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!

(2) Comments    Read More   
Posted on 20-07-2007
Filed Under (Greece, Languages, People) by admin

As I drifted awake the morning after we visted Capri, I became more and more aware of a conversation going on around me about Hayley suffering from a lot of back pain. Apparently, she was in the bathroom, her back started hurting her a great deal, and she could hardly move… Mike was doing what he could, and I woke up and gave her a bunch of Advil. She stayed in bed for awhile, and started feeling better about an hour later, but that pretty much exed out the possibilty of going to Pompei.

Instead, we got ready to leave the hostel and head to Greece. Getting to Corfu would require 3 trains and 2 ferries, and take about 22 hours (We left at 11am on the 19th, and arrived at about 9am on the 20th). The three of us headed towards the Via Liberta train station to get our day started, but I was carrying Hayleys backpack in addition to my own, to make sure she didn’t hurt it any more. Mike and I carried her stuff for most of the traveling until we arrived in Corfu.

From the Napoli train station, we took a train to Castreta. The ride was only about an hour, and, despite the heat of the train, was relatively uneventful. The bulk of the train ride would be on our Castreta to Bari leg. It was marked in our Eurail booklet as a train that needed reservation, but when Mike went to book our seats, the woman said we should just get on the train. We met two backpackers from Alabama in Castreta, and they were told the same thing.

Waiting on the platform, a train came in and a girl got off, asking us if she should get off here to go to Bari. We told her we too were going to Bari, so hopefully, yes. She turned out to be from an engineering town in Sweden, and we spoke to her for awhile while we waited for the train. She, too, was told that she didn’t need to make a reservation for the train to Bari. But, when the train finally arrived, there were absolutely no seats. We finally resigned to standing the entire ride in the front of a car, which wasn’t the greatest thing ever.

A ticket collector came soon after the train headed off, and he did not seem pleased that we didn’t have reservations. He violently said something in Italian to us, said something about paying the difference and then moved on. Two other backpackers, who we soon fond out were from Spain, also had no seats and were standing with us. They spoke a good amount of English, and Hayley and Mike spoke some Spanish, so the six of us, Hayley, Mike and I, the Swedish girl and the two Spanish backpackers, spent the 3 hour train ride standing with all our bags by the train doors talking about our different countries, our trips, and a variety of other things. We were all ultimately headed to Greece, but, while Hayley, Mike and I were going to Corfu, the rest were headed to Athens.

Eventually, a woman ticket collector came by, and told us she didn’t want to charge us or get us in trouble, but her boss was coming… So, she told us to move to the last car of the train, where he wouldn’t get to by the end of the ride. We did, and the conversation moved with us. We finally got off in Bari, where the six of us took a bus together to the port. We were taking a ferry from Bari to the island of Igomanista in Greece, and then another ferry to Corfu.

With our Eurail passes, we are given “free” ferry rides, but still have to pay all kinds of surcharges for gas and peak-season fees and so on… Also, the free ticket doesn’t include seats, just permission to get onto the ferry. We weren’t exactly sure what this meant, we pictured ourselves standing in the cargo area for 9 hours… So, we opted to put down a few more Euro and get real seats on the ferry. After getting to the port, we weren’t sure if we would be seeing our Spanish & Swedish friends any longer, since we were going to different places and had different types of tickets, so we exchanged some contact information and said our goodbyes just incase.

We got onto the ferry at 8:00 pm… It was so much more than we expected. The boat was really like a small cruise ship; it was nicely decorated, had  a swimming pool, a big room with our seats, decks outside and several eating choices. We ate at the “self-serve” restaurant, that had fairly good food, and we got a bottle of Greek white wine for 5 Euro. We sat and slowly ate, then just sat and talked for awhile… Actually, we only left because one of the staff told us we had to go get more food if we were going to keep sitting in the restaurant!

But, coincedentally, as we left, we saw our Swedish friend again, and followed her to the outside deck. Speaking to other backpackers here, we learned that the typical backpacker ferry-riding strategy was to either sleep outside on the deck, or go into the seating areas late at night and take seats that weren’t bought, or sleep on the ground inside. We didn’t really end up needing seats, but it worked out ok, and we know what to do next time.

We found our Spanish buddies soon after that, too, so the six of us were back together again. We had some rum that we’d been carrying around for awhile, so we got a some coke and started teaching them some American drinking games. We started with Kings, a card game where you pick cards that relate to different actions. Some of them require word games, which was interesting because there were so many different languages in play. We asked us if they had any drinking games to teach us, and they told us about a drinking game called “Duorito”, which is similar to “Quarters” that we play, where you try to bounce a quarter off the table into a cup. t was a lot of fun, we all just hung out, had a good time, misunderstood each others languages and so on.

It’s actually been really interesting that meeting other backpackers from the states isn’t particularly interesting, but as soon as we start conversations with backpacker’s from other European countries, we can keep interesting conversations going for hours. I think just figuring the languages out is exciting enough to keep conversations going and start new ones.

The ferry would be getting into port at 6am, so we all got to bed at around midnight. We woke up, moved around sleeping bodies on the ground to get our bags, and before we knew it we were in Greece. We still had one more ferry to take to get to Corfu, which we basically just slept through. We arrived at the port, and there was a van from our hostel right as we got off the boat… I don’t think anything yet has been that easy.

20 minutes later, we were eating Greek pancakes overlooking a bright blue, translucent beach. We’ve been chilling on the beach today, swimming, drinking cheap wine and eating gyros. I have a feeling not much will happen the next few days in Corfu, but my birthday is on the 23rd, so that should be interesting!

