2005 Adventures through Continental Europe

Swiss Mountaintop in July

Here is my 2005 Travel Blog, consolidated into one page.

These email excerpts highlight some of my summer of 2005 adventures meandering through Europe. The style is colloquial, as the stories are written for my friends, always in a hurry.  Enjoy!

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Hi from Amsterdam!
entry Jun 15 2005, 09:23 PM

Yes! I made it! I’m writing from an internet cafe in Amsterdam! I’m drinking freshly squeezed orange juice (yum), and as Rick Steves says, surfing the web with that “certain bravado”. It’s the bar downstairs from the hotel where I’m staying. I’m in an 8-girl dorm room with our own toilet and shower (the two are separate) and it overlooks a canal. The lobby has twinkling stars (little lights) on the ceiling. Pretty awesome. It’s between Dam Square and the Red Light district, great location. I love listening to the sounds of Amsterdam – pretty church bells, people shouting, boats in the canal, people playing instruments, conversations drifting by…excellent to relax to.

I love walking around Amsterdam and seeing all kinds of people and different canals and shops and things you don’t see anywhere else. Walking through the red light district is a hoot! The women are RIGHT THERE in your face, eye level behind glass, looking at you, sometimes making gestures. They put on quite a show for those who look interested. It’s kind of fun walking through there when I need to.

I went to the Anne Frank house. Anne was a very insightful and courageous young girl. The house was amazing–yellowed wallpaper and her pictures still up. I also went to the Dutch resistance museum. The Dutch were very couragous for their resistance efforts. 108,000 Jewish dutch people were executed by Nazis. I also visited a Dutch flea market which was very interesting, a variety of things incl hippy clothes, pot stuff, you name it. I picked up tan socks – my white ones stick out here. 🙂 I did a lot of walking today and my feet hurt. It’s nice to be sitting here in flip flops, instead of out walking in my shoes.

I’m sure you’ll be shocked to hear that people watching is so interesting here! You name it. Some guys (XX place doormen and others) trying to pick you up…not too surprising, very liberal place. Interesting — I saw at least 2 babies in carriage type attachments on bicycles out in front of a shop, while the parent was inside. This is definitely not something a parent would feel safe about in America.

I flew through Rejkiavik (sp?) with Icelandair red eye and arrived in Amsterdam on Tuesday, a day late, as my scheduled flight was overbooked by 50 seats due to a necessary switch of an airplane for mechanical reasons. So they paid for my hotel and meals the whole next day, and the best part, a free airline voucher good to/from anywhere they fly. I just have to make the reservation within the next 12 months. Better late than never.

I smoked my first joint in a coffeeshop with another American named Spencer. It was his first too in Amsterdam. He flew in from Philly same day as me and will see his girlfriend on Saturday. In his own words, he’s “not altogether there” (stoned before he even smoked) but he was nice enough. His girlfriend had been an exchange student from Germany at his high school but had to leave 2 months early because her school found out she smoked pot. Spencer was very excited to be able to see her again, and would stay in Germany with her for 5 weeks. There’s so much more to tell you about my adventures in Amsterdam, but I’m running out of change to throw in the internet machine–you know, that computer thingy. More to come later, of course!

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bonjour from a hot and sweaty Paris
entry Jun 19 2005, 06:33 PM

bonjour mes amis Ca va? je suis en paris aujhord’hui. Ces’t TRES CHAUD ICI!!! For those who don’t speak French — it is soooooo friggin hot here. it feels like 500 degrees, but according to weather.com it’s 92F. Seems paris is having a heat wave that will last throughout the week. I’m going to Barcelona on Wednesday and while it may be even hotter, at least they have a beach there.

I haven’t seen too much of Paris, and so far Paris is not one of my favorite European cities. I mean it’s nice — everywhere you look there’s fancy monuments and statues and stuff — but it’s just too big to be very welcoming. It’s too big to just walk around and see lots of stuff, at least in the heat. Maybe in cooler weather it’s possible. The transportation here is confusing – you often have to change train lines to get where you’re going and walk a ways to get to the new line. It took me a long time just to find notre dam. I mean, it’s been around 700 years, how hard can it be to find? 😉

Anyway, it’s just one of those tired, lazy days where I don’t feel like walking around or doing much of anything. Not too many places are air conditioned here in Paris. ok, enough complaining, i’m sure it’s a groovy city and all, just not with my lazy “let’s just hang out in the shade” attitude. they need more benches here in paris — pretty scarce!

So I arrived in Paris last night, once again a day late. I found out at the last minute that there was a train strike on the day i was supposed to leave Amsterdam, and my luck — they wouldn’t exchange my cheap ticket because “it’s non-changeable, non-refundable” and “I should have been reading the papers or watching the news” (duh, I don’t speak Dutch) So I bought a new ticket and made it here last night. Hey, who turned on the oven? It was cool in Amsterdam.

So I’m not sure what I mentioned about Amsterdam, lots of coffee shops and cool museums and stuff. I liked Amsterdam a lot. I saw the Reijksmuseum (lots of Picasso) and Van Gogh museum (errr…some random artist in there). 😉 Those were really cool museums. I find it strange that I can stand a foot away from the actual paintings that these artists worked on!

The funniest story is I met these three guys from Britain, and one of them was from Newcastle near the Scottish border. Myself and one British guy couldn’t understand a word the guy from Newcastle was saying, so the other guy would translate EVERY time he said something. It was like we were speaking another language. And he would translate what I said for the guy from Newcastle. HELLO! We’re all speaking English! We would break out into giggle fits every time we needed the translator. That’s what I really like about British folks – great sense of humor and they love to laugh. Of course I had to make it clear I wasn’t interested in sex but we enjoyed just hanging out together.

Drat! I’m running out of time! So I’ll say goodbye for now.

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hola from Barcelona!
entry Jun 23 2005, 09:41 PM

I made it to Barcelona! Yea! I arrived here this morning and I’ve been having a blast since! I really like Barcelona. The buzz word for Barcelona is that it’s a “cosmopolitan” city, full of folks from all over who come for a visit and fall in love with the city and refuse to leave. Like many big European cities, there’s plenty of statues and fountains and gorgeous, fancy, classical buildings. But there’s a lot of fun and offbeat art and architecture and people as well, which makes walking around tons of fun.

After arriving and relaxing for a few, I went out walking around town. I strolled down Las Ramblas, a stretch of pedestrial walkway full of human statues, caricature vendors and other artists, flower shops, cafes, those guys doing a variation of the shell game (“which one is the ball under?”) and – my favorite – animal sellers. But here pet vendors are not like any pet shop in the states. At these tiny animal vendors on the walkway, they sell all kinds of animals I’ve never seen for sale before, like chipmunks, albino ferrets, ducklings, exotic birds, turtles of all sizes, iguanas, bunnies of all types, and many other animals that I can’t name (but haven’t seen before) because all the signs are in the Catalonian language. Way cool! It seems with so much apartment life here, smaller animals are more popular than cats and dogs. It’s so much fun walking around there, but many people have told me that Las Ramblas is the absolute worst place in Europe for pickpockets, so I’m very careful.

On a side alley off of Las Ramblas is a marketplace that is an assault to all your senses, and I mean it in both a good and a bad way. It’s absolutely huge, wall-to-wall vendors of fresh food. Lots of fruit and vegetables dirt cheap (a whole pineapple for 40 euro cent or 3 for a euro) and a few food stands. But what I find really fascinating are the meat and seafood vendors! Some of the stands have huge cuts of meat hanging all over and chunks of fresh meat sitting out on the counters (they don’t seem to be as concerned about sanitary conditions as in the states). But there are strange cuts of meat that I’ve never seen before! Many are whole, with the head attached and everything, just skinned with all the muscles showing, like this one animal that I can’t figure out what it is. It’s some kind of mammal, like a long, small dog (maybe a fox?) and it’s just really weird to see it sitting there, with all its muscles showing. In the states you can’t really tell what you’re eating, but here’s it a lot more obvious that you’re eating animals! Also at this market there’s sooo many different kinds of seafood (many whole fish, heads and all) and crustaceans and just sooo many varieties it’s incredible. But what really surprised me is all the shellfish is still moving! They’re just sitting on ice and the crabs and lobsters are twitching and flailing and trying to get up, as are many of the shellfish. Tres bizarre! I was very surprised. And you think you have fresh seafood on the East Coast??!! It reminded me of the marketplace that I went to in Tangier, Morocco (except it wasn’t quite that bad, not as many flies, but still stinky!) I got lots of pictures, including one of a big pig head for sale. Pig head anyone? The market was enough to make me want to become a vegetarian! 😉

Anyway, I went to the end of Las Ramblas and then walked around the waterfront. Very beautiful, and again, quite an interesting mix of architecture. It is a bit cooler here than in Paris, but still hot. I may head to the beach Barceloneta tomorrow or the day after if I feel inspired. Just a metro ride away! (or a walk if I’m really ambitious) Good thing I brought my swimsuit. Another reason Barcelona is fun is that it’s a beach town and a cosmopolitan city in one, so you see people walking around fancy dept. stores in bikini tops and whatnot. The hostel I’m staying at is nice; in a good neighborhood not too far from the important stuff, and free internet that actually isn’t in use by others 24/7! There’s a nice terrace to hang out in, and my room has a balony overlooking a street in case I get bored 😉 Today I wandered and took a lot of pictures, so tomorrow or the next day I’ll actually go to some of those other tourist places, like the Latin quarter and the cathedral by Gaudi. Of course today I had my daily pickup attempt; today it was Bobby Brown from Jamaica who was very persistent even though I told him I was married (ok, a little harmless lie). I guess it’s part of a woman travelling alone, I guess, but no problem – I don’t give them any info and walk away.

