bus after a stupendous breakfast. We were off to see the castles of Crazy King Ludwig 2nd. I write crazy with a capital C for a reason. Let me list as few of his more outstanding character traits:
- He was nocturnal, and read at least one book every night.
- In order to eat alone, he had a table that could be set from the floor below and raised up to him.
- He was obsessed with Wagner and Germanic epics.
- He was equally obsessed with peacocks, horses, and swans.
- Never married or had any children, although he was engaged once after falling desperately in love with an Austrian princess. He later cancelled the marriage having postponed it many times.
- He built fair-tale castles that inspired Disney in their wonder and scope.
Today he is often referred to as the Märchenkönig, or Fairy-tale king. All in all he was a strange man in life. His death was fitting coincidentally. After having been pronounced mentally unfit for governing by a psychologist, Ludwig, who was an extremely proficient swimmer, was found dead in a nearby pond. That psychologist was found next to him. He is said to have drowned, although the exact nature of his death still remains a mystery.
Odd a duck as he was, he have Dad and I plenty to talk about that day. The first castle we visited was Linderhof Palace. If you can imagine Versailles, but on a miniature scale, not much bigger than your average 2 story house in an suburban area. The palace completed first, and was Ludwig's primary residence. Every of every room was overdone with gilded moulding, statuettes, and giant porcelain peacocks. This is where he had his "magic table" to serve him meals and a pond nearby for his swans. His most famous castle we visited was Neuswanstein. Built nestled within mountains, and overlooking his childhood home of Hohenschwangau, this "romanesque" castle is in the site of a real medieval castle. However, in order to build his "more authentic" fairy-tale caste, the original was torn down. Ludwig died before this castle could be completed but it is still a masterpiece of the imagination. All the interiors are decorated with frescos depicting Wagners opera and norse sagas. This is with the exception of his mosaic throne room, that has a fascinating neo-byzantine style.
The following day we were to take off to Salzburg, but before leaving we visited the Old Gallery museum. This was an excellent decision as we not only had a fantastic lunch there, but we saw some stupendous paintings. That afternoon we arrived in Salzburg. After dining at the Hotel's recommended location we decided to take a walk. Dad began recognizing the street we were on and said that he thought there was a great brewery around the corner.
We walked for another 20 minutes, through some dark alleys, and there was not a soul in sight. We were about ready to give up when we noticed a small lighted sign at the top of this hill saying Augistinerbrau. Climbing up the hill, we entered through this tiny door. Passing through labyrinthine halls, we began to hear a low rumbling. Eventually, we found our way to a hive of activity, stands selling all sorts of austrian favorites and of course, the Augustinian brew. We even ran into an old friend, Margaret Burch there. It was a night full of surprises. The next morning we visited the museum, residence, and major castle. Every night we went to restaurants that Margaret recommended, and every one was great. The last day we spent visiting the theater and the local Steigl Brewery. Our final night in Salzburg, we had this desert called a Nockrel. Three giant souffle puffs, symbolizing the three hills of Salzburg, sat on top of a layer of fruit of the forest. It was light and delicious. The following morning we were off to Vienna.
Vienna is an amazingly charming city. Simply arriving into that city from the train station, you could see it. Hustle and bustle. Growth. New steel and glass next to medieval stone and Baroque marble. The afternoon we arrived we visited a part of the Hofburg complex. This city-within-a-city's worth of palaces, offices, museums, gardens, stables, and archives is dense beyond compare. I was stunned as I walked around it that it was all part of the same building. It was like Versailles, being smushed into the middle of paris. It wasn't nearly as elegant as the Louvre, but it was certainly bigger. It now holds over 7 different museums, the old Imperial apartments, the famous viennese stables, and the President's offices. Here we learned about Vienna's odd monarch, the tragic and melancholic Sisi, Queen Elizabeth. She was widely recognized as one of the most beautiful women in the world, and she was granted by the king to travel away from court for most of her life. She studied hungarian and greek, had an intense workout regime, and generally abhorred courtly life. She was killed by an italian anarchist in 1898. That night we met up with Victoria Hill, one of my best friends at Wake. From her we got the insider's look into the city. We had dinner at this restaurant that must have been 7 stories underground. We could see the side of a medieval well that now made up part of the wall.