Back to the beach, Andio!

(5) Comments    Read More   
Posted on 18-07-2007
Filed Under (Great Food, Italy, People) by admin

So, we’d just left Balmer’s. It was 9:20 in the morning, and our train was leaving at 9:30. The walk from Balmer’s to Interlaken West usually took as about 15 minutes. We knew we had to have left earlier, but there was nothing we could do given all the things that had been going on with our hike the previous night.

My watch was ticking closer and closer to 9:30, and Hayley said she knew a shortcut so we quickly down a different street. “Should we start running?”, Hayley asked. “Probably.”, I replied, and started running with my pack on.

A few moments later I heard Hayley say, “Only one of us needs to get there to hold it.”, and I was suddenly running by myself. I just kept going down the street Hayley got us on, but as I reached the end I realized I must have had to turn off somewhere… I was on the opposite side of Migros from the train station, which is probably a bit more than 500 ft from where I expected to be. I kept running towards the station, and as I got there Mike came out through the station to rush me onto the train… Apparently Hayley’s shortcut works if you follow it correctly!

So, we made it just in time, and the trip to Spiez was only about 20 minutes. The next train, from Spiez to Milano was about 3.5 hours, which we much prefer. Long train rides are one of the few times we can really just relax and get some sleep. Unfortunately, although it was a long ride, the train from Spiez to Milano was a bit of an experience itself and I didn’t end up getting any sleep at all on it.

We walked through the train to Wagen 16, noticing that it was a very full train. We were weaving through people with our large bags through 3 train cars, only to find a group of 3 old people in our seats. There was another American couple that was going through a similar issue on seats diagonal from ours. I guess the train is so full and people just sit stop honoring the seat reservations. Ultimately though, Mike asked and they surrendered our seats before the train really got going.

Hayley and Mike fell asleep almost immediately, but it seemed a bit risky for all of us to sleep at the same time on such a full train, so I transfered some pictures onto my laptop and did some work. The seats on the Eurail are setup with 2 seats next to each other, with a table in the middle, and then another 2 seats that face the first two, in fact almost all trains in Europe are setup like this. At a stop, about 30 minutes in, a man got on and sat in the seat diagonal from me; I was sitting in the window seat.

He was dressed casually, but well, wore glasses and had shortly shaven, blondish hair that was balding. I acknowledged his presence with a smile, and he smiled back… Seemed like a nice guy, and I was guessing, to myself, what nationality he was and what languages he would speak.

I was working on a pretty terrible sketch of Mike sleeping when he began snoring lightly. Hayley drifted awake and woke Mike up so he would stop. Soon after he’d fallen back asleep, he, again, started lightly snoring. Hayley didn’t awake this time, so I looked up at Mike, and then the man diagonally from me. He signaled with his hands that the snoring didn’t bother him and I should leave Mike alone. I went back to doing what I was doing, but his snoring progressed until erupting, causing the entire train cabin to break out in laughter (this has actually happened a few times, and gets even the coldest-looking people smiling).

We awoke Mike again, and a few seconds later a man came around to check passports as we entered Italy. The man diaganolly from me spoke to me in English to me as I got my passport back. He noticed that I had one of the new passports, and asked if he could take a look. I showed it to him, and explained the new Radio Frequency ID tag they all have. We exchanged a few words and went back to our own business soon later.

A few minutes later, Hayley asked to switch seats with me so she could rest her head on the window as she slept. We did, and the man became the man across from me. As we waited for customs at the first stop in Italy, we began talking, “It is always a long wait here, like this.”, he started. Apparently he made this trip often…

When we entered the Milan area, he picked up conversation again and started telling me about homes we were passing and the area in general. We began really talking to each other, and he became my tour guide for the remainder of the trip. He explained a lot about Italy to me, and the towns we were passing by. We were passing by lakes, he took out a map to show me where exactly we were and how the lake we were currently passing curled up into Switzerland, where he was from.

Eventually we discussed his background, (he’s a history teacher/humanitarian/researcher working at a Swiss University on a project at the moment), my own background, our trip, and details about where we’ll be and things to do. He told me Florence, though very nice, is very touristy, but if we just cross the river it’s possible to find much more genuine and exceptional food/stores.

We also talked about the pick-pocketing in Italy, and I told him about our mugging in Paris. He replied that crime in Italy has no malicious motivations. To them, it’s more of a test of wit or skill or “a restaurant owner overcharging a confused customer, so he can buy his wife a present.” I’m sure malicious crime exists in Italy, but I think he is probably right on certain levels; they’re looking to get one by you, not hurt you.

Anyway, we talked about a lot of really interesting things, and it was a really unique treat to find someone so helpful and talkative on the ride to Milan. We arrived and parted ways without ever exchanging names.

Mike, Hayley and I saw a train to Firenze (Florence) on the board in the Milan train station and ran to it, because the layover was short. We were on car 12 and started heading down, but suddenly realized that there were clearly only 8 cars! We found a train conductor of some sort, a younger guy, and asked for help. He spoke absolutely no English, but said something about “partitto” when looking at our train. I connected the dots from French’s ‘partir’, and realized he must be saying our train had left. He walked us down the platform to a TV, pointed to the train we were supposed to be on, and showed that it was blinking which signaled its departure.