Barcelona is more fun than Paris, I think. Most of the stuff a tourist would want to see are clustered together, so it’s pretty walkable, unlike Paris. Paris has a lot of history which is really interesting, like the French revolution, but many of their sites are more old-fashioned, hoity-toity, like palaces and gorgeous buildings and whatnot. In Paris I had the advantage of speaking a little French, but in Barcelona I just have to hope folks speak English — there seem to be more people speaking foreign languages than in Paris.

In Paris I went to La Concierge, the prison where Marie Antionette and friends were kept before they were beheaded. I also went to Saint Chapelle, Notre Dam, and Sacre Coeur, all gorgeous churches but very different from each other. I also checked out the Orsay Museum which had an awesome collection of impressionist art. I still think it’s amazing to stand before, say, a self-portrait of Van Gogh and know that Van Gogh actually stood before this painting and painted it himself many years ago. Just strange and wonderful to imagine all the history of these paintings. I saw the Eiffel Tower from somewhere below (I just didn’t feel like waiting in line to climb it; didn’t seem that important). And I saw and photographed many other cool things around Paris.

The hostel I stayed at was ok, though extremely cramped and with lots of street noise. But Paris doesn’t have the greatest hostels from the reviews I’ve read. It was nice to be able to look out over busy Republique square from my room. There was this British guy Jeff and two California girls sharing the room with me, and Jeff had fun making fun of the “Valley Girls” because they weren’t very interested in meeting other people; they just stuck together. On our last night Jeff and Jared (a new roomie) grabbed a bottle of wine and sat out on a pedestrian bridge over the Seine. There were a bunch of different bands playing all along the river, so it was cool to listen to them and meet other people. I even heard a little French death metal. I’ve met a lot of Americans in Amsterdam and Paris, but there don’t seem to be as many in Barcelona, which is fine by me.

Yesterday I was taking the 8:30pm nighttrain from Paris to Barcelona, so I decided to go to Versailles on my last day. Versailles is where King Louis’ palace is, about as luxurious as they come. The gardens are quite amazing as well! I enjoyed a picnic lunch there, with a sandwich I managed to buy using only French! King Louis, who referred to himself as the “sun king” because of his sunny personality (and it actually was, according to historians), built this magnificent palace and all adornments. For example, he decided he wanted orange trees. So he built an orangerie, a greenhouse to keep the orange trees in the winter, and his workers would wheel them out and scatter them about in the summer. Marie Antionette dreamed of a simple peasant life (well, not actually one with lots of work) so she built this whole village at Versailles (incl. a working farm with animals) and ordered around the laborers, pretending to lead the simple life. The stories go on and on… As can imagine, Versailles is huge and spectacular. Of course all this opulence cost Louis and Marie their lives, as the peasants got tired of starving while the royalty were spending all their money on luxury, and they stormed Versaille and dragged Louis and Marie away to La Concierge, where they were tried and found guilty, and then found themselves a foot shorter at the top via the guilluitine. Chop. And this lead the way for Napolean to take over.

So I left Versailles with plenty of time to pick up my bag at the hostel and make my night train — so I thought. Until the train line stopped for an hour due to some unexplained cause, and we all sat on the train sweating and wondering what was going on. Finally when the train started moving again, myself and a family from Houston, Texas plotted another escape route, to a different metro line, and I basically ran everywhere from there – to and from the hostel and through the metro. I did make it to the train station, only to find the ticket machine wouldn’t give me my ticket and I had to wait in a looooong line instead, sweating it out the whole way. Ticket in hand finally, I ran to the train, making it with only a minute to spare! Phew! But I did make it, and it was fine. I shared a 4 person couchette with a French woman and a woman from Strasborg France who was originally from somewhere else. The French woman spoke little English and I speak little French so it was fun for us to try to communicate. The other woman would either translate, or there would be only one conversation going on at a time- French or English. The night train wasn’t bad at all; we had a sink and bottled water in our compartment. I even managed to sleep throughout the night! Not bad for my first night train experience, once I made it.

There’s so many other cool stories to share with you, but I hope you enjoy a sampling anyway. I hear fireworks outside! I’ll have to check it out!

P.S. Sorry about the spelling and any inaccuracies you might note. I try, but I have to write these very quickly! Like which XXIXXXV number came after Louis.

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You mean you want to hear more about Barcelona??!!
entry Jun 26 2005, 09:40 PM

Me again, still enjoying Barcelona, though today I feel pretty exhausted, mostly from all the heat, but also from all the walking I’ve been doing. My feet aren’t very happy right now. L

I definitely love Barcelona. It’s so much more fun than other cities, in so many ways – how people dress, a lot of really fun modernist architecture incl. a lot of Gaudi’s works, and such interesting people-watching. Something funny — I see a lot of young women (and older too) with pot bellies. But they wear low, tight pants or a skirt, and a tight or short shirt, so you can see their flab hanging over their waistband. And even very large women wear sleeveless tops. It’s great to see! Such a refreshing change from our fat-phobic society in America. You go, women! I’ve seen a lot of pregnant women too, maybe it’s just because I see a lot of people in general.

You do see a lot of beggars here. I know there’s a lot in any city, but here there’s a lot. I’ve seen at least a dozen Indian or Pakistani women with babies begging for money, and they get kind of aggressive about it. One lady told me that she saw an Indian woman begging with a light-skinned, blond baby! You also see people with all kinds of deformities sitting on the street with their cups or plates, hoping for handouts. Maybe it’s because people are giving money to the human statues to turn them on, and so they figure they should give change to those who need it. I always find this a quandry though. I want to help them, but am I really teaching them to be independent, or am I teaching them that this is okay as a way of life? It must feel awful for them and for all the people who see them and I’d rather see them earn a living in a different way. But if begging is profitable…??

At least their husbands (I imagine) are being a bit more ambitious. You see a lot of Indian and Pakistani men selling anything and everything on the street — sunglasses, belts, jewelry, scarves, and what cracks me up — beer! They walk around Las Ramblas at night with six packs selling beers for 2 euro each, and they actually sell more than I would expect! When I sit on Las Ramblas at night, they come by me and and offer their beer at least 20 times. “no, already!” 🙂 I’ve also seen the windshield washer guys at work – you know, the ones who wash your windshield while you wait at a red light and then expect money. And of course there’s plenty of buscars. I guess everyone’s an entrepreneur, looking for tourist money! The human statues are my favorite though; they’re so creative and very elaborate. My favorite two are God and the devil playing chess, and this guy’s face in a baby carriage. When you give him money, he starts crying and waving around his baby feet and arms like you just woke up the baby! Everyone laughs when they see him. Then he goes back to sleep. What an ugly baby though!

Yesterday and today I went and toured a few places that Gaudi designed. His cathedral is amazing! If you haven’t seen a picture of it, google “Gaudi” and check out pictures of his work. The cathedral has already taken 150 years to build and will probably take another 50 or more, in part because it relies on donations and admission money, and in part because it’s such a huge and ambitious project. Today I saw Park Guell, an amazing park high on a hillside that he designed. He put in so many amazing details and nooks and crannies, so it’s an adventure just walking around. Gaudi was inspired by nature, designing columns shaped like trees, and making a lot of breakthroughs in architecture by breaking out of the paradigm. So much fun, really!

Since my feet are hurting me, I didn’t walk around the entire park, but I saw the important parts anyway. I enjoyed hanging out in a Gaudi cave and writing in my journal while listening to a flutist and trumpet player. Since I’d enjoyed them for about an hour, I wanted to give them some change, but all I had was enough for the bus plus three cents, and I was much too embarrassed to give them that. As I was leaving, I found a euro coin on the ground. Voila! See how life works out like that?! It’s funny, there’s a blister on the bottom of one of my feet (from walking like 10 kilometers in my flip flops) and so part of today I had to limp around. I was getting some strange looks — I wonder if people expected me to come up and beg for money because I’m imperfect! Just call me “the hobblet!”

