Thursday, September 15, 2011

Edinburgh & The End

This is the last blog in my Spring Break 2010 series, so I hope you’re ready for the adventure to be over (errr, over a year since it happened, my bad!). Since I’m about to leave for my next adventure in France (I’m leaving tomorrow for 10 months in Paris, if you somehow weren’t already aware), writing this last blog is making me especially sentimental, because my Scottish adventures were things I was only able to deal with after living in Europe for the previous four months. I was really proud of myself when they were said and done, and I think that’s a good note to end this portion of my blog on, because it reminds me of how much value living in Paris for the next ten months will offer.

Anyway, EDINBURGH. It wouldn’t be right if my travels to Edinburgh didn’t have their own share of anxiety (to fit in with a very stressful 4AM taxi ride whilst leaving Paris for Rome and a very harrowing journey to the airport while leaving Rome for London). This one wasn’t so bad, but the wrench in our plans this time was that we were planning to take the underground to the airport bus, realizing only when we got to King’s Cross that this was Sunday, and the Tube wasn’t open for another half an hour. We also had a surprisingly hard time finding a cab at 6:30 in the morning, but eventually we found one, and we were off.

All of the airports in London are far away from the city and very expensive to reach. There are trains and buses that are convenient, but they cost me between fourteen and eighteen pounds each way when I needed to take one (which was annoying when you do the conversion math in your head). Anyways, eventually we reached the airport, went through security (they don’t make you take off your shoes unless you’re wearing boots in Great Britain!) and were ready for Edinburgh.

Considering that I was only there for four days, I feel a special connection to Edinburgh because of how perfect it is to me. First of all, it’s magical -- literally, because it’s wear JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter, but also because there’s magic in the way the old part of the city is able to capitalize on its dark past while seeming charming and not touristy at the same time. Also, every stereotype about Scotland is true. We were only walking for five minutes after getting off the airport bus when we heard bagpipe music playing on the street. You know how here people play guitars or accordions on the street for money? Well, in Scotland, they obviously bagpipes, and they play them alllll the time. And even when you’re far away enough from those bagpipes so that you can’t hear them anymore, you start walking into the area of town with the tourist shops, and THOSE are blasting bagpipe music, which means that the city literally has its own soundtrack that you can hear wherever you go. Also, men in Edinburgh really do wear kilts (including Andy, the driver of our Scottish Highlands tour bus, and an entire team of rugby players we met in a bar our first night). And, while I guess this is more of an Irish stereotype, they do eat a lot of potatoes (I ate two meals at the Bakes Potato Shoppe on the main road).

(The "Gothic Rocket" memorial to Sir Walter Scott).

(Bagpipes on Princes Street)

The other great thing about Scotland is that you get a lot for what you pay for. Kayla and I booked one of the cheapest hostels we could find…and ended up in a great place located in a four-hundred year old house, RIGHT on the Royal Mile (the main street in town). Plus the really good art museum is free.

And, everything in the main part of town is so close, that you don’t EVEN NEED public transportation to get to it. It was very strange that everything I wanted to do was so conveniently close together.

Anyway, back to the events of our trip: We arrived in the morning and spent the first day at the Old Calton Burial Ground, where we unexpectedly ran into David Hume’s grave, no big deal, and then we hiked up a hill to look at other stuff. We also made it to the Edinburgh castle, which means that I have now seen, among other things, the Stone of Scone (which gets sent back to London to be put under the English coronation chair at a coronation. This was particularly special because I’ve always loved the coronation chair, and it was fun getting to see its missing piece in an entirely different country), as well as the room where Mary Stuart gave birth to James I. Check! There’s also a cool air force chapel at the castle.

(Kayla and Jenny using napkins for paper a la JK Rowling at the Elephant House Cafe, where she wrote the first novel).

The only downer of the day was that for the first time in four months, my camera had run out of batteries so I don’t have any pictures of the castle to this day. Plus, Jenny’s camera had been stolen (!!!!) at the restaurant we ate at when we arrived, so we were happy to be there but bummed about her camera.

Jenny’s flight was early in the morning, and our hostel was booked anyway, so we decided to pub hop that night until Jenny left for the airport, which was fun, but exhausting. Our second bar had live music provided by a guy on a keyboard playing covers of popular music, which the crowd liked well enough. What really got the place jumping, however, was when we began to play an upbeat version of “Loch Lomond”, to which much of the bar responded to by climbing up on the bar and dancing. No joke. Scottish people have their stereotypes for a reason.

The next morning, Kayla and I woke up bright and early for the tour of the Scottish Highlands we had booked. Waking up wasn’t so fun because after the pubs the night before, we had been forced to sit on the steps outside of our hostel until 3 am because Jenny wasn’t even allowed in the common room, plus Kayla had been sick all week.

The tour (led by a company appropriately named Haggis Adventures, offering tours of “Wild & Sexy” Scotland) was probably the best 30-something pounds I’ve ever spent (even if I had trouble staying awake through a lot of it). The company office was conveniently located directly across the street from our hostel, where we met up with about 30 other people from all over the world, as well as our driver/tour guide Andy, who was wearing a kilt and a shirt with the Scottish flag on it. I don’t know how he did it, but Andy managed to drive us more than 100 miles each way to Loch Ness and elsewhere while narrating the entire 12-hour trip AND while keeping the whole bus laughing the entire time. It was a great away to sample Scotland while only spending one day doing so. He kept stopping the bus in (what seemed like) arbitrary places, making us get off and look around so we could appreciate his country. And I really appreciated that at least once every hour of the 12-hour trip, he’d make sure we stopped at a rest stop for bathroom and coffee breaks (my kind of tour!). Some the highlights of the tour were stopping at the location of the Glencoe Massacre which I remembered from AP Euro – it’s a long story, but basically it’s a dark spot of William III’s record, in which he had one Scottish clan massacre an entire other clan, who were forced to run into the rocky mountains we were stopped in front of, in the middle of the night during wintertime. . This was one of the prime examples of Scottish people showing their distaste for the English that I encountered. On a lighter note, Andy also took us to see Hamish, a famed Scottish cow whom you can buy vegetables to feed to him!! He’s definitely a tourist attraction – even back in Edinburgh you can buy stuffed animal versions of him and hats that mimic his, erm, interesting look:

Then he drove us up to…LOCH NESS, which I had daydreamed about seeing ever since I was really little, so needless to say I was thrilled to be there. The tour also came with a packed lunch, which we ate on the hour-long cruise around the Loch while we listened to the captain recount the times he had seen the monster. I highly recommend Haggis Tours the next time you are in Great Britain.

