Posted on 29-07-2007
Filed Under (Great Food, Italy, Elation, People) by admin

We left Corfu by ferry at about 7:30 pm. The ferry from Corfu goes to Iguomanitsa, another Greek island, and we had a several hour wait there. The ferries in Greece are not only used to move people and cars, but more importantly to move large trucks with their cargo. We went to the dock/shipping yard about an hour early, but our ferry was late so we spent the time watching trucks go by and playing cards. When the ferry finally arrived, we quickly hopped on, got a quick bite ( I had tomato mozzarella ), and then got to sleep. It was about midnight, and we arrived in Bari, Italy at around 9:00 am.

In Bari, we had another long wait, our train didn’t leave for about 5 hours! I worked on my laptop until my battery died ( Been working a bit on your site, mom), and then we just sat around waiting. I got a delicious mozzarella & proscieutto sandwich from a deli by the train station and had to get used to being back in countries that don’t speak a ton of English; there wasn’t much of a language barrier in Corfu.

The train was on time, so we got on and had a 4 hour ride to Rome. The train had electrical sockets, so I worked most of the ride on getting the image link code working. We arrived in Rome without a hostel, but Mike’s book recommended “Alessandro’s Palace”, so we walked there from the train station. When we arrived, we booked a room for three and saw that this hostel was actually another one of the 12 Best hostels in Europe.

We saw the bar, but we were exhausted from another day and a half of travelling, so we just headed up 3 stories of stairs to our room… Which wasn’t particularly impressive. It was a small room with three beds squeezed in, and a small fluorescent light didn’t do much to brighten the room. Although they were considered Europe’s ‘best hostels’, the common theme seems to be that they aren’t really nice places to stay, but instead cheap resorts for teens to party at. This was great for Corfu, and we’ve heard “The Flying Pig”, in Amsterdam (Another on of the 12), is an amazing place to stay, but for places like Rome where we’re just looking for a nice place to sleep, we decided to stay away from Europe’s best 12.

After resting a bit, Mike and I went out in search for internet, to let the world know we’re alive. We wandered Rome in search for an internet cafe or open wireless network, and after a long search finally stumbled across an open network… Unable to find a bench within range of the signal, we sat down on the sidewalk against a building and did what we had to do… We looked like some weird breed of homeless with expensive laptops. After working for about 15 minutes an Italian guy came running towards us, “You guys found WiFi here?!” Apparently, he lived in a nearby building and had been searching for weeks but couldn’t find anything… I guess we just have a sixth sense for wireless internet.

We didn’t waste too much time checking our email on the sidewalk though, the sun was starting to go down, but there was plenty of Rome to see. Hayley had been to Rome with her school before this, so she knew a ton of good places and a lot of information about the sights. She suggested we head towards Piazza Navona and get dinner there. The all knowing guide book suggested Antica Taverna, a small restaurant with excellent cheap food. Hayley wasn’t particularly hungry though, so we saw the Pantheon and then Mike & I got dinner, agreeing to meet her back at Piazza Navona.

Finding the restaurant was not easy! The streets in Rome are mostly tiny and turn all over the place… Finding a path to get somewhere on a map is usually pretty straight forward, but looking at a map of Rome is like looking at a maze. Turn after turn, vespa after vespa, we finally made it to Antica Taverna and got a seat outside. The food was amazing, I had spaghetti with shellfish and Mike got a lamb dish. The price of eating at restaurants like this is a bit more expensive than going to a supermarket, but the quality of food for the price in comparison to the United States is amazing.

After dinner, we met up with Hayley at the Piazza and, although it was quite late by now, we got a good feel for it. There are many Piazzas in Italy, basically large open spaces in the middle of buildings and roads, but Piazza Navona is especially unique. It is much larger than other Piazzas, and is long and oval shaped. In the middle is a large fountain, that was unfortunately under renovation. The Piazza is sprinkled with amazing painters, drawers, caricature artists, street performers and guys selling knock-off bags.

We hung around until around 2 am, when the artists and performers started heading back home themselves. We started our walk back to Alessandro’s Palace, which was pretty much on the other side of Rome. We considered taking a taxi, but for 10 euro, it didn’t seem worth it. I’ve been pretty much in favor of just walking everywhere; it’s free and we get to really take in the different parts of the cities we’re in. We probably walked entirely across Rome 10 times, and took a slightly different route each one. Besides, not taking a taxi allows us to invest our money into better things, like getting some Gelatti, as we did on our way back from Piazza Navona that particular night (and most nights in Italy).

We woke up the next morning in our dark and dreary room, checked out, and went to search for a new hostel. Mike’s book recommended “E & S Hostel”, South of Alessandro’s in Rome, so we trekked over there with our stuff to check it out. We found it, and buzzed upstairs. A click, and we went through a huge door, into a courtyard. A gate blocked our entry into their building though, so we buzzed again… Another click, and through the gate. Now up a tiny “lift”, through another pretty large door and a woman greeted us. It was a more standard hostel, a large apartment with several rooms that the owners rent out for nights. E & S was, in particular, really nice. It reminded her of a spa; the walls were off-white and it was lit brightly. There were pictures of random peaceful things on the wall, like seashells in the sand or juicy fruit. All we got were nice beds and a nescafe machine, and that was perfect. We hit the jackpot this time.

It was early in the morning, and our room wasn’t even all ready, so we made a strategy for the day. The book recommended a small & cheap pasta restaurant across the river in Testaverde, a smaller neighborhood. The area was great; mostly old buildings with ivy draped down the sides and narrow cobblestone walkways… We twisted and turned through streets until arriving at the little restaurant we’d been aiming for. The small restaurant was bustling when got there at around noon; the one waitress working went by us a few times smiling while helping other people, and eventually got us a seat inside by a big open doorway. We looked at the handwritten and photocopied menu, figuring out what we wanted.

We looked under the ‘Pasta’ heading and saw things we recognized, Ravioli, Rigatoni, Gnocchi… and things we didn’t recognize… One in particular struck my eye, Stracciatella. There was a chocolate and cream flavor of Gelato that had the same name, so I wondered how that would translate in pasta. After we ordered, I realized I could check a language book I had that had a food dictionary. “Stracciatella - Meatbroth with egg”…

What?!