The next day we visited Schönbrunn Palace, where we learned about Sisi's husband, Franz Joseph's life and routine. That man had many virtues to admire. The man was up by 4 am every morning and would attend all court ceremony into the night. He would eat while ministers gave him reports from all over his empire. He handled almost all problems himself. He set apart one hour every day to listen to any common complain that regular people had and wanted him to address. He was said to be remarkably intelligent, friendly, and a workaholic. Sadly, the woman he loved wanted more than anything to be away from court, and he knew it was his duty to be there. He put his country's well being before his personal desires. His house was pretty, but the exterior was especially dull compared to other palaces we'd recently seen. The gardens were not too impressive either, however the hill in the back yard lent one spectacular views over Vienna. After that we visited the art history museum before meeting up with Victoria for dinner again.
The next day we visited the home of Prince Eugene of Savoy, of the the greatest military commanders in Austrian, if not European history. Napoleon considered him one of the 7 best, so that must count for something. His leadership defeated the Turks as they were bombarding Vienna, broke the siege of Budapest, and freed eastern Europe from the tyranny of Ottoman rule, while also beating Louis XIVth's ambitious plans for taking over Europe as well. He also had fantastic taste in architecture it seems, as his palace was beautiful and filled with a number of stunning works of art. The house has been called the Belvedere palace because of it's beauty.
That night we hopped on a train to Venice, about which too much has been written already. We stayed at my house, Casa Artom on the Grande Canal next to the Peggy Guggenheim.
I was sad to see Dad go and I can't wait for the next trip we'll take together. I truly loved every minute of our adventure and I look forward to going home all the more now. Hopefully this has let you in on something you didn't know about all these places. Here's some advice though. When you go- bring your dad!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Spring Break

We departed Venice on the most typically Venetian of days- the fog was dense and the rain was a wall as well. Keep in mind that when it rains in Venice it's unlike anywhere else in the world, because the water simply doesn't have anywhere else to go once the canals are filled. Instead, the lines begin to blur, between street and abyss. But after that arduous trudge, and a shortcut our professor suggested that was in fact twice as long as our normal route, we arrived on the train to Florence.
Florence was breathtaking. Compared to the frigid lagoon, Florence was refeshingly warm, sunny, with a powder-blue sky. Stopping quickly to drop off our bags at the hotel, we quickly hit the streets, passing through the market, and strait into the Duomo. Ascending Brunelleschi's octagonal pumpkin-like masterpiece, we captured some amazing views of the city and surrounding countryside. To climb to the highest point in the city is one of my favorite things to do wherever I go. After spending a long time taking pictures, of the city and each other, we descended.
"When you give me a camera funny things happen...Weird things...Questionable things"- Lindsey on photography
The inside of the duomo is significantly less interesting than the dome and the view from the top. Unlike Siena or Pisa, the Florentine duomo is dreary and stark, gloomy and sober. The effect is miserable and I suggest, although it took a few hundred years to buid the outside, that they go ahead and spend another few years at least attempting to make the inside a little nicer. To start, the needs more light. But I digress...
From the Dome we walked across to the Palazzo della Signiora, the Uffizi, (the major political centers of the republic)and down the Arno over to the Ponte Vechio. Crossing the river we quickly reached the opposite center of Medici power, the Pitti Palace. It's interesting to note that the Ponte Vecchio has been so important in Florentine history only because it happens to be the only way the Medici could get from one of their big houses to the other. Thus, when they came to power, they decreed that all the slaughterhouses and dyeworks (the people that needed to dump their waste right into the river) that used to be on the bridge needed to move. The only business that has ever since been allowed on the bridge are the goldsmiths. Obviously, one is more pleasant to view than the other.