(Kayla and I on Loch Ness!)
(Bagpipes everywhere we went!)

Kayla and I were exhausted upon returning to Edinburgh. We ate at the first restaurant we found, a faux Italian place where the waiter probably wasn’t a Scot OR a native English speaker because when I ordered a hamburger, he told me they didn’t have such a thing, when I realized that he took the “beef burger” of the menu extremely literally.

We spent the next day lounging around the Elephant House (where JKR wrote her novels) drinking coffee and using their internet until Kayla eventually had to leave for the airport. Discount airlines like RyanAir and Easy Jet don’t offer flights every day, so I had to plan on being there one night longer than Kayla.

After she left, I killed time by taking a free tour of the old city which contained entertaining stories about some interesting people I had never heard of before. I really don’t like being a tourist alone, but at least the tour was interesting. As I alluded to before, Edinburgh is good at capitalizing on its less-than-saintly characters, including Burke and Hare, who made a business of killing people so that they could sell the bodies to medical schools for a profit, and Deacon Brodie, who led a double life and who is the supposed inspiration for Jekyll and Hyde (Robert Louis Stephenson is also a famous Edinburghian). There’s also Maggie Dickson, who was apparently hanged but who came back to life, and all of these characters have multiple pubs named for them within a small radius, it seemed (I took a different walking tour later that day which, surprise surprise, involved stories about the exact same people listed above).

When the time came to go to the airport, I was ready. I had been traveling for two weeks, and I was leaving France for Los Angeles in less than a week, AND I missed my friends who are all back in Bordeaux already. SO, IMAGINE MY SURPRISE WHEN I GET TO THE EDINBURGH AIRPORT ONLY TO DISCOVER THAT ALL FLIGHTS HAD BEEN CANCLED UNTIL AT LEAST MIDNIGHT BECAUSE OF ASH FROM THE VOLCANO IN ICELAND. Uggggggggh. This was bad news. If you’ll recall, the last time the Volcano shut down airspace, people were stranded for five days!!!! Because my ticket was booked on RyanAir, which is a discount airline, there was nothing they could do for us in terms of rebooking our tickets. I joined the line of frantic people so that I could pay to use one of the expensive airport computers, and ended up rebooking my ticket for a flight that left the next morning at 6am for Paris. At least the flight change was free due to this being a natural disaster, but this was a small consolation because I knew it was risk expecting the airport to be up and running at 6am, only six hours after it was supposed to be closed. But I didn’t have a choice, and the next fight into Bordeaux wasn’t until three days later, so I consoled myself with an expensive meatball sandwich at the Café Nero in the lobby, and dejectedly got back onto a bus into the city.

Now I had the better part of a day to kill, which I spent being lonely, worrying that I was never going to get back home again, talking to the train agent about the cost of a train at short notice from Edinburgh to London, drinking overpriced hot chocolate at Starbucks, eating a baked potato, wandering around trying to hit all the spots of interest strategically so that I wouldn’t run out of things to do before they closed, moping, checking the internet for the results of Great Britain’s election which was going on that day, updating my Facebook with emotional statuses, reading any English language paper I could get my hands on, obsessively refreshing RyanAir’s website to check the status of the airport, and buying myself a cute ring at Top Shop as reward for being miserable.

Luckily, my hostel was supposed to be full that night, but because travelers couldn’t get there because of the volcano, spots opened up and I had a place to sleep that night. After checking the airline website one last time at 3AM (the Edinburgh Airport was miraculously open!!), I grabbed a taxi and arrived. I have never been so happy to be on an airplane.

If my original travel plans had gone off without a hitch, I would have flown directly into Bordeaux, nice and easy, but my new ticket took me into Paris Beauvais. Upon landing, I waited for at least 20 minutes with about 100 other people for the 14-euro bus that would take me into real Paris, which luckily I had already taken on the way to Rome with my friends, or else I would have had another thing to figure out and stress out about on an already stressful day. I made it to Paris, got on the Metro, and made it to Gare du Nord, where I was determined to buy any ticket available for Bordeaux (which was still three hours away). After wandering around Gare du Nord for at least half an hour, someone was finally able to tell me that the train station I actually wanted was Montparnasse, errrrrrrrrrr. I got back on the Metro, made it to Montparnasse, located the last minute ticket booth, bought an expensive ticket to Bordeaux, and I was off!!

I have never been happier to be home. It was so wonderful being back with Joana and Ynel, and sitting down to dinner with them after spending two nights alone in Scotland, never actually knowing when I would be seeing them next.

But, in looking back, it was a good experience. Edinburgh was probably the best place for me to be stranded, due to its English language, close/easy/cheap proximity to the airport, and existence of something comforting to me (i.e. Starbucks). And I had the opportunity to figure out how to get my self back to Bordeaux by myself, which is probably a valuable skill to have in the scheme of things. Plus, I wouldn’t have been able to try Haggis (not sooo bad) had I left when I planned on leaving. So, I guess, this little adventure of mine was worth having.

So, that’s it! That’ concludes my Spring Break Adventures of 2010! I know these are a little out of order, but I’m glad I finally got these down own paper before I start my next adventure…au pairing in Paris, starting this very Friday, for the next ten months of my life J

One thing’s for certain…all of my Bordeaux/Paris/Rome/London/Edinburgh adventures contained in this blog made 2010 the best year ever, and I only hope that my year in Paris can top it. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for information on my Parisian adventures!



Monday, September 5, 2011

A Very Belated Spring Break Post Part 4: I Love London!

