Uncategorized11 Jun 2010 03:17 am

To the world’s most patient academic advisor, I promised a note on the actual academics of Ireland. You may have forgotten that I went on a STUDY Abroad, due to the absence of any mention whatsoever thus far of the school itself.  

Just to fill you in: I went to UCC, University College Cork, and basically took a selection of courses that interested me: Intro to Irish History for Visiting Student; Irish Literature, Language and Culture for Visiting Student; US Collective Memory, Intervention and the Impact of Vietnam; Contemporary Literature and Culture; American Cinema and Genre from 1895-1960; and Irish Step Dancing. Everything is graded, at least as far as Mary Washington is concerned, on a pass/fail basis. Passing is a 40%. The grading is more difficult, from what I heard from those lovely Irish roommates of mine, but I have absolutely no idea what the grades will be until the end of June. No use worrying over that, right?

The classes are all lecture, and a large majority of them are 100% exam based, meaning that you have one shot to get the grade. Most of the colleges in Ireland operate on a year long schedule, so every class is tested in the spring. Some of the students have as many as 12 exams during the exam month, which means they make much better use of the library during the April study month than I did ( If you will recall, I kind of sort of wasn’t even in the country in April…). Pretty much all of the exams, with exceptions for math and such, are essay-based. For the most part, the lecturers (they call them lecturers, not professors) will give you the general topics beforehand, and you also have the benefit of past exam titles (they call essay questions ‘exam titles), which are easily accessible online. You sort of just pick and chose what specifically you want to learn about. With the Vietnam class, I picked the Carter administration and the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial. With the Contemporary Literature Class, I picked my two favorite novels. That freedom was certainly refreshing, but I did miss the structure of my classes back at Mary Washington.

Now what was the hardest class? Take a wild guess. Irish step dancing. I am not a gifted step dancer. I tried it, I truly did. I gave that class a shot, I stayed after for remedial dance lessons, I showed up all but one week (when I was gone on a trip), I tried, I really did. But I do not like Irish step dancing. In retrospect, I will chalk it up to ‘experience’, but I will never go back to step dancing class. I think the only reason I passed the class is because Peg, the little old lady who taught it, is too nice to fail anyone. Can you imagine, years from now, having to explain that F on my transcript? “Well, you see Mr. Future Grad School Acceptance Man, I thought I’d try step dancing…”

Uncategorized10 Jun 2010 07:54 pm

 

The hostel in London was just outside of the city and superb- brand new with an excellent breakfast. We had one hostel-mate: a girl from Seattle who was in the process of becoming a certified life coach and was spending a few weeks traveling around Europe. She shared our hatred of the large Spanish and French secondary school-ers who enjoyed screaming at 7 am.

            London was the only place in Europe that I had been to before, so I had a pretty good idea of the crucial spots to hit. Number 1? King’s Cross station to take pictures with the Platform 9 ¾ replica. Unfortunately, Harry Potter and friends were nowhere to be seen. We took the tube to Piccadilly Circus, the London equivalent of Time’s Square, and ate dinner in Chinatown. By then we were whooped and it was about 11 pm, so we headed back to the fantastic hostel.

Welcome to London, please Mind the Gap!

 

London Skyline

            After a delicious and nutritious breakfast, we took the tube back into the city and walked all around, hitting up London Bridge, the Tower of London, taking some double decker buses, Harrods (depressing experience), and the Natural History museum, which was pretty much the coolest museum ever, but fell at an inconvenient time as the Maura and Lindsay were rather grumpy and hungry. Nonetheless, I sincerely enjoyed the talk like a whale exhibit and the interactive-meant-for-small-children human body exhibit. Then we made a crucial decision: We decided to spring for the London Eye.

