Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Last Day in Paris

After my nap in the hostel, I decided to walk around the city for a bit.  I hadn’t gotten to take a look at Notre Dame yet, so I took the metro over to that area. Apparently Bastille Day is pretty popular among tourists, so the lines to get in the cathedral were terribly long.  I walked around Notre Dame, though, and took some pretty fun pictures. 

For some reason I was quite comfortable walking around Paris, enough so that I was willing to get lost around the area (which makes me really cool, by the way). (I hope you laughed at that last statement.) It was a pretty nice day.  Kind of cloudy, but people walked around happily—especially tourists.  I was a little annoyed by that. Still, it was obvious that kids were off of school and adults had the day off, so seeing people happy and relaxed on this holiday was great. I snapped some pictures of a happy Weimaraner and a kid that was enjoying a small door on a little building.

The famous Berthillon ice cream parlor was closed on that day, but there was another gourmet gelato place that was open and making a killing on hungry tourists. I also bit. The gelato was delicious, but expensive.  Still, I needed my gelato. As I ate, I reflected…

I took my gelato to a nice little park near Notre Dame and ate, and then read. It was nice.

Even though most of Paris had the day off, it was still a working day for street performers.  Well, actually, only the bad ones. Not really worth the pictures.  This guy, however moved a puppet’s hand and mouth up and down to the American song, “She F***ing Hates Me,” which the tourists just ate up.


Finally, it was about time for me to go find a seat for the fireworks. On the way there, I was excited to find two more Arago medallions, across the river from where I found the others.

After telling myself that to resist the temptation to look for more medallions, I walked toward the Eiffel Tower.  The more I walked, the more crowded Paris became. I didn’t necessarily know where I was going—just kept heading towards the Tower, and following the huge crowds. 

My stomach was filled with excitement when I saw that there was street food along the streets. Mmm.  Candy, crepes, sandwiches, fried things.  Oh, if I didn’t have so little money and, more restricting, such a small stomach! I decided that I would buy a snack and some sort of meal-like thing. A candy stand that had a plethora of gummy things, licorice-looking ropes, roasted cinnamon nuts, and much more was calling my name. Why would I buy something I know I’m going to like? I thought to myself as I pointed to a large, strawberry-shaped something.  Perfect.

It was like a giant, strawberry-flavored marshmallow Peep that had been sitting on a shelf for about 40 years. Still, I’m glad I tried it.

Now looking for my dinner, I came to a stand that consisted of nothing more than a table with a large skillet on top, and a man and a woman sitting in folding chairs behind it.  What was coming from the skillet smelled delicious, and there was a long non-English-speaking line, so I decided I would eat whatever they gave me.

When I was done eating, I walked closer and closer to the Eiffel Tower, the crowds getting denser and denser. Somehow I found a patch of grass near the park, in the middle of a large crowd, and sat down to wait for the show.

Then the fireworks started.  I had never seen anything like it.  Not only were fireworks shooting up around the Eiffel Tower, not only were they shooting from the Tower itself, but somehow images and shapes where being projected on to each side of it, metaphorically telling the story of France throughout history. It was incredible.

Pay no attention to the fact that I look absolutely wasted in the frozen shot of this video before you push "play."  I'm not. I just have no control of what frame blogger decides to freeze my video on. 

What a wonderful way to spend my last night in Europe. I walked back home to the following beautiful sight - its beauty was a little diminished because I wasn't necessarily sure if  I was going to get mugged or not. 

I will talk about my return to the Fifty Nifty and reflect on it all in the next couple of posts.  I'm sad that this is coming to an end soon! At least I have more to share...

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Milan and Paris, Again...

I was sad to leave Cinque Terre.

But I had to, because at the end of my stay there, I only had two days left.  I took a train from Cinque Terre to Milan, where I would fly to Paris.