What is that doing under pasta?! I wanted to be adventurous, but also wanted to enjoy this supposedly great restaurant, so I ordered some Rigotoni, in addition to the soup, since it wasn’t expensive. The soup came out, and looked pretty intense. It was a beef broth with big orange blobs of meat oil and it was filled with foamy, scrambled-like eggs. It was better than I thought it would be, but not incredible, though Mike really seemed to enjoy it. My rigatoni was pretty amazing though, and the restaurant definitely lived up to its name in the book.

We then curved crossed the bridge again, and headed to what I would consider to be the most famous area of Rome, where the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Arch of Constantine and other Roman ruins are. I’m not exactly sure how to write about them. They were amazing, and everything I would expect them to be. We walked slowly through things, took pictures, sat down on rocks and watched tour groups go by. Hayley knows tons about Italy, and specifically Rome, so she passed on her knowledge. Nothing was too intense, but we saw everything we needed to see.

It was around 5:30, so we walked back to our hostel to recharge. A gust of cool air blew threw as we opened the door, and felt fantastic. After naps, we went to a supermarket and got ingredients for sandwiches and some cheap bottles of Fragolina, cheap fruitty wine. We sat outside on a fountain at a more modern looking building with a big front courtyard, that was designed to have the look of the ancient Roman buildings. The sandwiches were delicious as usual, and we watched the other Italians on the fountain and in the area.

We walked around Rome a bit more that night, and stopped at the Trevi Fountain which was beautiful and a really lively place with lots of people sitting around watching the fountain and playing music. Hayley had Mike and I throw coins in over our shoulder, to ensure a speedy return back to Rome… It worked for her! As we were leaving, Hayley mentioned that the second coin you throw finds someone love in Rome… I snuck back to throw in another coin, but I think I have to wait for my speedy return-trip before I find love there.

For our second day in Rome we headed to the Vatican. We first booked a train to Venice for 6:52 am the next day and a sleeper train from Venice to Vienna. We decided we would take a bus to the Vatican and then walk back, because it was getting late and we wanted to be sure we’d make it to the Vatican Museum to see everything. We paid for three bus tickets in the ticket machine, but only two came out. We stood around for awhile, thinking about what to do, and two other Americans behind us tried buying a ticket, but now no tickets came out. An official looking guy came over and said vandals break the machine to steal money, or something, so we have to call a number to get our one Euro back.

The way the bus system in Italy works is, you have to buy your ticket and validate it on a machine on board the bus, but they are only checked sporadically. If you’re caught without a ticket, you get a large fine, but it’s somewhat rare to get caught. We figured we’d just chance it with two tickets and hope it turned out alright. Of course, though, a few stops after we got on, Italian ticket collectors hopped on, and we started wondering if we’d made the best decision.

They were just glancing at tickets, though, so after he glanced at Mike’s ticket, he stealthily passed it to me between the seats and the ticket collector was none-the-wiser. We got really lucky, as we saw the collector’s giving plenty of tickets up ahead in the bus… So, if you’re ever in Italy, pay the 1 Euro for your bus ride!

We made it to St. Peter’s Square, outside the Vatican. There is a curving wall of columns that go a few rows deep, and it was designed so that if you stand at one point in particular, all the columns line up, so it looks like a single row of columns. It’s amazing how much time architects of the time must have invested to design little tricks like that… It makes me wonder if there was ever a (Da Vinci Code-Style?) purpose to it, or if it was really just a challenge they wanted to accomplish.

The Vatican itself was pretty amazing too. The shear quantity of artwork is incredible; the amount of artists and time it must have taken to create is unfathomable. How the museum works, basically, is you follow signs for the Sistine Chapel as you go through room after room of murals, paintings and statues. I thought of the Vatican as basically the Sistine Chapel and the Basilica, but the bulk of the amazing stuff came before. Room after room of arched ceilings all covered in individual framed murals of different sizes. The walls were completely covered, and even the floors were artfully crafted.

When we finally got to the Sistine Chapel, it was a bit of a let down. As we entered, guards had us put our cameras away and I had to take off my hat… Not too big of a deal. People were supposed to be quiet/silent in the Chapel, but there were about 100 people in there, so the was a murmur of whispers over the dimly lit room. It was pretty peaceful, actually, but then the guards started loudly commading “SHHHH”. A minute later, we heard, from large speakers drilled into the ancient walls, a blaring “DING.. DONG”, like the sound an airplane makes when the seatbelt sign goes on, but loud enough to make you cringe. Then, at the same volume, “PLEASE DO NOT MAKE NOISE IN THE SISTINE CHAPEL. PLEASE PLACE ALL CAMERA AND VIDEOCAMERA EQUIPMENT IN YOUR BAG AND REMOVE ANY HEAD COVERINGS.” This message then continued in at least 10 different languages, and lasted several minutes. The message itself didn’t ruin it for me, but this act that they were playing, that they really respect this one place in the Vatican, seemed so absurd as they drilled through its walls to blare announcements.

The art, even, in the Chapel left me a bit unsatisfied in comparison to the art that came before it. It seemed particularly famous only because the artist was so famous, when much of the art before it was at least on par or better. We were then directed into St. Peter’s Basilica, though, and that was incredible… By far the most incredible part of the Vatican, as far as I’m concerned.

The ceilings rose so high, but were covered in decoration and paintings. The light shone in through the windows in the ceiling, serving as the only lighting source. Tall sculptures and fountains lined the walls, and pillars holding the ceiling up created small crevices and alcoves to walk through. The whole inside was just so extravagant, it left Mike and I wondering why the Church would need such extravagance as we exited…

We then started on our walk back towards Rome. We wanted to go see the inside of the Pantheon, and Hayley had a church nearby that she wanted to show us the inside of for secret reasons… The walk back was long and hot, and we decided that after seeing the last of the sites, we would search for a genuine pizza dinner, which we hadn’t had since Florence. My mouth started watering.

We made it to Sant’Ignazio Church and Hayley asked us if we noticed anything strange about it. It was a beautifully built and decorated church, but something seemed off. Mike figured it out quickly, “The dome isn’t real?” Hayley was surprised how quickly he noticed, but it did look a bit distorted from our perspective. Hayley said that after starting construction they ran out of money for the dome, and I read elsewhere that the people in the Piazza during its construction didn’t want a dome blocking the sunlight. The artist painted a dome that looks perfect from a specific gold spot on the floor, and as you walk towards the alter you realize it is completely flat… Truly an amazing and less-known site to see in Rome!