View from the London Eye

            If you’ve never heard of the London eye, it is a giant Ferris wheel- the world’s largest Ferris wheel- that takes about 30 minutes to ride and offers absolutely awesome views of the city. We waited until the last possible minute to ride it before it closed for the day so we could hit it right at dusk and it was awesome. A little bit frightening, on account of the fact that you are enclosed in these glass cage things and are up super de duper high, but worth it. And afterwards we got McFlurrys, officially completely our international tour of McDonalds. Yes!

Sky high above London

            Then it was the final day in the UK. We sort of just wandered around the city- we caught the end of the changing of the guard with about a million of our best friends, then walked through the Buckingham Palace Gardens and enjoyed the pretty flowers. Oh, and then we ate lollypops that were spun by hand in Bruges and Maura’s had the word “Julie” written into it. No lie- it was insane! But you may have had to be there, so there is a good chance that you don’t give a hoot what the inside of Maura’s lollypop said. We ate lunch on a park bench outside of Westminster Abbey and watched these 4 people with a stuffed sheep and a video camera do all sorts of different things with Big Ben in the background for a good half hour. My theory was that they were young entrepreneurs on an advertising campaign that featured the stuffed sheep. When I got up the nerve to ask, I was answered in a posh London accent “No, we are just making a silly video to put up online.” To my disappointment, I have attempted every combination of Sheep and London in the YouTube search engine and have not been able to locate this “silly video”. I’ll let you know if I ever do.

I forgot to mention that we found our dopplegangers in London. You may have noticed that we wore our blue and green raincoats for a month straight...

            Then it was time for the Grand Finale… Wicked! We had tickets to see Wicked on its final night and we beyond excited for it. Not to undermine everything else in the city, but Wicked was my favorite part. It was such a cool show! Really, it had such neat-o sets and I loved the music! Yes indeedy, it was a swell show.

            That was it for London. The next day we spent getting up late and packing our backpacks to the max, discarding many a travel worn article of clothing in addition to my giant jar of peanut butter. We had a 5 pm flight back to Ireland, and it took us most of the day to just get to the airport. We made it on to our Ryan Air (budget airline) flight wearing at least 3 shirts a piece and carrying a good bit of stuff shoved in our jackets, but the bags were underweight even if Maura and I had gained 10 lbs a piece overnight, and that’s all that matters.

            We boarded the plane and had a serious reflective conversation about what we had just done. It had been a month. I have yet to meet a person who has not enjoyed travelling or studying abroad, but truly there are no words to describe how lucky I feel to have had that experience. It was incredible. Absolutely incredible.

Uncategorized10 Jun 2010 03:36 am

Tulips greating me in Bruges!

Things couldn’t have worked out better for Bruges – we arrived in peak tulip season, when that area of the country and neighboring Holland have gorgeous tulips in bloom everywhere and there was a carnival that was visiting. Like I said- perfect timing. We stayed at this hotel that had a toilet (literally a water closet) upstairs and a shower closet downstairs and the bedroom we were staying in on the middle floor. Unique setup indeed. We went to the carnival haunted house, where we rode with the Haunted House owner’s daughter, who chatted away to us in French. Then we walked around the city for a while. It was all cobblestone streets and Dutch gables and I wanted to take pictures of everything! Biking is really popular in Bruges- it seemed like everyone was biking somewhere. We had this really helpful backpacker’s guide to Bruges and decided to hit up the suggestions it listed for renting bikes the following day.

Pretty little Bruges

            We got up early in search of a cappuccino, which proved somewhat difficult to find, especially since nothing really opened until about 9 or 10. However, on a magical stroke of luck, Maura and I stumbled upon a consumer dream: A Belgian Target/Ikea. Glorious! And it had a café- a cheap café inside. Excellent indeed. We spent a while wandering around in there and made plans for a return trip the following day. Then it was off to rent bikes. Looking at the different routes we could take, I got it in my head that we should bike ride to Holland. It was about 20 kilometers to Sulis, a little town just on the other side of the border between the Netherlands and Belgium. Map in hand, we hoped on the bike path that hugged the canal and rode our rented bikes to Holland. After a brief stop for lunch, which included an order of Belgian fries, (I should mention that I was most fond of the food culture in Belgium. However, I do not ever seeing living in Belgium as a viable option- I think I would grow rather large), we biked on back to tour a Belgian brewery!

