Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tiny Volcanic Paradise

I’ve got to get better at this whole keeping-up-with-my-blog-thing. I feel like every time I write an entry I’m apologizing for the massive gap of time between now and the last time someone reminded me that people actually DO read this and really wonder what in the world (or rather, lately more importantly, where) in the world I’ve been up to. So once again, I apologize for anyone who is anxiously awaiting on the edge of their seats and give you my not very trustworthy promise that I will try my best to be more prompt in my writings.

If one HAS to go back to work after almost a month at home, it might as well be in Hawaii. I was lucky enough to be staying on the island of Kauai, which landed as #1 favorite when asking random people or telling friends I was going to Hawaii. Extremely picturesque, even the airport, giving you everything you’ve ever dreamed Hawaii to be in one island, small enough to be driven in half a day. Landing in Hawaii kind of felt like I was flying into the island of Lost (which made me miss the series and also remember how confused I was during the last episode. I guess that happens when you join a show halfway through its lifetime). There below the wings of the plane I could see the beautiful dark volcanic mountains in the middle surrounded by a green you only see at the first of Spring, with the coconut trees waving in the breeze. The sun was shining; the flowers were vibrant (however not fragrant and only in half bloom). And at the luggage rail everyone was greeted by a jolly fat man with a tiny ukulele playing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow…” Okay, I made that up, but really there wasn’t much missing from what I had pictured Hawaii to be.

My first two days were going to be spent camping on the Beach with my friend, and co-worker who had spent the previous summer on this island. I was excited to get back to some rough and tough outdoorsy type stuff after my successful Float/Camping trip where I not only got the tent set up and slept on the ground, but I also managed to get the tent back into its original bag…to me that spells success. :) Liz picked me up, since she arrived earlier in the morning, in a Jeep with the T-top off allowing the sun to shine down. A little Jack Johnson and we were on our way to meet her friend from the previous summer who generously offered to take not one, but TWO very well prepared (read high-maintenance and over-packed) girls out for a couple nights of beach camping. Bless his heart.

It took a little longer than expected to get our things arranged into one vehicle and get moving. So our beach barbeque dinner because grab and go Asian, which was just fine after a 12 hour travel day and crappy airline food. We drove along the West coast all the way to the northern tip of Kauai. We got to the beach and drove down until we found a perfect spot and set up camp in the sand. Lawn chairs, wine, veggies and rice, a camp fire and the waves you could only hear because they were hidden by the dark that come when there are no building lights, no street lamps, no cars. My best memory from Hawaii will be this night. Our camp didn’t include a tent, just a blanket to lay on and one to cover up with. You didn’t need a pillow; all you had to do was wiggle your head back and forth until the sand was built up under the blanket just right. The stars were so brilliant that it reminded me of being back home in Dawn on the front porch looking out with Daddy’s orange telescope. But my absolute favorite, the thing that I swear cannot be replicated or recorded, was the sound of the waves slowly and consistently crashing into the sand. I haven’t slept that well in a long time.

The next morning we awoke before the sunrise. The ocean was grey but just as beautiful as the sounds had led me to believe it would be. I went for a run as the sun was rising through a valley of two mountains not far away. I ran past a Polynesian woman who was meditating, and if I had had my camera I could’ve taken the most beautiful picture of her. That gorgeous sunlight was shining directly down on her like she was some sort of Hawaiian Goddess in all her meditative peacefulness. I returned from my run (which once again, running in the sand proved to be frustratingly difficult, not a fan) to Troy grilling up some breakfast. He even grilled eggs…without a pan. Just stuck the egg, shell and all, on the grill and cooked it like a vegetable or something. It proved to be quite delicious actually with the outside of the egg cooked and the inside still a little runny. We lazed around for quite some time and eventually decided to move out before it got too hot. We went to Troy’s house to switch cars and Liz and I set off on our, just so we could have some jeep time. We drove down the West Coast and back around to the East Coast where we were going to meet Troy to do a hike through the mountains and then campout for a second evening. The plans to meet up went a little awry, but the hike was breathtaking (both because of the views and because we were trying to hurry to catch up with Troy and then had to hurry back out before it got too dark to see…who let us wander off into the woods on our own without water or flashlights anyway?). At the turnaround point of our hike was a rocky, wooded (or palm-treed) stream leading down to another gorgeous beach. We were able to catch glimpses of the sunset as we were speed hiking our way out of the jungle-ness. It too, was beautiful. Making it back to the car in time for the rain to start, we headed back towards town to get some food. We ordered pizza since it was the easiest and sat to eat it there in the little shopping center. We still had to set up camp and that night we would most definitely be using a tent, so we headed out together to pick out a spot on another beach.

Setting up a tent is pretty easy once you know what you’re doing and if it’s your own tent. Setting up a tent in the dark, however, is not. After tugging and pulling, twisting and turning, all in the dark and in the sporadic rain, we managed to have a “roof” to sleep under. This night was not so much my favorite. I was dirty from our hike, stinky, sticky, cold, exhausted, and it was pouring down rain. There was a failed attempt at drinks and games and a long sleep until the next morning, when the rain had finally stopped. I showed to the best of my abilities, using mostly the bathroom sink and we had a breakfast out on the beach of prosciutto, brie, and crackers. We went for a walk down the beach and as we walked away a herd of wild chickens attacked the European style breakfast. Lucky for us, we were full. Liz and I spent some time at her favorite beach, then slowly made our way back towards work. Troy had to go back to work, taking some of things so we didn’t have to pack them all day long. We ran ourselves a little short on time and had to hurry to move luggage when we got to Troy’s work. In moving grocery sacks from the back of the jeep to the front, a condensated, full wine bottle fell through the paper sack and onto the top of my right foot. I dropped the bag as I doubled over which caused beer cans to crack open and spray all over me and the car. I have not felt pain like that since I cracked my left foot on the walnut. I was seriously hurt. Trying not to cry or scream curse words caused me to hold my breath for a good 2 minutes. I wanted so badly to bust that wine bottle on the gravel just to get back at it, but couldn’t help but think of the $15 going to waste. I couldn’t believe something I love so much and think about so often, could hurt me so bad. Sounds like a bad relationship, and maybe it was a sign that I should break things off…but we attended some therapy sessions together and I’ve almost completely forgiven it. :)