Next up was the Pantheon, which was the only thing that could have rivaled anything we’d already seen today. The columns in front are massive, and inside is a perfect, beautiful dome with no supports. Apparently, its construction is still a mystery, because it is a poured concrete perfect dome. It isn’t absurdly extravagant on the inside, but doesn’t need to be, because the architecture alone is so amazing.

After the Pantheon, we began the search for pizza. We wanted to get away from the touristy areas, so we started heading away from the Piazza Navona area. We walked and walked, passing by places that were just too touristy, too expensive, or just didn’t look good. We twisted and turned all through Rome, until we found a place that looked pretty decent. We went to get a seat, but they weren’t open for another 30 minutes, so the search continued.

Finally, we found the perfect place, Pizzeria Baffeto. We asked for a table for three, and they sat us at the same table, outside, with a man and his daughter. “Awkward.”, I thought at first. But the man was really friendly and we all started chatting. They were from Shefield, North of London in the UK and in Rome for a 10 day vacation. He had been here many times, and spoke some Italian. They were, of course, interested in our trip and we went through the whole itinerary, and they commented on each leg. “Ah, Prague… Your drink and your food, very cheap there!”

The pizza was excellent. We got Il Pizza de Baffeto, basically everything on it… Mushrooms, artichokes, sausage, prosciutto, peppers and in the middle, a fried egg… Weird, yes, but delicious. We also got a 4 cheese pizza, which had some mystery cheeses on it, but was at least as good as the Baffeto. We had a pitcher of the house white wine, cheap and also delicious. We always get house wines because they tend to be the cheapest, fairly good, and of a mystery proof that always seems stronger than bottled wine.

After a great meal, we said our goodbyes to John Booth, we found out his name when he gave us his business card, and began another walk through Rome. We came across a large crowd of people near Piazza Navona and got into it… We realized it was mostly older people, and saw an older Italian singer on stage, singing in Italian. The music wasn’t our usual preference, but in the particular setting, Rome, it was a great thing to have stumbled upon.

While I was entranced by the music, Hayley and Mike decided they wanted to visit a Wine Bar, something we often saw around Rome. They looked up a good one in his book, and soon after we were sitting at Cul de Sac, a small Wine Bar near the Piazza. We were sat outside and a man soon came to take our order. He was fairly young, in his late twenties, had a shaved bald head and a pointy goatee… He definitely looked the part. We asked him if he had suggestions:

“What color wine?”

“Rossa.”

“How much do you want to spend?”

“About 15-20 Euro.”

Seeing the menu open to the Sicily Page, “From Sicily?”

“Any Italian wine, really.”

He began flipping through the pages, filtering through the details we’d given him. He pointed to one, we nodded and he brought out a dark bottle with an orange label. He opened it, smelled the cork and, satisfied himself, gave a pour for Hayley to test. Her year or so experience of drinking Franzia boxed wine obviously paid off, because she nodded it ok, and after all tasting it, we agreed it was delicious.

The night so far had been amazing, and as we watched a waiter at Cul de Sac pass us by, we realized we were missing just one thing: Caprese, tomato, mozzarella & basil. We couldn’t resist ordering, and had the best we’ve had yet. Instead of slices of tomatoes, their recipe used small cherry tomatoes that were incredibly juicy. A guitar player came over and played some Gipsy Kings-esque music, and we soon after left, heading towards Piazza Navona.

It was a Friday, so the Piazza’s performers were out in full-force, as we had never seen them before. There were puppeteers, rock bands, an amazing guy stuck in a still walking pose, with his clothes stuck blowing in the wind, for hours, and an amazing string quintent (?) of what seemed to be music students. We stayed around Piazza Navona for a long time, and a guy making bracelets semi-conned me into buying one by throwing the string on my finger and starting to braid it.

We had a long walk back to the hostel, but stopped at Giolitti’s, a famous Gellotti restaurant (yes, restaurant), that Hayley knew of. It was still bustling at midnight! We ate our last Roman Gellotti, and got some rest before our ride to Venice early the next morning.

The whole night was fantastic, by far our best in Rome, and the perfect note to end on… We’ve already seen Venice now, and are in Vienna, so I’ll update on all that next.

One last, Ciao!

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Posted on 26-07-2007
Filed Under (Greece, Elation) by admin

Wow! Sorry, for taking so long to write my next post. I’m actually working on this now in Rome at our second hostel here, but once again, no internet… So, who knows when I’ll be able to actually get this online.

I’ve been mulling over in my mind how it makes sense to catch my posts up since I have practically a week to make up on. I was thinking about making a bunch of little posts, but I’ve decided to just do it all in one long post; hopefully I’ll be able to remember the details as I go.

Anyway, Corfu was great! There is a famous hostel in Corfu called The Pink Palace, that we’d been hearing about from other backpackers, so we wanted to stay there. Unfortunately, when booking hostels for Corfu in Interlaken, there was no availability for the our first 2 nights in Corfu. So, instead, we booked 2 nights at Sunrock Hostel and 2 nights at the Pink Palace.

Sunrock turned out to be a little diamond in the ruff. We had a room with a balcony that overlooks the beach, and the hostel itself was a really friendly little place. It is run mainly by a woman and her husband, and they hire younger kids (our age) to work the place. Included with our room, which was just 26 Euro a night (already a pretty decent rate), was breakfast and dinner, which were both incredibly delicious.

The hostel is mostly outside, with an eating patio (on a cliff, looking over the beach), the closest thing to a reception desk outside, and a bar in a room with big open windows connected to the eating patio. The rooms are down an outside set of stairs, and feel like they’re sort of built into this mountain. Our days at Sunrock consisted of going from our room to the patio for breakfast, to the beach, to the eating patio for lunch, to the beach, to the patio for dinner, to the beach.

The beach, by the way, was fantastic. The sand was soft and white, and the water was bright blue, cool and the bottom of the sea was always visible. For some reason, the water stayed shallow for incredibly far, probably about 200 feet out. It was amazing to be so far from the beach, but still standing. On our second day, Mike and I revisited the childhood love, playing with sand and I started making a sweet sand-airplane, but when the tide started coming in and destroying its nose I called a quits. Later in the day though, we worked together on making a huge pool, and it slowly turned into a castle when a little Greek boy started helping us.