My flight out of Milan was at six in the morning, with a check-in at four. Given that Milan is famous for its hostels that are completely out of the way, I decided that it would be safer for me to sleep in the airport. From Cinque Terre, I arrived in Milan at about ten at night, and I spent the rest of my night reading in McDonalds (McFlurries are universally delicious...Oh, what the heck, I’ll keep talking about it…my favorite kind was their Smarties version.  Smarties in Europe are not the same as our chalky, sour Smarties; they’re like M&Ms that, instead of having the chocolate be the focus, the candy coating is. Yum.), and blogging in a 24-hour internet café. (The woman behind the counter may have been a man, but I’m not sure.)

At around midnight, I took a bus to Malpensa Airport. It was a really long bus ride (thank God, again, that I didn’t take a taxi), so I got to take a nap for about an hour. I arrived at Malpensa at about one in the morning. And thus began my night’s stay in an airport.

Luckily I found some cool people to talk to who were, apparently, doing the same thing that I was.  I met a Mexican woman about my age who was studying abroad in Madrid. I got to use a little bit of Spanish with her—which made me feel cool—until I found out that she could speak English fluently. We had a really nice talk and took turns watching each others’ bags while the other went to go get a snack from the vending machines or warm up outside.  (It was very pleasant outside and freezing in the airport.) She also told me about Madrid, which refueled my desire to see Spain. Jeez, I’m ending my trip to Europe and already planning a new one.

I also met some American travelers who were truly backpacking through Europe. They had been camping all throughout Europe and flying cheaply from place to place. And they had slept in a lot more airports than I had. So I couldn’t really complain, could I?

The plane was on time, and I got on and slept for the one-hour flight to Paris.

It was great to see Paris again. I found that strange.  To find something comfortingly familiar and then realize that it’s Paris, for crying out loud, is a really interesting thing. I took the long trip from Charles De Gaulle airport to my hostel in the middle of Paris, and realized that it was the same hostel at which I had stayed my first night after I spent my time with Laurent. I checked in again and put my luggage in the luggage room (which was inconveniently down a twisty old staircase that leads to a humid, musty basement with shrewd wooden shelves made to hold suitcases – I didn’t think I would ever have to use that darn thing again, but I was wrong).  Check in was at two in the afternoon, and it was about eight in the morning, so I had some time to kill.

I sat down quietly in a McDonald’s (not because I was taking the cheap way out and avoiding cheap food, but because it was the closest place with WiFi access) and took out my computer. I did some Skyping with my girlfriend and my family over some soda and a French McDonald’s breakfast, which happens to be three different kinds of mini croissants – one plain, one filled with chocolate, and one filled with some sort of jam, which doesn’t even compare to a sausage-egg McMuffin. I also spent some time writing for the blog and posting one of my entries. I spent my time pretty wisely, I think.  I also ventured out a bit around the city, found a nice place to sit and read (I was getting dangerously close to finishing the entire Chronicles of Narnia), and relaxed for a few hours.

When 2pm finally came, I went back to my hostel and took a much-needed nap.  It was so good.  A quiet night’s sleep at two in the afternoon. Waking up for the rest of the day, I knew, would be difficult, but I also knew it would be very cool.

After all, it was July 14th.  Bastille Day.

You’ll enjoy the next post.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Cinque Terre, Italy

I am calm in Cinque Terre.

I don’t know what kind of magic or fancy anti-anxiety power this place has, but from the moment I stepped off the train in this wonderful area, I’ve been wonderfully relaxed.

Currently, I’m sitting on the front step of a random house in sleepy Manarola, the fourth and most unvisited of the five (cinque) lands (terre). From north to south, the Cinque Terre consist of Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. On my right, two women sitting next to some parked fishing boats talking about Godknowswhat in Italian. In front of me, a light green house with sheets and clothes hanging out on the clothesline. To the left, an old woman at what looks like a painted plates store reads a paper (it doesn’t look like people like her plates). And above me, two men sit on their terrace chatting very loudly, once again, about Godknowswhat in Italian. I love just listening to the locals talk. It’s loud and passionate, but so very fun.

This place is spectacular. Each town is very, very similar, but each has its own unique qualities. It’s tourist season here, so this place is somewhat crowded. Luckily not a lot of people know about it, so it’s not overwhelming. Cinque Terre is clean and wonderfully Italian.