Off to work we went, but still some time for play. One day I was able to go sea-kayaking. It was an amazing experience! We shoved off in two-man kayaks and rowed together for a good 30 minutes up the West coast of the island. Along the way we saw “spirit dragons” which were holes in the rock formations that water was pushing in and out of so forcefully that it spouted up into the air. I was about 3 feet from giant sea turtles…and they really are giant. I got to see tiny spinner dolphins too! On our first beach stop we tried a bit of body surfing. I was horrible at, not really grasping the concept of when to catch the wave. BUT one of the instructors allowed me to hold onto his shoulder while he caught one, creating a type of tandem body surfing. The second leg of our journey was 1 ½ hours long…on the rocky, wavy, non-stop motion ocean. About halfway through I started to get a little green around the gills. I couldn’t wait to be on land again. When we finally pulled in at stop #2 I was ready for a little bit of a beach nap. I napped and had a conversation with “Uncle Bobby” who reminded me of a beach version of my friend Bob from the 5-star resort I worked at my sophomore year of college. Uncle Bobby is one of the many people who came to Hawaii on vacation, fell in love with the Hawaiian lifestyle, and never left. The conversation revolved mostly around living your life to the fullest, right now, before you don’t have the life to live. He almost had me convinced I should move to Mexico the following day…but my job is too amazing to give up just quite yet. :) Also at stop #2 I was able to try my hand at Japanese fish-catching. I thought I was doing so well when I would cast and come back up with all 5 hooks on the line full of squirmy little fishes…then they told me we were sitting over a school. Owell, I still felt accomplished! After that we kayaked to our stopping point, just another 15 minutes and I returned ot work exhausted, a little sea-sicky, and sun-burnt. But it was an amazing experience!

The next big thing didn’t happen until the participants left and we had time to go take surfing lessons! It was something I was wanting to do for myself as a birthday treat, so I was excited when we were cut a bit of a deal thanks to our contacts at the hotel! We got there and took some land lessons on how to pop up…I felt like that movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” when each pop-up is either too much effort or not enough effort. Getting out in the actual water was awesome and kind of scary, paddling is a lot harder than it looks! We met our teachers out in the water and they would hold our soft long-boards until it was just the right time to catch the wave, then they’d give us a little shove and we’d pop up and hopefully ride the wave in. I caught a few and only had one ridiculous dismount! I got hit by a crazy surfer who couldn’t stop his hard long-board; he landed on my good food, thus leaving me completely bum at this point. This was another amazing experience, although I will say I’m a little disappointed I wasn’t better at it than I was. I suppose I excepted to get out there and catch on and be perfect. Silly me, we all know the motto for life, “ Practice, Practice, Practice!” Ugh…I hated that saying all through high school!

When it was time to leave I was okay with it. I was over being in paradise. I liked Hawaii, but for me it was lacking that magical feeling that a lot of people get from being there. I’m not complaining by any means, I mean, who DOESN’T want to work in paradise? But we can safely say that this chica would get island fever living out there, with $5.00 quarts of milk, in the middle of the ocean. So relax Dad, "Beach Bum" isn't on the radar for future career...well, at least not in Hawaii. :)

Monday, September 12, 2011


Tomorrow is departure day...I'm not sure whether to mark that sentence with a period or an exclaimation mark. Yes, I'm extremely excited to go to Hawaii, then Detroit, then Scotland. But at the same time, I've been home for so long that I've gotten back into my routine. I've gotten used to having my car at my dispense. I've grown accustomed to waking up at 9:00am, making coffee, eating breakfast, checking email...all very, very leisurly. I'm attached to my roommate's dog...this is a big deal for those who know me and know that I'm not reaaaaaally a dog person! We've spent lots of time together, taking walks, playing fetch, being lazy and doing really not much of anything. I can't help that I've fallen for her, she's so cute when she comes up to me while I'm eating breakfast,sets her head in my lap and looks up at me with sleep in her eyes! I'm going to miss her, she keeps me from being lonely and I hate being lonely. I'll miss other things too, other people, other pretty much figures that as soon as I want to be home, they send me out again.

However, with every job comes good things and bad things, even jobs like mine that seem to be the greatest job in the world (and don't get me wrong, I do believe it is the greatest job in the world, I'm just still learning to accept the bad). So tomorrow will mark the start of a whirlwind of craziness; a month and a half with only 4 days to call my own! I'm ready for it, bring it on, because Lord knows I love craziness!

So to re-state, in a more decisive manner..."Tomorrow is departure day!!!!" And now, I have to pack. (Notice, that is a period, NOT an exclaimation point)

Friday, September 2, 2011

It's a Revelation.