I still think the most fun part of Barcelona is walking around, checking out buildings and people and markets and whatnot. It can be difficult at times engaging in transactions, as not everyone speaks english and of course I only know a few catalan words. Like the lady at the supermarket who got mad at me because I only had a 10 euro bill and nothing smaller, and then refused to give me a plastic bag for my groceries. “No plastic bag for you, stupid American” (I can only wonder what she was thinking). Or the catalan woman who came up to me to hand me a 5 euro bill speaking catalan. I said “I don’t speak catalan” and she said “oh” and walked away. I wonder what she wanted, and why she wanted to hand me a five euro bill. But hey, all this is part of the adventure, right?

As far as the language barrier, sometimes it’s a game of charades. Like the supermarket cashier going “blah blah blah” and waving her arms. I point to the other register. “Si.” So I go there. I imagine she was telling me she’s closing. Or when I got up to give my seat to a guy on the bus, and he said “blah blah blah”, I would hope it was some form of thank you, and not “whadda I look that old and helpless to you that I can’t stand?” I like taking the bus; it makes me feel more like a local. Anyone can take the metro — it’s easy. But the bus is more of a challenge and that’s how many locals travel.

The Catalunyans are very independent and have always been at odds with the Spanish. I even saw graffiti that said “This is Catalunya – this is not Spain” — in English! It’s almost like they have their own language. Wait, they do! J Anyway, tomorrow I say goodbye to this beautiful city and onto another adventure. So until then, adeiu! (see, told you it’s not Spanish).

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Ciao from Rome and Assisi
entry Jul 4 2005, 08:44 PM

i made it to rome just fine. for a change, no transportation disasters that had me delayed, i got there in plenty of time. only uncertainty is that i didn’t know which terminal to get off the bus at, and the bus driver didn’t speak any english so i picked a random one and lucked out big time!

guess where i’m writing from — the local laundromat! that’s where i get internet access. only a half hour per day free, but it’s convenient right now because my laundry will be done soon! it’s just down the street from the hostel. the hostel seems fine so far, Rome hostels like Paris aren’t anything to write home about but they seem friendly enough. Good thing I booked ahead, as tonight the hostel is full and some fellow backpackers have to do the hostel shuffle – tonight in hostel a, tomorrow b, the next 2 days a again, then off to b for the last night. argh!!! I’m glad I booked ahead. 🙂 The people at the hostel are really cool – I made some friends and we’ve been having fun hanging out.

today i went to the vatican, which includes the vatican museum, the famous sistine chapel, and st. peter’s cathedral. the museum was interesting and very big (lots of marble statues, etc.), and the sistine chapel was amazing of course! michaelangelo didn’t want to paint it originally because he’s a sculpter, not a painter, but the pope twisted his arm and begged and bribed and threatened him until he agreed. imagine how tiring it was for him to lie on his back and paint the ceiling, day after day, arms tired, paint dripping in his face, and to do the whole chapel, not just the ceiling. it nearly killed him to paint it! but when he was finally done, it was revealed to the public and was hailed as a grand masterpiece! It’s considered the greatest single piece of artwork in the world. Fortunately Michaelangelo lived to a ripe old age of 89. Unlike Michaelangelo and Leonardo DaVinci who were introverts, Raphael was very much into himself, and always had an entourage when he went out, and was into booze and ladies. Very interesting, these artists!

After the sistine chapel, I went to see Pope John Paul II’s tomb, and then St. Peter’s cathedral which is huge! it used to be the single biggest cathedral in the world until the built a bigger one on the ivory coast. it’s very intricate and ornate. The dome, designed by Michaelangelo, is 130 meters tall – big enough to fit the statue of liberty with room to spare! but the amazing thing is that it doesn’t look that high. it was designed to make it look smaller and cozier than it really is, for example, there are two layers of statues — the bottom layer and the top layer look the same height. But the top layer is really 1/3 bigger than the bottom layer, so it forms a great optical illusion! The designers are very clever.

When I got to St. Peter’s, a guy was advertising a free tour so I joined in. It was great! He told us all about the Christians getting persecuted and they were going to crucify Peter (yes, Jesus’ disciple, though Peter wasn’t his real name, it’s a mixup). Peter’s last request was to be on the cross upside-down because he wasn’t worthy enough to be crucified the same way as Jesus. This happened at night, but there were no street lights or whatever. So what did they use? Human torches! They gathered the Christians from jail and doused them and burned them so there would be light for all the Romans to see by. Why Christians? They were the scapegoat for something that had gone wrong in Rome. They also threw some to the lions and tigers, in order to keep the Romans entertained. Christainity was made legaglly again, finally, in 311 (? I think) A.D.

In St. Peter’s I saw the body of a pope that has never decomposed. They dug him up after 143 years and found he hadn’t decomposed, so they made him a saint. He’s behind glass (because kids used to poke him) but not climate controlled in any way, and we can see his real hand, never decomposed, just a bit dark and wrinkled. Really cool!

Coliseum in Rome – lions, tigers, and humans, oh my!

The Coliseum was really cool, as was the Roman forum. There are tons of Roman ruins everywhere! I went to Ostia Antica, an old port town that’s really well preserved, like Pompeii but working class. It was really neat to see how the ancient Romans lived, and all the things they built, like baths (hot and cold) and even an exercise room! I could go on and on about different things but time is limited and I don’t want to put you to sleep.

OK, now I’m actually in Florence (this email has been in the works for a week!) but I stopped in Assisi on the way. Assisi was really cool! The cathedral to St. Francis is beautiful, as is the cute town built on a hill. St. Francis was a really cool guy, giving up all his wealth to live as a poor monk and preaching simplicity and smelling the roses. I saw his rose garden, where all the roses grow without thorns. The story is that he was fighting off temptation (we’re not sure by what) and threw himself on the roses, and now they grow without thorns. Really neat!

beautiful Italian countryside

The view from Assisi was stunning! I love riding on the train and seeing all the hill towns, so many shades of green and gold, from olive trees and grapevines and more. They build these towns right on the side of a hill and they are so darling. In the town of Assisi at the top of the hill there was a market and I bought a new pair of sandals – only 10 euro! They were comfortable for the first day – too bad that out of the 4 pairs of shoes I have, they are each giving me blisters in different places. That goes to show how much walking I’ve been doing all the time, every day. My mind says go, but my feet say OW! The mind usually wins in this case – so much to see!

A cute side street in Assisi. I loved wandering the town and hanging out where St. Francis did.

Then after Assisi the plan was to take a train to Florence. Well it was a huge comedy of errors after that. The train was very late, and when it did come, I asked two people if it was going to Florence. Yes. So I got on. Imagine my surprise when I ended up back in Rome! (in the other direction!) Oops. So I found out that I could catch the last train at 9:37pm and made that, but when I got out of the station, I couldn’t find the road I was looking for. Turns out it was the Florence station that was far away from the hostel, not close. So with the help of a non-English speaking cop I managed to catch the last bus at 12:40am to the right station, and finally found the hostel. I was so tired. But then the hostel didn’t answer the buzzer! I buzzed and buzzed, then kept trying to call but all the payphones would eat my money and not make the call, and I’d go back and buzz again. I had called the hostel from Rome and told Marco I expected to arrive around midnight, so apparently he thought I wasn’t coming. Finally I remembered to use my international calling card and got a hold of Marco, the hostel guy, at around 1:30am and actually got into my bed. I was a stressed out, exhausted and frustrated camper at that point, but it was good to have a bed finally! And yes, despite problems like this, it’s totally worth it to travel and see all the amazing things I do! I’ll write more about Florence in my next update.

So many interesting things and customs that are different in Italy than the U.S. (of course) For example, here crossing the street is an adventure as people don’t like to stop, even for lights, and you just have to follow the locals across the street because they step in front of cars. Of course it’s crazy, but when in Rome……..

(couldn’t resist! 😉 )

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Ciao Bella from Siena
entry Jul 6 2005, 09:29 PM

hi friends Well I made it to Siena today, and amazingly enough, I didn’t have any problems with the trip! Just the usual disorientation when you arrive in a new city (like, uh, where exactly did the bus drop me off?) But it’s nice not to have had a train strike or any of those unforeseen problems that seem to crop up for me. 🙂

Siena is a really pretty town. I’m looking forward to seeing the sites tomorrow. And my hotel room is really styling — this is my first single of the trip (as opposed to a dorm in a hostel) and the room is huge by European standards, and even some American standards. I have a double bed, a private telephone with my own number and cable TV. Sweet! OK, I still have to use the shower and toilet down the hall, but no complaints here! I’ll be here in Siena until Friday when I head to Venice.