(This is exactly what it sounds like...Part 4 of my VERY LATE blog posts about the best two weeks in my life, Spring Break 2010. It's a little hard to express the same excitement when writing about events that happened more than a year ago, but I tried. Enjoy!)

Last Time: Unfortunate timing/a less-than-helpful receptionist at the Tiber Hostel And Camping made me think I was going to miss my flight to London, but I eventually ended up making it to the airport in time.

For all my crying on the Roman metro because I was leaving, I was honestly REALLY excited about London. In 2005, my parents took my brother and I during Spring Break and it was the best trip ever. I could have gone back and done exactly what we had done then in the same order and I would have been happy. Plus, I was fortunate to be able to stay with my cousin Kayla (who goes to NYU), who was spending this same semester at the London NYU campus. How many other people are lucky enough to say that ALL the young women in their family are currently in Europe?

My Ryan Air trip was fine, and I found the Standstead Express, which Kayla had already given me careful directions about. In about 40 minutes she met me at King’s Cross Station, presented me with my very own oyster card for the subway, and our joint adventure began! This was going to be my first day in an English-speaking country in four months, which was a very strange feeling. The other strange thing about the day was that it was ridiculously humid – even on the one hot day in Rome was nothing as humid as this.

In addition to it being humid outside, it was also disgusting on the Underground, which we were on for a while because the construction causing lines to be closed caused us to end up at the same station multiple times. Soon enough, though, we were near her place near King’s Cross. This was also my first extended trip in a while to a city with a real underground....Bordeaux has above ground trams, and Rome's Metro isn't as extensive because there's too much old stuff buried in the ground for them to create more Metro stops!).

We went to Nido, the student housing building where Kayla was living with about 300 other NYU students. That was what was going to make this part of my vacation different than everywhere I had been so far – I had always either been at my homestay, with my French family, or in a hostel or hotel with my friends. Here, we were with 40 of Kayla’s best friends 24/7. Kayla definitely liked this set up (my best friend/roommate at UCI lived in the same circumstances during her semester in Israel and loved it too), but I was definitely happy to be living with a family in France. I didn’t have a problem with it during my 5 days in London, but it would have been too much like my Freshman dorm for my tastes if I had lived in that situation any longer.

Nido was very nice, however. Because I am me, the one thing that I noticed as soon as I touched down was that London is a VERY coffee-friendly town. On the lobby level of Nido, there was a mini Starbucks (!!!!!!!), and two flights of stairs up, where Kayla lived, there was ANOTHER. I was already feeling at home. As soon as Kayla and I left Nido to walk around near King’s Cross, my thoughts were confirmed. There were so many American-esque cafes advertising sweeet, precious filtered coffee, that I wouldn’t have been able to try all of them even if I was having three cups of coffee a day. London is my kind of place. You have to remember that I was having SERIOUS filtered coffee withdrawals because France is too cool for anything but espresso, so this little fact about London was terribly exciting.

Also, I should add, while at the risk of blaspheming, that the pains aux chocolates were...gasp!...better in London than in Paris. They weighed three times as much as Parisian ones, if that's any hint as to the amount of butter they contained.

Just in to clarify, in case it doesn’t shine through in my writing, London is the greatest city in the whole world. No matter how much I love where I am living, I will ALWAYS be jealous of people who are living in London. One of the things that characterized this trip was that my brain was constantly almost exploding from all of the Super Important Things that I kept running into. Even though I had just returned from Rome (which, obviously, had its own share of Super Important Things that I got to see, i.e., The Pope, the waiter who was a close personal friend of Ray Stevenson, etc), I feel more of a connection with London, so these occurrences felt even more amazing.

Kayla gave me a tour of the area, and I met all of her friends. We planned out what our schedule was for the next four days, and eventually met up with Kayla’s best friends Ed and Jenny (who’s birthday it was) for Italian food at a nearby restaurant.

Kayla insisted on going to class when I was visiting her, but I used that time to explore the things she had already seen.

First Stop: The British Museum.

This place was relatively amazing. Even things like mummies, which I didn’t think I would be find interesting, were interesting. And boy does the British Museum have a LOT of them. My favorite part of the museum was the jewelry, however, which inspired me to build up my own collection.

I also really liked seeing this “East India Sugar: Not Made By SLAVES” jar, which is definitely the type of abolitionist product we had been discussing in my British Unification class only a few months before.

That night after dinner, Kayla told me she had somewhere to take me, but wouldn’t tell me where. We ended up at King’s Cross, near her dorm, and I was still very confused about why we were in a train station, until I realized she was looking for the area between two specific platforms….

The next day was my big Westminster Abbey day. I’ve definitely been before, but Westminster Abbey is my favorite place in the whole wide world, so I figured it was worth the price of admission to go back, five years after my first visit. After a muggy walk to the Abbey from the metro (and after my visit to the closest Starbucks!) I was in!

It’s basically definitely the greatest place ever. 90% of the World’s Coolest People, all buried in one place – what more could you want? Not surprisingly, it hadn’t changed much since my last visit.

After spending more than two hours there, and sampling their coffee, I said goodbye and headed out. I heard some Americans who were my age on their way in, and as I asked them to take my photo in front of the building, our convo went exactly like this:

Me: Hi! Would you mind taking my picture?

Other girl: No problem! ::click:

Me: Where are you from?

Other girl: Southern California.

Me: OMGMetoo. I’m from Burbank.

Other girl: OMG what high school did you go to?

Me: Jon Burroughs!

Other girl: OMG that’s where my mom went!

Both of us: OMG!

After Wesminster Abbey, I decided to skip Saint Paul’s (where I wanted to go but where I had been last time) in favor of places I had yet to visit.

First up: The National Gallery, which was obviously amazing. And who’s café was also amazing. I had a pink cupcake.