All the Florentine structures seemed to me so insecure because they needed to overcompensate so much by looking old and fortified. In venice, few buidlings are built in such an imposing way. Clearly, if you're safe, you have no need to be imposing. That night we visited the Dublin Pub, and after our first beer tried the cider, which we found mighty refreshing. Watching soccer, having a drink, discussing the nature of truth, it was our last relaxing moment for quite some time on this vacation.

The action started early, with warning the previous evening that there was going to be a train strike today throughout Italy. Not one that would solve any real problems for the workers, but one that would last from the inconvenient hours of 10AM to 2PM and would just tick everyone off. If we didn't get on our train by then, we'd be stuck in Florence and miss our flight from Pisa to Paris. Catching the last available train to Pisa we make it there in time to avoid the strike up to the city, but not all the way to the airport. For this, we had to find a bus. While waiting for the bus, it started to rain, again.
We arrive at the airport, needless to say, a bit early. However, patient as we are, we wait silently and calmly. We check in and get ready for boarding. We hear a delay: 15 min. 30min. 45min. 1 hour. 1.5hous. 2 hours. 3 hours.
After that, they simply say, "indefinite delay".
After over 5 hours past when we should have taken off they finally say: flight canceled. This set off a mad rush of questions that came streaming from everyone's mouth in a dozen languages, torrents streaming out and blurring together in chaos, like a hurricane of noise. After another hideous wait to get the proper refund forms, we dashed to florence to check when the overnight train to Paris left.
Arriving in Florence we found that we had a few hours for dinner, so we found a great place close to the station. Realizing the kind of ride we had ahead of us, one of our members thought it would be a good idea to get a bottle of wine. Seeing how she was right next to a rack of expensive bottles, she pondered nicking one for herself. When she thought this, power to the building was lost and we were all left in complete darkness. Taking it as a sign, she swiftly removed the bottle and hid it in her jacket. However, before the lights turned back on, she realized what a mistake she had made, and thanking her good fortune for being able to make up for it, she placed the bottle back before anyone saw. In the train station after dinner, Lucy gave me a lesson on how to draw faces more proportionally.

The problems was this: If a train has left from Rome at 75 miles an hour at 6:30PM, and it will arrive in Florence at 9:45, why can't the ticket office sell us tickets to get on it?
Have you figured it out?
The Answer: Italian Bureaucracy.
Instead, we had to chase after the train conductors who would be able to decide whether we could get on the train or not. We couldn't even find out how man seats would be available. We quickly found that another group of American students studding in florence (Venice's traditional enemy) was competing with us for the same spots. We hear the whistles blow, and the lights flicker in the darkness beyond the tracks. Soon, the bell rang that the train had stopped, and the conductors were debarking. Luckily, we caught one immediately and were seated within minutes. At first, all 7 of us were in a 6 person room, but we soon split up.
Sleeper trains were such a great idea. You don't have to waste an actual day traveling, you just kill two birds with one stone by traveling and sleeping at the time time . The train ride itself was extremely comfortable- the low hum of the train along with it's gentle rocking put me right to sleep. The beds were worn soft from use. When I awoke the first time, we were in Bologna, the second time, just outside of Dijon. I greatly appreciated having a GPS o I could find out such things. It was snowing early that morning before we arrived. By 11 am, an over 12 hour ride, we were in Paris.

Paris is a city very easy for your head and your stomach to love. Not wanting to waste a moment, we dropped off our bags and hit the city. That afternoon and evening we covered the Arch d' Triomphe, Notre Dame, the Tuileries Gardens , the Champs-Elyees, Luxembourg Garden, and the Opera. That night we ate at Chez Clement, and I had the most beef I'd eaten in over a month. My meal was a heap of mashed potatoes, surrounded by beef, chicken, lamb, pork, and duck.
The next day I was enchanted by the Louvre's art and dismayed at my lack of ability to pronounce the word properly in french. We all have our crosses to bear I guess.
