Tuesday, June 7, 2011

My Eurotrip Recap

I'm still slowly piecing together my trip to Europe, even though I've been back for about two weeks now. So much happened, and there's so much to tell, but I'm still deciding what exactly I want to say to sum it all up.

This whole idea of traveling through Europe began sometime in the fall. When I was 22, I decided that every year I want to do something that is totally outside my comfort zone before my next birthday. I wanted to have a new and unique experience every year, so I am working toward a goal for at least part of the year. It's been a few years and I've stuck to this idea. This year, I chose Europe. I was going to go -- even if it meant traveling alone and experiencing it by myself. 2011 was the year of Europe, no excuses.

Last fall, when I decided that I was officially going to Europe regardless of any circumstance, I randomly logged into Facebook and saw one of my former college roommates' Facebook status about how she wanted to move to Europe. I messaged Anna and told her that although I'm not moving there at the moment, I was seriously going to book a trip and would love it if she joined. I was so happy when she was just as serious as I was, and we booked a plan ticket shortly after. Six months later, we were in Paris.

Before I start delving into my trip, I should probably admit that Anna and I really didn't put much thought into planning. We booked all of our transportation throughout our four stops -- we settled on Paris, Barcelona, Rome, and Florence for a two week trip -- and our first hostel (the day before leaving) but left the majority of our trip unplanned.

Anna and I left DC at 8:40pm and took the red eye over to Iceland, where we had to switch flights. Iceland Air was pretty cheap, and we were able to get a student/under 26 discount, bringing our roundtrip air fare to less than $800. Of course the difficulty was switching flights, which turned out to be interesting when we had to go through security again in Iceland and no one was at the security area to let passengers through. But overall, the flight wasn't bad. Obviously it wasn't the best night of sleep I've ever had, but in a sense I was lucky because I had literally just finished my finals less than 48 hours before leaving. I was so exhausted from school that I was ready to just pass out the second I got on the plane. So I sat down, put on The King's Speech (good movie, but not as good as The Social Network or The Fighter) and went to sleep.

Skipping ahead to Paris -- we arrived at about 1:30pm Paris time (7:30 am DC time) and were pretty jet lagged and exhausted. And then we had to figure out the Paris metro to get to our hostel. Problem: neither of us speak French. At all. Fortunately, we were able to navigate our way on the metro, but when we arrived at our stop, we got so lost and ended up wandering around for about a half hour. We asked for directions at two points and it became pretty obvious that giving directions is simply not a skill that the French possess. The second person we asked showed us the truly lovely side of the French persona when he replied, "I'm speaking English to you. Why don't you understand me? Don't you speak English?" The problem was that he was telling us to go straight, when in reality, very few of the streets in Paris actually go straight.

Finally, we arrived at Legends hostel and met our new roommate, Alejandro from Brazil. (I actually don't know his name. I called him Alejandro the whole time we were there because I couldn't remember it, so I gave him a name I'd remember -- thanks Lady Gaga.) Anna and I were so deliriously tired at this point that when Alejandro asked us to party with him that night, we sadly had to turn him down. Instead, we walked around and explored our area. We saw a really cool street market with all fresh food randomly around the corner. It was about 6pm, and we really wanted to go to dinner, but were sadly disappointed when we were told that no one eats dinner before 8 at the earliest. Luckily, there was a supermarket next to our hostel so we had our first gourmet Parisian meal: chips, hummus, a baguette, and red wine.

The next day was filled with a ton of awesome touristy activities thanks to
Anna's mom who booked us a bus tour of the city, a trip up the Eiffel Tower, lunch at the Eiffel Tower, and a cruise down the Seine River. We walked down the Jardin des Tuileres and saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time as we waited for our bus tour to begin. We also had our first coffee experience in France as we sipped cafe creme at a local cafe filled with cranky waiters. (Ahhh, France!) The bus and the river cruise were really great ways to see the city, and obviously considering that I am a bit of a history fanatic, I was really excited to have an opportunity to learn about the city as well. Personally, lunch at the Eiffel Tower was the highpoint of the day, and not only because of the delicious wine and espresso. It was a beautiful view of a beautiful city on a beautiful day, and that is simply something I can't complain about.