As I was walking to the supermarket, I heard drums coming, and it turned out to be a parade. The Palio was this past Saturday, which is this huge horse race they have twice a year. Each neighborhood has its own horse and the neighborhoods are super-competitive and REALLY want to win bragging rights. It’s really huge here to all the locals, as they get psyched up for it for months ahead, and have all sorts of festivities. The horses with their bareback riders race around the town square, Piazza del Campo, just two or three times, and then it’s all over. The winners are SO psyched, and even grown men are known to cry over losing. So I think this parade was the winning neighborhood showing off, waving their green and yellow flags (they each have their own flag and mascot, usually an animal). All the folks in the neighborhoood joined in too, with green and yellow scarves with those baby sucky things hanging off them (errr..can’t remember the name of them). I was actually planning to come to Siena that weekend, but I couldn’t find a room anywhere!

Florence was nice, and I made lots of friends at the hostel. I saw the major sites, the Duomo, the Piazzas, the markets, and also the huge art museums. I really lucked out, as the Uffizi reservations were sold out all week, but Marco from the hostel had made reservations, so myself and 3 British girls went together. The Uffizi has such amazing artwork by Bochelli, Rembrandt, Raphael, and so much more, including the birth of Venus. I also found out that the Accademia, home of Michelangelo’s David and the Slaves and other artwork, was open and free Tuesday night, though they don’t advertise it. So I was able to avoid the huge lines and see David for free! He really is amazing; Michelangelo even remembered the veins in his hands and neck and other details. It amazes me how they chip away at a block of marble and come away with these great works, and with even one mistake they’re in trouble (unlike painting, you can’t paint or marble over mistakes). It’s really neat to be able to see these great works in person.

Drummers at a soccer parade in Florence

The last night I was in Florence, a whole group of us went out to see the sunset over the Arno River, and then to see David, and then out to dinner and a couple of pubs. We ended the night at a disco, which was sooo interesting to watch. Definitely a great sociological study!

 

Hanging out with hostel friends in Florence. Sitting by the river at sunset before we headed off to see David for free = priceless!

And Italy is so interesting, and challenging too. Shopping at the supermarket it’s like “well, your guess is as good as mine. This LOOKS like yogurt…” And you’re supposed to wear gloves to pick out fruit and vegetables. All sorts of little cultural differences that you have to pick up as you go along. Tonight at the store they were announcing they were closing but of course I had no clue and went about my shopping; lalala. 😉

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Ciao from the home of…?? (guess!)
entry Jul 11 2005, 08:05 PM

hi friends another day, another place. For some people I meet, that’s literally true — they stay one or two nights in a place! I don’t know how they do it. Are they really getting to know a place or just racing around like headless chickens? I prefer the more laid-back variety of travel.

Today i’m in Verona, yes, famous home of Romeo and Juliet. It’s also where Dante settled down after he was kicked out of Florence. Verona makes it really easy to see the sights. I bought a Verona Card for 8 euro (less than 1 museum in Florence) and it got me into all the sights. Plus they give you a map of where the various sites are, so you can hit them geographically, and pop into ones you might not otherwise pay for. The best example would be Juliet’s house. Yes, they have a 5 story house, complete with balcony and ivy, that they claim to be Juliet’s house, and they have a tomb for her too, with Bill’s bust (you might know him as shakespeare). In Juliet’s house you can write her letters on the computer or paper. And the entryway to her house is graffitied with people declaring their true love to another (for the moment). In the courtyard is Juliet’s statue and it’s said that rubbing her breast will help you to find true love. Juliet gets thousands of pictures of her taken daily, each complete with a tourist or two groping her. Poor Juliet. Of course Romeo and Juliet were complete fiction (even if the feuding families weren’t), so the whole things seems disgustingly thick in tourist trappings! But it was included with the card, and conveniently located near me when it started raining today. Yes, we got thundershowers today — first time I’ve seen rain here in Europe since I got here!

Some of the more interesting sites here in Verona include a Roman Coliseum, the third largest and in great shape, where the hold their famous Operas most nights during July and August. Yes, Verona is THE place to see an Italian Opera, but of course they don’t have one tonight (because it’s Monday) since I’m here on Monday. They also have Roman forum ruins built into a hill, which was pretty neat. The whole city is walled in, and surrounded by a river on three sides, and even has a castle (now an art museum) for protection. There is so much neat architecture here, old frescoes on buildings and cute balconies and alleyways with plants everywhere. It’s a nice city for strolling around, because, like Siena, they have a limited traffic area in the center of town. Horray! And I can’t beat the price of the hostel (all female) — 14 euros for a 3-bed dorm with our own bathroom. Ensuite! Sweet!

Venice, where I just left, was very lovely, and even better for strolling. No cars or scooters at all! Their cars and buses and taxis are all boats. Wandering around was the best part, as you could easily get lost, but you never worried, knowing that you’re on an island and you can’t get off! Sooner or later you found a familiar piazza (square). And once you get off the beaten (tourist) track, there are few people around at all. I’d read that Venice is sooooo crowded, but I didn’t find it any more crowded than any of the other tourist cities.

My first day I toured the basilica of San Marco (St. Mark), which is stunning! It’s a potpourri of different styles, made from materials and works they brought back from all over the place, including Constantinople (Istanbul, Turkey). So it’s covered in gorgeous glass mosaics layered with gold, full of Byzantine and Gothic and Renaissance architecture and artwork. The mosaics are really quite stunning!

After San Marco’s I went next door to the Doge’s (Duke’s) palace. The Doge was “elected” by officials, but eventually he took more and more power to rule by divine right, and watch out if you disagree with him! He and 9 others were on a Council of 10, who were kind of like the CIA/secret police who answered to no one and could throw you in jail or torture you even if they just suspected you were doing something they didn’t like. The Venetians gained great wealth from the sea and trade, but once Columbus opened up new trade routes, their wealth, but not their hunger for nice things, declined. So they continued to pillage and plunder to be able to enjoy their luxurious lifestyle. They even pillaged some Christian churches in Constantinople; not exactly a high point for Christianity. In the Doge’s palace, there are many paintings of the Doge kneeling before God humbly; of course they were all commissioned by the Doge!

I enjoyed riding the Vaporettos (water buses) in Venice, to the point of becoming a Vaporetto junkie. Up and down the Grand Canal I went, during the day, at sunset, at night, it’s always lovely! Nighttime is especially gorgeous, with the interiors of buildings lit up, and white and yellow “street” lights along the canals. Venice is sinking though! Some people have had to abandon their bottom floors! And San Marco square floods 250 times a year! I couldn’t believe it when I read that on the information board. They can save Venice, but it means destroying the environment. And people can’t really build new houses in Venice, because there’s regulations. So Venice is slowly rotting away while developers knosh their teeth. It’s fine by me though, better to renovate than rebuild (not that they asked me). And I met some cool women at the Venice hostel with whom I was hanging out– fun! I never have to worry about getting too lonely.

There’s so many things I’ve been wanting to tell you about life here and interesting things I’ve seen and found out, but there is just never time. So you’ll just have to wait until I have more time to write! Ciao!

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Gutentag from Munich, Germany
entry Jul 19 2005, 08:27 AM

hi friends Yup, I´m in Munich now! My first full day here I went to the Dachau concentration camp, the first Nazi concentration camp and the one they used as an example for the others. As expected it was depressing and moving, and I found myself amazed as the strength and perserverence of the prisoners, angered at the cruelty of their captors and so so saddened by all their suffering. It was really moving to read all the personal accounts and stories from those who survived and those who didn´t.

Yesterday I went to Neuschwanstein and Hogschwanstein (Ok, something like that, I don´t have time to look up the spellings). They are two amazing, fairy-tale-like, romantic castles, the Neu one built by King Ludwig the romantic king. It was sad that the Neu-castle, Ludwig´s dream castle, was completed only 172 days before he died, or more likely was murdered. The townspeople got sick of him spending their money on silly things like castles and they had four doctors (who´d never met him in person) declared him insane and they sent him away. Three days later, Ludwig and his psychiatrist were found drowned in the lake by the institution. Pretty sad, as Ludwig was definitely eccentric and loved arts and music, but I don´t think he was really insane. He was the last Bavarian king. The Neu castle is the basis for the Walt Disney world castle, and is really neat! I´m sure if you saw a picture you’d agree, and would definitely recognize it.

At the “Disney castle” in Germany, Neuschwanstein [small, in background next to my head]. The photo is taken from the yellow castle, Hohenschwangau.

Anyway, I arrived here from Switzerland, which I absoutely loved! Imagine what you might expect idyllic Switzerland might look like. Green rolling hills, huge mountains with snowcapped peaked, cute little brown A frame swiss houses and cows scattered about the hills, waterfalls and streams cascading out of nowhere. Yes, that´s exactly what the Berner Oberland (near Interlaken) looked like! The trainride there was absolutely stunning. At one point I looked up and saw green fields, a mountain with a waterfall cascading down, and two paragliders taking off from the top of the mountain. My jaw just dropped at the beauty and wonder, and pretty much stayed like that the whole time I was there!