That night Ashley and I went to the top of the Eiffel Tower. It was absolutely spectacular. I couldn't get enough of the view of the surrounding landscape, and all the buildings that seemed like models, the people like ants. we spent forever talking about different ingeniously fun ways to get down- like building a zip-line, water-slide, paragliding, ski-jump. I wonder if anyone's tried any of those things from the top o the tower.
By February 22nd, I was in no mood whatsoever to leave Paris. We attempted to see if we could stay another night, but alas, reservations were already in place and we had no chnce of changing them. I knew there was still much to do.
We ran into continued travel trouble trying to get out of Paris to Amsterdam. The recent train crash in Belgium lead to chaos completely characteristic of Italy, but not what I expected out of France. No one we talked to (and we talked to many people) seemed to have a clue. There was no schedule and every ticket seemed much more expensive than it should be. Eventually we were content with getting at least to Lille on the Belgian border, for 54 euro. We must keep in mind that my ticket from Rome to Venice, on the fast train, was only 74 euro comparatively.
Flanders is incredibly flat, compared to what i;m used to in Italy. Venice is always the exception to the rule, so I don't count that. Most of Italy is hilly or mountainous. We arrived in Lille with just over an hour to spare for lunch. Alex and I visited the cathedral, while the rest decided to make camp in the McDonalds. It encouraging to see a working church, where the priest greeted us so kindly. If I was ever to design a church, I would make it of similar late-gothic style. I guess we all had our own unique trips even though we traveled together.
Having less than 5 minutes to run across 20 platforms to get to the next train, I was incredibly thankful to find out it was running late. After so many mishaps, delays, and cancellations, it was a blessing to catch a break.

We arrive in Amsterdam, the "Venice of the North". It is an unfitting name because other than the presence of the canals, which hundreds of cities have, Amsterdam and Venice are very different cities. Venice is a city whose reality is utterly in fiction. The Venice most people see and experience when they visit here is nothing like the Venice that the people that live here know. Yet the city must wear this mask to survive. Amsterdam is a city where all is revealed, whether you want it to be or not, and the residents are not putting on a show for anyone. The drug and sex trades that proliferate Amsterdam are not a mask worn for tourists but are part of the living active city, participated in by locals regularly.
My first night in Amsterdam was a thoroughly disturbing experience. Our hostel, that was extremely well reviewed, was advertised as being "near" the red-light district. It was in fact in the red light district. I was truly horrified, keeping my eyes on the canal that ran through the middle of the street. That's something I'll never forget. People in cages, on display like meat at a butchers, like animals at the zoo. A twisted human petting zoo, their value advertised in euros and time. Some say that it's the safest part of the city because the criminals are looking at the windows, not other girls. Perhaps if the city set up a special lighted district where you could legally come beat people up, people would find that fewer people get beat in that part of the city. Clearly, it's not that there's less crime- it's simply that the crime is ignored because it has been legalized. Whether a government makes something illegal or not does not change whether it is a crime or not. The same is true with prostitution. If murder was legal somewhere, that does not change the criminality of the action. The government that instated such legislation and the culture whose values allow for such acts to be perpetrated are still criminal. Obviously this is not a change that a government can enforce. The culture's values much change to make such services and goods no longer of great enough value to cause the industry to self-destruct from lack of use. Our hostel wasn't much better. It was "movie themed" for every room, but the titles they chose were always the most unsettling films: Clockwork Orange, Fight Club, The Wall.
Hilary's dad also didn't like where they were staying, so he paid for all the girls to go spend the rest of their stay at the Crown Plaza Amsterdam, one of the only 5-star spots in the city. We gentlemen decided, since it was already midnight and already paid for the hostel, we might as well stay for the night, and decide in the morning whether to leave or not. I mean, three big guys- what harm could come to us?
Well, that was an interesting night.