Somehow, he communicated that it would be ok if we got on his train to Firenze instead, so we got on and started walking through cars. They were all small cabins with 6 seats, and we weren’t really sure what the deal is with them. We walked back near the door where the conductor was, so he could at least vouge for us, and figured we’d just stand. He hopped on just before the train started movie and urged, “Prego, prego!”, pointing toward the seats. Again, a time when someone really seemed to care about us. He didn’t want us to be stranded in Milan, he wanted us to get where we were going… And he didn’t want us to have to stand up, even though we hadn’t paid for seats.

We found seats in a cabin with 2 other people, a quintessential Italian man and a firey red-head talking on her phone in Italian. The ride was relatively uneventful. A woman came around to check for tickets and we showed her the Europass and tried to explain what happened. She said something in Italian and moved on. The red-head then told us, in Italian-accented English, that the the woman had said, “You’re on the wrong train, but its ok.”

We arrived in Florence at the end of the afternoon and found our way to 8 Via Bolognese (Pronounced Bowl-own-ay-zee), where our hostel, Dany House, was. We met an older italian man, wearing a silk button down shirt, with the first 3 or 4 buttons undone who gave us big smiles and welcomed us in. He had a large aparment in a building that had separate rooms, each with a shower right in the room, and a toilet behind a wall that was definitely built after the fact. It was actually quite a nice room, though. He came in about 5 minutes later and brought us some cold red wine that he makes. It was excellent, but some sort of Italian moonshine-wine, because it was incredibly strong. Finally, he suggested a restaurant nearby so we headed out to eat.

The man across from me on the train was right though; this side of the river was very touristy and we found ourselves in a restaurant that made delicious food but had waiters that said “Yeah, sure.”, without even an Italian accent. It was a nice meal, but felt wrong.

We were about a 10 minute walk from the Duomo and the heart of Florence and decided to check it out at night, before calling it a night. We got our first Gelatti, amazing, of course, and got to see some of the major sites without the crowds and heat.

The next day, we headed back towards the Duomo to see it all again in the light. It was just as magnificient. Hayley mentioned that it is all very similar to famous structures like Notre Dame, but these are so colorful… The buildings are amazing and uniquely beautiful to see. We checked out a Da Vinci museum we’d seen on our walk back at night, and got to play with some recreations of his inventions. I’ve always loved Thomas Edison, but more and more I feel my general mindset connects much more with Da Vinci.

We began heading towards the river to cross to the other side of Florence and heard applause as we approached a covered sidewalk. Through the arched entrance, we heard a woman opera singer performing with a man playing an accordian. The accordian player, I noticed, was wearing bright, baby blue converse shoes that somehow caught my eye. Both of them were incredible, and we started leaving after the first song, but couldn’t resist and went back to listen to another. I’ve been loving the little unexpected treats like this along the trip, this one just costing me the few Euro I tipped them with.

Across the river, we took some pictures, checked out some great little shops and found a little tucked-away pizzeria to eat at. The waiter and waitress didn’t even understand English…perfect. We ate delicious pizza, trying 3 different kinds and splitting them. I don’t know why, but something about the meal just felt like a perfect moment to me. The food was good, the people were genuine and welcoming, the conversation was relaxing… It was a great time.

We saw some more sites in Florence, and then stumbled onto a real mime. He was dressed in forest green pants, a torn shirt and had his face painted black and white. He found a little area where three streets connected, and as unexpected tourists walked through, he would mimic or trick them. If someone had pronounced body movements or behaviors, such as talking on a cellphone, or super-confidently, he would get just an inch behind them, without them noticing and mimic their exact body movements. Eventually he would get his face so close, they would see him out of the corner of their eye and scream or laugh.

Even better, if a couple was walking hand-in-hand, he would sneak up and slip his own hand in replacing either the man or the womans. He hung back, still holding hands with the boyfriend until the unsuspecting guy would look over and scream, seeing his girlfriend turned into some monstrosity! The street performances in Florence were amazing. This guy had us and hundreds more entertained for a very long time.

We’d spent the entire day in Florence enjoying the atmosphere, and started heading back around 5. On the way we got a caricature of the three of us together, which was incredibly done. We found a Wash & Dry on the way back, and stopped at Dany House only quickly to get our clothes. As we neared the door, we heard incredible piano playing coming from the living room area of the apartment. The door was partly closed, so we just went to our room and enjoyed the music. We were getting incredible performances all day! When the song was over, we clapped and the older-man owner came over to our room, surprised that someone had come into the apartment. “Molte Bene!”, we cheered. He played another song as we got our things together and headed out to to laundry.

While the clothes were going, Mike & I ventured off to get internet, where we found the place I used for my last post. This wouldn’t be worth writing about, except as I was sitting there, tapping away, I looked as a woman entered that I strangely recognized. She was with a man, and I suddenly realized she looked just like the opera singer we’d seen earlier that day. I looked down at the man’s shoes, and sure enough, the same bright, baby blue converse sneakers! Somehow, the opera performing couple we’d seen earlier had ended up at the computer next to mine in some random internet cafe in Florence. They left quickly, but we had just enough time to show them the CD of them that Mike had bought. She gave us a victorious smile, happy that someone had recognized them in public, and they yelled ‘Ciao!’ to us as the headed out the door.

We really wanted to go to the Tuscany area where we could do some wine tasting in Chianti. A younger, English speaking woman worked at Dany House in the morning, who helped us navigate our days and made us breakfast. The first morning in Florence, she suggested a bike tour of Chianti that people always really liked, so on the morning of our second day, we thought it might be something worth doing. Unfortunately, it left from the other side of Florence, on the North side of the Ponte Vespucci Bridge, and there was no way we could make it there in time. We were originally going to do wine tasting, then Pisa the next day, but decided to switch it up.