Then: The National Portrait Gallery! EXCELLENT, and filled with about a million portraits I had seen pictures of in every European History class ever, but I didn’t have time to finish because I Kayla and I had agreed to meet up at a certain time, and I didn’t have a cell phone in order to tell her I would be late. I’ll simply have to save the rest of the gallery for next time I visit J

That night continued our streak of amazingness with…..our tickets to see a production of Macbeth at the Globe (was this seriously the best trip ever or what?). It was a good show, even though we were sitting off to the side. At the intermission, we drank cider and walked on the banks of the Thames (because we could). Also, fun fact: In Burbank, a few months after I returned home, and was watching the miniseries Lost in Austen, and I realized that Mr. Darcy was the actor who played Macbeth, a fact which I found to be suuuuper awwwesome.

The next day was our British Library day, which ended up being even more interesting than the British Museum (Jane Austen’s writing desk, anyone??). Plus, we ate churros and drank cappucinos for breakfast that morning, which makes for a good start to any day.

The next day was good too, because we went to Portabello Road, ate gelato, and I bought two scarves.

Other highlights of the trip included Camden Market (where I consumed a piece of pizza, a vegetarian samosa, a small bottle of orange juice, and the best donut and I have ever tasted, all within an hour), and St. Pancras’ Churchyard.

This cemetery in particular was memorable because it was one of places that we realized upon arriving was more special than your average, plopped-down-in-the-middle-of-a-huge-city cemetery. FIRST OF ALL, it has this tree that’s strategically surrounded by flat headstones that had been dug up (to make room for the future railroad) and placed there in a cool way, which is cool looking as it is, but which also becomes even cooler when you find out that the person in charge of this little bit of decoration was a young Thomas Hardy!

ALSO, Kayla and freaked out when we discovered by accident the tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft, which is kind of just chilling there with no big indication (I found out later her body isn’t actualllly there anymore, but I still think it’s cool).

AND, following the same literary theme we’ve been on, St. Pancras’ Churchyard is even mentioned in A Tale of Two Cities! It was beautiful, quiet and green, and Kayla and I spent a long time exploring. It’s only a short walk from St. Pancras Station, and I highly recommend it!

Something else interesting about London during this trip, in addition to all of these literary adventures and coffee, was the election for Prime Minister which was only days away when I arrived. I spent much of my downtime reading newspapers that talked about governmental policies that I didn’t understand, but which were interesting anyway (and, most important, in English). It's a weird feeling to be a visitor in a a country during a very tense a few days like these were, because everything everywhere was centered about the election.

Sigh. It’s hard to express in words how much of a connection I feel with London, especially since I’m writing this more than a year after this adventure took place. One thing’s for sure though: after being deprived of real coffee for so long in France, all of my memories of London come complete with the taste of coffee in my mouth. I seriously couldn’t have asked for a better trip.

Next time: Even bigger adventures in Scotland (involving active volcanoes and the birthplace of Harry Potter!)

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

A Very Belated Spring Break Travel Post: Rome, Part 3: London?

Hi! So, it's taking me a really long time to sit down and write, but I AM still working on putting my Spring Break travels into blog form, one city at a time.

Last Time: I spent an AMAZING three nights with my four amazing friends running around Rome, including ridiculously cheap coffee, seeing the Pope in person, and a LOT of gelato. It was going to be hard to tear myself away.

This time: Off to London to visit my cousin Kayla Epstein! At least, that’s the plan.

Valerie, Jackie, Monica and Candy were going to stay in Italy and explore Florence and Venice, but I couldn’t pass up the fortuitous opportunity to visit my cousin in London who just HAPPENED to be studying there the same semester as I chose to study abroad. Candy and Monica were at Monica’s aunt’s house, and Valerie and Jackie were still sound asleep (it was around 6AM after all) a I crept out of my hostel room in order to check out and make my way to London.

If you’ll recall, the guy at the front desk had advised me the previous day that I could save a lot of money if I simply caught an airport bus in the city rather than paying the 30 Euros the hostel would have charged to drive me to the airport directly. In this conversation with the front desk guy, we had discussed 1) the specific hour of my flight, 2) the time that I would need to be at the airport by, and 3) the time that it would take me in the morning to walk to the Rome Nord train stop, since I would have to leave the hostel so early that the hostel’s shuttle bus wouldn’t be running, which, when you combine these three things, means that he SHOULD HAVE understood that I would be CHECKING OUT of the hostel reeeeaaallly early in the morning.

SO, imagine my surprise when I leave my room, (already having been nervous about waking up in time, getting to the Rome Nord station by walking before it was even light out, catching the Rome Nord train, finding the airport bus in the city, and then making it to the airport on time), and the lights are completely OFF at the hotel’s reception area. The whole area is deserted, except for a young Italian gentleman who comes up to me in order to communicate in very broken English that the reception area DOESN’T OPEN UNTIL 7AM, which is at least an hour AFTER I have calculated that I need to check out by in order to catch the bus to he airport. I’m already freaked out and really upset that the guy the night before didn’t think it was necessary to tell me this fact, so I tell this guy that I desperately need to check out. To which he replies that he doesn’t understand OR speak English. I guess the site of me holding my luggage, flapping my arms from side to side in order to show that I needed to be on an airplane very soon, and frantically waving my credit card in his face was enough for him to take pity on me, because even though he obviously did NOT work in reception (he could barely even find the light switch in the office), he managed to help me check out despite the language barrier. It was kind of a struggle (i.e. he had to ask me how much I owed the hostel, and then I had to show him how to use the credit card machine), but in the end I had said “grazi” about a million times, he had said “Good luck with”, adding the“flying” motion with his arms that I had used early, and I was on my way in the dark towards the Primo Porto Rome Nord train stop.

Note to self: No matter what, DO NOT LET YOURSELF BE SEPARATED FROM YOUR PASSPORT. If Jackie hadn’t asked if we could leave our drivers’ licenses instead when we checked in, and if this young man hadn’t been there to take pity on me, I wouldn’t have been able to get on my next flight with my passport still locked up in the hostel office. I know it sounds like an obvious piece of advice, but when you are SO EXCITED to be arriving someplace, sometimes you forget the basics.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I walked through the dark on the side of the Roman road for much longer than I had been told I would need to, had the first Euro I put in the machine eaten, and eventually got on the Rome Nord train (which was late) towards Termini. Still worried about getting to my flight on time at a faraway airport, but mostly because I was thinking back on three of the most amazing days in my life and because I was sad to be leaving Jackie, Candy, Monica and Valerie, made me start crying, and I couldn’t stop until I reached the Termini stop.