 

The beautiful Swiss countryside, with random cows dotting the mountain plateaus and hills

I spent two days hiking on these high mountain ridges, with views of the snowcapped peaks and gorgeous green rolling valleys dotted with houses. The other full day in Switzerland I took a train up to the “Top of Europe”, the highest train station in the world, at the Jungfraujoch, atop the Jungfrau mountain, over 11,000 feet high! I had seen the snowcapped mountaintops during my hike, but never imagined that I would be that high up myself! It´s amazing how steeply the cog wheel railroads can climb and descend.

Top of Europe, Jungfraujoch, Switzerland. So much snow in July!

So at the Top of Europe, I had a blast! There was a gorgeous 360 degree observation point, and I walked out on a glacier and snow. There was skiing there (a bunny slope) with spring skiing conditions (warm in the sun, cool in the shade), and they gave out free sleds. So of course I had to borrow a sled and went sledding for close to an hour, until I was thoroughly soaked. At one point I was going down and this Asian girl was standing right in the path (a no no) facing the other way and I yelled “move! move!” but she didn´t, and I couldn´t stop. So yes, I plowed right into her, and she fell on top of me, and amazingly enough neither of us were hurt and we laughed about it. It must have been quite a site for spectators!

Skiing in July at the Top of Europe, Jungfraujoch

Oh, I don´t think I mentioned in my last update that my last night in Verona, there was no opera. But it turns out as I strolled through town I heard a rock band playing. hmmm…they sound familiar. Turns out Coldplay were playing a sold-out show in the Roman arena. So I strolled an art exhibit and wrote postcards and my journal while I camped out listening to Coldplay play. That was really cool! Too bad my hostel had an 11pm curfew (the only hostel with that early a curfew — oh well!) But it was neat to be able to listen to a free concert!

Anyway, I gotta run, running out of time as usual. There´s so much more I would have like to included but I hope you have a little to enjoy anyway. Today I´m off to Rothenberg.

P.S. The kezboards in Germanz are frustrating, as the y and z are in reversed positions!

~<*>~<*>~<*>~<*>~<*>~<*>~~<*>~

Howdy from Berlin
entry Jul 24 2005, 10:29 AM

Hi friends Here’s my update that’s been in progress since Munich (three towns ago)…

On my last day in Munich I spontaneously went on a free walking tour instead of leaving Munich in the morning. It lasted close to 4 hours and was really cool! Our guide was really funny and interesting and dramatic, and told us stories of lust, romance, sex, intrigue…and beer! The moral of the story is, don’t mess with the Munich people’s beer. Whatever you do, don’t try to tax it or raise the price, or they will surely revolt! (it’s happened twice, the second time as late as 1995 when the mayor tried to close the beer halls at 9:30pm each night).

It was good to get a guided tour in Munich because my guidebook doesn’t cover Munich, so my first night I kind of wandered around like “ok, this is a nice building…this is pretty”, taking pictures of everything without really having an understanding of anything or even knowing what it is. Of course, there are a lot of tourists like that anyhow, taking lots of pictures, especially with themselves in anything and everything. I’ve seen tourists jumping in front of horses in parades to get their pictures with the parade, almost getting run over by the horses. I’m having fun just taking pictures, so the ratio of pictures with me/without me is quite high, which is fine by me.

I saw the coolest thing in Munich in the English Garden. There’s a river which has a permanent wave in it — the wave stays in the same spot (yeah, Rush man, permanent waves!), and these surfers take turns surfing the wave! They surf back and forth, until they wipe out and are swept down river, and then the climb up the bank and do it all over again. It is sooo cool to watch!

 

Surfing on the river in a Munich park on a ‘permanent wave.’  Is this where Rush got the idea from for their album Permanent Waves?

Speaking of cool-looking things, did I mention that back in Switzerland I was really, really considering going paragliding?? It looked sooo cool and so much fun, but I couldn’t really justify spending that many more franks since I’d already spent a LOT on the train trip to the Top of Europe. But that was soooo worth it! Paragliding and skydiving are still on my list of things to do though. This brings to mind one of my old favorite T-shirts, “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” Think about it! Then write back and let me know what the last new thing you tried was.

OK, fast forward…now I’m in Berlin. Internet was too expensive in Rothenberg and Bacharach (6 euros per hour), the two cities I went to after Munich. But it’s cheap here in Berlin, only 1,20 per hour. I just arrived in Berlin this evening, after a long train ride from Bacharach.

I’m spending 5 nights here so that should give me plenty of time to do all the sights and do some shopping (workshoes for my volunteer project coming up) and laundry and relaxing. After Berlin I’ll do Brugge and Ghent in Belgium and then volunteer for 2 weeks. I’ll be doing mostly gardening, and hopefully taking lots of classes too! It’ll be me and around 10 other international volunteers.

So….let’s see….after Munich was Rothenberg. It’s the cutest town! It’s a medieval walled city that became rich back in the day when it was less than a kilometer from the intersection of important north-south (Scandinavia to Italy) and east-west (Paris to somewhere near Budapest) trade routes. The wall is still up, and you can walk the ramparts and imagine you’re fighting off invaders and dumping boiling Nutella on them.

The castle is now a garden though, as they used the stones to build more wall sections. It seems they do that a lot with castles — use them as “quarry” and take away stones for other buildings — that’s one reason so many castles are mere shadows of what they once ere. Usually the castles were the victim of Napoleon or other destroyers, and then what remained of the castle was carted away for other buildings. Hmmm….that’s what happened to the Coliseum in Rome also (marble blocks carted off for other buildings). So the castle lies around in ruins for a while, and then a rich person decides to buy it and rebuild in the romantic 19th century style….at least that seems to be the case in the Rhine Valley area.

But I digress. Rothenberg was really cute Bavarian town, and is famous for its terrific shopping, including Christmas things…kinda like an old-fashioned Christmas tree shop. Once again I was spoiled and had a single (yes, my own!) room in a cute B&B. I learned a lot about medieval life, esp. at the crime and punishment museum and on the guided tours (the nightwatchmen tour was terrific! he takes us on his nightly rounds with him). I saw a lot of shame masks and other forms of punishment. They even punished the children in school very dramatically.

Some examples: if a woman was caught hitting her husband, she had to wear a shame mask and be paraded around town on a donkey, led by her husband (who was too wimpy to fight back with her). If two women were fighting, they were joined together with a neck “violin” that holds their heads and neck, which was supposed to force them to make up and not fight again.

Men and women often had to wear shame masks made of iron with ridiculous features, like a huge tongue and ears to show they were nosy and gossiped a lot. Men who got too drunk too often would have to walk about with beer barrels on their shoulders, and sometimes weights were added for chuckles. And I saw real chastity belts and an iron maiden (rocks, dude!). Then there were a whole lot worse tortures and punishments like spiked chairs and thumbscrews which I won’t elaborate on, as I didn’t care to think about them in too much detail. And there were a lot of witch accusations, you know, things like “if they don’t survive the drowning, then they’re not a witch…” Now did any of these people actually survive the drowning and turn out to be a witch?

Life was really tough back then. Imagine something you do now that you might have to pay a fine for. Back then, you instead had to endure a few hours of humiliation or repeated dunking in a cage in water or lashings or something like that….possibly even banishment or painful death. So the next time you feel like complaining about a parking ticket you got, think about the medieval alternative….

So the best part of Rothenberg was wandering around the cute and historic town and enjoying the scenery and learning about medieval life.

So after Rothenberg it was onto Bacharach. Bacharach is a town along the Rhine River, and again it looks just like a cute quintessential German town (one girl described it as looking like Epcot Center). I took the boat cruise along the Rhine River from Bacharach to Koblenz and saw lots of castles on the way. There are a zillion and one castles in various forms of completeness/ruin all along the Rhine. Back in the day the Rhine was a very important shipping route. Robber-barrens each owned a chunk of land, and so they would build castles and put chains across the river, forcing captains to pay a toll or they’d refuse passage. The merchants had to pay many tolls before they made it up this stretch of the river, and they were unhappy about this and often tried to lay siege to a castle, and often failed. Eventually a strong family took over (the Hapsburgs I think) and united Germany into one kingdom. No doubt the ships captains were happy, but I don’t think the French were very happy about it, as they seem to have destroyed a lot of the Rhine castles.