So, we spent the morning using the Dany House computer to research and book our ferries and hostels through Greece and then went to the station to reserve our tickets to Napoli (Naples) for late the next day. We also got tickets to Pisa for a day trip to see the leaning tower. It was actually much more beautiful than its given credit for. It’s made with a yellowish-ivory colored stone, and I never really noticed or appreciated the large number of arcs and columns circling the outside on every story. Seeing the tower in person also makes the leaning aspect much more real and incredibly strange.

We spent awhile looking at it, and watching people do the typical “holding up the tower” pose for pictures. Finally, we attempted it ourselves. I really wanted, and tried for a long time, to get a picture of me holding it on my big, or with my feet and hands, instead of just the standard pose… But it was difficult to get a good one. People enjoyed watching me try to balance and hop around on one foot with my hands up in the air, though.

As the sun set, we headed to a small restaurant that Mike’s book suggest called “Il Pailo”. We got a big table right infront of their large open door and had one of the best meals yet, for very cheap. The food was, really, the absolute best Italian food I’ve ever had. The started with Bruschetta, then shared Rissotto alla Raculo (Like spinich, we discovered) and the meal they told us they are none for, Beef with Raddichio (Translated as ‘Rocket Salad’, but was like cabbage). The beef was perfectly cooked strips of meat stacked and covered in an incredible sauce, covered in this Raddichio. I had their Rossa, Red, beer which was also very good. Another perfect moment, I would say.

We just made the last train from Pisa back to Florence, and were wiped out by the time we walked back to the hostel. We seriously walk miles and miles a day, everyday. Our performance is showing improvement too… After completing our first week we decided we could evaluate what we had actually used from what we brought, and ship what we really haven’t needed back to the states; it was worth getting it off our backs and minds. So, this morning we rushed to the UPS Store when it opened, at 9 am, and had to make it across Florence by 10 am, to catch the van to go on the biking tour.

Things were moving slowly at the UPS Store, and my watch ticked past 9:35 as we left. We either had to figure out a bus to take and hope it would get us there by 10, or just walk across Florence in 25 minutes. We decided we trusted our feet more, and walked as fast as we could. We had already checked out, so we had our full-packs on. I was already getting used to it, though, and now dropping some weight, it feels like nothing. Somehow, we got across the bridge to the van with 5 minutes to spare. A week ago, that would have been an absurdly long walk, but we finished it today ready for a bike ride through Tuscany.

We met our tour/bike guide Nicole, who was American, from Pittsburgh and at first she didn’t seem especially talkative or welcoming. We met another kid, about to be a freshman in college, and a group of 2 adult couples, who would be biking with us. We started by biking to a Vineyard in Chianti, where we got a tour of the facilities. They made red wine and olive oil. We got to have a tasting of different varieties of both after the tour, and it was all a delicious breakfast for Hayley, Mike and myself.

We then biked towards an area where we would be eating lunch, which was included with the tour. The meal was a full meal, with an entree, then salad, then dessert and coffee. It was excellent; I had cheese and spinach ravioli and a chocolate covered piece of Italian ice cream cake. I also tried some Italian Cappuccino, which was very good. During the meal, we started really talking to Nicole and sharing stories of our travels. She was actually really friendly once we started talking, and it was a lot of fun. The older group of 2 couples appeared to be pretty intensely into biking, and were seemingly upset that the meal took so long, when they just wanted to ride.

No one really liked them, they rushed us all through the course and made it difficult to really look and appreciate the scenary. They were probably the best biker’s out of the group, but I stayed with them throughout the 23 km ride, and it felt great to hear one of the women in particular get upset as I passed her.

In reality, that really didn’t keep me from enjoying Tuscany. It was absolutely amazing. Acres and acres of vineyards and farms lined the streets on both sides. Off in the distance were mountains, fading out towards the horizon. Cars zipped past us adding some excitement to the ride, but they were attentive to cyclists and it was never especially dangerous. The terrain was very hilly, which made for a really nice bike ride. There were fairly challenging stretches, and then spans where we could just coast downhill, admiring the landscape. A couple downhills were shaded by trees on both sides, arching over the curving road; it was something else.

The group of adults had driven their own rental car to the spot we started, so Nicole drove just the three of us and the kid we’d met back to Florence. Nicole admitted on the way back how annoying the older group was and we all reminisced on the ridiculous things they said, providing for an entertaining ride back. It was sad to say our goodbyes to her as we got our bags back together on the Ponte Vespucci bridge, but we had a train to catch so we head towards the station as fast as we could.

No need, though… It turned out our train was pretty late and Mike found out, from a man at the desk that we could take a direct train not much later that would get us in quicker than waiting to catch our now late train. We hung out on the ground in the station for awhile, and I’m writing on my computer as we’re about to pull into Naples. We should have internet at our next residence, so hopefully posting this will be a breeze.

And that’s Florence! Sorry this was so damn long, but I wanted to get all of Florence done so I’d be prepared for Naples. We’re actually staying outside of Naples, which is supposedly a pretty bad city, and are just using it to get to Capri and Pompei the next two days. They’re both supposed to be great places to visit, so hopefully something unique and terrible will happen that will be interesting to write about.