Bike riding to Holland...

...where there are lots of windmills!

            The brewery was the only one remaining of the 53 that Bruges had originally housed and was very informative- Maura and I enjoyed our free beers and decided to bring some home for our loving fathers. Some more souvenir and window shopping followed the brewery tour, with a special stop at a chocolatier recommended by, you guessed it- Rick Steves!  Then we headed to an internet café to figure out our travel plans to London.

            Travel plans to London… ah, it seemed so simple. Guess what it wasn’t. Maura and I looked up all possibilities to get cheaply from Europe to the UK, but could find none. We considered going home a few days early, but getting to Ireland was not a plausible option either. Maura and I engineered a plan. We went to the train station to make reservations on the Eurostar- the train from Brussels to London, tickets on which ran about 210 euro a pop. I told the ticket man that I had a Eurorail pass and may have lied and said that it was a global pass (which it wasn’t), the only kind of pass that could take us to London. Maura and I planned to ‘sleep’ the whole train ride with the passes and reservations carefully laid out in front of us. If a conductor were to pass, hopefully he or she wouldn’t inspect them too closely.

            Nonetheless, we were little bundles of nerves- I had these awful visions of us being thrown in Eurorail jail and never making it back to Ireland, let alone America. We must have had the God of Vagabond Travelers looking out for us though because Maura and I made it through ticket check, border control and security before boarding the train without even a weary glance cast in our direction. Operation fake sleep went into effect immediately (I donned sunglasses to enhance the appearance, despite the fact that 75% of the train ride was through a tunnel that ran under the English Channel). I may have increased my worry lines, taking years off of my face that I will never get back, but I made it to London, slightly illegitimately, without spending 210 more Euro. Life was good.

How we planned on getting to London...

Uncategorized09 Jun 2010 10:31 pm

 When we did finally part ways with the man we nicknamed Eric Ericcson, we still had Brussels and the Tim Barry tour to look forward to. After quite a bit of contemplation and the help of some incredibly nice Brusselinians, we found the hotel, and then went off to the Grand Platz to meet up with Tim. Unfortunately yours truly here mistook the Grand Platz for the little square nearby and there was a good deal of confusion and wasted cell phone credit as Tim waited for us and we attempted to find the proper Platz. Eventually we did, never fear. Tim didn’t have a lot of time (it was a school night), so he took us on an express tour to the Palace Gardens, which we reached via the Brussels Metro, which is unregulated, so we rode it for free. Tim lived in a Flemish suburb just outside of the city, but had spent the first few months living in the heart of Brussels when he first arrived, so he knew quite a bit. We learned that the country is divided by language half Dutch and half French, with English as the common ground. As the capital of Europe, there were many more languages bubbling up as we wandered around the streets, which I thought was really cool. It would have been interesting to learn more about the UN and the international presence, and we did walk through the government district, but who knows, perhaps one day I’ll befriend a diplomat and finagle an invitation back.

Grand Platz in Brussels

 

Giant Chocolate Baby!!! I found smaller quantities of chocolate to eat that were just as good and not as creepy looking

Tim also pointed out the culinary points of interest around the Grand Platz, including the seafood alley, where waiters will follow you down the street in attempt to get you to eat Mussels in Brussels at Their dining establishment; the world-famous Delirium Bar, which has the Guinness World Record for the most beers- something like 2000 available at any time; and the delicious Greek alley, which was cheap and so good, so Maura and I made sure to make multiple return trips. We parted ways with Tim for Greek dinner, then strolled around the Grand Platz, in and out of the chocolate shops, many of which we quickly realized offered free samples, and eventually purchased the obligatory Belgian waffle. It did not disappoint.