After the Seine River cruise, we continued to walk around the city, and eventually headed back to our hostel. On the way we stopped at an Internet cafe to email our parents, search walking directions, and book the remainder of our hostels. We met a girl from Philly (where Anna is from) who told us that she had gone to a party and left her purse in a room unsupervised. When she came back, her passport was gone. Her friends who she had been travelling with continued on with their tour of Europe, leaving her alone with no place to stay. She tried to contact the U.S. Embassy, but they were not open unless it was an emergency -- and losing your passport apparently does not qualify as an emergency. I felt bad for her mainly because her friends left her on her own in a foreign country, but I am sharing this story to remind any of my frequent readers to not be an idiot, and to keep track of your shit (especially your passport!!!) in a foreign country. It was an unfortunate circumstance, but really it was her own fault for being dumb.

Anyway, I have digressed. Anna and I returned to Legends Hostel and hit up the grocery store again to buy some cheap wine, fruit, and cheese for dinner. If you haven't picked up on this already, wine gained its own section in the food pyramid (which no longer exists, FYI) during this trip because it was so cheap and so delicious, and really if you drank enough you totally forgot that you didn't eat. And plus, everyone drinks at every hour of the day in Europe. I spent four years in college and I may or may not have participated in 7am beer funnels, shotgunning, jello shots, etc... at tailgates or on major holidays, but I was a little caught off guard to see responsible adults casually enjoying a bottle of wine at 10 am. So naturally, when I say we drank a ton of wine, it wasn't because it was crazy vacation party time, but rather we were just adapting to the local scene. Either way, I liked it, and this is something I might personally try to incorporate into my personal American lifestyle.

At this point, we met a couple of American college students from California, who had been studying abroad and were heading back to the US when we left for Barcelona. They were so nice, and it was fun to meet people from our own country. We joked about surviving the rapture that night, and headed to a nearby restaurant where we drank even more wine. The night didn't really go anywhere after that, but we did pass by an apartment that was blasting "Baby One More Time". Being slightly under the influence at this point, I yelled up to the apartment to ask about the party. A man came to the window dressed in leather and wearing a leash, and of course he invited us up to join. Unfortunately, attending a Britney Spears S&M party ranks pretty low on my list of life goals, so we decided to pass and head back to the hostel.

Over the next few days, we went to Montparnasse Tower to overlook the city, and drink some champagne. On our last day we went to Notre Dame, which was an incredibly humbling experience, and ranks as one of the most fantastic buildings I've ever seen. The church was extraordinary, and I highly recommend that anyone who visits Paris check it out. And then to completely change gears, we also visited the Moulin Rouge, which I think we both agreed was a bit of a waste. Shockingly, the red light district of Paris was pretty grimy.

Obviously, I have many more funny and interesting stories about our time in Paris, but I have already told so much that I think it's time to move on. After an hour long bus ride to another Paris airport, we were off to Barcelona. We arrived there around 2pm, and were fortunate to have an apartment to stay because my brother's friend, Mirja, lives in the city. My brother received his MBA in Barcelona, so not only did he have friends to give us a place to stay, but he also gave us some recommendations on what to do there. After mastering another city's metro system we arrived at Mirja's, which was infinitely better than the Paris hostel. It's probably also worth noting that my Spanish and Anna's Italian are at least somewhat conversational, so the language wasn't as much of a problem in Spain or in Italy. Technically, the official language of Barcelona is Catalan, but people do speak Spanish as well.

After spending some time with Mirja, we headed out into the city and experienced what was arguably my favorite part of the trip -- tapas and sangria. I have been trying not to discuss the food too much in this post because I plan to do a special edition food post about eating gluten free in Europe, but I loved tapas and sangria so much that I just couldn't resist. Tapas are served just about everywhere for the entire day in Barcelona, and they are small plates of food. Most of the food is relatively plain according to American standards, meaning it is seafood, vegetables and cheese. Very few items are breaded or fried, or doused in sauce. It was amazing. And well, sangria is sangria -- what's not to love? We then walked over to La Rambla, which is essentially a walking street dedicated to stores, markets, and street vendors. In Paris, both Anna and I decided to buy street art from every city we went to. I instantly saw a painting I loved while walking La Rambla, but decided to wait to purchase the next day. We continued on to the beach and to walk along the pier. One of the most amazing parts about Barcelona is the accessibility to the beach. But considering we did go to the beach, I'll touch on this later. At this point, we headed back to Mirja's since it was late, and although we were tired, we planned to spend our first night out on the town.

Mirja had recommended to us a few clubs along the ocean, and told us about Barcelona night life. No one goes out earlier than midnight, and the party goes on all night. So Anna and I went back to the apartment, got ready to go out, and metroed to the club, arriving just after 12. We went to Carpe Diem Lounge Club (CDLC), and after much searching, finally came across it. The clubs were all below ground, so when we walked up and saw essentially a shoe box, we were a little surprised. But after going downstairs, we saw that CDLC was huge, and really cool inside. The joke of the night quickly became our age. Besides one group of Amsterdam 40-somethings on a business trip, we were clearly among the oldest people in the club. Anna joked about it being full of 14-year-old models, and that it was the Gossip Girl of Barcelona -- but in all seriousness, both seemed pretty true. To be fair though, it was a Tuesday night and I assume that most people with jobs don't party until sunrise on a Tuesday.

