Thankfully I still have two and a half weeks left in France. But my experience abroad has hardly been based solely in Paris (this should be obvious if you’ve kept up at all with the cafe au lait-inspired posts here), and as a final roundup of all my travels I’d like to dedicate the following scoreboard to my wonderful Grandma Blanche without whom none of these trips would have been possible. Ich hub dear zaya zaya zaya leeb!
Food. (This category should actually start at runner-up because Paris has undoubtedly monopolized the favor of all of my taste buds.) WINNER: Florence. The best balsamic steak, pizza, and gelato of my life. A close runner-up would be Marrakech, but the unfriendly way in which that food became acquainted with my travel companions’ stomachs leads to a disqualification for foul play. Extra points awarded to Tony’s restaurant in Rome for the special treatment à la Steve Antenucci.
LOSER: Amsterdam. Though the food was roughly as bad as that of Prague and Berlin, it didn’t boast the same low prices or broad range in ethnic cuisines.
Maybe my worst food photo to date. But the Balsamic Steak from Florence’s Aqua al Due as per Julie’s recommendation was the best I’ve ever tasted.
People. WINNER: Berlin, surprisingly. The Germans were eager to help us out whenever we looked even slightly lost (this was never, we always looked EXTREMELY lost), and our reception to this hospitality was definitely heightened by the way reality contrasted with our expectations.
LOSER: Prague. I know your country is dark and cold. But so are Sweden and Denmark and the people there manage to not look miserable all the time. Lock it up, Czech folk.
Another poor photographic display, but proof at Prague Castle: The Czech’ll beat you down with a club if the opportunity presents itself.
Architecture. WINNER: Amsterdam. I especially loved the teetering brick-and-glass canal houses that serve as an architectural reminder of this city’s generally overlooked big-brother relationship with the wonderful city of New Amsterdam. Anything you can do, New York can do better… Honorable mention for this category goes to Marrakech, just because the medina was so entirely different from anything I’ve ever seen before.
LOSER: Berlin. The excuse of communism and world wars makes this ugliness justified, but I really hope that architectural renewal will follow shortly after the current artistic revolution going on in this city that’s starting over for the umpteenth time.
Transportation. WINNER: Amsterdam. The trams seemed to go nearly everywhere, were clean, fast, and not crowded. Plus, it was always entertaining to hear the automated voices correctly pronouncing the names of stops that we would butcher, (ex: Keizersgracht, Spuistraat, and Kloveniersburgwal.) And who can argue with bikes and canals as alternatives to public transport? Runner up goes to Marrakech, where the lack of public transportation in our neighborhood was a non-issue due to the absurdly cheap “petit cab” rides. Points to Florence which proved itself 100% walkable.
LOSERS: Rome, where there are only two subway lines and the buses come roughly once every hour, if you’re lucky. Berlin, where half the Underground lines were closed for construction, and where bus and tram signs were less than tourist-friendly. Prague, which found the 3 non-ticketholders who had actually tried to buy tickets and gave them 700 kroner fines, in contrast to Noot’s nonchalant instructions about tickets being a non-issue. Damnit. Also, those metro escalators are treacherous.
Amsterdam tram, we love you. Just don’t ask us to pronounce the name of the next stop.
Language: WINNER: Rome & Florence. Italian is undeniably the most beautiful language in existence, and it’s even better when it’s being spoken as you’re handed the best slice of pizza in the world. Plus it’s cool when you realize that you can actually understand what’s being said. Points to Marrakech for surprising me with the beauty of Arabic, especially that of Yasmin and her mother.
LOSER: Prague. Czech, you are not a beautiful language. Tough second worst is Amsterdam. Sorry, Dutch, you ain’t too fine yourself. I’m shocked as I type this that I was able to find languages uglier than German, but alas, lessons abroad can be surprising all over the proverbial map.
Special appendage for those of my friends/family who will be studying in Europe next semester.
What Not to Miss (that you might not otherwise hear about)
-Pancake Bakery for dinner one night. Relatively cheap sampling of Amsterdam’s delicious pancake tradition in an unassuming canal-side basement. Find it at Prinsengracht 191-A.