Ciao!

p.s.: for Lina & Sami, I usually write my posts on the train, sometime late at night or early morning… Sometimes I start it and finish later… Just whenever I find a moment to write, I work a bit on it.

(3) Comments    Read More   
Posted on 10-07-2007
Filed Under (Switzerland, Disaster, People, Adventure) by admin

Well, I am writing this sitting on the cold marble floor of an underground metro-shopping mall in Geneva at 1:30 am… But we’ll get to that in just a bit.

I haven’t really mentioned it, but Sam had been pretty down about this whole thing since the mugging, and has been wanting to go home pretty badly. Finally, even though she got back her bag, she decided to go back to the US.

We got her flight booked last night and, this morning, went with her to the subway that would take her to the airport. It was sad to see her go, but it was definitely what she wanted…

And then there were three.

So, Mike, Hayley and I have been trying to figure out where we’d go next. Geneva was next on our original itinerary, but we decided to try to get to Interlocken first.

We had some time to spare, though, before heading out so we decided to do a quick run through some of the sites in Paris. We checked out Notre Dame, then did what I realllly came to Paris for…

We had a delicious meal at Le Relais de L’Entrecote… My favorite restaurant in the world. I was a bit nervous about going there though; it is a fairly fancy restaurant and we were dirty, in old clothes and carrying huge packs… I really just expected to be shunned away.

But, we walked in, I asked if we could have a table for three in French, and they gladly seated us. Not only that, but they found us a spot to put our packs out of the way and a group of waitresses came over and tried to lift them up and joked around with us.

I’ve said it a few times already, but the extent that people go out of their way to be helpful and friendly here is astounding… Especially in a place like Paris that is stereo-typed to be snobby and anti-american.

Anyway, at L’Entrecote, there is no menu. You sit down, and they immediately bring you their salad to start, which has walnuts and a delicious dressing. Then, they bring a plate of their famous steak & french fries, with their secret sauce. The best part is that, soon after you’re done with you’re first serving, they bring around another serving and you can start all over!

So, the food was incredible as usual, we had wine and our waitress was a cute French girl… Life in France was finally going well. We gave her a good tip, and as we were leaving she stuck her head outside the door to thank us.

We were taking our train to Switzerland from Gare de Lyon, so the Louvre was on the way. It started drizzling on the way, but it felt good. Once there, we had to keep it quick, so we just took some pictures of the outside, hung out a bit and then continued on to the RER.

We walked for quite awhile aiming for a particular subway entrance on the map. When we finally got there, we mysteriously found no way to buy tickets. It was one of those moments that’s just like, “Whhhhat is going onnn?”

Eventually we saw a sign that said it was an entrance only for ticket holders, and that there was a ticketing station a few blocks more, so we had to continue on a little longer. We got to Gare de Lyon soon after that, at around 2:00 pm, and had to reserve tickets from Paris to Bern, and then from Bern to Interlocken.

Of course though, after speaking to a woman at the ticketing counter, we found out that all the seats on trains to Interlocken were booked until 7:00 am the next morning. We were weighing our options, and found that we could get on a train to Geneva that afternoon, so we decided to just do that.

Sitting on the ground by the ticketing area, waiting for our train, a little, 3 year old Indian boy ran over to us laughing and screaming and sat next to us. He had apparently also came over and sat on Mike’s lap while I was away getting food. He was so funny, and his 14 year old friend would come over and apologize.

This happened many times, and the 14 year old boy knew English pretty well, so we started talking with him, and playing with the 3 year old who had now brought over one of his toy cars. It was fun to talk to them in French casually, instead of in a situation where I was actually trying to accomplish something. At some point I asked how to say some word that he wasn’t sure of, so he asked his mother over, who was an English teacher in Marseille.

We spoke to her for awhile about our trip before leaving the three of them to hop on our train to Geneva. It was a really nice way to close out our experience in Paris.

The train ride was beautiful, so we were looking forward to moving out of big cities and into something a bit different. This turned out to not be at all what we got.

So far, Geneva has been by far my least favorite destination. At least in Epinaye sur Seine interesting things were going on! As soon as we got to Geneva we began looking for a place to put down our bags and relax. We knew Geneva wasn’t the most easy place to find a hostel, but figured just going to a hostel, instead of booking one online, proved to be better in the case of the guys we’d met on the way to Paris.

We walked about a mile or two to a hostel we heard was good, and found out it was completely full. So, we went to another one that was in one of Hayley’s books, but it was also full. So, we checked out a hotel that was down the street, but it was also full… So, we checked out another hotel we saw down the street some more, but it was also full…

After checking 15-20 hotels, ranging from hostels, to small hotels on backroads to large 4 star hotels, we decided it was totally hopeless… There was no where in Geneva for us to stay. Literally, no where. It was a truly surreal feeling to be searching for a place to sleep for an hour and a half, going door to door and finding absolutely nothing, no one willing to help. We were homeless.

We went back to the train station we came into and found lockers we could leave our bags. I’ve been finding my pack surprisingly comfortable to carry around considering its about 50 lbs, but no matter how comfortable it is, getting it stored away somewhere else safely being free from its straps feels incredible.

Now less weighed-down, we went back into Geneva to find something to do. We went to a bar/restaurant to eat our second meal of the day, and waited around for awhile, until I asked a waiter if we could sit down and eat. The general thoughtfulness of people between Paris and Geneva was incredible. Here, few people really seem to care at all about each other, let alone us.