This was the slightly harder part, because while I knew that the bus picked up from Termini, it was very obviously a terminal for a LOT of public transit vehicles in the middle of the busy city, and I wasn’t sure exactly where I should be going. I asked some officials if they could help me in English, and they were really nice and gave me really specific directions, which I only kind of understood. I ended up walking in a straight line for a while past a lot of city buses, until after what seemed lie ages I finally found the row of airport buses. Big sigh of relief. I ended up choosing a different, cheaper bus company than I had originally been looking for, and as I sat down on the bus, this amazing feeling of satisfaction washed over me. A much bigger feeling than if I had had no trouble at all finding what I was looking for. The bus driver took my 4 Euros and told me he liked me (Italians!) and we were off.

It turns out that I had planned on being WAY to early for my flight, because I ended up having a lot of time to kill once I got there. I had had to leave the hostel so early that I hadn’t had time for caffeine, so I decided that my almost-heart attack in the morning meant that I definitely deserved an overpriced cappuccino at the airport bar. BUT, Italy pulled through AGAIN, because my (amazing) cappuccino only cost 1 Euro 40 (!!) and my croissant only 1 euro. As much I was thrilled to be seeing my cousin in London, it was this kind of thing that made it hard to leave Rome.

Next time: LONDON!!!!!!!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

A Very Belated Spring Break Travel Post: Rome, Part 2

LAST TIME: We had just met up with our tour guide (in this blog, her name is spelled Illyria) and our driver Roberto. Our first stop: Castel Sant Angeleo.

Illyria told us to wait on the bridge, and she returned right away with tickets for all of us. She flashed her badge at the entrance gate and whisked us past everyone else in line.

She was an amazing tour guide, with an amazing Italian accent. She had something to say about everything we walked past, and whenever a large group of people would get in our way, she would say, “So much drama!” (except it sounded better than than because it was in a heavy accent). Whenever she deemed something unimportant, or that we were done looking at it, we would hear, “Alora, we don’t care”, as she shuffled us on to something new. The Castel Sant Angelo was really great, and our tour ended on the roof. Illyria points in the distance, and says, “You see how a crowd is gathering over there in Saint Peter’s square? It’s because the Pope will be appearing out of his window in 15 minutes. Maybe if we move quickly we can get there.” I knew the Pope was going to be there, because in trying to decide our Rome schedule, the five of us had agreed that since none of us had an intense need to be blessed by the Pope, we might as well go on Monday, when he wouldn’t be appearing out of his window and when perhaps the crowds would be smaller. And when she said that maybe we could get there, I assumed she had meant Maybe by the time we climb all the way down from Castel Sant Angelo and fight the traffic that it will take to get towards St. Peter’s, we’ll see the crowd.

Except that somehow there must have been a space-time continuem thing that happened right then, because within those fifteen minutes we had somehow: reached the bottom of Castel Sant Angelo, found Roberto in his van among the crowd at the bottom, hopped in, beat traffic, pulled up almost as close to the actual Basilica as possible, were pushed out of the van by Illyria who dragged us to the front of the crowd at St. Peter’s square, and caught our breathes at the exact moment that the Pope appeared in the window. It was kind of amazing timing, and I still don’t know how it happened.

It was kind of cool to see him in person, just because St. Peter’s square was the last place I actually thought I’d be at that particular moment. There were a LOT of people, and he read his blessing in a whole bunch of languages (not Hebrew though, hmmmm….). We couldn’t understand his Italian, obviously, but when Candy and I heard him say something about Cappucinos, we were sure that he was encouraging us to drink more coffee while in Rome.

So, that was pretty amazing, to put it mildly, and we were all still kind of shocked to have just been a part of that little adventure, when we loaded back into the van for our tour of the Forum and Palatine Hill.

Illyria was really enthusiastic about everything, especially about a particular kind of marble on the ground that was her favorite kind, which she spat on and rubbed for us so that that we could see the true color. Her information on the Forum was really interesting, and my favorite part came near Caesar’s cremation spot, where she was telling us about how Caesar’s assassins thought things would be awesome when he was dead, except that they didn’t realize that maybe the Roman people actually LIKED him, except that she described it in her heavy Italian accent as “Houston, we have a problem!”.

After the Forum, the tour was over (she had stayed with us an extra hour longer than she was originally supposed to), and told us that she had no doubt that we were hungry. We thanked her a lot, and then went across the street to sit down for the first time all morning and eat. It was a more amazing morning than I ever could have hoped for. We had little bit of time before we had agreed to meet Roberto (he was going to drive us back to Monica’s Aunt’s house), so we explored near the Capitoline for a little bit.

We met Roberto in his van back at the Piazza Navona, and his wife was with him. He asked us if we wanted to see a surprise before he drove us back, so we of course said yes and he drove us up a few hills into a more residential area. He parked and we got out of the van, while he pointed out the nearby Church where he and his wife had been married many decades before, but that wasn’t the surprise. He led us to a building where a long line of people were standing. Every ten seconds, one of them would look through a keyhole and then move. It was very strange. It turned out that the keyhole offered a perfect (though tiny!) view of the dome of St. Peter’s! It was really cool, and really nice of him to drive us up there for the end of an already amazing tour.

Monica’s Aunt lives not-far outside of the City part of Rome, and after going to the trouble of arranging this amazing tour for us, she still wanted to have all of us over for pizza. As I said in the last post, she’s the Egyptian Consul in Italy (i.e. second onto the Egyptian ambassador). Basically, Monica’s family were the nicest people ever. Her aunt introduced us to her three sons as soon we got inside, but apologized because the 4-year-old was apparently extremely shy, so he wasn’t there to meet us at the door. Soon after, we followed Monica into a bedroom, where she and another cousin we each crouched on either side of the bed, because the shy one was actually hiding underneath. It was really funny to watch, because as they tried to lure him out, things like, “I can feel a leg!” were shouted between them. So cute.