Having traveled all day, I hoped to wash up a little bit. Before this trip, I really didn't ponder the question of whether there are showers in Hell. Now, I'm fairly certain there are, and they are probably;y remarkably similar to the ones in the hostel. Even the sink was so poorly plumbed, that water either froze or scalded you. There was no in-between. In fact, it didn't matter which way you turned either nob. Either way could turn off or on. Either way could be hot or cold. Chris, who is a very light sleeper was woken up many times by these greeks who were staying in our same dorm room, high as kites. They came in around 3AM, turn on the tv in the room, and start yelling at it. I was sleeping so soundly they woke me once, but then I went back to sleep and didn't wake up until the morning. That night I had the most vivid dream I ever had, and immediately wrote down what I saw when I got up that morning. I was with John Conner in an underground city running from mutant terminator werewolf cyborgs, while he recounted how he lost his sister when they were separated while the castle they were defending was besieged by masked people in a black fog, but that she and his best friend, who looked a lot like Legolas from the Lord of the Rings, escaped in this crazy slow motion fight scene, that ended with a speech that was similar to Krishna's in the Bagavad Gita- pausing all action to talk of the finality of death. I need to watch fewer action movies.
The next morning we packed up our stuff, and found a clean, 3-star, with our own room and comfortable beds. Now I know the true meaning of "you get what you pay for".
Anyway the next two days I saw the Amsterdam that went beyond the first impression in a variety of excellent ways. The first day I spent a few hours in the Rijksmuseum, but I had not een made it past the first room on the second floor and everyone else had already sprinted through the whole building. They said we'd already been there for almost 2.5 hours. I felt a greater need to gaze at the beauty in those works, but alas, I was pushed on. After that we visited the Heineken Experience. I've never been to Disney Land, but I imagine it's something like the Heineken Experience, except for kids and with less beer. They taught us all about how beer was made, the history of heineken, and throughout the tour we were given four beers. This was a work of genius from a marketing standpoint. Dazzle people with interactive, franchise-covered stuff, take them on fun rides, and make them feel smarter by having son educational bits. Then, give them something to drink right before they have to go through two floors of merchandise. Happy people who have had a little to drink are much more likely to buy a bunch of stuff, that will then become advertising agents for your product. Spectacular.
The second day, when everyone else went to the Van Gogh, I went back to the Rijks. From about 10 am to 3:30pm, I wandered through Hals, Rembrandt, Vermeer, Van der Neer, and their pupils. This was back when art didn't exist for it's own sake- it wasn't nearly that selfish. This art, for it ca properly be called art, was beautiful, but it wasn't just beautiful. Art was made to send a clear and well-meaning message, often about wealth, wisdom, or love. It warned against vanity, miserliness. It told a story that you wanted to explore. After that i wandered throughout the city for the next few hours, found a bakery, had a snack. Amsterdam made quite a transition over the time I was here, but it's a place I hope will see some drastic changes soon back to it's roots.

To close our adventure, we went to Belgium. I was incredibly, delightfully surprised by Bruges, the first place we visited.  The town was beautiful- a handful of gothic cathedrals shot their spires through a forest of brick chimneys.  The air, when it's not raining that familiar perfume of the ocean, was accented by the many belgian fry and waffle stands.  You're warmed in cool climate by Flemish stew (think beef, bay leaves, and dense gravy) and fish soups that are far more fish than broth.  I must have had a dozen waffles over two days.  When in the mood form something both historical and artistic, the Chocolate museum not only detailed the history of that dark gold, but also had a life size chocolate statue of Obama (milk chocolate, which I thought was more appropriate than dark chocolate) and another more modern one, eating it's own arm.  When one desire to exercise their mind in a more scientific fashion, the local brewery De Halve Maan, active since 1856 lets you dive into the fascinating alchemy that is fermentation.  Bruges has by far the best (in quality, assortment, and price) beers I've ever seen.  Even the bar at our hostel, which was comparably tiny to most bars, had a detailed beer book, that described the provenance (historical and geographical), production, and flavor of dozens of beers.  Belgians also have a specific kind of beer glass to go with almost every beer.  Many are specifically made to enhance the flavor and increase the duration of freshness, depending on the beer.  I was very impressed by how much people care about their beers here.  Perhaps that is why even the cheep beers didn't taste bad at all- no one would bother drinking them. 