When we first left the train station, we’d seen a waiting room with some chairs, the only ones in the entire train station, so we headed there. It was really difficult to find the room, so it was a relief when we finally did. About 3 minutes after I got my computer out, a Swiss police officer came into the room and told us and a few others that the train station was closing until 4:00 am, so we all had to leave.

Sigh.

We asked him if there was anywhere we could go, and he seemed to understand we were planning on staying in that room for the night. He asked us where we were going, and we told him Interlocken, since we wanted to get there as soon as possible. He told us there was a train there at 4:26 am, and that it would be safe for us to stay on the floor in the shopping mall below the train station until then, as long as we stayed away from corners.

We were the first in our little spot here, but since 3 others have joined us, so maybe we’ll just get a few beds and start our own hostel here… Geneva obviously needs it.

Anyway, I’ve been incredibly positive this entire trip, and I really still am… We came to figure out what parts of Europe we like and which ones we don’t like… I can safely say, I do not like Geneva at all. The people are cold and the city primarily comprised of hotels that are all full.

The trip so far seems to be filled with mistakes and challenges and lessons learned… There is definitely a secret to planning ahead so we get the train we need, and a good cheap hostel that is safely and centrally located… We’re still working hard on figuring out what exactly that is.

Anyway, in case you haven’t noticed, I’ve added, by request, some of the pictures I’ve taken. Select the city/place on the left, and then click through the pictures. Clicking the thumbnail will pop up an enlarged image. Right now, you can only click through big images 8 at a time, but I’m working on changing that and some other things.

Sorry for such a long post, but I have nothing else to do and it’s nice to write about something besides muggings and police officers.

-Nicky

(2) Comments    Read More   
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!

(3) Comments    Read More   

In preparing to come to Europe we heard a million times from a million people that we should watch out for pick-pockets and thieves and all their stories and experiences on such issues. Well, here’s ours.

Last night, we were trying to figure out what to do. It was 10:00pm, and the last trains from Paris came back at 12:06am, so we were considering going, but we wouldn’t have much time. We hung around for awhile and finally decided to just see what we could find in Épinay-sur-Seine.

We walked towards signs for the Centre Ville, and were surprised to see that everything was closed. We finally stumbled on a pizza place and went in… only to discover that it was closing. We walked a few seconds more and were thinking about heading back, but decided to press on one more block.

Mike & I walked by stairs that went to a little hole in the wall, but Hayley & Sam noticed people inside, and we noticed a sign for a Brasserie. We stood at the stairs for a moment, and when a man at the door saw us he urged us to “Entre!”

We walked into a oddly smelling, fairly small bar, playing Indian music. Directly to our left as we walked in, was a group of men playing dice and we walked to the other end of the bar and took some seats. The bar tender was an older guy, in his 50s or so, but incredibly nice. He didn’t speak any English, but spoke slowly so I could understand him (he actually reminded me a bit of my Dad, looks/personality wise).

We had some beer, and were completely enjoying the bar, it was an amazing find. We still hadn’t really eaten all day, though, so I asked the bartender if there was anything that we could eat. He told me everything was closed, but that a pizza place might be open… And he didn’t just stop there. He figured out what kind of pizza we wanted got the phone and tried to have it delivered to the bar for us. Unfortunately, that pizza place was also closed, but the extent people have been willing to help us since we got here is just astounding!

We had one last round, paid and headed on out. Across from the bar there was a fountain with a sculpture of two horses, so we hung out there for a little bit and then started heading back to the hostel. As we got closer to the hotel we heard a group of French kids behind us, probably about our age. They were talking behind us for awhile, and then at some point they passed by us.

I looked behind us, and saw smaller group of guys talking to each other, the way they were acting gave me a bad feeling. I half jokingly/half seriously said “I think those guys are going to mug us, we should walk faster.” No one really seemed to hear me and when I looked back again one guy seemed to be whispering to another; it was pretty dark right where they were.

I started walking faster so the others would keep pace, and when I turned around Sam was on the ground, clutching the strap of her bag fighting against a group of guys pulling it away. Suddenly we were chasing these guys down the street. Sam and Mike dissapeared behind the guys into some bushes in front of another building, so I called Hayley over to keep from separating all of us. Hayley and I got into the median of the street, which was bright and safe from the dark bushes on the other side.

We called Mike while running back to the hotel (these phones have already been worth their weight in gold) and found out that they were a few streets down, and he was breathing heavily. Hayley and I got back to the hotel, and I asked for the number of the police here. The guy on duty told me to hold on, went and made some food, got a drink came back and slowly flipped through his Rolodex. He then gracefully wrote out “POLICE” and finally wrote down the number… Which I tried many times with no success.

So Hayley and I walked around the block to where we thought Mike and Sam would be… And as we got deeper into this neighborhood things felt less and less safe. Luckily, we saw Mike up ahead with Sam, near a building. Apparently they had chased the muggers until this building, where they saw two guys who were helping them.

They introduced themselves to me as Abraham and Billy (He pronounced it Bee-yay). They were two older, probably Haitian guys, maybe around 25. Abraham was wearing a long white robe outfit, and Billy had a long beard, wearing a colorful skirt type thing. They had two younger friends and seemed genuinely concerned with trying to help us. One of their friends was “homeboys” with the kid who took her bag, and went off to try to find him and figure out where the bag was. Abraham spoke great English, Billy’s was ok. They repeatedly said if one euro was missing they would find it.