Appropriately enough, while in Bacharach I stayed in a castle! The castle there, Burg Stahlech, has been turned into an HI hostel and so I slept there for two nights. Wikkid kewl! The inside has been totally re-done and so doesn’t look much like a castle, except that it’s very twisty and windy with nooks and crannies and various levels and you might see a medieval chain near a stairway, or look out a window and see it’s really a gun/arrow turret. But the outside is definitely very castle-ish and is way cool! The slate rock upon which it was built has become part of the castle walls/floors in some places. The only downside to staying in the castle was the fact that it was a 15-20 minute hike up a STEEP hill to get there! That’s like 500 steps on the stairmaster and 5 minutes on a steep treadmill…and don’t forget the huge backpack on your back! But it was worth it to be able to sleep in a castle…how often does one get that opportunity?

So for my full day on the Rhine (after the free boat cruise the evening before thanks to my Eurail pass), I explored some of the very picturesque towns on the Rhine. The Rhine has steep banks covered with grapevines and slate, and cute towns snuggle the riverbanks, some towns with Roman ruins and wall fragment remains and the cutest old-fashioned German houses. So that day I went to the neighboring town of St. Goar which has a castle that one can explore. So I get off the train and my guidebook says “steep 15 minute hike”. No problem, all the castles are on steep hills, as it helps with the defense. So I follow a nature path with signs indicating the castle was that way. Along the path, some of the castle signs pointed to non-paths, and one pointed back to the direction I was already coming from, and there were no turn offs! I swear, I think the locals put them up wrong on purpose just to throw off the tourists and have a chuckle over it! So I hike up a steep, steep climb and finally get to the top, and find no castle there! I hike down and over a bit, determined to find the castle, and I do finally spot it…below me! But there was no way to get there from here because of a gorge and a fence. So I hiked back down and had been hiking up and down for an hour and a half and was exhausted at that point. So I took the silly tourist train up to the castle. Although I felt silly on the train, it could have been worse…I could have been one of the tourists videotaping the train as it went by!

Anyway, the St. Goar castle was cool, with a moat and a keep and a pharmacy and all the things a community would need to survive a siege of at least 6 months. There were so many nooks and crannies and underground passages, that I’ll bet kids could have been exploring them all day and still not see half of them! In fact, there are underground tunnels that used to be filled with gunpowerder, so that when the enemy tried to sneak in, the castle patrons would blow them up! The only way to really attack a castle back in the day (since they were built on hills an inpenetrable) was to surround it in a siege, and hope to starve the people into surrendering. Either the castle folk would surrender, or the attacker would get totally bored and give up. Well…that was the way, until gunpowder was invented! Then there was some high tech catapulting and destroying and defending going on… Much more the stuff of Hollywood, yes?

I gotta run…as usual no more time to go into more stuff that I want to write about. And did I mention the German people are really friendly and want to carry on conversations, even if you don’t speak German and they don’t speak English? Much fun!

~<*>~<*>~<*>~<*>~<*>~<*>~~<*>~

Beautiful time in Brugge
entry Jul 30 2005, 10:29 AM

hi friends

Well I took a free walking tour (tips only) in Berlin and it was really interesting! We spent more of our time in the old eastern section, as that seems to be the more interesting part of the city. Where the wall used to be, there’s now cobblestones on the ground outlining its path — quite subtle. There are really only 2 sections of the wall still standing where they used to, one near the old nazi headquarters (the hq is just a pile of rubble now) and another which hosts a continually changing art exhibit. They regularly whitewash the art exhibit the part of the wall and it is repainted over by other artists…well, until they decide who actually owns that chunk of land and then it’ll probably get developed. Berlin has been in a constant state of development since the wall came down, because all the land that used to be the “death strip” next to the wall (30 to 300 yards) is now prime real estate. there are cranes and construction everywhere in berlin, especially right now because next year berlin hosts the world cup and they have to get it all done within this year.


Berlin’s Brandenberg gate – the only remaining gate from the days of ‘the wall’

The tour guide told a most interesting tale of how the cold war ended, so let me recount it for you. Now I can’t claim all historical accuracy, but this is how he told it. The easterner communist folks had just started opening up some of the borders (like in czech rep), but things were progressing slowly. A few weeks before the opening up, the berliners had started to hold small protests and marches, but nothing major at all. In fact, 4 months before the Berlin wall opened up, someone surveyed berliners. 80% stated they wanted berlin to be reunified, but 80% also stated they thought it would never happen in their lifetime!

So anyway, the guy in charge of the eastern wall logistics (sorry I forgot his name so I’ll call him Hermann) got into work one morning and his secretary handed him a stack of new directives. He says “ok, i’ll go read these.” His secretary says “there’s no time; there’s a bunch of reporters in the press room who have been waiting for you to tell them about these new directives.” So Hermann flips through them on his way to the press room. He tells the reporters in obscure language that he thinks they’ll start issuing visas for people to cross from east to west berlin. tom brokaw raises his hand and asks when this will go into effect. Hermann, who doesn’t know the answer, reads from the directive. tom raises his hand again, and again asks him to answer the question “WHEN?”. Hermann is sweating it out because he doesn’t know the answer, and so states, “errr…I think it might possibly be immediately” (and then he’s horrified by what he’s just said.)

So the east berliners hear about this and head out to the wall, asking the guards to let them through. the guards laugh at them, as they haven’t heard anything, so the people explain. the guards check with their superiors who insist they must wait for news from the officials. the people start saying “we´ve been waiting 28 years…open the gates” and start chanting “we are one people”. the guards go back and forth between their supervisors and the easterners, who are still insistent, and don’t want to wait for word from the officials. A guy hops on the wall and instead of getting riddled with bullets, they hose him down, so more people hop on the wall. The western berliners notice something extraordinary is happening and they all start to gather. Finally, as with what happens in any revolution, most of the guards decide they are one with the people, not one with the authority figures, and so they announce they are going to open the gates. there is an eerie silence. the people are nervous because Tienemann square in china had just happened a few months earlier, and they didn’t want the same thing to happen to them. The guards raise the bar and people start walking through a bit hesitantly. They aren’t shot, and are warmly welcomed by the west berliners. they all start cheering. with those first few people who crossed through the gate, they effectively ended the cold war. people were crying and so happy after all their suffering, they could finally meet their loved ones. It was such an amazing and unbelievable thing to them. and so the people started to tear down the wall shortly after that.

But think about it, the people were able to get rid of the wall through their own power, through nonviolent protest. all because hermann was sooo unprepared for his press conference! (ok, I’m sure there’s more to it) 🙂 imagine if he’d been prepared and they did decide to open up the gate in say, 6 months, then all the dignitaries and bigwigs would have to hold their pomp and circumstance about how wonderful they are for doing this. but it was the people! yea! very inspiring.

I watched videos of the crossers at the Checkpoint Charlie museum and it was really moving to watch them crying and celebrating and being so emotional upon crossing. But it was sad that so many people lost their lives trying to cross the walls, or even just trying to help others. Some very clever ways to get across, like inflatable kayaks and flying machines and swinging down ropes. Many of the helpers were students who did it for no money, just to help others, digging for months with primitive tools, and in the end not that many people were able to escape before each tunnel was discovered, maybe 10-20 if they were lucky. And people lost their lives just months and weeks before the walls opened up. Very sad that they didn’t open it sooner.

Anyway, I don’t have time to go into much more detail about everything I’ve seen in Berlin, and I’m now in Brugge, Belgium. But they are both very interesting! And it’s nice to be able to do different things, like going to the zoo (Berlin) and renting a bike and riding around in the countryside (Brugge) instead of the usual churches and museums. Ok, I did the churches and museums too. One museum in Berlin was dedicated to Pablo Picasso and was really interesting, and different than your usual churchy stuff. By now I must have seen 536 churches, with 1,478 versions of Jesus on the crucifix, 867 of the Virgin Mary and baby, and 256 of the pieta (Mary holding Jesus’ dead body) – give or take 3. It’s nice to be able to see something different like Picasso! Horray for the renaissance, that let painters begin to paint other scenes. 🙂

Brugge is cute, one of those old towns with canals and a history. The reason these towns are so well preserved for hundreds of years is that they had great wealth (to build) then had an economic crash so no more modernizing or rebuilding. Then tourists rediscover them, and voila! A cute medeival town to visit. Yesterday I rode all over in my bike, seeing farms and windmills and canals and all sorts of relaxing scenes.

 

Brugge, Belgium – cute canal town

Anyway, I gotta run. And this will probably be my last update for a while, since tomorrow I leave for my two week volunteer project, and I’m not sure how much internet access I’ll have. Ciao! 😀

~<*>~<*>~<*>~<*>~<*>~<*>~~<*>~

hi from exotic Prague
Wed, 17 Aug 2005

hi friends I had an awesome time at the workcamp! There were 17 of us volunteers, 11 international and 6 from Belgium. The ages were mixed, and I wasn’t the oldest this time! There was a 38 year old teacher from New York state, and other men and women from Netherlands, Slovenia, Czech Republic, Italy, Ukraine, Russia, Portugal…errrr…and some other countries I can’t remember at the moment. 🙂 We took classes each night (some taught by volunteers), and we learned a lot from each other and did a lot of meditating. Each morning we met and meditated in the medicine wheel before work. We also took trips to Brussels (and learned the energetic places in Brussels) and went to Polé Polé, a music festival. The volunteers were all incredible people and we became really close. It was really interesting and amazing experience. It was kind of like Omega on a smaller scale, but different in its own way and just as magical! I can’t really go into a lot of detail now, and it wouldn’t really do it justice, but suffice to say, it was an incredible two weeks and I miss my new friends already!