Because Italy was "troppo" I decided I had better find some projects to do while I was home for almost a whole month before my next trip. Obviously I found things to work on and completely forgot about re-starting my blog until a friend (Thanks Lindy!) ever so politely reminded me of the suspense I'd left my blog world hanging in. So I'm back...again. Hopefully I can keep up this time. Things are about to get crazy. Soon I will be leaving for Hawaii. I have always wanted to go to Hawaii so I'm pretty stoked about this trip. It also happens to be pretty close to my birthday (the big, and scary, 25) so you had better believe I will use that as excuse to live it up and have a great time while I'm there...I'm thinking surfing lessons, and camping on the beach. After Hawaii will be a short few days at home then off to Detroit, MI, yet another place I've never been before. I'll spend two weeks there before coming home for five days and then...and then...SCOTLAND. Yet another trip I am ridiculously excited about. I love my life, it is amazing as it stands and I can only see it getting better and better!

One of my projects while I'm home is to put the over 1800 photos from my Eurotrip into albums. I started on it tonight and realized something as I was looking back through the time before I left, my very first days in Italy, my house in Roncá, my time at the winery...I started to miss Italy again. My heart hurt for the time at Fattori surrounded by friends and massive amounts of smushed grapes...ah the smell, the smell of fermenting grape juice... It was that feeling, the feeling of loss and longing that I thought I had gotten over because I didn't feel it when I left Italy this last time. Then something clicked... When I first returned from Italy I met up with a coworker who shares my love of all things Italian. She had done a study abroad in Florence and her eyes lit up with passion every time she spoke of it. She asked me how I loved working in Venice, asking for details of all the beautiful things we loved. You could hear expectancy in her voice when she asked a question she thought she knew my answer to, and the confusion when I gave her a half-hearted description of the things I saw and did. I pretty much led to the fact that it was "okay" and "nothing special," as if I'd just gotten back from Monowi, Nebraska and not Venice, Italy. Her next question was, "Did it feel different this time?" I told her yes, and I wasn't sure why. I told her how it was easy for me to leave and how I didn't really understand it, but chalked it up to the fact that I just figured I'd eventually get to go back. Then she asked, "Do you think it's because you were working this time?" I said yes, but I wasn't completely convinced with my answer because I was working last time too. But now, now I get it. Last time, I was working for me. And last time I was completely immersed in the language and culture with no outside outlet when I needed a break. Last time I was doing everything for me, not for money, not for work, not because someone somewhere was telling me that I had to do it or face the consequences. The only consequence I had last time was letting myself down, not following my dreams. Last time I was working for me and my dreams, this time I had been working for someone else because they told me to.

And that's the difference. Everyone wants to follow this dream or that dream, and if you've been lucky enough to realize one of your dreams you know how attached your heart is to that time of your life. That's why I can look at the pictures from my Eurotrip and think about how badly I'd love to go back and how much I want to cry because I miss that time of my life, and also why I can look at the pictures of this past time in Venice and not feel those same feelings. It's a revelation. I don't just miss places or people or things. I miss the feelings and emotions attached with those places, people, and things. I can go back to Italy a thousand times and it will never be the same as that first time...I get it now. BUT that's not to say that I wouldn't love to go back to Italy time and time again, of course. :)

Wednesday, August 10, 2011


Troppo is Italian for "too much." This is how I feel every time I am about to leave Italy. I have eaten too much of the amazing, fresh food...the pizza, the pasta, the gelato. I have drank too much of the wine that flows faster and more easily than water, oh sweet delicious wine. Leaving Italy has never been easy for me, usually becoming a messy scene of tears, something comparable to Anchorman's glass case of emotion, however "troppo" makes home a little more appealing. In Italian, I would say "E proprio che io vado via adesso." Which means, it figures that I'm leaving now. Why do I say that? Because Venice is a city of locals. Everyone knows everyone and once you're part of the family people start to do favors for you like you're their own. My last week in Venice I was offered dinner on the house at one restaurant, famous squid ink risotto, bottles of wine, and my favorite favor of all, the "princess" shuttle treatment. I was going to be a few minutes late getting back to our water shuttle and had I missed this particular shuttle I would've had to stay on the main island of Venice for two hours before the next shuttle came. I told this to my shuttle driver friend (Claudio) and he called over the raido to Luca and asked if they could hold the return shuttle for the "principessa." The best part about this was not the fact that they had no problem holding the shuttle for me, or that he called me princess, it was the ten responses I heard over the radio all of whom knew exactly who Claudio meant by "principessa!" Figures that I would be leaving now. Figures.

My last day in Venice was spent at the rooftop pool, then lunch with a new friend at her Venician home (complete with a garden and pet turtle!), more pool time, then some last minute wine shopping, some packing, and off to bed early. It was a strange feeling to wake up the next morning and be emotionally ready to leave Venice...Italy, my heart's love behind. No tears were shed, no feelings of regret, nothing left on my list of things to do, places to see, and presents to buy. I was okay with leaving it behind. Maybe it's because I know that I have a pretty good chance to come back someday. Maybe it's because working in Italy isn't the same as just living in Italy. Yes, I would miss the beautiful Italian language, and the beautiful Italian people. I would miss the pizza that can only be found in Italy and the 1.60 Euro bottles of delicious prosecco, but at the same time, I knew it wouldn't be the last time I would have the chance to delight in the simple pleasures that are Italy. On the way back through Philly's airport I had to note to my coworker that the last time I was in this airport I was a mess. I confessed about the 3 breakdowns before even getting off the plane, the one breakdown as soon as I got to the airport bathroom, the breakdown on the phone with my sister-in-law as I sat in the mist of hundreds of people hurrying through the terminal. I was a lost sad little girl who's overall plan had NOT gone as it should have. I was supposed to find a job and stay in Europe forever, but instead I was jobless, houseless (however, not homeless), broke (both monetarily and emotionally), and so alone in a world speaking much too loudly in rude English. BUT had things gone as I had planned, I wouldn't have moved to STL to make money, thus finding the job I have now, the job of my dreams! Yes, this time the culture shock wasn't quite as brutal. I managed to keep a genuine smile on my face the entire trip back to the good old midwest thanks to the promising outlook of (as corny as it sounds) my future.