Things were still tense though. Sam was crying and we weren’t really sure if we could trust these guys. Was this some trick to get all the rest of our stuff? It was tough to tell. Abraham seemed to know every single person that walked by in the neighborhood, was that good or bad? We gave them our phone numbers, so I was hoping to all get back to the hotel and have them call us if they found it. Sam wanted to stay though, to make sure she got her bag, so we all just waited around there, alert on adrenaline but a bit unsure of things.

Ultimately though, it just didn’t seem plausible for it to all be an act, and if it was, they were dragging it on a long time just to get the rest of our stuff. Abraham got a call saying it was some 14-15 year olds that did it, and when Sam chased after them they got scared so they dumped her bag down a garbage chute.

The group of people helping us grew to around 6, and they were all trying to get the guy who would have a key to the garbage chute. Abraham ended up calling the Police Municipale to open it up. They came, but spoke only French, so the other guys did all the talking. We went into the building, and the cops discovered there was very little they could do without the key. They said they would try to do more tomorrow, took our information and we finally left to go back to the hotel.

It was a huge relief to get back safely, and we all slept deeply, but this morning we had a lot left to deal with. Hayley and Mike went to get food (the first we’d eaten since those sandwiches the day earlier), while Sam and I went to get the names of the streets things happened on the night before and locate the police station (a woman at the hotel told us roughly where it was).

The directions we got lead us to the Police Nationale, and we all went there after eating. It was pretty dead there, but a room we weren’t allowed to go in seemed pretty busy. I roughly explained in French what happened to a woman officer and she had us sit and wait. Another couple there seemed to have had one of their bags stolen, but they didn’t speak English.

We were sitting and waiting for awhile, and saw a bunch of plain-clothes officers leave with a lot of equipment… It seemed like the Police Nationale was more for carrying-out planned out missions than responding to issues like ours, so Mike and Hayley headed towards the Police Municipale building that I’d seen on a map while Sam and I kept waiting.

Eventually an officer came out that spoke some English and he took us into a room to start a police report. We explained to him what happened, and when I told him we ended up on Rue Dumas, he seemed surprised. He was confused as to why we were here if we were backpacking, and I explained we were looking for something cheap. He was trying to tell me something about Epinay sur Seine, and agreed completely when I suggested the word “unsafe”, then adding, “très dangereux.”

So, Sam and I continued the process and finally explained that we think we know where the bag is, we just can’t get to it. We asked if some police would be able to go there and try to open the garbage chute to check. The officer responded that Rue Dumas was too dangerous, and his officers probably wouldn’t want to go.

What?! You’re officers wouldn’t want to go because their scared of a dangerous street in the town they’re supposed to be protecting?! This confirmed our belief that the Police Nationale really did just carry-out planned missions rather than response. We also found out since that Epinay sur Seine has, within the past two years, had several instances were groups from gangs ambushed officers. According to the officer, they got into a large fight on Rue Dumas two days ago.

As I was giving our cell number to the officer, Mike and Hayley found us and had two Police Municipale with them. Apparently they found them on the way to the Municipale station and brought them to the building on Rue Dumas. One of the officers just kicked down the door of the garbage chute (Police Municipale are way cooler than Police Nationale, apparently). Unfortunately, behind that door was another one, that was not possible to open.

So, the Police Municipale are going to try to find the owner of the building when it isn’t a Sunday, and we will go to the Municipale Station tomorrow at Noon, after they are done. Hopefully they survive Rue Dumas.

Anyway, the whole experience has been pretty crazy, and although it is scary and unfortunate… We’re backpacking through Europe and crazy things like this are bound to happen; It’s good to know that we can handle situations like this. Although a few dumb teenagers decided to ruin our trip, many many more people generously lent us a hand when they didn’t need to.

We’re relaxing and playing cards in the room now… I think the Epinay dark is something we will not venture into again. Tonight I am going to try to figure out a good way to put all my pictures up. Tomorrow we’ll either get Sam’s stuff back, or head to the US Embassy in Paris and get her a new passport. Either way, Paris tomorrow! It’s - about - time.

À demain!

(3) Comments    Read More   
Posted on 08-07-2007
Filed Under (Languages, France, People, Adventure) by admin

Though the beginning of our day was relatively calm, it’s becoming clear that every day will be full of surprises and confusion.

We got packed up and checked out at 11:00 with no snags. We headed over to a Patisserie Mike and I had seen earlier and got some incredible French sandwiches. We ate those and headed to the train station, which was across the street from our hotel.

We were lucky to get seats on a High-Speed train at 3:00, and hung around at a restaurant for a few hours but didn’t actually order anything. At 2:50 we finally boarded, and the ride itself was relatively uneventful.

Arriving in Paris about an hour later, we found a spot in the concourse and started deciphering the directions we had to the hostel we had booked the day before at Starbucks. It’s funny how at first its just gibberish, and things slowly make sense. “So, we take the RER [Subway/Train] B to the RER C to ‘Épinay’, where we should be able to find signs that point to our hostel… Simple!”

Once at the RER, we found that ‘Épinay’ was a tad bit misleading… Which ‘Épinay’ were we going to? Épinay-sous-Sénart, Épinay-sur-Odon, Épinay-sur-Orge, … ? The choices were endless. But, remembering it had to be one on the RER C, we saw that Épinay-sur-Orge fit the bill and made our way there.