Her aunt served us pizza and drinks and we all sat out on their balcony, where she asked us about our day, and then told us stories about being a Consul. She’s responsible for all 64,000 legal Egyptians living in Italy, in addition to three times of the number of Egyptians living there illegally. Because of geography, Italy is the gateway from Egypt into the rest of Europe, which is why there are so many Egyptians who come over. We also got to hear about why we shouldn’t go to Sicily (the police have no power), about the time when some Egyptian ships sunk off the coast of Italy and how TV channels in Egypt broadcast her work cell phone and how much of a nightmare that was in the midst of trying to deal with the disaster, and about how the time when George Clooney came to Egypt and he had personally chosen her to be his guide. She was incredibly warm and made sure that we used their internet while we were there so that we could talk to our parents if we needed to, and made sure we ate a lot of chocolate. Around 7 something, we all piled into her car because she wanted to drop us off in the Trestevere for a few hours, which, again, was super nice of her.

The Trestevere was really cute, with a lot of little restaurant and coffee bars. I had been with my parents the last time, but this time we stayed on a different side of the river. We got gelato (mmmm), and then decided to go to a bar to get coffee. We ordered four cappuccinos (we were in Rome, after all, so we had to splurge!), and were absolutely SHOCKED when the total bill was only 4 euros. As we walked out, we were all kind of buzzing just from that, since in France a SINGLE cappuccino is 4 Euros. Apparently Pope Benedict had blessed our coffee after all!

We were all in a good mood after that, we walked along the Tiber for a little and then returned to the area where we had been before. At one point, Jackie suddenly started talking excitedly to the group of three people walking in our direction, and it turned out that she had recognized one of them because more than 2 years earlier, he studied abroad at Berkeley and had been in a history class with her. SMALL WORLD. At first he didn’t say anything, except, “Jackie? No, it’s not possible!”. It was kind of an amazing occurrence, especially because while he WAS Italian, he wasn’t even FROM Rome. He and his friends just happened to be there. I think the best way to describe this particular day had been one high after another (i.e. amazing surprise guided tour, amazing Pope sighting, amazing get-together with the Egyptian Consul of Italy, amazingly cheap cappuccino, amazing run in with someone Jackie thought she would never ever see again). It was pretty awesome day. Daniel and Jackie made plans to get together the next day, and the Monica’s aunt picked us up. She insisted on driving us back to our hostel, and Jackie and Valerie and I went to bed still on a high from the day’s events.

The next morning was Monday, our last full day in the city. We had originally planned on going to St. Peter’s and the Vatican extra early, but Illyria told us that everyone did that, so we decided to go later in the afternoon instead. Jackie an Valerie and I met Monica and Candy around 9:30, and we got kind of lost going to Santa Maria Della Vittoria (I wanted to see the St. Theresa statue again) and then to the Capuchin monk church, but we eventually found them and it was good. Earlier, I had been complaining about the first time that my parents went to Rome, and about how they got really into Jewish-style fried artichokes, and about how it seemed like for a whole year after that, that was all we ate at home. Except that my friends thought that fried artichokes sounded good, so we ended up making plans to go to the Jewish ghetto for lunch that day before we went to Vatican City. We ended up in the Jewish district right before lunchtime, and nothing was open so we went into another bar and ordered cappuccinos. This time: only ninety centimes.

We apparently still had the Pope’s luck following us. We looked at a few menus and eventually chose a restaurant at random, because they all looked pretty much the same, and because I couldn’t actually remember which restaurant I had eating at with my parents two years earlier. But the one that we chose ended up being really good (mmmm, pruscuitto and artichoke pizza…NOT very kosher).

I went up to the register to pay, and as I did, gasped audibly because on the wall next to the register was a signed picture of Ray Stevenson, i.e. TITUS PULLO FROM HBO’S ROME, i.e. MY FAMILY’S FAVORITE THING EVERY AND ONE OF OUR FAVORITE CHARACTERS. And I was especially excited to see it because it’s not like he’s super famous or anything, so it’s not like I see a photograph of him in every restaurant, you know? Anyway, apparently the waiter who was standing by heard me, because he goes (heavy Italian accent and all), “I know him! He’s a personal friend!” To which a choked a little said, “Really???”, to which HE replied, “Yes! He and his wife live upstairs! They have two beautiful boys!”. Then he asked me if I had a message to send him, and I really WANTED to say something like “Thirteen!”, but I was afraid that maybe for some reason the waiter wouldn’t catch my reference (it’s something that comes up in the show a lot, for those of you who have never seen it), and that he would think I was crazy or something, so my eyes got really watery and I just said, “Just tell him I’m really happy!” (i.e. something that didn’t really make sense but definitely described my feelings). I don’t remember what happened right after that because I was still so excited that we HAPPENED to choose that restaurant, but eventually we ended up in Vatican City.

The good news was that the walk along the Vatican’s walls took longer than the walk to get in to the building (continuing on our theme of nothing having a real line during our entire trip). I don’t really need to go on about the Vatican because I’ve been before, and because it kind of goes without saying that it’s Pretty Cool. I took a lot of pictures of the ceilings.

Valerie and Jackie and I accidentally got separated from Candy and Monica, but it worked out because we needed to walk to the front anyway in order to find Jackie’s coat which we were hoping was still in the bathroom where she had accidentally left it (it was). This meant that we had to backtrack back along the wall in order to get to the Basilica to meet Monica and Candy, so the three of us decided that a reward was in order because of the hot weather (i.e. gelato). There was a place across from the Vatican walls that had been recommended to Jackie, and for the amazing price of 2 Euros, we got three HUGE scoops of three flavors, AND whipped cream (to put it in perspective, ordering gelato in France met a third as much gelato for the same price, and nothing on top, because for some reason the French are especially stingy with their whipped cream). So basically, we were very happy.