I'm not sure what time we got back to the apartment, but I know we did pretty well for a couple of old Americans even though we could not outlast the Amsterdam group. The next morning, we went to the beach. Mirja's apartment was about a 10 minute walk to the beach, which was an amazing way to recover from the previous night. The beach was everything I dreamed a European beach to be, meaning that it was filled with men in speedos and topless women. My bathing suit might as well have been a snowsuit compared to everyone else. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful way to start the day in Barcelona.

Mirja had recommended to us earlier that we take the hop-on/hop-off bus through Barcelona in order to see all of the sights. This was a great idea, and we did have the opportunity to make the most of our time there. We saw La Sagrada Familia, the notoriously under-construction church designed by Gaudi, but did not go in because of time constraints. We took the bus to Park Guell, an amazing park overlooking Barcelona and also designed by Gaudi. It's really difficult to describe Park Guell, and I realize this more and more as I try to explain why it's so cool. Throughout the park are semi-buildings, staircases, ramps, and architectural structures
designed by Gaudi. I learned on the bus tour (!) that early in Gaudi's life, he showed signs of mathematical genius, so his work is incredibly sound mathematically in addition to being phenomenal works of art and architecture. Gaudi's art is famous for mosaic imprints, and Christian symbolism. His work is everywhere in Barcelona. But anyway, at the top of Park Guell, you can see the entire city of Barcelona and it is absolutely amazing. While heading back to our bus, we stopped at some shops and bought a few things. Anna and I spent more money in two days in Barcelona than we did during our four days in Paris. After seeing more of the city on the bus, we returned to La Rambla, bought our paintings, and what else, had sangria and tapas.

We had to be up at 4am for our flight to Rome the next morning, and after debating whether it was worth it to go out to a club and stay up all night or to go to bed at a reasonable hour, we opted to go to bed. However, this was not before opening a bottle of wine with Mirja on her patio and watching the sun set in Barcelona. Not too bad.

Wow, I know this post is really long. To me, it's only a brief recap, but I appreciate everyone who is still reading at this point. But I'm halfway through the trip! If you need to take an intermission -- use the restroom, get a drink -- now's the time to do it.

The second half of our trip was spent traveling through Italy, and our first stop in the country was Rome. We had a 7am flight into Rome, and hopped on a "mini-bus" to take us straight to our hostel. Anna and I were a bit sleep deprived and bordering on delirious, so we were more than entertained by our interesting driver, a large boisterous Italian man whose cell phone ringtone was the techno version of "Heaven."

After arriving at our hostel, we took the metro into the city and had an awesome lunch (with wine, of course). We walked around and saw the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, and a lot of other really, really, really old things. After a long day of traveling and walking around, we were pretty tired and decided to spend the night with a bottle of wine in our hostel. When we got back, we had yet another Brazilian roommate with whom we talked for hours. He had never been to America before so he asked us a lot of questions about the U.S. And when we told him we had been college roommates, he had tons of questions about how similar college is compared to its portrayal in movies and on TV. We told him a few stories from our 120 days, and he told us about living in Brazil. I think Anna would agree with me that he was by far our favorite roommate during the trip. Unfortunately, he was leaving the next day to head to Barcelona, so we didn't have the chance to go out with him in Rome. We were staying in a room that occupied four people, so we continuously had new roommates come in and out.

The next day we went to the Colosseum, and per my brother's recommendation, took the tour. It actually worked out well because an English-speaking tour was starting right as we walked up, and we got to skip the queue. It also included a tour of the archaeological ruins that were essentially across the street. The Colosseum was pretty amazing, and although I really could only picture Russel Crowe fighting there, apparently movies are full of lies and the men who really fought there are approximately my height. What a disappointment.

The thing about Rome is that obviously it's an incredibly old city with a ton of history, but it is a bit overwhelming. There is so much to see and do, and just about everywhere you look there are historical monuments. Also, it was a little dirty, and the metro really freaked me out. I interned in New York City and would take the subway during rush hour -- and I was still overwhelmed by the Rome metro. Not to mention it looked like it would break down at any second.