At our hostel's bar, I heard a story from a British man who plays in a rugby club there, and every week they all go to the pub together. After a few hours pass, they usually play a game where everyone has to leave the pub and come back in exactly one hour with the strangest thing they could find. A friend of his apparently had not won in a long time, and really wanted to. That's all he remembers until he woke up the next morning with his object squawking As he looks up, exhausted and red eyed, he sees a penguin. according to his friends, he dove into the pool at the local zoo, grabbed the penguin and escaped that night without anyone noticing until the next morning that the penguin was gone. Penguins are apparently quite messy, so he apologized and returned the penguin anonymously. I don't know if I quite believe him, but it's a funny story nonetheless.
In Brussels I found another bar that went above and beyond all of the bars in Bruges, but didn't have the great community, local feel that Bruges did.  At Delirium in Brussels, there are 25 on tap beers, and over 2004 beers available.  The beer list is larger than the New Canaan phone book. They have won the Guinness Book of World Records for it, and it's more than overwhelming.  I can't even imagine what someone would do with that many different kinds.  keep in mind: the waffle stands in Brussels are better than hose in Bruges in general, but the fry stands were not. Needless to say, I found Belgium a land of wonders and thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Back home at last, recounting this tale, it becomes more clear than ever that adventure is not a break from life- it is life. I went to have dinner at a friend's house in Canareggion the night after we arrived. As Alex and I attempted to walk home, the canals overflowed onto the streets and we soon found ourselves trapped by the rising tide. Having nowhere to go, and already soaked through the shoes at this point, we trugged through water almost up to our knees. Frozen, wet, and exhausted, I collapsed asleep ready to hit the ground running this week. yes, life is an adventure.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Just so you all know, Carnevale is a BIG deal. The city sponsored parties start every morning at 9AM and do not stop. This has been the most difficult week to get work done in my life, because there are so many other things to do. However, I've also gained more motivation than ever to use my time wisely and get my work done so I can enjoy the streets covered in confetti, the masked populous, and the colors. Finally the Italians have shed their black and muted color cocoons and have emerged with bright colors! Every day there are circuses in the streets, plays, operas, concerts, performances, dances, dj sets, street galleries, historical reinactments, etc. This is something I will post more about later but just wanted to be sure you all knew: Carnevale is here only until next Tuesday! LIVE IT UP!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Boys in Bologna

So we were left all alone. That's right. Me and the men (Alex and Chris), as all the ladies had run off to Siena. After a day of lounging around, visiting the beach, making diner for one, and flinching at the impermeable silence that echoed through the house, I had about had enough. But for the time there was nothing I could do.
That night two friends of mine Katie and Katy came over to play cards. As we're chatting about what we've been up to, they propose, since we clearly have no other plans, to scrap staying at home and join them in Bologna. Instantly we snatch the opportunity and agree. Carpe Diem, right?
This proposal was delivered around 12:30 that night. By 7:30 the following morning, we were on the train to Bologna on what would be one of the weekends for the ages.
Bologna is the largest city in Emilia-Romagna, a relatively flat, fertile region of Italy, that was control for many centuries by the Pope. The city has three nicknames: the Turreted, the Learned, and the Fat. Bologna experienced much factionalism and division during it's period as a city state, and so the skyline was dotted with towers. It was also extremely well known for being the oldest constantly running university in the world. Finally, it's region of Italy is the only one that has enough open land to make wise use of cattle farming, so it's diet has much more cream, cheese, and beef (hence "Bolognese" sauce).