-Van Gogh museum. Especially go if you don’t get to see any of his work in the Musée d’Orsay.
-Anne Frank Huis: a dramatic experience that’s well-laid out and worth the line. Bring tissues.
-All the Roman ruins. Coliseum, Forum, Capitoline hill… Make sure you have a guide book or map with you so you can figure out what was what in case you don’t have a Mr. Scott-style knowledge ingrained in your head.
-LODGING: I can’t recommend enough the hotel we happened upon in Prague. It was a total of 45 euros over three nights, and we had two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen (with a stocked fridge) and a living room. The location was perfect and there was free wifi. Plan your stay- http://www.platantour.cz/
-Free Tour: meets at Old Town Square and really is free. Lasts about three hours and is a great way to get a historical backdrop at the beginning of a weekend in Prague.
-John Lennon Wall, just on the other side of the Charles Bridge. Don’t ask the locals where it is because they’ll have no idea what you’re asking. Check out the history online before you go looking.
-LODGING: We found a centrally-located and relatively cheap hostel that fulfilled all our needs. St. Christopher’s Berlin location is clean, friendly, and has free wifi. We had our own room and it was big and comfortable and well within our budget. Check it out- http://www.st-christophers.co.uk/berlin-hostels
-Vintage shopping in Mitte. It’s only appropriate that the up-and-coming hipster capital of the world would excel in this category. See for yourself.
-Free Tour Berlin is longer than the one in Prague because there really is so much to see. Make sure you plan your trek over to the meeting spot ahead of time or you could spend all morning riding around Berlin’s public transportation system. (If you stay at St. Christopher’s, a tour guide will pick you up directly from the hostel bar.)
-Dinner at Aqua Al Due isn’t nearly as expensive as it should be. Try their to-die-for balsamic steak or one of their massive salads.
-Pizza from Gusta Pizzaat 46 Via Maggio. Even if you’re a New York pizza snob, this is place is a real (inexpensive) treat. Do not miss it.
-Gelato covered in hot chocolate at Grom. The hot chocolate is the real deal, no milked-out watered-down excuses. Choose two nutty flavors and add the warm melted chocolate. Thank me later.
-The David at the Academia. It’s worth the steep entry price because the statue truly is breath-taking. Check out the unbelievable detail on the dude’s right hand.
-LODGING: Riad Cala Medina is without a doubt the most perfect hotel experience I’ve had over the past four months. The owners are warm and welcoming, the rooms are true Moroccan-style and clean, the mint tea is scrumptious, and the prices aren’t awful. Plus, being in the heart of the medina really makes you feel like you’re on a different planet. Rooftop breakfasts in the African sun are a bonus.
-Le Tanjia restaurant next to the Palace Bahia for the best couscous of your life.
-The Majorelle Garden to fulfill all your tropical desires. The air legitimately smells better here than almost anywhere I’ve ever been (Maine, you still have my heart).
Number 1 Travel Lesson: Maximize travel day sleeptime. Benches in airports and window seats on airplanes are beds, and newspapers, particularly the good-guy type, are blankets. (Conservative papers tend to be too cold-hearted to keep you warm. Trust me, I’m an expert.)
Obviously, I love traveling and I love talking about it, so if you have any destination questions shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org (that means you, Molly, Nicole, Chelsea…) Special thanks to my parents for their travel advice and to my Aunt Carolyn for her travel inspiration. I hope someday I can cover at least a fraction of the territory she’s traveled to, Pucci scarves and bathing suits in tote. Je t’aime ma tante!
Love from an American with very little time left in Paris,
Last week was the equivalent of fall break here in France and I used it to start my travels through Europe. I started with five days in Amsterdam with Carolyn, Audree, and Cat (who met us there from London), and then flew to Rome for four days to I met up with high school classmate/kwatchie Ali Vitali and her friends from Aix en Provence. With only minimal hiccups, the trips were a great way to break up my Paris routine.