The next day, we decided to go the small beer museum, which turned out to be a film in a decorated room and a complimentary beer, and then the chocolate museum, which offers loads of free chocolate in its demonstration. We wandered around for a good while, eventually ending up at a park where we relaxed for bit. Then we walked to the Brussels Cathedral and rested in our hotel before a dinner of- you guessed it- cheap Greek pitas! – And a trip to check out the famous Delirium Bar. We stayed and chatted for a good while, and met a few fellow travelers, and of course sampled a few exotic brews- including chocolate beer! (FYI- It tasted like a tootsie roll, which is a little weird for a beer, so I think I may forgo chocolate beer in the future. Although it did inspire me to do some research and I found out that a local brewery near me in Virginia serves up a chocolate donut stout, which I might have to try…when I’m 21).

I'm afraid I just don't get it...

Our final day in Brussels was short, because we had an early afternoon train to Bruges, and mainly involved the purchase of chocolate souvenirs. It also involved a visit to Manikin Pis, the famous 18 inch boy/fountain who is urinating and is apparently the symbol of the city. I would seriously urge Brussels to find another mascot. Strange fountain aside, I was sad to leave the breath taking Grand Platz (“the best preserved example of Baroque architecture in Europe”) and its city behind. But the days of travel were growing short and it was time to move on to another Belgian City- Bruges!

Bye Bye Brussels!

Uncategorized09 Jun 2010 05:36 pm

From Nice, we had the longest day of traveling yet- nearly 15 hours of trains and layovers from Nice back to Cologne, Germany. We were headed back to stay with my mom’s friend Rosi for a night or two, to wash our clothes, and to have someone make us breakfast and dinner. Basically we just got to be taken care of for a while. We stayed two nights and one day, which we spent wandering around Cologne again. This time, however, we found a Dunkin Donuts. A Dunkin Donuts!!! I sort of screamed when I saw it, which sort of embarrassed Maura, but we’ll never see any of those people in Cologne again, so I really don’t care. And we got iced coffee. Reading back over my words, I apparently really enjoy making it seem as though I was starving for the comfort of home. I recognize that my traveling lifestyle was really not that difficult, just so you don’t think I am an entirely pampered spoiled and sheltered American college student.

After partaking in the hospitality of Rosi and Richard, we said auf wiedersehn and boarded another train- this time bound for Brussels! We prebooked another budget hotel in Brussels, so we had that piece of mind settled, plus, I had a friend from high school, Tim Barry, whose Dad works for NATO and who was going to one of the DODDS (Department of Defense Dependent Schools) that the US has set up all over Europe. Tim had kindly agreed to meet us and give us a tour of the city that evening.

But before we could get to the city itself, we had another train ride ahead of us. Half of it was filled with football fans going to a Sunday match, and the second half was the train ride of Eric Ericcson. Ericsson was an engineer who worked for Sony Ericcson, as we thus named him for on account of the fact that we never found out his real name. He approached Maura and me in the train station, very friendly and very enthusiastic, so much so, in fact, that we were initially rather hesitant, but he turned out to be an absolutely amazing person to talk to. He was originally from Nigeria, had grown up and worked in London, and was in the process of moving to Texas. He treated Maura and I like we were the most intelligent people he’d ever met, and he talked to us, really really talked to us, about everything from Texas gun policy to Obama’s health care reform to meeting new people, to what being American really meant, and so much more. That was one of the most interesting hours I have ever spent. Maura and I got off the train and just sort of looked at each other- what was there really to say to that? I wish I could describe it better here in words, but unfortunately it was an experience that was just that, an experience. I think he was one of those once in a lifetime people that you meet, and that make you see the world just a little different. We never found out his name, but it doesn’t really matter, I suppose. We’ll never see him again, but I have a feeling that we will also never forget him.