We had planned Corfu to be our vacation in the middle of a busy trip, and it had definitely been serving its purpose. The whole atmosphere at Sunrock was very relaxing and laid back. The owners had a cute son, who we found out was 7 although we pegged him to be around 4. We would always see him wandering around the patio with chocolate all over his face, either wearing a completely different outfit than the last time we saw him, or completely naked; he was living the life.

When we got to Sunrock originally, the woman who runs it gave us a better room because there was a group of Australians that had been in our room and they didn’t want to leave Corfu. Like most Australians, they were a crazy bunch, and we spent our last night at Sunrock playing drinking games with them. We’d been hoping to find some beer pong supplies and teach them what its all about, but never got around to leaving the beach, so that unfortunately didn’t happen.

Sunrock provides rides to and from the ferry port for their customers, so the next morning we checked out and one of their staff from Virginia drove us down. He told us that he came to study in Greece a few years ago and found the culture to be similar to the culture in the South. He came back in the Summer and got a job at Sunrock, and he’s been coming back since to work in the Summers. There’d been an amazing Graffiti festival going on down one particular road in Corfu, so he drove by it and showed it to us.

At one point, he asked if we already had tickets for the ferry, and we hesitantly told him we were actually staying in Corfu, but going to the Pink Palace. The Pink Palace is basically famous for its parties, and not necessarily its Greek authenticity, so I think it’s looked down upon by other hostels in the area (and I’m sure other hostel owners are jealous of its famous reputation/success the past 25 years). The guy from Virginia laughed, and told us that, “Sunrock has been known to run rescue missions in the past.”

We made it to Pink Palace by about 11:00 and started the check-in process… Which was certainly something different than Sunrock, where they just gave us a key. We sat around a table with a guy about our age who blazed through all the information about the place, A rooms, B rooms, pink passports, breakfast times, dinner times, club times, happy hours, laundry, checking-out, safaris, cruises… We ended up getting an “A room” which was a bit nicer, but further from the beach. We had to carry “pink passports” with us at all times, and also had to wear pink bracelets. Pink really isn’t my color, so I wasn’t real thrilled about all this…

Nevertheless, it did seem like the Pink Palace was a lively place that would be a lot of fun. We headed down to the beach soon after and ate lunch, which was pretty decent Greek food (I had Souvlaki), but nowhere near as good as Sunrock. The beach, too, was nice, but not quite as nice as Sunrock. We rented little floating rafts for a Euro and floated far out into the sea, which was great. There were no lifeguards to tell people how far to go out, but the water was always so calm that it didn’t seem to ever be necessary.

As we were floating around out there, the booze cruise came in. It was playing loud music and people seemed to be having a good time. I’d thought it would be the perfect thing to do on my birthday, the 23rd, but it only went out every other day, so it wouldn’t be possible. Instead, we planned to go on the ATV Safari through Corfu, which sounded equally awesome.

Anyway, after the beach, we sat in the Pink Palaces small pool for a bit and then headed to dinner at 8:30, which was included with our stay. The dining hall was amazing, and the only really nice building at the Pink Palace. It’s the second story, above the Pink Palace Club, Palladium, and has no walls, so there is a great view as the sunsets. Bright white columns with pink trim hold up the roof, and bamboo shades block the sun if it gets too bright.

We were seated together, but the tables held eight so other people were sat with us. That night, in particular, only 2 others did, though, a guy from Montreal and girl from California. We talked, shared travel stories, and ate the dinner, which was actually very good. The Greek salad was especially good, with amazing tomatoes, other fresh vegetables and tzatziki sauce.

After dinner, we went straight to Palladium. We drank cheap beer until midnight, when we toasted my birthday with a shot of tequila… In fact, the tequila kept flowing for much of the night, which, naturally, means the night involved some intense action on the dance floor. Mike and Hayley, wisely, headed back up to go to sleep, but I decided to hang around for awhile myself, and had a great time. Unlike Balmer’s in Interlaken, the other huge party hostel we stayed at, the Pink Palace was full of Italians and Spaniards, not Americans. I spent the rest of the night at the bar and on the dance floor meeting interesting people from all over Europe.

Though I missed breakfast, I surprisingly woke up in time to do the ATV Safari. We got tickets for 18 Euro and headed to the back of Pink Palace where they have about 30 ATVs and a small shack. At about 11:30, everyone was there and we began going through all the necessities… We got helmets and they suggested getting bandanas from them for 1 Euro because on the off-road tracks the dust from the other ATVs gets intense.

There were 26 of us, which, the guys running the operation said was a huge group, the most they’ll do at once. Because of this, getting setup took forever. One of the guys, “Brandini” (Who was Brandon before coming to Greece from California), went over the ground rules and bike operation. He also mentioned, that of all the people to have ever driven off a cliff, it has always been a girl, everytime… surprising.

All 26 people had to do a quick test lap in the parking lot to make sure we were good to ride, and by about 1:00 we were finally all ready, on our ATVs and ready to go. In Greece, ATVs are considered acceptable street traffic, so we just drove through the streets of Corfu. The beginning of the trip was pretty slow and through less-crowded streets to get us used to the the bikes. We headed up a mountain and did our first off-road portion on the hill.

The off-road trails were crazy; they were these long dusty trails of sand and rocks ranging from small to huge. The first off-road trail in particular was on the face of a mountain, so on one side was a rock wall and on the other a cliff… At first its nerve-wracking because the dust makes it so hard to see and it seems the terrain totally controls the ATV, but after getting used to it, this isn’t the case at all. It’s really incredible they are able to maneuver over such huge obstacles with such control and speed.

I’d done ATVing in Cancun before, with my parents & sister, so I was expecting an hour or so trip through an off-road course like that was. But, this was completely different; it lasted the entire day! The way it basically worked was, we would drive through the city streets up a mountain for about 30 minutes. During this time, we were going up winding switchback roads enjoying the scenary because the ATVs weren’t that great on uphills. Then we would make a stop at the top, before heading down. On the way down, the ATVs could go really fast, so we would basically ride with traffic on the edge of the road, until we got to an off-road trail, which would usually last about 10 minutes.

It was an incredible trip that took us almost entirely over Corfu… We ended up making it all the way to the Graffiti festival near Sunrock, which was really far from the Pink Palace. We also drove through a lot of small roads through Greek towns in Corfu, and being on ATVs, we could really take it all in. It wasn’t just an exciting thing to do, it was an excellent way to see Corfu, and the guides took us to a lot of the best lookout points, including the “WOW Spot”, where you can see all of Corfu. Wow!