Photo of Old Amsterdam by a girl from New Amsterdam.
Amsterdam was exceedingly more beautiful than I expected it to be. Of course, it took me until my second day to realize this. When we first got in Friday night, Carolyn and I were convinced that we had flown into a city serving as a facade for hell. Fast food in vending machines greeted us at the train station, public (open) urinals stood out in the middle of squares, “smart shops” selling almost every drug imaginable lined the streets, and signs for the red light district glinted with the light of the tram as it careened its way through the streets to our hotel. Over the next few days, though, we explored more of the city and came to truly understand its beauty.We went to the Van Gogh Museum (unbelievable), the Rijksmuseum (very cool although missing its regular installation about New Amsterdam), FOAM-Fotografiemuseum (current exposition on refugees from war-torn nations), toured the canals by boat (booze cruise), visited Dam Square (there were carnival rides!), Jordaan (the village of Amsterdam), the Red Light district (seriously disturbing), and the Anne Frank House (well done and extremely moving). We also got to meet up with three other Wesleyan students, two of whom are studying in Amsterdam for the semester and who introduced us to God’s gift to the Netherlands aka the stroopwafel. Unbeatable.
Somehow, this gibberish translates to “It is your birthday.”
It was hard to get a sense of the authentic culture in Amsterdam. The people were friendly and helpful and all spoke English, and no one seemed particularly mad at us for being Americans. The architecture was unbelievable, reminding me at times of Copenhagen but even more aesthetically pleasing. We heard more French than Dutch during our trip, which was probably for the better because I’d definitely rank the latter among the top three ugliest languages I’ve ever heard. The food seemed to be relatively tame, with a (welcome) focus on pancakes. Our last night in Amsterdam we went to a bar recommended by my favorite travel website (unlike.net) called The Two Swans, where we made friends with the bartender and the regulars. The rest of the night we all talked about American and French politics, plus the drug policy in the Netherlands and the way it affects their society. The most striking part of the conversation was when the bartender asked us about safety in France. “Who commits most of the crimes?” he asked us. We weren’t totally sure what he was trying to ask, or rather, we were trying to avoid understanding his question, when he clarified it for us. “For instance, here in Amsterdam, it’s all the Moroccans who stir up trouble.” After singing a quick rendition of New York, New York with our new racist friends, we left the bar to avoid having our Wes bubble idealism further punctured.
Ridiculous Amsterdam moment: As I was walking to Dam Square with some Wes kids, I ran into another familiar face- that of one of my high school classmates, Gideon Pine, on vacation in Adams from his semester in Rome. What makes this even more strange is that our graduating class was a mere 160 students. What makes this ABSURD is that I ended up running into him AGAIN back in Rome. I’m terrible at math, but I’m pretty sure the chances of this happening even once are next to zero. It’s a small world after all…
After a few flight changes (France striking as always), I was able to travel from the land of one of the ugliest languages to the land of one of the most beautiful. It was not my first trip to Italy, but it was my first time in Rome. I took Italian for a year back during freshman year at Wes, but have not practiced or thought about it once since then, so I was expecting the language barrier to be a serious handicap. Within a day, I felt an inundation of Italian vocabulary and grammar emerge from the depths of my memories. By the end of the trip, I was legitimately speaking Italian again in a city where, shockingly, very few people speak English or French.
Magnificent manifestations of wealth within the Vatican.
I’d always dreamed of coming to Rome. I have a real interest in classical civilizations, undoubtedly encouraged by my four years of Latin classes in high school with Mr. Scott, and so I pictured that Rome would be one of my favorite cities in the world. False. I did love the ruins- sitting in the forum was one of my favorite parts of the trip. It wasn’t just my Latin education that was keeping me wowed, though. My inner politico (politica?) felt a surge of significance sitting in the exact spot where the roots of modern republicanism were realized. And of course, the love of Shakespeare I inherited from my Grandpa came into full force as I staged a re-enactment, much to the embarrassment of my friends, of Marc Antony’s famous Caesarean eulogy on the same exact rostra where the real thing took place. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.” I could practically feel GK reciting the words alongside me. I didn’t want to leave the forum.