The next day we headed to Vatican City. Anna and I bought tickets online, so again we were able to skip the queue. (This whole skipping the queue thing sounds great, but it really did turn out to be a bad thing in the end because when we got to the airport and returned to the U.S. we felt entitled to cut the line. Any time we had to wait in line we immediately became cranky.) We had some time to kill before our 1pm entrance to the Vatican, so we went to the nearby Castle Sant'Angelo once owned by the Emperor Hadrian. It was a pretty minor tourist attraction, but definitely worth seeing if you're in the area. Being that I'm from New England, it reminded me of the Breakers in Newport, RI because all the artwork was impeccably detailed on the walls, and the ceilings were plated in gold, and I want to say the inspiration for the Breakers was derived from ancient Roman and Grecian architecture. Anyway, the castle is still in remarkable shape, and we quickly jumped to planning Anna's wedding since her grandma will pay if she marries an Italian man in Italy. Finding this man will be our goal for the next trip.

After a few hours at the castle, we headed over to the Vatican. I was a bit surprised because I
had always picture the Vatican to be one enormous church. But then it again, it is called Vatican City for a reason. Our first stop was St. Peter's Basilica, and maybe I'm one for the shock and awe qualities, but I have to say St. Peter's was definitely my favorite part of Vatican City. It's impossible to describe the beauty of this church. It was truly unbelievable, and undoubtedly one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen. Everything was made from marble and gold. (Fun fact: the marble from the Colosseum was used to build Vatican City. Learned that on my tour.) If there's any lessons I took away from this trip it is that early Catholics did not joke around when it came to building their churches -- go big or go home.

We left St. Peter's and went over to the Vatican Museum, and the Sistine Chapel. Again, everything in the museum walking toward the Chapel entrance was covered in gold, and was hand painted with such incredible detail. When we reached the Sistine Chapel, I have to admit I was almost a little disappointed. Don't get me wrong, the painting throughout the Chapel was absolutely phenomenal, but I had become accustomed to seeing so much gold and so many bright shiny religious items (bling, for lack of better term) that I was caught slightly off guard. Furthermore, I totally missed Michelangelo's famous painting -- major fail. Oh well, I guess that's what Google is for.

After spending the day at the Vatican, it was time to regroup and get ready for Saturday night. We were spending the weekend in Rome, so our only logical thought was that we needed to go out. The day before, Anna and I had been approached several times about a bar crawl through Rome for 20 euros. It included a one hour open bar, entrance to a club with no cover and the ability to skip the line, drink specials, and a free T-shirt. We decided on this, and went to the Spanish Steps that night. While we sat and waited to start, we had to ward off some creepy Italian men (who honestly must have been children since they didn't look a day over 18) and made friends with some really fun girls from Canada. Anna joked that I was the one who made all of our friends on the trip -- and this is probably true, now that I think about it -- so I struck up a conversation with them, and fortunately they were also going on the bar crawl.

To make a long story short, the open bar had to be split into two hours. Anna and I did not want to sit and pay for drinks while waiting for our open bar to begin, so we left for the time being and grabbed a bottle of wine while our Canadian friends went to dinner. Our pub crawl guide, Luka from South Africa, invited us to join him on the Spanish Steps for some drinks before heading back to the bar. As soon as we got back to the Spanish Steps, there was a wedding occurring at the bottom of the steps. It was entirely random, but very cool, nonetheless. We chatted with Luka for a little bit, who was incredibly nice. We both sensed his disappointment when we told him our ages, and the fact that we're both pretty well-educated and have jobs, a far stretch from the usual teenage study abroad tourist that Luka usually invites to drink with him on the Spanish Steps. We returned to the bar, marveling the entire way back about how our glasses of wine and open bottle would have gotten us arrested by now in the U.S. Anna and I earned our 20 euros worth at the open bar, and sat with our new Canadian friends. I was so grateful they were there, because the only other people on this bar crawl were study abroad students. It was nice to meet other people who were also semi-responsible adults, as we like to think of ourselves.

Well our bar crawl was not by any sense of the definition a bar crawl. Trust me, I went on a few pretty exceptional bar crawls in college, and even some post-college. Two bars does not equal a bar crawl. We ended up at this club where drinks cost 15 euros (that's a little over $20 if you're wondering) and a Lady Gaga look-alike came on-stage and did not perform Lady Gaga! She was also flanked by two men dressed an angels, dancing around her. This was certainly a bar experience I had never had before. Considering we didn't want to waste all of our money on drinks in Rome, Anna and I headed back to the hostel after hanging out for a bit. We bought some late night snacks from the vending machine and quickly passed out.