Uncategorized09 Jun 2010 03:29 pm

Nice was Nice… nice stop for the weary travelers

            The trek to Nice from Rome was an all day endeavor, but a day spent entirely on a train was a welcome break for the tired traveling twosome. We went through Monaco and saw Monte Carlo from a distance, but the entire ride hugged the cost, so the views were gorgeous the whole time. We had booked a hotel in Nice that someone had recommended to us, the Hotel Stars, which was pretty close to the train station, so the walk wasn’t too bad. After the day on the train, we found a grocery store and had a delicious dinner complete with instant deserts, and discovered that there was an English channel on the TV!

outdoor market in Nice

            The day we spent in Nice was fairly inconsequential. Not being in the mood for sightseeing per say, we just wandered around, drank coffee, sat on the boardwalk of the French Riviera and soaked up the sunshine (through our long sleeve shirts, it would appear that we were a wee bit too early in the seeing for sun tanning weather. The temperature may have stopped us, but there were still brave wave-goers who chanced the waters and provided us with something to watch.) We ate ice cream at yet another place recommended by Rick Steves, forgoing the exotic flavors of olive and tomato basil for caramel and dark chocolate. We wandered in and out of shops and spent a while in the outdoor market. We took a handful of photographs, but really didn’t do much of consequence. Nice was sort of the resting point and, as Maura and I have taken to describing it, “Nice was Nice” and that was about it. I can’t base my opinion of France off of the little bit that we saw – but I think we got the taste test and perhaps one day I’ll venture back to France to try the whole three course meal, so to speak.

Olive, Avacado, Tomato Basil and Rosemary Gelato... apparently they have a few flavors the B&R missed in their 31...

French Riviera

Uncategorized08 Jun 2010 07:59 pm

The Volcano craze was highlighted by our trip to the train station the next day and our last night in the hostel. We went to the Vatican in the morning to see the Sistine Chapel – again weirdly there was absolutely no wait. My response was pretty much the same as I’ve heard from everyone else- the trek through all the Vatican museums is tedious for the non- art lover, but worth it for the Chapel. Again, Dan Brown came in handy, as I could actually picture the Cardinals in Conclave electing the next Pope in addition to admire the incredible feat of Michelangelo, which was kindly described for me through the headset I paid and extra 7 euro for.

Miles of Vatican Museums led to the Sistine Chapel, which you aren't permited to photograph

            It was after the Sistine Chapel that we headed to the train station. We wanted to get tickets to Paris, but we had a feeling that was a bit lofty of an aspiration. Nonetheless, we got in line with multiple backup plans to see where we could in France. We met the coolest people in line. It was one of those situations where you just have to accept the inevitable- you are stuck and it doesn’t do any good to be angry because there is no one to blame- you just have to make the best of it. I could write probably three blogs about standing in line alone, but I’ll humor us both. The highlights included the band of French men who gave the young nephew a massive wad of bills and bribed the people in line for him to cut, the multiple people we saw scalping train tickets, and the girls behind us who were doing everything in their power to get back to Galway, Ireland, because they had finals in just a few days. It was a zoo, but a very cool experience. When it was our turn, we were told yes, we could go to Paris- the following week. We made reservations to Nice, in the French Riviera.

            But the Roman adventures were not over yet. We still had to go to a McDonald’s in Italy, so we made a stop for a meal at a Roman McD’s. While sitting in a booth in the back of the fine dining facility, two teenage boys came up and starting yelling at me in Italian while shoving postcards in my face and slowly pulling my wallet and camera from the edge of the table. Thankfully, I grabbed it back before he did, but it was enough of a run in with danger that I was ok with splurging a bit and eating our last minute in a slightly more upscale place, which, according to Greg the tour guide, if you remember him, recommended. According to Greg, this place had the best pasta in Rome, which was ironic because it was sort of like a generic brand of Hard Rock- we were serenaded by Bruce Springsteen and Madonna while we feasted on pasta.