Upon arriving in the city we dropped off our luggage off at a storage facility to hit the streets ASAP. After a bit of wandering through the central piazzas, we decided we had the energy for a more rigorous hike. We set fourth for the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Saint Luke. The basilica church sits on a mountain over 300 meters above the city level. To get there, we climbed through the 666 arches of the arcade around 4 kilometers. It was a beautiful site from the top, but it was a lot of work to get up there
From there, we split up, and I spent the rest of the say with my friends Alex, Katy, and Laura. The rest wanted to rest back at the hostel.
Of all the sites we visited, the most interesting by fat was the Basilica di San Petronio. It was originally planned to be the largest church in the world, and in it's incomplete stat it is still the church is still the 13th largest in the world. It was amazing to see painting reaching part way up the wall, and stopping. The facade looks like it was chopped in half by a giant. Ambitious growth was stunted by respect for tradition and papal decree.
That night we ate at the Osteria Del Orso, and if you are ever within 50 miles of Bologna I highly recommend you get there by 7PM because if you come any later you'll be waiting for a seat for hours. We found out about this place from some students at the university we met and it makes perfect sense why this place is the student gem. Between the four of us, we each had a huge plate of pasta, we share two liters of the house wine, and two of their apple torte deserts, for 10 euros a piece! You can't find a deal like that, for food that good in Venice. Impossible! I swear- if you have no desire in a vacation beyond eating, just rent an apartment in Bologna.
Later we caught up with the rest of the nannies, who were, to put it gently, less than capable of walking in strait lines. After playing the sitter for a few hours, we decided that if they really wanted to run away, we really couldn't stop them, so we stopped chasing. The next morning, while the rest were still asleep and planning on directly returning to Venice, the four of us decided we would rather continue the weekend for a bit longer. We packed our bags, caught the early bus, and made it to the train station in time to go to Ravenna.
Ravenna, once the Italian capital of the Byzantine Empire until the 11th century, is well known for it's mosaics. The great thing about mosaics is that unlike frescos or paintings on canvas or wood that fade significantly with age, mosaics require much less maintenance because they are made of stone, glass, and gold- materials that do not rust and rarely fade. My favorite site was either San Vitale, which was so different in it's plan than any other building I've seen except the interior of the Templar monastery in Tomar, Portugal, and that was similar in respect of it's intimate, rounded shape space, with imposing soaring height. Vitale's colors were stunning in their brilliance, which came almost exclusively from natural light. The Mausoleum di Galla Placidia nearby was much smaller than I imagined, but it has a mosaic of Christ as the good Shepard that was beautiful.
Having made two new friends and had more than my fill of beautiful things for the weekend, I returned to Venice to begin preparations for Carnevale!

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Leisurely we left our most serene islands for Verona, our first of may group trips to come. Verona was a stunning change from the lagoon. This is primarily because it was on land. It was strange to see buses and cars, sidewalks and trees. The things we thought would always feel more homey, were now a bit foreign.
Verona is clearly, unlike Venice, a living city. By that I mean that even in the relative low season of January, there are still normal people carrying on their lives, uninterrupted by the swarms of strangers that descend on holidays and for the annual summer opera festival. The festival is held in the roman amphitheater, one of the largest and most complete outside of Rome.
We arrived in the early afternoon. Starving after a rushed breakfast, we stopped at the first place we saw, a kabob shop on the way into town. After wolfing down one of the tastiest Egyptian wraps I've ever had, we started walking again. However, our noses soon picked up the scent of cannolis and coffee, and we were again diverted. I do believe it has become clear where this is going.
Yes, our romp around Verona could easily be traced by highlighting on the map the best smelling pasticerias, pizzerias, gelato shops, restaurants, and local delicatessens and connecting the dots. Along the way, we made a point to divert our attention to other objects of aesthetic import. These included some magnificent buildings and statues, most specifically the dozens of lions around the city. Why would a city like Verona, so far from a lion-inhabiting region, be so adorned?
