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.