We got back dirty and tired, so we rushed to the pool. We met a guy named Arthur, who was from Brazil but studying in the UK. He was a bit older than us but really talkative, funny and interesting. We found out that Balmer’s in Interlaken and the Pink Palace are actually part of an alliance of Europe’s best hostels (judged basically by their parties), which includes 12 hostels from different countries. He’d actually just graduated, so he’s been thinking taking a year off to travel to each of the 12 hostels and work in each one for a month. I suggested he write a book while he’s at it, and he liked the idea. After meeting Arthur, we started seeing him everywhere, talking to different people all the time, but he would always say hi and remembered all of our names; he was just one of those guys.

After dinner, there was a magic show at Palladium. It felt like I was 7 again; magic shows for my birthday! It wasn’t particularly good, and Mike, being into magic as a kid, debunked pretty much every trick the guy threw out. Aside from the magic, to be honest, the next night in Corfu was pretty similar to the one before it. We partied at the club for my birthday, and Hayley and I ended up staying out until the club shut off its lights at around 4. All in all, between the ATVing and partying, I had an awesome birthday.

We left the Pink Palace the next day… We actually missed the bus into town, so we got a ride from a woman we soon found out to be “Magna”, the owner of the Pink Palace. She didn’t have her car, so we drive in the van the Pink Palace uses to get groceries… Hayley sat up front, while Mike & I sat in the back of the van on a piece of plywood. At some point, Magna started talking to someone on her phone in Greek. Slowly, the conversation escalated from a mere discussion to a verbal war. She was screaming in Greek, and it was clear the person on the other end was too.

This went on for about 10 minutes, and, to be honest, sounded pretty amazing. When she got off the phone, she apologized and told us that her brother, who she recently signed over as co-owner as per family tradition, gave control of online bookings through hostelworld.com to his girlfriend. Apparently, his girlfriend would get overwhelmed/lazy, and list the Pink Palace as booked, when it was no where near. We asked if the Pink Palace had been booked Friday and Saturday, and she said it hadn’t been, so that exact thing happened to us! When she heard that, she asked Hayley too talk to her brother and tell her what happened. We were suddenly in the middle of this family feud between the owners of the famous Pink Palace Hostel… This is the awesome stuff that happens when you miss public buses!! She asked for our email address on the way out so she could get in contact with us if her brother gave her more problems, so we’ll see what happens.

We then began the long journey back to Italy, via ferry, and made it to Rome… I’m going to leave Rome for another post though, and see if I can’t go scour out some Internet now.

Ciao :)

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Posted on 25-07-2007
Filed Under (Greece, Elation) by admin

No worries! I am alive.

Our luck with the internet has really been terrible lately, though. Greece in particular was bad, but, now in Rome, I am sitting literally on the sidewalk to post this.

Anyway, Corfu was fantastic. My birthday was awesome, and things are pretty much going great. I, unfortunately, haven’t finished my post for Corfu, so I’m going to wait to post all the details… What I have been working on, though, is a neat little (actually kinda big) piece of code that let’s me easily associate words from my posts to images. It’s just about done, so hopefully it will be already to go by the time I post about Corfu.

Whenever I get good internet I’ll post up the millions of pictures I have too :)

Back in Italy, so.. Ciao!

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Posted on 15-07-2007
Filed Under (Switzerland, Elation, Disaster, Adventure) by admin

Getting internet in Europe, apparently, is not as easy as we had originally discovered. The last time we easily found internet was in Epinaye, which doesnt say much for the rest of the continent. The last post I made was from the ground in front of Migros shopping plaza, tonight, I am in “FIRENZE: Internet Point”, a little Internet Cafe in Florence.

I’d love to write all about Florence and catch everyone up, but I feel it would be best if I finish off Interlaken, and then do all catch up on Florence tomorrow. So, here goes.

It seemed like it would be difficult to beat skydiving; the day after looked to be a relatively uneventful day, and I guess for the most part it was. We woke up a little hung-over from the the night before (celebrating after a good jump!) and didn’t really feel like doing anything too intense. We hung around Balmer’s for a bit, picked up the Skydiving DVDs from the Xtreme Desk and headed out to grab food.

We’ve begun the simplification of our lives; we now do our best to have one decent meal of typical food for the area we’re in, but then shop out of grocery stores. For example on that day, we picked up a baguette, some turkey from the deli and Camambert cheese. This lasted us for 2 meals, and came out to something like 3 Euro a person. Things are really expensive, so we’re doing our best to trim down on extras.

After that, we hung around outside Migros, the shopping mall that had the grocery store, and found internet access. I updated the site, checked email, and took pictures of people going by. We were feeling a bit bad for being so lazy and were interested in doing some of the great hikes we heard people talking about, so we headed back to Balmer’s and Mike began looking through his books for a good trail.

He found one that was one of the “more popular, but slightly steeper” trails. We considered a few others, but that trail, which was supposed to take about 4 hours, seemed like the best option. Interlaken is split into its East and West, and has an Ost and West (Pronounced Vest, since its part of the German-speaking Switzerland) train station. Our hotel is on the West side, so we took the train to Interlaken Ost. The trail would then lead us back to Interlaken West, towards our hostel.

Judging time here is really difficult because it stays so light until so late. It was probably about 8:30 pm when we started our hike, but the sun was still high in the sky; it felt like 3 or 4 pm. So, a 4 hour hike seemed like a completely feasible idea.

We crossed the river that passes through Interlaken, and eventually found the start of our trail. It was amazing. We would hike over all sorts of terrain, and the switchback path kept things interesting. We would criss-cross up the mountain, passing by large trees, beautiful flowers and rest points that overlooked Interlaken. We crossed bridges that looked unsafe (but seemed to be once we were on them…), and areas where water would flow down the mountain, creating a small brook through the path.

Once again, my watch was actually incredibly useful! We started the hike at about 1600 feet, and steadily watch ourselves rise. At about 2300 ft., we were going up a fairly steep hill when we saw a car barreling down the rescue path. It had been awhile since we saw any other form of life, so it was a bit reassuring to know other people existed. We yelled hello as the car passed, and although it was a few hundred feet, he seemed to have heard us and stopped. We waved, he yelled “Ahoy!”, and drove away.