            In addition to the pasta, our last day in Rome was filled with catching up on all the bits that we still wanted to do- a walk through Hadrian’s Forum, a walk through the Pantheon, a cappuccino at the best cappuccino place in Rome (it was good, like really really good). And a bit of souvenir shopping, of course, wrapped up the Roman holidays. It was arrivederci to Italia and bonjour to France!

Arrivederci Roman ruins!

Uncategorized08 Jun 2010 03:08 am

When in Rome….

–          Don’t stay in moldy hostels

–          Try to avoid pickpockets

–          Beware of Volcanoes

Three biggest lessons. We rolled in the Roma in the early afternoon and set out to find a tourist center that it turns out had closed a few years back (also beware of out of date travel guides that you borrow from the previous hostel). Somehow we got a hold of a list of hostels and sat calling them in a McDonald’s to check availability. After a bit of maneuvering and calling, we found a hostel near the coliseum. Somehow the booking got screwed up though and while we were waiting in the sketchy hallway to get it sorted, these girls poked there head out and whispered “Don’t stay here if you can. We can smell the mold in our sleep.” We made our excuses and booked it out of there. It ended up costing us quite a bit per night, but we found a place near the train station and set up camp. The mess with the hostel pretty much wiped us out on Day 1 in Rome, so we decided to hold all sightseeing until day 2.

Inside the Coliseum

            We started with the Coliseum and took a tour, on which, among other things, we learned that it was cultural week in Rome so everything that normally charged an entrance fee was free! Bingo- I love unplanned free stuff! The Coliseum tour was one of my favorite things on the trip, too – despite the fact that it’s mainly just a ruin, the tour was really interesting. I could have stayed in there for a while. That and it really inspired me to watch “Gladiator”. The Coliseum tour came with a bonus tour of Nero’s Palace and the Roman Forum, with a different guide, Greg the rocking Romanian.

Ruins of the Roman Forum

            The second day, we took another tour with Greg- the Rome walking tour. That Sunday- the 18th – and the first day we actually saw the effects of the Volcano. Despite the fact that it was cultural week, the city was really empty. The tour ended at St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican, where we were supposed to be blessed by the Pope, but unfortunately he was pretty much the only person in Europe who had access to the airways and had taken the Pope-copter to Malta, so we were blessed by a TV screen. Which was still nifty. And if we hadn’t sat on the square to be blessed by a pixilated Pope, we wouldn’t have met Nancy, the high school chaperone from Napa Valley. She was chaperoning a group of 25 kids who were supposed to be flying to Paris but couldn’t and were about to be forced out of the convent they were staying in because of another group coming in. She was a fascinating person to talk to. We sat with her and some of the high school-ers for about an hour and half before we parted ways to take Nancy’s advice and make the climb to the top of St. Peter’s Basilica. Now, I don’t believe I have mentioned thus far that my knowledge of Rome comes primarily from 5th grade history and Dan Brown. The 5th grade history has faded a bit, but “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons” gave me a little bit of background/perspective on what the Vatican and Rome were like. Regardless of your opinion on the films, just as I suggest “The Thief Lord” for Venice, I suggest Dan Brown’s novels for Rome.  

Sightseeing Stop on the Walking Tour- The Trevi Fountain!

           

Another sightseeing stop- the Spanish Steps

 I also suggest a good pair of tennis shoes. I suggest that for all of Europe however. On the climb to the top of the Basilica, I especially got a kick out of the woman who was carrying her espadrilles. Apparently for some, fashionable footwear is required everywhere but climbing up 521 stairs. I did not and still do not share this perspective. My New Balances saw me across 7 countries and I will remain a loyal fan. That climb was treacherous- at points the ceiling slanted so much and the steps were so narrow that it felt like a funhouse. But the view of Rome was breathtaking- literally you saw for miles. I also got a kick out of the little kid who pointed at a rain cloud and shouted “Look Mom, it’s the Volcano!” People began to get Volcano crazy.

Angels and Demons ran through my mind as I stood all those feet above St. Peter's Square...