Romeo, Romeo…

So here I am in Venice, Italy. Giudecca, made with of 4 of Venice’s 117 islands, is what I refer to as MY island. This is home, has been home for two weeks, and will be home for one more week before they force me on to the plane kicking and screaming (probably in Italian) like a small child. My Giudeccan home is complete with a window that opens up to the splashing waters of the canal with a great view of the main island of Venice (if you lean out a bit while holding on and look to the left). From atop of my canal I feel like a regular Juliet…with no said Romeo. Of course there are cute Italian men everywhere, complimenting my blue eyes (thanks Mom and Dad!) in their gorgeous Romance language with their drawn out and very stero-typical, but oh so alluring Venetian accent. However, three weeks is hardly enough time to find the love of my life AND convince him to either marry me and keep me here or come back to the States with me. I guess Romeo, will just have to wait. This Juliet, however, can survive on her own. Especially here. It was incredibly easy for me to fall back into the ways of the Italian people. As a matter of fact, I noticed while I was in line at the lost luggage counter at the Venice airport. It was my first time to lose my bag, and all my new clothes I had bought for the two days before work were in said bag that had apparently been left in Philadelphia. After the initial disappoint, I was surprisingly calm. Even after waiting for a half hour just to talk to someone about my lost bag. I had to laugh at the impatient tourists in line with me, who had obviously no idea that not everyone in the world is always in a hurry. The Italians were taking their sweet time chatting it up and loving life (it was also the lunch hour) and the tourists behind me were impatiently checking a watch or pushing me closer and closer to the people in front of me as if it would make someone hurry up. Me, on the other hand, I was in Italy, and I was hearing Italian, and slowly but surely I was being sucked right back into my wonderful dream world that I had left behind only eight months ago.

My first visit to Venice had been under a little different circumstances. In fact I believe the title of the blog post was Venice lost that loving feeling. This time… this time, I see the magic. And maybe this time I’m less cynical and less worried that I’ll never be back, or maybe it’s the fact that it’s summer and sunny instead of winter and rainy, but I finally see why people love it here. I see it mostly in the morning, when the canals are still and it’s just me running down the sidewalk watching the sun come up over the water. I can feel it when I’m on the boat to Burano; all the colorful buildings on the horizon, fresh sea breeze blowing, sun starting to set, and all of a sudden the church bells start to ring from islands on both sides of me….absolutely beautiful. One of those moments that make me stop and say, “There’s no way this is actually happening to me. This can’t be real.” BUT, it is real, and I love it!  

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Well, so much for plans.

I read once that, "Life happens when you're busy making plans." So stinking true. There I was planning to make some money and get the heck out of MO, finally! So much for that. I found a job. A dream job this time. One that makes you take 3 steps back and say, "I'm sorry, are you lying to me, because that's not nice?" It's probably the most ironic thing that could happen to me. My dream job allows me to travel (up to 28/30 days of a month but not always so much, it's an average) and puts me in places all over the world. The best part...someone, else, pays. Yes, that's right. I found my Mr. Money-bags in a company who actually pays ME to travel. Love it. I still can't seriously wrap my head around this. And here comes the irony, to have this job, I have to live in St. Louis, Missouri. No questions, no objections, no (well almost no) exceptions. I sucked it up, said to myself, "Self, if someone else is paying you to travel nearly 349 days a year, is it so bad to be in St. Louie for the other 36? So I took the job and here I am...not in Switzerland, but still loving life, and my job, more than ever! So even though now I may be more of just a traveling chick who drinks a lot of wine, I still feel like writing to tell about my adventures at home and abroad. So here goes with a quick recap of what you've missed...and I'm sorry, you've missed a lot, so you're getting the short version, like it or not!

Monday, January 10, 2011

Culture Shock

I spent most of my 9 hour plane ride from Madrid watching movie after movie, trying not to move and hit the guy next to me. I was surprised at just how small our plane was considering it was an international flight. I was trying to stay awake so that when I got to St. Louis and back to my aunt’s house I would actually want to sleep. Basically, I was trying to trick jet lag. My food on this flight was better than the food they served on the way over. I actually almost everything they gave me, including the little cherry tomato and bocconcini salad that reminded me I had left Italy, possibly forever and that it would be a long time before I had fresh mozzarella again…or pizza…or gelato… The flight was basically laced with thoughts like this. When I arrived to the airport in Philidelphia all I could think was, “Why is everyone so loud? They don’t have to yell.” Really what was happening is that I was understanding everybody again, completely, without having to try or pay attention. Talk about a brain overload. This was culture shock at its worst. The only worse place I could’ve been thrown into straight out the barrel to showcase the over-the-top-ness of the American lifestyle would’ve been a Wal-Mart at Christmas time. I wanted to cry, so I did. Once I got my pack through customs and got back out into the airport I pretty much ran to the bathroom and had a breakdown. I gathered myself and put in my headphones. That way I could at least drain out some of the noise. I decided that after sitting for 9 hours I would like to work out. So I found a fairly empty gate and went to the corner and did not just any workout, but a kickboxing workout. Yep, for anyone going to Las Vegas on the 6:00 flight out of Philly on November 30 who saw some crazy girl air-boxing and sweating up a storm…that was me! My plan was to start speaking Italian if anyone talked to me, forcing them to feel awkward and hopefully to leave me alone. After this I felt a little better, but still kept my head phones on. I walked around and found a nice quiet spot on the floor to call my sister-in-law, leading to yet another breakdown. I have never experienced culture shock quite like this before. And I was feeling so guilty because everyone seemed so happy that was I home, and I just wasn’t happy to be here. I needed to waste time so I found a wine bar and bought my first expensive, marked up to no end, flight of wine. I choose a flight because it had whites from all over the world, including a Spanish and French one. It was tasty and I was calmed down a little, but still pretty much in a dazed and confused state of mind (not because of the alcohol either). I boarded my flight to St. Louis which seemed like nothing compared to the 9hours from Madrid, and the plane was bigger! I made it STL and was on the phone with my dad when I found my Aunt Becky. I’m glad she was the one who gave me my first USA hug. I did feel bad however because I was at her place at the beginning of my funk, so she kind of had to pull information out of me. But at least I could be honest with her, and she understood how I was feeling. We had a great time together regaurdless, and even shared some bottles of Italian wine, one of which was produced in the region where I had worked in Italy. During my first couple of days I got a message from my friend Bob who I picked up twigs with a a resort in Shell Knob, MO:

"Let an old man give you a little tip, YOU now have the 'travel bug' will be with you all the rest of you're life. Even at this early point in you're young life, you have traveled, done, and and seen, more than 90% of the people in America ever will. And, no matter what you tell them, or what pictures you show, ...they don't have a clue. Once you 'start' traveling all over the world, you'll NEVER stop. There are really too many neat things out there to see and do............

Good on ya Rachel, you are not done yet! You really should see Australia and New Zealand - two of my faviorate places. And when you get 3 or 4 Passports, held together with rubber bands, you will know what I'm talking about. Best to ya ........" - Bob

I also had a conversation with my friend Jason, who I met in Tourism classes and has traveled the world, including a trip to Asia that lasted a year:

Rachel: made it home...culture shock, blah...

Jason: I'm really, really sorry to hear you're back home. But welcome =)

Rachel: Thanks, I'm glad that someone understands how I feel!!!

Jason: Yep, I had very mixed feelings after getting back home. After being back a few months now, I'm not mixed at all- I need to get out of here!

It helped to know that other travelers had experienced and felt the way I did. Aunt Becky brought me back to the airport a couple of days later so I could fly to my sister’s and pick of my car. I even cracked a smile when I realized I’d be seeing my sister for the first time in a long time. I was home, and I was beginning to accept that. And best of all, I could FINALLY unpack my backpack.

Since I unpacked my backpack I still haven’t stopped moving. I didn’t even have a plan until just a few days ago, which in real time is about a month and a half after I got back to the US. I’ve been visiting people, working holiday hours, spending holidays with the family, moving family…and finally I have an idea. A sort of idea at least. I will work in order to save money for my next big adventure, planting myself (at least at first) in St. Louis. I hope to be out of the country again by January of 2012. So wish me luck, say a prayer, send some positive thoughts out into the universe, whatever it is you do because I will need all the help I can get.

Until then, Ciao.

After Thoughts from the Plane

I have no job, no money, no plans, no ideas, but I have an experience. I learned A LOT. Other than the obvious, the wine making process, the regions of wine in Italy, Italian language, I learned a lot about myself and other valuable life lessons. (Yes, brace yourself, this is the time of the blog where I write the “moral of the story,” my deepest reflections on life…you get the picture and you knew it was coming.)

- Be spontaneous. You don’t always have to follow a plan. Sometimes when you do just exactly what you want to do, when you want to do it, you end up with the best experience you could’ve ever imagined.

- Know where you are going. Know how to get there, and BE THERE EARLY.

- Pay it forward, always.

- Take a chance and talk to strangers. Chances are they are more interesting than you, and they might give you some insight on how to live your life.

- When in France, claim Italian. When in Italy, claim American. And when in Switzerland, be prepared to speak fluently in whatever language you claim.

- Don’t wait on someone else to take you; go on your own.

- Plan your trip, make your decisions, make your life about YOU.

- Don’t drink heavily the night before you have a flight; Airplane hangovers suck.

- Have faith in yourself, even if others don’t think you are able, trust your own judgement.

- In Italy eat pizza and gelato. Drink Prosecco.

- In France eat cheese, the smellier the better, with crusty bread and tiny pastries. Drink Bordeaux. Oh, and drink your coffee from a bowl.

- In Spain eat fish and avoid desserts.

- Swiss fondue and chocolate were good, but not mind-blowingly good.

- Hungary actually produces some really good wines.

- Friends will always be friends, no matter what the distance.

- Don’t drink and cry, it makes for a nasty scene.

- Don’t regret, just learn.

- Always have your standby person who can see/hear you breakdown but won’t tell anyone else so that you can keep a strong appearance. (Thanks Sis, love you!)

- Family is important, and will always be the reason for coming home.

- Don’t forget God. He watches you and protects and guides you safely home. Without him this trip, this life would not exist.