As the started sun set though, I started wondering if he stopped so quickly because he thought we were either crazy for hiking so late, or lost and asking for help. The sunset was beautiful, but we slowly started to comprehend that sunset meant darkness, and, expecting a short hike, we just brought our small packs. I think we all silently realized that things were getting iffy, but kept going with the hike as the sky turned pink.

Back in time, for just a moment, the three of us were at Interlaken West train station. We’ve been seeing this water spouts all over Switzerland and contemplating whether or not we can drink them. Finally, I decided to ask at the train station. The woman I asked didn’t understand, but apparently a man online did, because he came to me outside where we were sitting and said “Water, ok drink.”

On the train we were discussing this Swiss water, when a woman overheard. She began telling us that the water from those spouts is Swiss water, almost directly from the mountains, and it’s purer than any bottled water. She said, with great pride, that they actively maintain that water to be as pure as possible from the tap.

We continued speaking with her, and she began telling us that the next 4 days are the best in Interlaken to go hiking and camping. She said that there were literally only 4 days every Summer where it would be warm all night and without rain, and these were them. So, I think it was at this point where I sub-consciously thought… “Screw Balmer’s, let’s sleep on an Interlaken mountain!”

Back on the mountain, as the shades of pink where hugging the horizon more tightly and the sky began turning dark blue, Hayley was beginning to want to start heading back the way we came. Mike and I wanted to push on, though. And convinced here we’d be able to get to the top soon… We were at just about 3200 ft, and the summit of the highest mountains in Interlaken were all around 4000, so we had to be getting close.

Of course, I think we all knew we couldn’t make it in time. The truth was though, we would have had to turn around long ago if we wanted to make it to the bottom before we were walking through pitch black. The only real option was to find a nice spot to camp out for the night. .. And that spot came as we followed a wooden railing slightly off the trail to a looking point at about 3500 ft.

It was perfect. We had a little roof with benches on three sides, we were surrounded by rocks on three sides, and from the North and East, there were cliffs, so we were fairly protected from roaming animals. In front of us, North, was all of Interlaken… It was spectacular. We began identifying everything in Interlaken we knew, and had created a pretty accurate composite of everything we knew by the end of the night… “No no, THAT must be Centralstrasse, see how it curves around those green lights that are the train station lights?”…”Those aren’t green lights!”

There was another interesting light spectacle that night, which happened only about half an hour after we arrived at our camping-site and the sun had completely set. Staring into Interlaken, we noticed a dot moving quickly across the mountain across from us, on the other side of Interlaken. Suddenly, it started hissing and fireworks sprayed out! It would stop shooting fireworks, move around somewhere else and two minutes later, more fireworks! We realized it was a helicopter, and for about half an hour it would just fly around for a few minutes, shoot off some fireworks from both sides, and fly somewhere else to do the same thing. It was an amazing site, that I’m sure we would have completely missed were we not camped out on a mountain.

I maintained pretty high spirits the whole time… It was really exciting to be outside at night, and see Interlaken in such a unique way. But, it was getting pretty cold and we were not prepared for camping out like this. We hit a water spout halfway through the mountain, so we had plenty of water, and we bought a baguette of bread just before heading up on the trail, so we were well fed, but a flashlight and blanket would have been priceless.

We we arranged the huge wooden benches into a large bed and shivered together talking and complaining most of the night… At some point we realized my computer had a full battery in it, so I took it out and we started watching a movie. We’d been hearing wind moving leaves and animals scurrying around all night, but it seemed that the noises increased a great deal after the computer was on. We were afraid we were attracting animals, so we turned it off, and just enjoyed the lights some more.

Soon after the laptop was on, though, I thought I’d heard the more distinct noise of just two legs stepping through the leaves coming from our East. About 15 minutes later from behind us, and then again from our West, where the only entrance from to our spot was. I was a bit afraid we had attracted more than just a small animal, but maybe a person that realized some camping-newbies had some sweet electronics with them.

I think I was partly just hypersensitive to such noises and situations after all that had happened, the darkness and the situation we were in, but I just pictured a guy waiting for us to hit the hay, and the pluck us of our valuables. Luckily, Mike and I don’t sleep much anymore, we were up pretty much all night and nothing came of that. Too bad, robbed us of a good story!

I’d enjoyed the night, but by about 4:30, it was incredibly cold, and I was in a short sleeve shirt, shorts and sandals… It was hot when we started! Shivering, we made our way back onto the path with my laptop as a flashlight and found a point that seemed like it would be great for watching the sunrise. We parked there, and enjoyed the show before moving to one more spot and viewing it from a slightly higher angle. It was incredible.

It may have been a lot of work, but we got a lot more out of this hike than we expected. Unfortunately though, our hopes of crossing Interlaken from East to West were shattered, when we saw that the our trail was closed at the summit and seems to have been for awhile. It was too bad, but we made it to just over 4000 feet, and survived an incredible hike and camp-out.

We made it back down the same way we came, but it all seemed a bit different anyway, approaching it from a different angle. In other words, I was in awe on the way back down too. We saw some people going up as we went down, and they seemed confused as to why we were heading down so early in the morning. We, nevertheless, exchanged polite ‘Good mornings’ and continued on our way.

At some point on the way down I slammed my foot into a rock and got a cut on my toe that bled pretty relentlessly all day. I know, I know… Why was I wearing sandals on a hike… blah blah. Really, I’ve found my feet to be so much more comfortable in my sandals than in my shoes, even for long trecks with my back-pack. This was something of a test, to see if my sandals would hold up in the toughest of conditions. And, I think they did. My feet felt great the whole trip, and I’m sure would have been hurting much more if I was in normal shoes. Either way, I realized today in Florence that I left my sneakers in Balmer’s, so I’m going to have to justify their loss by saying I realized I didn’t need them anymore.

Anyway, Hayley, Mike and I happily took our step back to 1600 ft at around 7:15 and it felt great to have overcome that night. We rushed back to Balmer’s, got breakfast, a very, very needed shower, quickly packed up our stuff and had to sprint with our full-packs on to just make our train to Spiez, where we would then take a train to Milano, where we would then miss our train but graciously be allowed on a more local train to finally make it to Firenze…

But that’s all for tomorrow… Ciao!