 

The inside of St. Peter's was absolutely incredible as well

Uncategorized07 Jun 2010 10:00 pm
 

We were in Venice for so long – 6 days! – That it all sort of runs together. I won’t rehash everyday in articulate detail because then we’d both get bored of Venice. At any rate. We met Maura’s sister Meghan at the airport in Venice. In the city of canals it was kind of tricky to figure out transportation and quite a good deal of anxiety was shed over the navigation. A lost bag, a delayed plane, and a trek across the city later though, we made it to our hotel. We’d been going for less than a week and already I was excited to be grounded somewhere for a bit. Plus I have a thing for hotels.

Meghan had arrived equipped with what would come to be our dearest travel companion: Rick Steves. Having Rick Steves’s Guide to Venice still didn’t prevent us from getting lost, but he managed to direct us to a very delicious geletaria and provided endless hours of Venetian entertainment. Our first day was spent in the meeting point of Venice- St. Mark’s square and Basilica. Absolutely packed with tourists, but we held fast to our wallets and found it was worth the crowds. Too much explanation of St. Mark’s would probably bore you and not quite grant it the justice it deserves, so I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

 St. Mark’s Basilica

 Horses of St. Mark’s Square

Rick’s number one tip for Venetian travelers is to get the water taxi pass, so we did. We took basically all the water taxi rights we could manage. They go all over the city and out to some of the outlying islands too. This especially came in handy when we decided to go to Murano, the glass island of Venice. We did manage to make it to the second day before we had to go shopping, which I personally believe shows a great exertion of self control. We watched multiple glass-blowing demonstrations, went to the glass museum, and still managed to go into at least 75% of the glass boutiques, with extra time spent lingering the ones Rick Steves suggested, of course.

The ancient glass blowing island of Murano

Pretty houses- Burano!

Like I said before Venice is an un-chronological blur of glass, water taxis, Rick, and gelato, so I can’t remember what happened precisely the next day, but I do know that we made it out to two other islands- Burano, which is full of colorful houses painted in every color you can imagine and Torcello, which used to be inhabited by thousands of people, but has been reduced to about 20 residents. We also took a water taxi down the Grand Canal, which is the main canal that runs through the center of Venice. Rick Steves provided a written tour that Maura narrated for us and our fellow taxi travelers as we moseyed on down the canal. In addition to the water taxis of Venice, there are, of course, the gondoliers. The gondoliers, dashing and not so dashing men who can only break into gondoliering through family inheritance can be heard throughout the streets of Venice with the cry “Hey pretty ladies, Gondola, Gondola”. With an incentive like that, Maura, Meghan and I eventually caved and hired one for  a lovely, but brief (for funds were limited) ride.

Pretty lady and her gondolier- I was disappointed we got a vet and not one of the dreamy young casanovas

            Now Maura and Meghan were the primary keepers of the Rick Steves guides and the maps, on account of the fact that my directional skills occasionally are left somewhat to be desired, so I had to find alternative methods to explore Venice. I found a lovely children’s book in our hotel breakfast room and commandeered it temporarily. “The Thief Lord” is the story of a band of orphan children who find shelter together in the hidden corners of Venice. It was an excellent read, and I would just like to take a moment to recommend it to any of you, young or old, who plan to visit Venice in the future.

Monahan girls reading maps and consulting Rick Steves while I did unhelpful things like take this picture

            One of the many places I learned about from “The Thief Lord” was the Rialto Bridge- the oldest one of the four bridges that spans Venice’s Grand Canal. This bridge also has a hopping market, both culinary and for the more leisurely tourist shops. I managed to keep most shopping to a minimum, but did attempt to haggle one evening with a little Italian man in a glass shop. Apparently my haggling skills need to be refined along with my directional ones because his response was to laugh at me, grab me by the shoulders, kiss me on both cheeks and shout “Americana! Americana!” Despite this warm reception, I declined to purchase anything.