Madrid: Un Giorno di Merda, Salsa Queen, and the End of Something Beautiful

November 28, 2010, two days before I headed back to the US of A, was a “Day of Shit,” to quote my Italian friends (well technically they would say “Un giorno di merda.”). The day started out fine, I woke up on time, got ready on time, I didn’t have any problems checking out…it’s when the public transportation got involved that everything went horribly wrong. I mentioned before that to get to my hostel I had to take a shuttle from Terminal A to Terminal B, then a special train to the metro, then the metro to my hostel. So obviously, I had to do all this backwards to get back to the airport. And I knew that, but I was mistaken on how frequent the trains and shuttles come around. I thought that the train to the shuttle left every 10 minutes, nope, sure doesn’t. It leaves every 20 minutes. And I happened to arrive at the train right as it was pulling out of the stall. So I had to sit and wait for 20 minutes to catch the next train. I also thought the shuttle ride from Terminal B to Terminal A was only a 10 minute ride…wrong again. It was a 25 minute ride. All of these underestimates combined landed me in the airport about 30 minutes before my plane was supposed to leave. I ran to the lady in the check-in line and asked her if I could still check in. She told me No with a “you’re an idiot” undertone and I immediately began to tear up. I had never missed a plane before. What was I supposed to do now? Luckily the lady at the help desk for my airline was actually nice and helpful. She said she would allow me to change the ticket if I paid the 90euro penalty fee, which was more than the original ticket and the reason I was flying instead of taking a train in the first place. Her earliest flight didn’t leave until 4 but she also said I could try with other airlines to see if there was a sooner flight for less money. No such luck. After checking with every airline flying to Madrid, I ended up back at her counter paying a penalty and realizing I’d just bought 4 hours in the Barcelona airport. I was able to go on through security, so I took my bag over to the check in counter still on the verge of tears because I felt like such an idiot. The check in guy was the one to cheer me up when he said, “Don’t cry. I don’t feel sorry for you. This happens to people a million times a day. You’ll be fine. But if you cry I’ll go crazy.” In his odd @$$hole way he made me feel better. Luckily, the Barcelona airport had a mall-type set-up so I had plenty to keep me busy for a while. I even found a wine and tapa bar tucked away in one non-busy corner where I was able to get a glass of Spanish white wine for only 1.50euro. I spent some time journaling then found a quiet gate and took a nap, making sure to set a very very loud alarm for my boarding time. There was no way I was going to make that mistake again, although my friend Vickie from Switzerland says it’s only a mistake if you didn’t learn anything from it, and well, I definitely learned something from this! Next time I will be at the airport 3 hours before my flight leaves.
When I landed in Madrid it was night time. All I knew is that I was staying in the apartment of a friend of my former coworker’s mom, and that someone named Nidia was going to pick me up because the owner of the apartment was out of town. Nidia had said that she would be wearing a purple sweater, and I said that I would be the one in grey pants with a big back pack, no chance of missing me. However, when I exited metro station I saw no one with a purple sweater. I started to ask anyone with any sort of purple if they were Nidia, and got some pretty funny looks. I wondered around the large metro station, inside and out, for about 45 minutes before I finally found her. They had just been running late, but I was so happy to see her I didn’t care! Nidia brought with her Rebecca who lived in the apartment I was going to be staying in. This was some of the best news I had heard all day. I would have roommates! People to hang out with, someone to tell me where to go and what to see! I quickly and easily convinced Rebecca to go salsa dancing with me that night. No time to lose since I only had two nights in Madrid, and I was going out late the night before my flight, just in case. We went to the apartment and they made me feel right at home. They were all so sweet and kind, and let me have anything I wanted. They even offered Thanksgiving leftovers! I showered and laid down for a quick nap, then got back up and got ready to go to El Son for some serious Salsa. We went pretty early, well early for Spain 11pm, so the club was dead upon arrival, but that didn’t stop Rebecca and me. Rebecca studied dance in school, and she reminded me of my friend Ana from Mexico when she danced. At first we had to coax boys to come to the empty dance floor, but eventually the place was so packed we couldn’t have one song of rest. I LOVED every minute of it. I was able to dance with someone who dipped, twirled, and lifted me to no end, it was so Dirty Dancing Havanna Nights! I also danced with some creepers (one of which offered to pay everything for me to be able to stay in Spain), ran away from creepers, danced with not so good dancers, and actually lead one guy! It was a blast and I seriously couldn’t have dreamed it to be any better of a night than it was. We headed home and discussed the fact that some boys just don’t understand that we’re only in it for the dance.

The next morning I woke up and set out for a run in the big park close the apartment. It was chilly, so chilly in fact that it was starting to snow. But I was still living by the, “better go now because tomorrow you’ll be back in the states,” philosophy, so I went right on trucking. I’m glad I did. I found some of the most beautiful statues and plazas, and I even found some giant lions to take pictures of for my dad! I’m sure the parks would’ve been more beautiful in the spring, but the statues alone were worth the cold run. I got lost (go figure) and had to find my way back through the gigantic park to the apartment. I showered and got ready to go back out to snap pictures of the things I had seen in the park and take a quick tour of the city since I needed to be back to watch the big soccer game between Barcelona and Madrid. While wondering the city I ran upon a market place close to El Sol which was full of places serving up tiny tapas, sweet treats, and glasses of wine. I opted for the booth that was all fish tapas, selecting one that was covered in squid, and some typical Spanish desserts that weren’t very tasty at all. Apparently, I’m not a fan of marzipan. I was having trouble finding a ring shop that was open. Rebecca had warned me that the entire city closes down from noon to 3 or 4pm. I was starting to worry because I had waited until Madrid to buy my ring, hoping to find a Majorca Pearl that Sharon had told me about. I kept seeing beautiful ones in windows, but the places weren’t open. When I did find stores that were open the pearls were too big, the wrong color, or just ugly. I can’t understand why it was so hard to find just a simple small pearl! I finally stumbled upon a small jewelry store that I had to buzz the ringer to get in. Usually this is a sign that everything in the store will cost my entire trip budget, but I was lucky enough to find the perfect pearl, and it fit! Happy with my findings, I took my frozen self back to the apartment to warm up, switch laundry, and leave again to meet Rebecca at El Sol so we could go to watch the soccer game. We weren’t just going to watch the game on any old TV. We went to watch it in a movie theater! It was a great atmosphere, however, Madrid lost…big time. It was like they weren’t even out there. This made most of the crowd in the theater rather quiet and solemn, except for the boy sitting right next to me who was cheering his heart out for Barcelona. I’m happy his team did well. After the game Rebecca and I tried to find a fun place to have my last drink from Europe. We choose badly the first time, but made up for it by going to one of the oldest salsa bars in Madrid. The music was a live Latin band, and it was a great time. My last tastes of cheap, delicious, European wine. All I could think of was how much I was going to have to pay for it once I got home. Rebecca danced a couple of times, but I was exhausted and ready to get back so I could be ready for my plane in the morning.