What keeps Cinque Terre so clean and authentic is that they have made it a National Park. That way, new buildings can’t be made and old ones can’t be torn down. There are garbage and recycling cans everywhere, and people actually use them. The trains are electric and the buses are fuel-efficient. There are no cars allowed inside five villages. Cinque Terre is kept simple and clean, which is why I’ve been so happy to be here.

I’ve been staying in Riomaggiore, the last of the five villages. It’s very quiet, and unhurried, which I like. There are three pizza places along the town centre, each one a little different, but they all have one thing in common: they’re super cheap. Five euro for a full, delicious pizza is something of God, I swear. Cheap American pizza is crap; cheap Italian pizza is amazing. There’s something in the crust or the sauce or the meat that makes it so much better than any pizza I’ve ever tasted. Wonderful.

Since we’re on the subject of food, my favorite subject, allow me to reflect on the magic that’s entered my mouth in the last couple of days. I promised myself I would not leave without having some local cuisine. Cinque Terre is apparently of the birthplace of pesto, and I freaking love pesto, so I had to eat that.

Pesto with gnocchi. Gnocchi, for those of you who don’t know, are potato dumplings. The pesto on this dish was a little salty, but still very enjoyable.

Cinque Terre is also known for its anchovies. Luckily for me, the anchovies here are not like the crap that you find on American pizzas; they’re caught fresh and cured and served as actually a quite spendy dish. I got some for an appetizer, and well, I didn’t like them very much. At first I did, but then they were so incredibly salty I had to stop eating them. I could appreciate, however, the work that went into putting them on my plate.

Troffie is a kind of handmade pasta that I could eat meals and meals of. Something that I’ve enjoyed a lot is the pasta here because it is so uniquely different than the pasta we have at home. Troffie is chewy and obviously natural, and I just loved it. (On this, my last day, I’m pretty sure I’m going to have it for lunch.)

Sometimes I forget the chronological order of the events during my stays. I had this dish, along with the anchovies, for dinner one of the nights with to very nice women from Austin, Texas. They were both tired of working and decided to take a vacation together. We had wonderful conversations over our delicious meals.

I was told when I was in La Rochelle that eating any kind of mussels besides those caught in the Atlantic would be a waste of time. This dish of Mediterranean mussels with spaghetti was definitely not a waste of time. The shells are bigger and the meat is smaller, but man alive…it was delicious.

Sciacchetra is the Cinque Terre’s local dessert wine. It took me quite a long time to find a chance to drink it, for some reason. Probably because it was really expensive in most places (about €35 a bottle and €6 a glass, but I found one that was like €4, which wasn’t necessarily that bad). It came with these little cookie things with almonds that they told me I should dip in it. I did. The cookies were delicious. The sciacchetra was really strong, really sweet, really syrupy, and almost unpleasant. I went back and forth on whether I liked it or not. At the end, I decided I didn’t really like it, but I was really glad that I tried it.

And then there was the gelato.

Back my actual experience in Cinque Terre. On the first day, I just walked around little Riomaggiore, where I was staying. I was shown to my “hostel,” which was really just an apartment with extra beds in it. Usually that would bother me—I would think, “Gosh, these people are just trying to make money by charging for the bed,” but it was different here. The reason for this was that having just an apartment in the middle of everything meant that I got to remain in the middle of everything. I wasn’t in an ugly building outside of town. I was in town, in one of the many apartments, just like the other travelers, but more importantly, just like the rest of the locals. And check out the view from my balcony.

After I checked in and got situated in my room—and ate a homemade meal of bruchetta and a small mug of wine made by a group of American friends my age who were also staying in my eight-person room—I walked around Riomaggiore and got to know the area. I wandered down to the shore of the Mediterranean, sat down on some rocks, and watched the amazing sunset that didn’t skip a single performance the whole time I was there.

I went to bed and woke up in the morning to the sound of the Mediterranean waves hitting the shore. And though I was in a cramped, €30-a-night hostel with seven other people, I felt like I was one of the luckiest people on the planet.

That morning I got some cheap breakfast and picked up what would be my daily snack: three figs and ten apricots. They were only like €1.75, so I bought some every morning and ate them throughout the whole day. Delicious, cheap, what can be better?