"I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him."
I found the rest of the city dirty and overly touristy, and that’s saying a lot coming from a New Yorker living in Paris. The men were beyond creepshows, although some of what they were saying was more comical than disgusting because it was in such bad English. I had a great time in the city nonetheless because the company was so good (thanks AL!), and I got to see nearly everything over the four days I was there: the Vatican, the Spanish Steps, the Trevi fountain, the Pantheon, all the famous Piazzas, and enough ruins to write my own version of Ecce Romani, including the Coliseum which was absolutely unbelievable. Plus we got tickets to the Roma V. Lecce soccer game at the Stadio Olimpico which was an experience I’ll never forget. I always thought Briarcliff soccer fans were expressive- I was legitimately scared at times during the Italian soccer game due to the passion being expressed all around me. What a night. Halloween was a blast too, but less worthy of blog write up, especially in the interest of preserving my dignity. Hint: Ali and I wore bright pink and purple wigs. Enough said.
Ridiculous Rome moment: While leaving the Coliseum, the vendors were going crazy trying to sell me and my friends every light up and squishy tchotchke under the sky. They were trying to get our attention by speaking to us in the language they assumed we spoke. The first few who exited got “Hi! Hey! Hello!” shouted at them. When I exited, one vendor looked at me and yelled “SHALOM!”… I was floored. That has never happened before.
By the end of the trip, I was exhausted and psyched to be heading home to Paris. Monday night I got dinner with Julia Jonasday plus Anne Rosenthal, Ruthie Lazenby, and Dave Layne- three Wesleyan alums who are all living in Europe this year. It was a great way to feel once again at home in Paris. The next day was election day, and after spending all day in the library (I call it Frolin, even though it will never truly compare) catching up on work, I got to come home to a delicious meal with my host family. It was a good way to start off a bad night- Julia and I headed to Joe Allen bar in the first arrondissement where both Democrats Abroad and Republicans Abroad had gathered to watch the results coming in. It wasn’t a good night for the good guys, and it was hard to be in the same room as the Republicans as they cheered every time they gained a seat. After working at the DCCC this summer, I was particularly saddened to see the loss of seats of some of the Representatives I had gotten to know a bit in passing. (Hardest loss was undoubtedly Representative Mark Schauer from Michigan, the sweetest Democrat who biked to work most days, got to know us by name, and always had the best ties.) On a positive note, I got interviewed by a French tv station at the party and the next morning woke up to a text message from Dave Layne saying he had seen me on television. (http://www.itele.fr/dossier/usa-elections-de-mi-mandat) Possibly the most nervous I have ever been to speak French, but a much needed distraction from the upsetting results of the evening. I also got interviewed for a news article which is interesting, apart from the fact that they confused the DCCC with the DNC. The article can be found here: http://www.leparisamericain.com/2010/11/03/midterms-une-nuit-americaine-a-paris/#more-103
Last night I headed to the Opéra Bastille for the second time with some friends to see Les Noces de Figaro by Mozart. It was fantastic but definitely a challenge to stay awake during all three and a half hours. I didn’t fully succeed. Tomorrow, I head off to Prague with Carolyn and Julia. I have good friends studying there and have heard great things about the city so I can’t wait!
À la prochaine,
All roads lead to…
France’s plans for a national strike again tomorrow (surprise) were seriously jeopardizing my chances of making it out of the country to meet some of my friends for Halloween weekend in Rome. With a little maneuvering and a lot of iPod/smartphone switching off (thanks Carolyn,) I was able to schedule my flight to Rome a day early directly from Amsterdam, with no stopover in Paris necessary. I’m psyched to have made it to the eternal city- now I just have to find a laundromat! Porrei lavare… my clothes? Memories of my Italian education are constantly fading in and out, mixed with remnants of high school Spanish, overly rehearsed French, and somewhat exasperated English. Charlie Brown’s teacher, anyone?
ROME TILL MONDAY- ciao ragazzi!