I woke up early my last day in Spain. There was no way I was going to miss this flight. I can’t imagine what the penalty for changing a $1300 ticket would be. I, once again, rolled up my clothes, put them in their zip-lock baggies that were starting to break, and put everything in my pack just exactly how I knew it would fit. I had it down to a science now. Rebecca escorted me to the metro, showing me exactly which train to take, assuring me that it would get me there in more than enough time. She was right, I made it to my airport filled with so many emotions, not knowing what to expect when I got home, not wanting to leave but wanting to see my family and unpack my bag. I couldn’t believe that 3 ½ months went so fast…didn’t I just get here yesterday? The Madrid airport seems like a blur to me. I feel like I spent time trying to spend my euros…I don’t really remember getting on the plane. No, I wasn’t intoxicated. I was sad, confused, anxious, worried… A chapter, a trip, a journey almost finished. E adesso…y ahora… and now?

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Barcelona: Paella, Sangria, No Sleep, and Italians...

I made it to Barcelona, feeling only half alive. I was lucky that there was a pharmacy in the airport. I conjured up my Spanish and told the lady I had a very bad pain in the head and to please help me. She took pity on me, but it was expensive. Lesson learned. I then had a hard time finding the metro, because you had to take a certain train to the metro and the train was located in the other terminal. There was a shuttle to the other terminal but following the signs that said “shuttle” didn’t lead me to it. When I finally made it to the metro, I ended up missing my stop because the name for the stop on my directions was different from the name of the stop at the actual station. Luckily, there was a nosey person sitting next to me who had read my directions when they were in my hands (really kind of creepy, but had he not done it I might STILL be lost in Barcelona) told me I missed my stop and I needed to get off and go back. So I did, and eventually I made it to Be Mar Hostel. It seems like I always enter my hostels in an exhausted state, must be because I’m always lost trying to find them! I checked in and was happy to find my room to be very safe. I met three of my roommates, all Brazilians on vacation, and tried to speak broken Spanish to them. My Spanish at this point has fallen behind my Italian, and much like when I showed up to Italy I would think I was using Spanish words but actually be using Italian words! I made a grocery store trip, came back and showered then looked through the hostel’s information for ideas on what to do while I was there, deciding to start my day with a Free Walking Tour since the funds were pretty much down to notta. I went to bed early hoping to wake up the next day refreshed and ready to actually see Barcelona.