We eventually met Monica and Candy in front of St. Peter’s (they had climbed the dome while they waited for us), and went inside. I don’t really need to describe St. Peter’s for the same reasons that I don’t need to describe the Vatican. But again, Pretty Awesome.

It was really hot when we got back outside, and we were really excited about our new Gelato find, so we took Monica and Candy and went again. Then the five of us headed back to the city, hung around for a bit, and eventually Monica and Candy when back to Monica’s aunt’s house. That left me, Jackie and Valerie, and our plan was to eat dinner with Daniel, his friend and his girlfriend, who were both in town with him. Eventually the three of them found us, which meant that we got to eat in a REAL Italian restaurant with REAL Italians! The day just kept on getting better.

Afterwards, the three of them walked us to our Metro stop, and even though no one was the least but drunk, the two boys REALLY wanted to sing. We told them that if they wanted us to sing with them, it would obviously have to be songs in English since we didn’t know Italian, so the two of them started singing the first song in English that came to their minds: Camptown Races.

It was a long walk, so there ended up being a lot of time for this kind of ridiculousness. Daniel’s friend REALLY wanted me and Valerie to sing with him, but we told him that we only really knew musicals…….so he began to loudly belt Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita with his accent and we strode down the street at 10 something at night. This was definitely NOT the kind of behavior I expected from young Italian men, to say the least. He kept suggesting different pop arts that we could sing together, but Valerie and I had to keep reminding him that we unfortunately only really knew music from the theater. He goes, "Ah, King Lear!", and we said, "Yeah! But it doesn't have any music in it...", to which he started singing 'The Circle of Life', at which Valerie and I broke out laughing hysterically and told him that he probably meant The Lion King. He was kind of embarrassed at his mistake, but it totally made our night.

We eventually said our goodbyes, got on the metro, and caught the bus back to our hostel exactly as it took off. The entire day had been an amazing whirlwind, and I was really devastated to be leaving Rome and my friends in the morning.

NEXT TIME: Almost not getting out of the hostel OR Italy, Kayla Epstein!, LONDON, and enough coffee to make up for what I was missing out on in France.

Nun with gelato :)

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Very Belated Spring Break Travel Post: Rome, Part 1

Okay, ROME. I feel as though I've already recounted this story to everyone, but I have to remind myself that unless I've seen you in person, I haven't had a chance to do so! This is going to be split into multiple parts because it is so epic.

Last time: PARIS. We turned our taxi around and backtracked through Montmartre at 4:45 in the morning to pick up Monica’s cell phone, which she had accidentally left under the pillow of our hostel (Luckily for Monica, she is completely charming and impossible to be upset at).

The taxi pulled up back to Le Village hostel and Jackie & I stayed in the car to practice our French with the driver (correction, Jackie practiced our French; I stayed silent while worrying that maybe we were supposed to have reserved a spot of the airport bus ahead of time and that if that was the case, all of our Spring Breaks were going to be ruined and would be my fault). Candy and Monica came back more than a few minutes later, out of breath and telling us that when they got back to the lobby to ask for the key to our room, our already-disgruntled receptionist ignored them for a few minutes because he was slow dancing with another guest. France.

We re-zoomed through the streets, and not long after ended up near La Defense and Port Maillot, where we were supposed to catch the bus. We found it after wandering around for a while (it was dark). We were fine on time, LUCKILY, and hopped on the next available bus where we each fell asleep promptly and woke up an hour later when we reached the Beauvais Airport.

Let me tell you something about European airports: Unlike American airports, who have caught on to the fact that its captive audiences MUST pay three times as much for the things they are selling, European airports seem to think that they should charge LESS than the normal price for things. It’s very bizarre and I like it. Except maybe that was just a sign that Bordeaux was an expensive city to be living in the first place, hmmmm….

Our Ryan Air flight was fine, and Jackie and I caught the bus to our hostel while Monica and Candy waited for Monica’s aunt. The Tiber Hostel and Camping was an excellent choice.

The rooms were nice (I chose to ignore the suspiciously large bloodstain on the underside of the mattress above me that I had to look at from my own bunk), there was an (underpriced!) store with everything we would ever have needed, and the LARGE cappuccino in the restaurant was only 1 Euro 80! (i.e. 2 Euros LESS than anywhere in France). Our hostel was outside of the main part of the city, however, but it was easy enough (and cheap) to get into town. After settling in, Jackie and I took the Metro and ended up near Santa Maria Del Poppolo, which I was super excited about because we had talked about it in the Baroque Rome Art History class I had taken my sophomore year. And it was nice being in that area because I hadn’t made it there when I visited Rome with my family last time.

Jackie and I had our first hint of how amazing Rome was going to be when we ordered sandwiches at a little restaurant and the people there were actually nice to us (like, they were smiling and everything!). It was amazing how fast my mood changed once Jackie and I started walking around. It was like I was mistaken about loving France -- because the happiness I felt as soon as we reached Rome was unlike anything I had felt for the previous four months...kind of like even though I thought that I loved France, I was actually mistaken. Obviously, I DID love France, and I wouldn't trade my experiences there for the world, but I can't deny that I simply felt more at home in Rome in those four days than I had in my entire stay in France. To say it more simply, I was definitely glad I had made it to Rome during my Spring Break travels.

A few hours later we found Jackie and Monica at Piazza Navona. It was a really great day, even though it was miserably humid. We went to the Pantheon and ate gelato, threw coins in the Trevi, etc. We had already decided to save some things to do for when Valerie would be with us the next day, but around 5:30 we ended up at the Colossuem. Our goal was to (obviously) pay as little as possible for everything during our trip, especially because we were the lucky owners of student IDs for a school in the European Union (which makes all the difference). I was doubtful about being able to save money in Rome, however, because my research hadn’t turned up any evidence of free entry for students (i.e. at the Vatican, even if you have proof that you’re a legitimate Catholic priest you only get a small discount). So when we reached the oddly empty ticket line at the Coliseum and Jackie turned back to us to tell us it was free, I definitely did NOT believe it. It turns out that our Rome trip magically landed on the last two days of Rome’s Cultural Week, so entrance to all of the important stuff was free! I still can’t explain the fact that nothing we tried to see during the week had a line…..