Me and my apricots.

A nine-kilometer hiking trail runs along the coast and connects each town of the Cinque Terre. I was told that Riomaggiore was the best place to start, and that it would be a good idea to set aside at least five hours to walk to the last town, Monterosso. “This will be a piece of cake,” I thought.

Yeah, I was wrong.

Some of the stairs I had to walk up.

It started off just leisurely and nice, but after I passed through Manarola and began to climb the hill to Corniglia, nothing but hills and hills of steps and steep in- and de-clines awaited me. Luckily I had lots of water and it was pretty cloudy that day. I loved every second of it. Even when the trail became difficult, I was always a few feet away from a breathtaking view.

More stairs!

I spent time in each town. I sat and ate some of my apricots in Manarola, had gnocchi in Corniglia, gelato in Vernazza, and some iced tea in Monterosso. (Wow. I would do something food-related in each city.) I also took some wonderful pictures and had some very interesting people watching.

It's good to be a cat in Cinque Terre.

The more I look at this picture, the more I wonder what the heck that nun is looking at.

Getting pictures of the locals here was very difficult. I don’t know why—maybe because the roads were so narrow. But I slipped a few in. Notice how I had to hide my camera behind my bottle of iced tea.

Even the train stations are beautiful here.

After my long trek through the Cinque Terre, I hopped the train back to Riomaggiore. I stopped at a cute wine bar that overlooked the sea. (I actually visited this little bar a few times during my trip. The view was spectacular and they had Cinque Terre wine on tap, which was interesting.)

I went to this bar the first day I was there, and that’s where these two pictures are from. The day of my trek I just got water. I say this because I don’t want you to think that I’m just this big alcoholic when I tell you that…

I came back down, got some really delicious pizza and some cheap Italian beer (which was delicious, even though I usually don’t like beer), and watched the sunset again. So wonderful.

By this time, I was pretty tired, so I thought I’d head back to the hostel. I had been moved to another room (which means another apartment) another place in the city. This one was just as nice, except instead of a nice view, it had a lovely little cramped walkway that lead up to it. Once again, I felt like a local.

The door up top is an extra bathroom and shower; the door on the right was the door to the apartment.

I had originally planned to just got to bed early, but was surprised to find that some really fun people from Australia were also in that room. I talked to them for awhile, trying to keep the conversation short so I could get into bed, but then found that they were way too fun to miss an opportunity to hang out with them. So we kept hanging out. They told me they really felt like some cocktails, and I told them I had never had one before, so they insisted we go out. Lo and behold, we went to that same wine bar and got cocktails. They told me I should get a Long Island Iced Tea (which would have been a horrible idea if I would have planned on drinking anything after it, because gosh was it potent). We all had a very nice talk.

The other guy in the picture besides me (I forget his name now) had just flown to Cinque Terre from the running of the bulls festival in Pamplona, where I had originally planned to be. He told me that he arrived in Pamplona at noon, and there were already people plastered and passed out in the city, and that it was really just a major drunken party. Maybe it was best that I didn’t go there this year. With my all my struggles, it may have just been too much. It was cool to hear his stories, though, and I would still like to see it someday. Not by myself, though.

After my Long Island Iced Tea, I was tired, but not drunk. I drank it really slowly to make sure that exact thing wouldn’t happen. I went back to the hostel and had a really nice night sleep. It had been a long, wonderful day.

I awoke the next morning, had another yummy breakfast, walked past a bakery that had some delicious looking pastries in the window and bought one, got my fruit, and decided that it would be a good day to go swimming in the Mediterranean.

The pastry in the window. It was magical.

This is what I walked out to every morning, by the way. It's a school yard. Usually there are kids playing.

I took the train to Monterosso and went swimming there. It was a beautiful day and the water wasn’t too cold. I had never actually swum in a large body of water before, so that was an interesting experience. Nevertheless, it was fun and wonderfully refreshing. I still can’t swim very well, though, which makes me happy that there were lifeguards on duty at the beach I went to.

I may have spent the rest of that day walking around the different towns. (Once again, I lose track of the actual order of events.) I remember wandering around sleepy little Manarola and Riomaggiore and eating some more gelato. I was just so very happy in Cinque Terre.