Rialto Bridge

Grand Canal boat tour

            On one of our last nights in Venice, we were wandering the streets for the hotel, and passed a giant church from which we could hear singing voices. We wandered inside this massive building where these children’s choirs from Australia were performing. It was absolutely mesmerizing and probably one of my favorite memories from Venice- Rick Steves was good, but there was nothing in his books about stumbling across cool things like this. I think I will even dare to say the choirs in that cathedral were cooler than gelato. Which is a lofty claim, I know, but really very true.

After 6 packed days in Venice, this volcano erupted. You may have heard about it- it sort of disrupted European air travel during the months of April and May, and may have seriously destroyed a British airline or two. It erupted the day before Meghan flew back to Maryland and she barely just barely made to and out of Madrid before all air traffic was suspended for at least a week. Maura and I were headed south to Rome, so the volcano luckily didn’t affect us…yet.

Uncategorized24 May 2010 12:27 pm

 

The experience on the night train isn’t exactly one I’d care to repeat. I suppose the error there was that we only had a compartment that we were sharing with two other people, which made me feel like I was in Harry Potter, which was fun for like 3 minutes. But really not at all comfortable. But we survived the night. Arriving the in early hours to the train station in Florence, Maura and I sat in the coffee shop for a long bit while we waited for the city to come to life. That was alright though, because we found ourselves surrounded by a large group of Korean tourists who were having a great load of fun filming themselves eating various pastries and coffees. People who film their vacations soon became a high point of travel for Maura and I and I would like to believe that our presence in these various locales throughout Europe has been forever preserved in the many, many home videos that we took it upon ourselves to star in. But back to Florence.

            I found Florence rather difficult to navigate- we spent a while trying to find a hostel that the tourist office recommended to us. That was probably the sketchiest place we stayed, but it worked out ok- I didn’t lose sleep over anything. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we were there on a Friday and people were still on Easter holidays, but Florence was packed. We considered seeing the Statue of David, but the line was ages long and it really didn’t appeal to me. But feeling like we needed some sort of artistic cultural experience, we went to the Uffizi gallery. My appreciation for art, however, is not exactly refined. It was enjoyable for a few minutes, but not worth the build- up. Learning experience nonetheless. There was a really cool church in the center of the city – the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. The intent of the architect was to make it so detailed and ornate that there was no way anyone could ever add to it.

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore

            The Basilica and the Ponte Vecchio were probably my two favorites in Florence. The Ponte Vecchio is a bridge that has all these shops on it, mostly jewelry. Imagine the cost for that storefront! After crossing the bridge into the shop-ier  area, we went to the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens. Which was an expensive admission fee (alright, all of Florence was expensive- that was probably the most expensive place we went. No, not probably, definitely. This is where planning would have come in handy a bit. Live and learn, right?) The gardens were nice, mainly because I took a nap in the sunshine. I would have spent several hours there, but unfortunately they closed even before sunset. Maura and I wandered to get some dinner and the sun began to set on Florence. The city was more pleasant after sunset- the massive crowds had backed down and there were some nice street performers. Exhausted, however, we didn’t last too long and it was back to the hostel early.

Ponte Vecchio

            We shared the room in the hostel with two Canadian girls who were backpacking for 5 months. To our slightly travel –weary souls after the day in Florence, these girls really helped turn us around. You can’t have a perfect day every day. Not everything is what you will expect, but you take the good with the bad and enjoy the experience. After a good night’s sleep, we headed out to Venice the next day with chins a little higher.

            Initially, my impression was that I wish we hadn’t even bothered with Florence. It was dirty and expensive and wasn’t ‘pretty’ like I had expected. But I can’t regret it- looking back; it was neat to see once. I’m not headed back, and I’m not recommending it to anyone, but it taught me to give things a proper chance and not to judge first thing. The world traveler has to persevere through good and bad. I am not a world traveler, but I learned a thing or two, and I’m glad I had the experience of Florence.

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