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Hello again from Interlocken… Or Interloken, as I see it spelled here. Mike and I are, at the moment, sitting in front of a Migros shopping mall, on the ground, plugged into an outdoor electricity socket, leeching WiFi internet from someone’s router. Perhaps a strange site, but Interloken is truly a backpacker’s town.

It also happens to be the extreme sports center of the world. Everywhere you look there are advertisements for canyoning, bungy jumping, ice climbing, zorbing, hang-gliding…and Sky diving. Hayley, Mike and I had been fantasizing for a long time about going Sky Diving in Interloken, but all had some feeling that it was one of those things that just didn’t work out.

But yesterday, the first thing we did after checking into Balmer’s Hostel was go to the Extreme Sports desk and book a trip with Scenic!Air to jump 11,000 feet over Interloken through the Alps. At this point, I found that I was, surprisingly, more excited and less scared… We did the whole process pretty quickly, without really processing what we were getting ourselves into.

We had about 3 hours to hang around Interloken before we would go, but that went quickly and we soon found ourselves in the van which took us for a beautiful drive through the mountains of Interloken, and to a small airfield. In front of us there was only a runway, a hangar, and a big garage full of jumpsuits, harnesses and adrenaline junkies.

The guys and girls at Scenic Air were awesome; they were funny and kept the mood light. We’d already signed our life away at the hostel, so all we had to do was get in jumpsuits and take a 30 second crash-course on how to position our body while in the air. There were 3 simple steps… In the plane, we lean our head back and grab the harness, for the first few seconds we keep our hands holding the harness, we get a tap and then we get let our hands go and enjoy the ride… We were on the second plane, so I found myself racking my brain, going through the steps hundreds of times while we waited.

Even so, I was still less nervous than I’d thought I would be. Sure, my heart was pounding a bit more than usual, I was thinking about what the moment would be like. But I was really just so excited… Something about the incredible Swiss scenery made it a lot easier to deal with (Besides, if my sister can do it, there’s no way I should be worrying).

I met my tandem jumper, Hans, who was actually the guy who gave the 30 second instruction and seemed to be of high-rank in someway, so I was “In good hands with Hans.” Hayley, Mike & I, with our tandem jumpers and camera crew, started a short walk across the airfield to the blue plane idling on the runway. Hayley had said she wanted to go first, but as we started filing in, Hans said to me, “Last on, first off… Make sense?”

Suddenly I got a little nervous, but convinced myself I wanted to be the first one out, and we hopped in the plane. The space we were in was tiny. I always pictured a pretty large area where we could all comfortably sit and tap our feet nervously, but there was just enough room for the people we had, and our legs were all sort of interwined; I wondered how we’d all maneuver to get out.

Since I was the last one in, I was right at the sliding door of the airplane. The tarmac was 2 feet from me, with the door open as the plane started taxiing away. Hans allowed me about 45 seconds to nervously wonder if we’d be taking off and flying around with the door open the whole time, before closing it as we took off.

The scenery was spectacular. Interloken is by far one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen, and we were flying through it in a tiny airplane, with an absurdly good view. Seeing the town from this perspective, I finally truly understood the name Inter-loken… It was a city clearly Inbetween (Inter) two incredibly blue-colored Lakes (Loken).

I recently received a very nice watch as a gift from my Aunt & Uncle that has an altimeter built in… For the first time, I really got a chance to use it. Paying a bit more for the camera man was also like paying a little more for a best-friend up there, and they kept us sane as I saw my watch slowly creep over 6,000 feet.

“How ya feeling?” Hans asked, in his awesome Swiss accent. “I’m doing ok… How are you doing?” I wondered, making sure the guy in charge of my life was in peak condition.

“Eh, I’m feeling a bit sick.” He joked.

We had about 15 minutes in the air to go sight seeing, but the higher I saw us getting the less I cared about the mountains. 0 to 6000 feet took about 10 minutes, so when I looked at my watch and suddenly saw us at over 10,000 feet, it hit me that this is it.

Hans started tightening me in, we attached our shoulders and torsos together, and he gave me the last few instructions. My watch hit 11,000, and seconds later Hans slid the door open.

The rush from the air through the door was incredible, we were going so fast. But there was no time to be scared, no time to back out. My camera man climbed over me and out the door, hanging on the wing support. Hans and I twisted our bodies onto the doorstep, and VOOSH, he pushed us out.

If words could describe how it felt, it wouldn’t be so expensive… But I guess its worth a shot. All the fears drop away, air is pushing your face and body so hard, but it feels great… The noise of falling 125 mph is loud, much louder than I thought. I was screaming, but I could hardly hear it.

As Hayley put it, “The Earth below looked like a toy train-set.” Jumping through the Alps was also probably the best possible way to do it (A sky-cameraman originally from Munich that we were talking to for awhile actually said Interloken is in his top 3 places to jump). The clouds and mountains were beautiful as we plummeted from above them to below them, but to be honest that wasn’t really what was on my mind at this point.

Hans spun me around, we played with the cameraman, screamed, made faces, and then I felt a tap, and VOOSH again, the parachute opened up and it was a completely new sensation.

Now it was just Hans and me, I felt completely safe with him. He loosened my harness a little so I could be more comfortable, and took off my goggles. We were still quite high, and the trip down lasts about 7 minutes, so we talked and had some fun.

The control they have over the chutes is amazing. He did some maneuvers through the air that gave me as intense a feeling as when we were falling. There’s something about seeing the parachute in front of me, when I feel like it should be above me, that really gets me screaming “WOOO. YEEEEAHH.”

Hanging there, Hans asked me what I thought, “Freaking incredible”, I replied (Though I wasn’t so clean-spoken at the time). “It’s the shit, eh?” He replied.

It was the shit.

We did a few sharp turns, and Hans asked me to put my head down so he could see, making sure not to drop us into the river below us… Not a bad idea, I thought. We swooped down towards the grass of the airfield at what seemed like far too fast a speed, but with a tug of the lines just as we were about to the ground, we slowed down, seemed to hang a bit in the air, and glided onto the grass.

We were all euphoric… We still are all euphoric. We’ve decided to just come back home now, because we cannot top that, ever. We hung around with the skydivers and watched the other groups go, enviously. The skydivers told us that once you’re licensed and have your gear, it costs about $25 a jump, so Hayley, Mike & I made a pact to do it and go skydiving around the world (kind of like a pact we made to go backpacking through Europe?).