There was a wedding on this day. Apparently it's a custom that the bride and groom walk around the whole town after the wedding. Everyone was cheering for them and throwing rice. So cool.

This is probably a good time to mention that it is a law in Cinque Terre that every house must have green shutters. Take a look at the previous pictures. Only green.

And, at one point, I found a little trail.

Sunday came around and I went to church in the morning with one of the women that had been with me on cocktail night. We went to breakfast and then to church. We had some really nice conversations because she was also a Christian, and I hadn’t necessarily “talked God” for awhile. Even though we disagreed on some things, we had a really nice time. Church was cool, too. It was a Catholic service, and even though it was all in Italian, I totally knew what was happening the entire time because the Catholic routine is the same all around the world. (Hehe, I don’t mean “routine” to be insulting…maybe a little “too true,” but not insulting.)

That Sunday there was a train strike. I don’t necessarily know what the reason for it was, but it still happened. That meant, unfortunately, that the main way to travel between towns was cut off. I wanted to get to Vernazza because it was the only town that had wireless internet and I had set up another wine date with my parents and friends. Luckily, the Cinque Terre has a ferry system. So I took the ferry from Riomaggiore to Vernazza.

This was great because it allowed me to get some wonderful pictures of four of the five towns.

I arrived in Vernazza and walked around a bit. My original plan was to get the ferry back after the Skype party, but I found out that it stopped running quite early, so I decided to take the train back when the strike ended at 9pm. Here’s the picture from the Skype party.

We had a really nice time. The wireless spot was actually outside, which allowed me to turn my camera and show my friends the lovely Vernazza and it allowed many interested locals to peek over my shoulder to see what I was doing. At one point a stout old woman in a floral dress and tennis shoes stood next to me and watched. I moved my camera so everyone could see everyone. She waved, they waved, then she left.

After the Skype party, I still had some time to kill so I figured I’d go get some dinner. It was my last night in Cinque Terre, so I decided to get the spaghetti with mussels. I’ve already described it, but let me say again: it was fantastic.

The view from my table.

At nine o’clock, I headed up to the train station to get the 9:15 train. I looked up at the arrivals screen, and saw that that train had been cancelled. The next train would be coming at 10:30. So I had to wait. I had a conversation with a nice family from Missouri. Pam, Joe, and Joe Jr. were their names. We actually ended up talking for a long time because the train was delayed—first thirty minutes, then an hour, then another thirty—until it would have been after midnight when it would arrive. As we watched the clock, Joe Jr., a former soldier, said, “You know, I could run back on the trail to Riomaggiore and pick up our car and drive it back.” After some thinking, they decided it was a good idea and he ran back through Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola to Riomaggiore on that trail that I had taken on my second day. His parents and I talked in the meantime, and were surprised when he arrived only about an hour and a half later. It was great.

“You’re staying in Riomaggiore too, right?” they asked me. I told them that I was, and they said, “We don’t want you to be waiting for a train that may not come. We’ll drive you back.” And so, they drove me back to my hostel. They were so very kind to me. I just don’t understand how I’ve been blessed by so many wonderful people on this trip. I’m positive that I don’t deserve it.

I went to bed, and woke up the next morning for may last couple of hours in the Cinque Terre. I finally found a place to fly my kite (I had been looking the entire time I was there), and I had breakfast as usual. Trofle was my lunch, like I said. And I just relaxed for the rest of my time there. It was absolutely wonderful.

Reflecting on my experience in Cinque Terre, I try to think about why I was so much more relaxed. Was it because I knew that I was going home soon? Was it because I had done a lot of research and was more comfortable with Cinque Terre? Was it because there was less pick pocketing to worry about? Those all may be true, but for some reason I feel deep inside that God may have just looked at me, looked at Cinque Terre, and said, “You take this one, Brian,” and gave me the peace that I had been looking for my whole time in Europe. And for that I am deeply grateful.

After this, I had a few hours in Milan, and then on to Paris for two more days. That post will be coming.

Love you all,


(P.S. Stay tuned for the Bastille Days post from Paris!!)