So that was pretty cool. We ran around the coliseum for a while and had gelato, and then Jackie and I caught the train and the shuttle back to Tiber Camping, where I was unable to buy a towel from the store because it was closed (to my disappointment. I wasn’t going to have time to shower in the morning, and I was feeling all of the effects of having been traveling since 4AM that morning in extreme humidity). But Jackie and I ordered cheap hot chocolates which partially made up for how disgusting I felt and probably smelled.

Valerie arrived around 1AM that night from Paris, and in the morning the three of us took the Rome Nord train to the end of it’s line, and then took another train to meet Monica and Candy at the Piazza Navona. Monica and Candy were staying with Monica’s aunt, who, according to Monica “works for the government”. Except that Monica is SUPER modest, and it turned out that her aunt is the Egyptian CONSUL in Italy (i.e. second to the AMBASSADOR). Her aunt was amazing and set us up with a very generous private tour, led by an amazing Italian woman named something that sounded like Illyria, and a driver named Roberto. Our first stop was the Castel Sante Angeleo, where Illria flashed her official tour guide badge and whisked us past the line…….

Gelato Number 3: Melon, Orange & Coconut :)

Next time: Important Catholics, even more gelato, and real Italians....

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Still in Burbank...

I've been really slow at updating, but my epic Rome post IS on its way! I would write it tonight but I have to go to my little brother's silly graduation, and then I'll be out all night with MY friends, and then I take a train (remember those?) at 7:20 AM tomorrow to IRVINE, but after that, I'm going to write it. I'm just stalling because as soon as I finish than my travels are officially over :(

Friday, May 21, 2010


Hello! I haven't disappeared! But I AM safe and sound in Burbank, after my first flight from Paris was canceled by the volcano, after missing my flight from Dallas to LAX, and after being in transit for 24 hours. I told you that I would be back to post about my two weeks of European adventures, and here they are, one city at a time. Enjoy!

PART ONE, PARIS. April 23, 2010.

I met up with Monica at 6:15 outside her house (we lived 5 minutes away from each other (which is handy at 6:15 in the morning) so that we could go to Gare St. Jean together, where we were meeting up with Jackie and Candy (we would meet up with Valerie in Paris, because she had opted to take an even earlier train). Nothing too exciting there. Except that I got angry because in between our naps on the 3 and a half hour ride from Bordeaux to Paris, Monica and I would occasion talk/squeal about how excited we were for this trip, and I don’t think the girl in front of us appreciated it, as evidenced by the flick of her hand over the back of her seat, which kind of silenced Monica and I abruptly, because she could have just as easily turned around and said “Pardon moi”, which we totally would have understood as “I’m so sorry to interrupt you, but it’s not even 8AM and I would love to just sleep a little more. Perhaps you could keep your voices a tad lower?”. Because 1) I seriously don’t think Monica and I were talking that loudly, and 2) We were really excited!. But she probably should have thought about it before she silenced us so rudely, because she might have realized that I had the power to kick the back of her chair for the next hour, while she wouldn’t have been able to reciprocate. Not like I took advantage of this, or anything, but basically, I REALLY hate rude people, and it made me mad.

Our day in Paris was relatively uneventful, but still a lot of fun. We decided ahead of time that because we had all either already spent a lot of time there, or because we were going to be back in the future, that it was going to be a relaxed day. We decided to take advantaged of the GLORIOUS weather by heading straight to the Eiffel Tower (which I had actually never even SEEN in person before), where we lounged by it on the grass for literally two hours. It was such a nice break from the coldness that is Bordeaux. And we saw a puppy! So that was good.

Jackie, Me, Valerie, Candy & Monica.

The Seine! Valerie & I are big Les Miz fans, so needless to say, we were excited to be there.

Sacre Coeur!

We ate lunch, went to Notre Dame, DRANK STARBUCKS FILTERED COFFEE, and eventually went to Montmartre towards sunset so that we could go to Sacre Coeur (which was pretty awesome, if you like basilicas and stuff). My opinion is definitely, however, that as cool as Paris might be, it’s definitely the seediest place I’ve ever been. Rome might be touristy too, but neither of my trips had the same seedy feel that Paris emitted. Like, there are Eastern European women EVERYDAY asking for money, and when you don’t answer their French, they come armed with a bunch of languages, so that you really have to ignore them until they go away. Also, the thread-bracelet scam guys were all over Sacre Coeur. And we definitely had to fend of drunk guys as we sat on the steps waiting for the sun to go down. I never felt afraid, or anything, and I liked all of my time in Paris, I just think that this characteristic sets it apart from the other cities that I’ve visited for me.

Our hostel, Le Village, was really nice – the four of us had our own room and bathroom and shower. Not that it really mattered, because we were barely going to be there because we were going to have to leave so early in the morning anyway to get to the bus to the airport in order to go to Rome (!). We knew where the official Aeroport Beavais bus was supposed to pick us up on the map, but we didn’t actually know where we were supposed to find it. Once we were all back in our room at night, Candy and I sat down to choose the fastest metro route to Port Maillot, where the buses left from. We had to be there by 6AM, so we were nervous about getting there in time, because there was no way we were NOT getting on that plane. To make a long story short, after one discussion with the guy at reception, a quick trip to the closest metro station to confirm that his advice about when the metro started running was correct (it wasn’t), another conversation with him about the best way to get a taxi in the morning, and an extra-early wake-up by me and Candy before everyone else just to ensure that there WERE taxis running in order to leave enough time if we were going to have to call one, the four of us (Valerie was staying with her aunt) were up, checked out, and in a taxi on our way to Port Maillot. All was well. Until we had been zooming through the dark streets of Montmartre for five minutes, when Monica apologetically realized that she had accidentally left her cell phone under the pillow in the hostel…….

Next Time: Rome?