So after the workcamp, I hung out in Brussels for the day with my two friends from Italy before I took a night train to Dresden via Berlin. I stayed in Dresden for a night and was feeling a bit blah the first day because of the rainy weather and missing my friends. Inside a museum, I heard some really good music outside, so I escaped and enjoyed the music. Turns out it was a political rally for the SPD (the party in power in Germany at the moment) and the chancellor of Germany was speaking! It was a really interesting experience, as it turns out that politics are politics no matter where you go. I talked to some protesters (trying to figure out what the event was) who told me that it was all propaganda. The funny thing is, I could tell it was indeed propaganda, even though I didn’t understand a word they were saying! I had fun taking pictures of the speakers, the crowd and the protesters, though after taking a picture of some police officers, they came over and asked to see the picture (scary!) But the photo was okay after all. The rally really cheered me up, as I enjoyed looking at it from a sociological perspective.

The next morning in Dresden, I woke up to discover my camera had been stolen with many of my pictures on it. 🙁 A big bummer, but what can I do? Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of good memories associated with Dresden, though I’m sure it’s a lovely city for others.

Tired of Dresden, I headed to Prague, which I absolutely love! Very exotic, and quite a culture shock, especially when I first arrived. I love the contrasting architecture, the colorful buildings, the great sense of humor of the Czech people, and the strange and wonderful things you can find only in Prague! Today I spent the day exploring Prague with my dormmate Andrea, a graduate student from Hong Kong studying in London. We had a lot of fun and covered the whole city by foot today. And on Friday, the volunteer from the Czech Republic, Katka, will meet me here and we’ll go have tea and hang out for the day. It’ll be so much fun!

I gotta run as I’m hogging up the internet. ’til later!

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a grand hello from vienna

Wed, 24 Aug 2005

hi friends! i have been having an awesome time as the adventure continues…. let’s see…where did I last leave off?

oh yes, i was enjoying prague. it is a really cool city and very fun to explore, even with hoardes of tour groups and british stag parties. Even if you don’t see the stag parties, you can hear them from quite far away….by the singing! yes, intoxicated british guys love to sing, though they’re not necessarily good at it. 😉

on thursday i explored the jewish quarter in prague. there are six different jewish sites, including a couple of synagogues and a jewish cemetary (and they all have museum exhibits in them). it was really interesting and educational. my favorite part was a display of artwork by czech children who gave their interpretations of what happened and what it’s like now, etc. it’s amazing how perceptive and expressive children can be. very moving.

on friday my friend katka (one of my co-volunteers) came and met me in prague. we took the bus (just like locals!) to explore the prague forest, which was lovely, and had a picnic, as she thoughtfully had brought food and traditional czech treats. then we had ice cream and wandered around the city some more. we went to see the lennon wall, with lots of grafitti and a couple of paintings of john lennon. back when the czech people wanted their freedom, john lennon’s music was very inspirational, so they painted his portrait and lyrics on the wall. the officials painted over it, but by each morning it reappeared, and they painted over it, and it reappeared…. quite persistent! i guess the officials finally gave up! the czech people themselves are quite amazing. i had gone to the museum of communism the previous night and learned their story of communist oppression, the longing and struggle for freedom, and the attainment finally with the velvet revolution. very inspirational! i hope the american people will be inspired to follow in the footsteps of the Czechs and overthrow Bush! anyway, katka and i had delicious pizza and a lovely walk through the garden before we had to say goodbye. It was really nice to have a friend for the day and katka is so sweet.

after prague, it was on to cesky krumlov, a small town in the Czech republic. it was so cute and cheap! i could live like a queen there on my budget! i took a tour of the castle, which is multi-colored and not your usual castle, and also took a tour of the castle theater, the oldest baroque theater in the world. in the theater, they could change sets in only 8 seconds, by blinding the audience with fireworks and using ropes and pulleys to change the scenery. pretty high tech for several hundred years ago! i also got a massage in cesky krumlov, my first professional massage, which was really relaxing. i also went horseback riding for an hour, which was a lot of fun and it took us through gorgeous scenery. A couple of times my horse Elvis took off running when he was spooked, but I managed to keep everything under control. hmmm…except that i was trying to stay on the path and elvis was more interested in scoping out good plants to eat. 🙂

The other thing I had planned to do in Cesky Krumlov was go canoeing, but it rained the morning i was going to do it. The last night I went out for dinner and drinks with some aussie friends from the hostel, and who did we meet but more aussies to hang out with! very strange, as there seem to be a ton of aussies in Cesky Krumlov. and they were all pretty wild too. So then I headed to Vienna with Lenny, one of the aussies, and I have been enjoying Vienna since.

Today was my first full day in vienna so I toured the city by tram and then took a tour of the opera house. What’s really amazing about the opera house is that they never do two consecutive performances, so every day they have to take down the scenery and put up new scenery, change costumes, etc. That’s a lot of work for every day! I also walked around lots of lovely places. The architecture is really cool here – so many different styles. vienna is a joy to explore on foot, and i’ve also been zipping around on the trams. i was thinking of doing some traditional stuff, like seeing classic artwork or touring the palaces or whatever, but decided i have already seen tons of that stuff. so instead i opted for a museum dedicated to this modern artist and environmentalist (and drats! I can’t think of his name now). But he has designed some architecture that’s really cool. He doesn’t believe straight lines are natural, and puts in all sorts of curves, colors, plants and trees and asymmetrical lines throughout what he does. He makes Gaudi look tame! The floors are uneven (bumpy) because it’s more natural. I really like his stuff, it’s very fun and fairy-tale-like. I saw an apt. building he did nearby in Vienna which was really cool. i saw photos of some of his other buildings — he turned a boring factory into a fairy tale building and it’s really quite amazing. wikked kewl!

i gotta run, someone is waiting for the internet. off to Budapest tomorrow!

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The final chapter of my Juicy Summer Adventure…

Mon, 17 Oct 2005

Hi friends As I sat here looking at my email account, I realized I never sent you the final chapter of my great travel adventure this summer! I last left you someplace in Eastern Europe… I’m sure you’re at the end of your seats…. 😉 haha Rest assured I did make it home well and fine. And so I thought I’d share the “final” chapter of this summer’s adventure with you right now.

And good news if you like visuals with your stories: soon I will finish posting some photos of this year’s trip on my website. As soon as it’s done, I’ll send you a link. I’d love to have you stop by! So stay tuned to your email… 🙂

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hmmmmmmmmmmm…where did I leave you in the last episode of leona’s crazy eastern european adventures? ok, i’m going to start by pasting from an email i wrote on 26 August, when i still had five days left till i had to go home:

Let’s see…what have I done since I last wrote? I shared a train from Vienna to Budapest with a few hungarian men. the trainride was nice; it’s very rural with lots of farmland and fields of sunflowers until you get near budapest. The young guy in my compartment who spoke some english was doing his best to keep me engaged in conversation. he mentioned some good places to go in budapest and eger. he told me about a big yearly parade in budapest that happened to be that saturday (that Mr. Dreadlocks the hostel worker knew nothing about).

the hostel i’m staying at is really nice. it’s very small, which is good, and has a rectangular courtyard in the center of the building, which is typical budapest. there are two free computers, so i actually get to use one sometimes without another person breathing down my neck! (it’s far out how many expressions we americans use). and the hostel staff actually makes free cappucino for us! yum, i think i’m staying here for good.

last night i walked along a couple of the bridges along the danube river. i cannot describe to you how incredibly beautiful the danube is at night! The bridges and shorelines are all lit up with lights, the stunning buildings and castles are all lit with floodlights, boats cruise steadily along, and in the distance you can see hills with small twinkling lights on them, and outlines of larger mountains in the distance. i was captivated. i could have stood there staring at the river for hours. very romantic, i might add, though that might be a bit lost on this lone eastern european traveller. i also walked along the main pedestrian drag, which is great for people-watching. the hostel is perfectly located on the only street (a quiet street) between the main pedestrian drag and the river. i sound like an advertisement for the hostel! 😉

today i took a public bus up to buda, the hilly side of the river upon which stands the castle and the matthias cathedral. i wandered around the area for a while. honestly, the castle isn’t that exciting, as it doesn’t look much like a castle and isn’t as pretty as many of the other buildings around town. it was destroyed fairly recently (maybe WWII) and the rebuilders didn’t do a very good job of rebuilding it the way it was (according to my guidebook anyway). but the rest of the area including the cathedral was very interesting. the statues are all nice; here and in czech republic they are far more interesting than your standard western european ones.