The scenery as we went through Paris started bleek, but 30 minutes later it was much improved and we stepped off the double-decker train into an incredible little town with beautiful small houses and a bright energetic atmosphere. We didn’t see any signs for “L’Hotel Balladins”, which is what we were told we would see, so I searched around the town quickly to no avail. We asked people, and people forced their help upon us… We followed signs to ‘Le Centre Ville’, talked to two guys selling ice cream who friendily yelled while making hand-signs, “GAUCHE, GAUCHE, DROITE, TOUT DE SUITE DROITE… NON NON.. GAUCHE, TOUT DE SUITE…”, and it continued.

We ended up, after about an hour and a half from getting in the wonderful Épinay-sur-Orge, on a street corner, sitting on our bags, trying to find directions on our computer’s after locating a wireless network. Needless to say, this saved the day.

Apparently, there is more than one Épinay off the RER C, and we went in the opposite direction we were supposed to. So, after a ton of walking (keep in mind our back-packs really are huge…) in this Épinay, we headed back to the train, back into and across Paris to get to Épinay-sur-Seine.

About 45 minutes later, we find ourselves in a new Épinay, that is seems similar but not quite as nice as the previous. Again, we don’t see signs, but this time people we ask about Hotel Balladins actually have a clue to where it is, so we keep trekking with our huge packs and eventually make it. 

Our room is actually pretty amazing here, and somehow only $20 a night per person. We have 2 rooms and 2 beds, a bathroom with a shower, a kitchen with a stove, a nice TV, a dining room table… We were ecstatic when we entered. We’d been carrying our 50lb packs all day and walking miles in search of a place we were beginning to think didn’t exist, and it turned out to be worth the trouble.

Despite the crazy day we had, I couldn’t have enjoyed it more. The truth is, this is exactly what I wanted to be doing. So far we’ve seen 3 little towns in France that are nothing like Paris and there, all we did was explore around, get a feel for the people and their lives there. I’ve really been enjoying working-out my French with people and its probably improved tenfold since being here. So, although I would love some days to just relax without a pack and enjoy a drink, I came for adventures like today and I think it’s worth the extra back-pain.

(2) Comments    Read More   
Posted on 06-07-2007
Filed Under (People, Adventure, London) by admin

We’ve arrived in London, but certainly haven’t had a smooth ride since getting to the airport yesterday afternoon. We’re quickly stopped at a Starbuck’s and mooching off their WiFi internet to figure some things out, so I figure I’ll run through everything now.

First, some official looking woman at the Virgin Airways check-in line at JFK informs me I needed to print out the email that said “YOU DO NOT NEED TO PRINT THIS”… So after waiting a few minutes on one line, I had to go to wait on a different line where they would print a ticket out for me that says I can get a ticket from the check-in line. It wasn’t a huge deal, but seemed a bit unnecessary and perhaps a sign of things to come.

So, our plane took off at 10:30 last night; it was supposed to take off at 7:50. I realized it was bad when the first in-plane movie finished before we took off.

The plane was a 747, but the seats were crammed in there and it was incredibly tight. We got a decent dinner, which included wine for pretty much everyone which was a nice touch. But, they apparently decided that since the flight was 2 and a half hours late, they didn’t need to feed us the breakfast they’d promised, which I was craving towards the end of the flight.

We stepped off the plane, went through immigration and customs with no problems… Though the officer was confused by the “TBD” I had written under “Location staying in London” on the landing card… A step outside of baggage claim an old woman at a Duty Free shop was providing free samples of Pimm’s Liquor with lemonade… Imagine that! Not only are we not carded, but old polite ladies are happily urging seconds on free samples and offering serving suggestions. Despite the issues so far, we fell in love with Europe at this moment.

We left the airport and wandered around confused for a few moments when an employee came over and offered us some help. We told him we were trying to get to Central London, and he asked if we wanted to fly there, or take a bus. After a moment of confusion, he told us the best way to get there was the Tube, the London Underground and assured us it was still safe. I told him that I trusted him and he replied “Well if you trust me you’ve got some fuckin’ problems!”

The few people we’d encountered in London so far were really friendly, helpful and funny; things were looking great.

We headed to the Tube with our huge backpacks on, definitely standing out in the crowd, and got in-line to purchase tickets. We saw a woman at a booth who made free hostel reservations, and quickly learned that due to the Wimbledon and Tour de France, nothing in London was available…nothing. The only thing available for 2 nights was something outside of London for 125 Pounds a night (A hostel, keep in mind…) and we could only put 2 of our 4 people in a room.

We decided we had to get out of London ASAP. So, we’ll just speed up our journey to Paris, perhaps? Take the train tonight instead. “Oh, my sister had to book a train to Paris 3 weeks in advance,” the woman behind the booth replied.

This woman was clearly no good for us, so we took the Tube to Central London, wandered around trying to find food for about an hour (these backpacks really are huge…) and finally find a nice little pub with a sign outside that read “THOSE WEARING SOILED OR DIRTY CLOTHES ARE NOT WELCOME INSIDE.”

Luckily, we weren’t too soiled just yet, and had a nice fish & chips meal for just about $80… This price was for just 2 orders of Fish & Chips and a pitcher of Pimm’s (That old woman got us!). The prices in London are truly absurd… If we stayed here we’d be done in a few days.

So, we made our way here… To this wonderful little US Embassy, Starbucks.

From Starbucks, we’ve found that we can take a train to Paris tonight, and we have a hostel booked for $25 a night. The difficult part will be staying up from 12am until check-in at 1pm… But I’m sure Mike & I can handle it, polyphasic training has its benefits. :)

Anyway, we’ll get our train tickets, wander London awhile and then get onto Paris! The adventure has begun in full force.

(6) Comments    Read More