Since, I’ve relived the experience in my mind many times, and they played clips from mine and Mike’s jump in the Metrobar, at Balmer’s, where we hung out at night after enjoying a cheap fondue dinner.

Interloken is incredible. We will definitely be back here sometime in our lives, hopefully with loads of cash to spend on every extreme sport possible.

Pictures and video are on the way, but the only thing Interloken is missing is good internet, so that may have to wait until we leave.

-An elated Nicky

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Posted on 09-07-2007
Filed Under (Elation, Languages, France, People, Adventure) by admin

Well, surprise, surprise, another eventful day…

Lievin (The middle officer in the picture above) from Police Municipale said to call him at 10:00 this morning and he would update us on what was going on. We went down to the desk of our hostel and had the woman at the desk call, since she spoke some English. She told us that he wants us to call back in 30 minutes.

So, we called back in 30 minutes, and he said that we should go see the Chief of Police at 12:00. So, a few hours later, in the appropriately pouring rain, we head over to the Police Municipale Station and meet a few more French cops. They’re, again, all very friendly… But it’s really hard to communicate with them, and a new cop, Herald (The officer on the right), tells us to come back at 2:00 pm to find out what’s going on.

At this point it seemed like they were just putting us off, so we told the officer we really had to go to the US Embassy in Paris to get her a new passport, and we couldn’t keep waiting around Epinay sur Seine. He was sympathetic to our issue, and said he would come to the hotel and deliver us a message personally at 2:00 pm.

We, at this point, accepted the mentality that the purse was simply lost. We’d been working non-stop since it was stolen to get it back, but it was time to move on. As we left the hotel to head to Paris, the rain cleared! We hoped this was a sign that moving on was the right thing to do, and headed looked forward to the refuge of the US Embassy.

Walking to the train station, I realized that the big problem we were having with the officers was communication. We just needed to know what they were doing, if there was hope, if we were keeping them from some murder case… just some information. Lievin had given us his personal cell-phone number, so I realized it may be possible to connect Lievin with my Dad (Mon Père) who speaks French. We called my dad on the train to Paris, explained things and gave him Lievin’s number, but as we were finishing things up, we went into the subway and lost connection. I wasn’t sure if he needed more information from me, or if he could call back, or if I would interrupt him and Lievin if I tried to call back… So, we just waited on that front.

The first thing I saw stepping out of the RER C in Paris was a thick bolt of lightening as the rain fell in sheets. It was amazing to finally be in Paris, but it certainly would have been better under different conditions, weather and otherwise.

We reached the US Embassy and there was an English speaking French “GUARD-FORCE” there, blocking anyone from getting even close to the outside of the buildings. We told him Sam’s purse was stolen, that she lost everything, her passport, her money, her license, everything.

“Ah, eeuuu… The passport office closes at 12.”

What?! Why are things so crazy here? Why can’t anything just go smoothly? Apparently the Embassy would be available for us to get what we needed done between 9 a.m. and 12 p.m… And they only tell you that once your there, because we certainly checked.

Sam started crying, Hayley put her foot down, and some other officers went off to try and figure out whether or not it was safe to let in a bunch of US Citizens into the US Embassy… I thought this place was supposed to be our safe zone, or something?

We were waiting in the rain for about half an hour. Standing there, we, by freak chance, ran into a guy our age we had met on the train into Paris. He, “had already seen the Eiffel Tower too many times,” so he went to walk around while his friends were there and stumbled upon us.

Apparently, while they had no reservations or plans, managed to pop into a hostel in the center of Paris, while we were fending for our lives in the most dangerous part of Paris. Awesome.

He left, and a bit later we were allowed in. They brought us to a security check-point, and as I was putting my cell-phone on the table to walk through the metal detector… “Anonymous Call” pops up. The rest of the staff at the Embassy was actually very nice, and one guy urged me to go outside and take the call.

When I picked up, I got disconnected, but called back my dad just in case. A few seconds later, I find out my dad left a message for Lievin, who then called my dad back, directed him to officer “Gregory”, who informed him…

THEY FOUND THE BAG!

I called Gregory and he told me the news was true, and the bag is that their station. The Embassy security was a bit confused, but finally understood and were happy with us for a brief moment before we high-tailed it towards the train station to get back to the Police Municipale.

It had, strangely, stopped raining by the time we got out of the Embassy… The weather has been an incredible reflection of our luck so far! We got to the station and waited around for a bit. Lievin came over in casual clothes… He had apparently come in to help us on his day off! Herald then came over holding Sam’s bag, covered in dirt and garbage and… blood? It was gross… But inside was her passport, traveler’s checks, plane ticket, Eurail pass… The kids swiped her cash, of course, but that didn’t take too much away from the excitement… We got the exact closure we needed after everything that had happened.

An officer we hadn’t seen, who spoke more English than the rest, asked us if we had a minute to talk and brought us into the Chief of Police’s office. The Chief of Police came in (the officer on the left in the picture), smiling and showed, proudly, a paper weight that said “Washington D.C.” on it. We smiled, and the officer who spoke English began telling us that if we felt it was deserved and genuinely wanted to, we can write a letter to the Mayor of Paris about what happened. The officers and station would basically get a commendation/congratulations for their work.

The police here have been incredible and we explained that we would definitely write such a letter. The Chief of Police gave us his card and personal telephone numbers, so if we were ever in Epinay sur Seine again (yeah right) we could call him for immediate help; he promised he would remember us.

The mood was then light, we talked to the cops, joked around, described police in the U.S., told them about our trip around Europe and that we were students. And we finally took a great picture with them outside the station. It was really an incredible and unexpected meeting we had with them… The Chief’s email address was on his card, so we’re looking forward to sending him the pictures, an email, and perhaps sending the station a thank you gift from New York when we get back.

We then gathered ourselves, and headed back into Paris. We went to the top of the Eiffel tower and ate delicious french fries at the bottom.

Tomorrow, we will be back in Paris, as many sites as we can quickly, hopefully having lunch at my favorite restaurant in the world, Le Relais de L’Entrecote, and then heading to Interlocken in Switzerland. The police may be great, but I can’t wait to get out of Epinay sur Seine!

Well, it’s 4:00 AM here, and we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow, so thanks to everyone that helped us through things the past few days, and especially dad for saving the day! ;)

A demain!

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