next i headed to statue park, a park on the outskirts of budapest full of…you guessed it….statues! but not just any statues, all the statues erected by the communists when they were in power here, including statues of lenin and marx. after the communist regime fell, the new government and the people took them down, but a smart entrepreneur bought them all and created statue park. It was interesting to see the different statues, but the busride there was a bit crazy. we all bought tickets that included a round-trip busride (since it’s very difficult by public transport), but they oversold and at least 6 people had to stand. then the bus driver takes us down a side road with a jail to the right, complete with barbed wire all around the fence. it was very rustic-looking, nothing like a jail in the U.S. then we crossed 2 different railroad tracks and the bus driver yells out to a guy on the road. fellow bustrippers joke that he’s asking for directions. sure enough, he starts to turn the big bus around on the railroad tracks, and he even didn’t have all that much room! you’d think he would know where he was going. so he tells us to be back at the bus by 4:30, and so we’re all there sweating (having gotten there early to get a seat), and at 4:40 he’s still flirting with the ticket lady! one of the passengers had to go get him, and eventually he made his way back. i just don’t know how some folks manage to stay employed.

the only other nonstandard thing I did today was check out the great jewish synagogue, the second largest in the world next to new york city’s. they have a tree of life memorial out back which is very moving; it looks like a willow tree and every leaf has a hungarian citizen’s name who died in the holocost, and it’s also an upside-down menorah. the pebbles underneath are each a prayer.

geez, i just keep going on and on and this was only like a day and a half! more fellow hostellers are back; must be the rain. at least it held off until this evening. i’m planning to do a budapest bath tomorrow and probably go to Eger, a smaller city in Hungary, on Sunday. The only problem is that the only decent train is at 7:15 in the morning. hmph! who invented THAT schedule?

i think i’ll go and maybe have a cappucino, and see if the rain stopped so i can do some more wandering. i hear some good live music from the nearby pub, so that’s another option. but the cappucino sounds good. “Ms. Traveller, would you care for a cappucino?” “Why yes, Mr. Dreadlocks, that would be lovely. Extra paprika on that please.”

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ok, now fast forward time warp *do de do de* to 07 Sept when I wrote the next part:

so i checked the weather on the internet, and since it was going to be stormy in eger on sunday, i decided to go there on saturday. and yes, i managed to get up very early to be in eger by 10am. it was a really cute and fun hungarian town, and there happened to be a hungarian festival going on that weekend. so i saw cute old hungarian ladies in traditional dress and heard some good singing and strange instrument playing. i explored the castle high above the town and visited the gorgeous baroque church. one of the most interesting things i did in eger was visit the camera obscura. built in 1776, they would use a lens and a moving metal plate to get an image of various places in town on the white table on the room. moving the two knobs let you aim in on what you wanted to appear on the table. we could spy on the police station just as they spy on the rest of the town. 😉 think of how cool it must have been before cameras and stuff. we even got to operate the controls ourselves which was really cool. also very fun in an eger suburb was the siren valley wine caves, a collection of rustic caves on a loop road serving and selling local wine. you could get a small glass of wine for a quarter, so of course i had to sample a variety. 😉 entertainment included martial artists chopping bricks in half, heavy metal, and people cooking strange concoctions in black kettles. i managed to finish my sampling, stagger back to town and catch the 6pm train home. the prelude to the trainride and the trainride itself on a rustic hungarian train was quite “interesting,” with the local youth smoking joints and a strange thin woman following me onto the train and insisting on talking to me in hungarian.

back in budapest, on sunday morning i visited the House of Terror. this is the former headquarters of two different regimes that terrorized the hungarian people. first was the nazi arrowcross, who sent so many jewish and poor hungarians off to auschwitz and other concentration camps. not much better were the russians, who sent many poor hungarians off to forced labor camps or made them leave the country. the hungarians have had a hard past 100 years and finally have won their freedom – the last russian soldier left hungary in 1991. but the many years of oppression and the split up of their country have left many still poor and scarred. the museum did a great job of telling the story, with dramatic music and red lighting and english language info sheets. at the end of the exhibits a very slowly descending elevator played a video about the prison conditions in the basement of the building, and we stepped out into the reconstructed prison hallways and cells. it was a very interesting and worthwhile museum.

Then I wandered around Budapest a while, including a stroll through the city park which took me past a crazy castle composed of mixed-up styles. a little later i went to the szychechni baths located in a big yellow building in the city park. i could have done the ritzy gellert baths on the hill, but i went for the “fun” baths where i could hang with locals who play chess in the pools (ok so I didn’t actually see any people playing chess). the lockers were very…uhhhh…. european style, but after an initial shock i went with the flow. Outdoors at the pools i didn’t like the scene much because the pools were very crowded and there were 50 year old men constantly staring. but indoors i found my bliss at the spring pools. they were each a different temperature, with 38 degrees (the hottest i saw) being my favorite. some of the pools smelled of mint and had green water, supposedly from the healthy minerals. i walked through room after room and in each room there were more baths; they just kept going and going! i tried out several and then went to the sauna. the sauna was VERY hot and although my body could stand the heat, my lungs, throat and nose were really burning from the mint smell in the air and the intense heat. oh well, i tried twice, but i’m sure the locals laughed at my comparatively short attempts to stand the heat. “but hey, i did two sweat lodges” i wanted to tell them. but they would probably just smile and nod…bla bla bla to them. It was fun to experience the budapest baths. My last night i of course said goodbye to the beautiful danube and its wonderful luminescense.

Monday I found myself with some extra forints to spend. not a big problem! i had 2000 to spend! Sound like a lot, but keep in mind there are 200 forints to a dollar. i went to the Great Market Hall, a huge structure with markets on 3 floors (fruit/veg, meat, souvenirs and food stands). Margaret Thatcher was surprisingly impressed when she visited this market in 1989. I picked up some postcards, a hard rock cafe budapest tshirt (ok so american but i had to do it), a painted egg, and some local Hungarian alcohols that Mr. Dreadlocks had recommended. One of them, Unicum, is made with medicinal herbs, which are good if your stomach isn’t feeling good, or so several people have told me. hmmm…maybe i’ll feel the need to try it out someday. After spending most of my money and having one last cappucino, i headed out to the airport for my 5:30ish flight. The flight could have been better, as it left late and i got inked and gummed somehow on the plane, and the hyperactive child behind me was doing his best to annoy me (I swear!). i was trying to practice being zen with him.

but then the day got better as i found my luggage and hopped on a train to leiden to meet my friend martin (a fellow workcamp volunteer from the Netherlands) for the last 2 nights of my european stay. martin offered wonderful hospitality and gave me the long version of the leiden walking tour on Tuesday, having honed in his tourguide skills recently or so he claimed. we went to the botanical garden and city tower/monument where the locals could hide out if they were ever under attack (they never were) and we also enjoyed some of the canals and local scenes. leiden i found to be far more laid back and relaxing than amsterdam. it was nice to be able to spend a couple of nights laughing at workcamp stories and memories, talking about anything and everything, and just spending time with a good friend before heading home. It was just what I needed, though of course not long enough before I had to get hit with a reality check.

Wednesday morning I found myself saying goodbye to Martin and Europe and hello to Reykjavik and then Boston. I arrived home on Wednesday evening, very late to my body and just kind of in a daze… I would say now all is good with me. It was a bit surreal coming home, and getting behind the wheel of my car for the first two times, and talking to my neighbor. And yesterday was my first day back to work. It was also quite surreal at first seeing the church building and Sarah and other co-workers, and having to share the news of my life and the trip. But by the end of my first day at work it seemed like it would all be okay…

~~~~anyway, now zoom forward to the present 17 October *do de do de* where I update you on the rest~~~~

So I’ve been busy at work at the church for almost a month and a half. It’s always very busy there from the church year start-up Labor Day through Christmas so I’m used to it. I really like the “having summers off” aspect of my job. 🙂 In addition to work and the usual fun and stuff keeping me busy, I signed up for a few community education classes at the local high school this fall. One is a professional development course for work, copyediting, which meets 2 Saturdays. With everything going on I’m keeping busy while planning my next adventure — you know me! finish one adventure, start another… More juicy stories for us to hear about later, no doubt. I hope to share more news and plans with you soon enough, but certainly you have plenty of new stories for the campfire for now, kiddies. 🙂

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I’d love to hear what you think about my travelogues in general, or anything in particular that piqued your interest or brought back memories. Thank you for visiting newideal.net and spending some time with my travel adventures. 🙂

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