Our last day in Rome was relatively uneventful, which was fine because we had an early train to Florence the next morning. After an hour and a half delay, confusion over our seats that were double-booked, and many language barriers, we were in Florence and ready for a bottle of wine to aid us in forgetting our horrible travel experience that morning. Within our first hour in Florence, we saw Sammi and JWoww walk by our restaurant filming season 4 of the Jersey Shore. But there will be more on this later. The rest of our day consisted of a few drinks, lots of food, and just enjoying Florence. I really like Florence a lot, and it was Anna's favorite city. It was pretty relaxed, especially compared to the craziness of Rome.

Our first full day in Florence consisted of attempting to see the David (the line was super long, and it was way too expensive) and ultimately choosing lunch over the statue. We then went to the Duomo, which again, was a pretty awesome church. Afterwards, we did some window shopping and just walked around the city. Florence is incredibly small, so it was easy to walk everywhere.

We stopped back at our hostel and met some guys from DC, and from Canada. It's always incredibly weird to meet people from your area while overseas, but on my trip I met two guys from DC and two girls who were from my hometown and went to my high school. Anyway, we talked about how we wanted to go out and how Anna really wanted to see the Jersey Shore cast. Her friends had recommended a bar called Twice, which was about a 5 minute walk from the hostel. Our new DC friends came over for some wine (and in mine and Anna's case some chocolate liqueur -- what were we thinking?) before heading to Twice around midnight.

As soon as we walked in we saw the TV cameras. The Jersey Shore was at the bar.
Of course we had to check out the scene, so we walked back to the dancing area and saw everyone except for Snookie who was apparently in jail. I didn't think it was possible, but they are more disgusting in person than they are on TV. They are also incredibly short, and I thought they would have been good gladiators in ancient Rome. If only. Well I can safely say I didn't actually talk to anyone about getting my GTL on, but I was literally next to them (especially Ronnie) at multiple points throughout the evening. The camera crew even followed the girls into the bathroom when Anna and I were in there, and Anna hit them with the door. Whoops! As we were walking out much later in the evening, a girl was getting down with the Situation and apparently I walked right through the shot. Too much chocolate liqueur -- I didn't even notice. There were also a few girls signing waivers as we left. Your future employers might be impressed that you studied abroad in Florence and became conversational in Italian, but I highly doubt that your one-night-stand with the Situation documented on a popular TV show will help you land a job.

Our last day in Florence was spent nursing our hangovers and engaging in retail therapy. I almost want to say we shopped too much in Florence, but my mother always taught me there is no such thing. The leather is amazing in Florence, and incredibly cheap compared to the U.S. so we took advantage of the opportunity.

The final leg of our trip consisted of an overnight train from Florence, boarding at about 10:30pm to France. We basically slept in a closet with cots with four other people. And by slept I mean dozed on and off while making sure our stuff didn't get stolen. Finally, we arrived in Paris, and after dealing with the nightmare and disorganization of the Paris airport, we were on our flight back to the U.S. After about 36 hours of traveling, I was finally back in DC. As sad as I was to see the trip come to an end, it was great to be back in a country where everyone speaks my language, and it was even better to be able to call my family and catch up with my roommates. I took a long weekend to recover, and then thrust myself back into work and summer school.

Now that the trip is over, I've had some time to reflect on the experience. It truly was a life-changing experience, and I am so incredibly grateful to have shared it with a friend as awesome as Anna. So here is my basic summary of my post-trip feelings, which may be entirely random but it is what it is.

1. City ranking (from favorite to least favorite): Barcelona, Florence, Rome, Paris
2. I really want to be fluent in another language (Spanish) and this is now a new goal that I will actively pursue.
3. Work is entirely overrated, and I really despise how work-centered the U.S. is. In DC, it's always "what do you do?". My job isn't my identity, and this is generally the attitude in Europe. Everything shuts down on Sundays -- it's nice.
4. As much as I dislike Amtrak, it is hands down better than the local train systems in Europe.
5. I still have mixed feelings about the pace of lifestyle in Europe. It's definitely much slower than where I'm from. Sometimes it's good, sometimes it's not.
6. Wine should be a way of life. So should tapas and sangria.
7. It's clear why obesity is such a problem in the U.S. If we ate smaller portions, fresher food, and cut back on fried, greasy crap, we would be so much healthier. (There were very few obese people in Europe; and those who were, were Americans.)
8. I will go back to Europe -- more time in Barcelona, and a trip to Amsterdam are certainly happening in the near future.
9. I'm much more social than I thought I was.
10. Spontaneity is a good thing. I should incorporate this into my life more often.
11. And on that note, continue to enjoy being young and not having any obligations. It's really a great thing.

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