Verona was for centuries, and to some degree still is, under the domination of it's local capital, Venice. Venice has since the 12 century considered itself the ecclesiastical descendent of Aquileia on the mainland because when the Lombards invaded there in the 6th and 7th centuries, the Bishop of Aquileia fled the terrafirma for the safety of the lagoon. The founder of the first church of Aquileia is St. Mark, who traveled to Italy with St. Peter. After Peter's crucifixion, Mark left Rome for northern Italy, before leaving Europe for Alexandria, where he was martyred. History has always a much more complicated answer than its questions let on. St. Mark's symbol has traditionally been the Lion. When Venice began establishing its own political identity independent of Byzantium, it chose St. Mark's Lion as it's representative.
For centuries the Veronese struggled over the question of subjection and independence. When Napoleon invaded Venice in 1797, he took all the lions in Verona, and every other Italian city, down. Since then however, many have been put back up. In a very interesting twist of history, culture, and economic interest, the Veronese are associating themselves with their vast history of subjection to Venice. This coincides with the development of the Northern League in Italian politics. This political party is united under the purpose of separating the north from the south of Italy. This also has helped in part the tourism increasing in the city, which is but an hour train ride from Venice.
Of course the city is most well known for the famous star-crossed lovers old Bill was inspired to write about here. Although the characters are completely fictional, there are quotes of the Bard of Avon on a dozen walls, as well as a house that claims to be Juliet's. On the walls are posted perhaps 10,000 love letters, to either character or reader. When we arrived there, about 200 Asian tourists were smiling and taking pictures, one at a time, with a hand over the breast of Juliet's statue.
That night of course we tested what the world considers is the greatest delicacy to be enjoyed in Verona: the Opera. The evening was marvelous. After what was until that point the most delicious meal I had yet that semester (as well as the first time I had eaten out since school started), La Boheme was the best desert that could have been served. Like a dense dark chocolate cake, bitter as well as sweet, with subtle tones of nuts or fruit that are detectable only to those that take the time to ponder and appreciate what is before them. The opera was a spectacle of such delight in the details, such power in the presentation, that I am certain if it did not leave me speechless, at least it left me no other voice than that to sing it's praises. Never before have I witnessed such beauty in tragedy.
Floating on such an air, we strolled back to the hotel, and departed for our watery home the next morning.

Sunday, January 17, 2010


My first most recent adventure was spent yesterday in my Sestiere. Venice is divided into six sestiere, and we've been divided into teams to research and get to know our part like experts. I chose Cannareggio, the northernmost part and most populated by actual Venetians, because it's furthest from the most touristy stuff. It's also really cool because that's where some of the more famous and infamous immigrant communities lived. The Jewish Ghetto- the oldest in Europe and where the word ghetto comes from- is there, along protestant refugee communities who arrived there in the 16th, century. Next week I'll hopefully go to the Lutheran Evangelical church there, although services are in German and Italian only I believe. Venice, being a city that has always been populated by refugees, has had an interesting history of diversity and consistency. People could come from anywhere in the world, and were for the most part tolerated fairly. What everyone had to have in common was that they all wanted to make money. Venice, unlike the rest of Europe, never had a landed nobility- for the simple reason that there is no land in Venice. Instead, Venice was ruled by a wealthy merchant class. You you helped them make money, then you were welcomed. Printers from germany, Jewish bankers, professionals and traders from the rest of Italy and pilgrims from all of europe were welcomed to a greater degree than many other countries- Turkish and Slavic pirates, Jesuits, and invading Austrians, French, or Milanese were not.
The only street (i.e. strada in Italian) in all of venice is there too. Venice has a completely different way of labeling streets than the rest of italy. Instead of via, strada, and piazza, Venitians use the words like sottoporteggo (streets that buildings are on top of), campo (like piazza, but only St. Mark's has the honor of being a piazza), fondamente (meaning it's a street next to a canal), or calle (streets without water on either side). However, when Napoleon invaded Venice, he decided he wanted a nice street that he could march down, so he had a canal filled in a paved over. Thus strada nuova was born. It's kind of nice to walk along a street and not have to think about watching out for where the road ends and the canal begins.

The image was from