Day two in Barcelona (Thanksgiving day, but I didn’t even realize it until I saw a restaurant advertising a turkey dinner) started off a lot better than day one. I woke up early enough to enjoy some of the free breakfast, which was basically just some cereal and toast with a side of OJ, then headed out to find the place I would meet the tour guide for my walking tour. Luckily, I know myself well enough to realize I would indeed be lost trying to find this place and had allowed myself plenty of time to find it, but I found it about an hour early. So I walked up and down a very popular street, La Rambla, noticing many signs for “fresh paella” and watching as the many vendors set up their tiny tourist trap booths. I made my way back to the tour and meet our tour guide, Chris from Australia. Joining the tour were two girls from the states who were studying abroad in Scotland, another Aussie on vacation, and a girl from NYC who was apparently in Paris and Switzerland at the same time as me! The tour of the city was amazing, mostly because our tour guide was funny and really knew what he was talking about. He told us stories of massive killings during the Inquisition in one church’s plaza which is now a playground for pre-schoolers. It was amazing to see the bullet marks from these killings still engraved in the walls, and when the children cleared out, the plaza had a very, very eerie feeling about it (pictures 4-6 of Spain). Pictures 7 &8 of the Spain folder is actually a rendition of a Picasso. But the cool thing is, Picasso was ridiculously intoxicated on Absinthe and making fun of another popular artist at the time. He proclaimed he could make something better than this other artist in 1 minute, and he did on the bar’s napkin. They used his “art” to decorate the ugliest building in Barcelona, which ironically is the school of architecture! Throughout the tour I was impressed by the Gothic architecture which I thought I was going to see in Paris, but I finally got my fill of gargoyles here in Barcelona. Picture 16 is the start of a very sad story. This is a shrine to a 13-year old Christian martyr. During the Spanish Inquisition, this young girl would go around the city telling people of Jesus, so the Spanish government set out to make an example of her by stripping her naked and humiliating her (can you imagine being naked in front of a crowd of your neighbors at the awkward age of 13??!!). As the story goes, God sent a snow storm just to the area around the girl, covering up all her nakedness forcing the people to see that God does protect them. Obviously the Spaniards didn’t like this, so they claimed witchcraft, causing people to flip out and begin beating her until she was within minutes of death. In order to cover up what they had done the government put her in a barrel with broken bottles and knifes and rolled her down a hill (which we walked down a little later in the tour). This young girl is now one of the most beloved martyrs of Barcelona. Picture 21 shows a headstone from a Jewish cemetery that was used to rebuild the walls of the city after a battle. The Jews were so discriminated against that they had to walk up to the cemetery and tear down the head stones, then carry them back down to the city to build the wall. Pictures 22 and 23 show the alley way in front of the Pope’s residence during the Black Plague. When people started dying at such a fast rate, the Pope couldn’t make it to all the dead bodies to bless them, so the city began to bring bodies in on carts and unload them in this alley. The Pope would then stick his hand out the window (for fear of catching the Plague) and do a mass blessing on the pile of victims below. Picture 23 actually shows a carving of the Pope’s hand located inside the arch way. Legend has it that if you walk through the arches backwards and make a wish that it will be granted by one of the Plague victims. Yes, I walked through it backwards and made my wish, who am I to turn down a free wish?? Picture 25 is the school of art that Picasso attended, which happens to be right in front of Barcelona’s Red Light District. Picture 26 shows the origins of the famous Spanish Tapas. Bars would hang their meats like this to dry and feared that the drippings would fall into the patron’s beer and wine. So they first just used a plate to protect the drinks but thought it would be more attractive to put something on the plate, thus creating the tradition of tiny bites of food served with drinks! My tour was so great (however, not actually free, the idea is that you tip based off of what you can pay and how you think the tour guide did, I tipped as much as I could because 1. He was good and 2. I’ve worked for tips before!) so I decided to sign up for another event put on by the same company (The Travel Bar). I signed up to learn how to make tapas, paella, and sangria that night. In the meantime I wondered back to the hostel and spent some quality time on the computer making plans for Madrid. The class that night cost me 18euro to attend, but it was so worth the money. There were only three of us in attendance (me, a girl from Canada, and a guy from NYC) so it was very specialized. I didn’t have to look around any tall people’s heads and I could ask as many questions and take as many pictures as I wanted! When we arrived to the Travel Bar we were handed glasses of Sangria then taken to the back room where we learned to make some simple tapas and then Alejandro (from Argentina) showed us the step by step process of making paella. He also gave us a great tip for getting the garlic smell off of your fingers. Run them under water, BUT DO NOT RUB them together. That’s the trick, apparently, I haven’t tried yet. While we waited for the rice to cook in our seafood paella we went back up front to learn how to make sangria. Then they gave us each a liter pitcher and said, “Go for it.” Our liters held a ridiculous amount of alcohol, but it was a nice pair to that steamy hot and oh so flavorful paella when it was done. After stuffing ourselves with the paella, the Canadian girl and I hung around and sipped our sangria. It was fun to hang out in the Travel Bar that night because they had three other events going on, one of which was a Thanksgiving dinner. We met a lot of people, even a whole group that was only there on a port call from their cruise! We went out that night with some of our new friends; we tried several different bars, eventually ending up back at the Travel Bar to pick up our friend, the bartender! We then all went to a very “top secret” place for food where you had to knock just right to get someone to open the garage door and let you in. With all that security you would expect something fantastic…but it was more like a high school cafeteria with alcohol and grilled cheese. After this the Canadian girl and I walked home, arriving in bed at 6:30am.

Day 3 in Barcelona began at 1:00pm. I woke up and got ready to go for a run in a park that the tour guide from the day before said would be beautiful. However, on the way to the park I got sidetracked by the amazing market La Boqueria. This was by far the biggest, most beautiful, colorful, and busy market I had seen in all my travels. I walked around in a stunned gaze for a good hour here, once again comparing banana produce and prices. This market also had some delectable fresh fruit juices, in any flavor you could imagine, just like my host mom in Costa Rica used to make for us! I bought some mango juice then wondered back to a corner to find a really good banana and a cup of tiny coffee from the most genuine looking barista I could find (hey the people in this market are not fools, they know the tourist will pay more, especially if their booth is upfront and is the first one the tourist sees!). There was even a place outside the market that served samples of goods as tapas or bocas for 1 euro, which seemed to be really popular with the locals. And just to prove how “played up” to tourist these stands were, I took a picture of the gelato stand. Remember we’re in Spain, but the gelato looked more decked out than anything I had seen in all of Italy! After breakfast at the market I started off on my run towards the corner of the city I was pretty sure I’d find Parc Cittadella. I eventually found and, and was glad I did. I was able to run around in a wooded area, in and out of plant conservatories, and also get in a good amount of people watching while I was at it. After I ran to the seaside, deciding I would run to the big building that looked like a ship’s sail. I thought it was the coolest looking building ever, until I found out it was a Westin hotel. Blah, beautiful ruined by corporations. However, the view from their sight deck was beautiful and I took the opportunity to stretch out while looking over the ocean. I walked back casually along the beach, in my bare feet…in about 50 degree weather, but hey, I was on the beach! At that moment I remembered just how much I love the ocean, just hearing the waves hit the beach is enough to make all the worries of the world (and the worries of returning to the US broke, homeless, and jobless) fade away. Yes, the ocean is my happy place for sure. My happy thoughts were slightly deterred when I looked up to see an older man, BUTT NAKED (well he had on shoes, I think), walking around the plaza very non-chalantly. I was so confused. I seemed to be the only one reacting to this, it was like he was a figment of my imagination, but why in the world would my imagination go THERE?? Then a cop car came into the plaza, and I was sure that I was about to see this guy get cuffed in all his naked glory. But nope, the cop car drove right on past him…I wondered off quickly, quite confused, trying to shake the image of naked old Spanish man out of my head. I made it back to my hostel and got showered in hopes of finding something to do. I originally thought to go to a bar with my Brazilian roommates and hear Brazilian music, but once the group got together and I realized that this one person I had seen around the hostel who was very annoyingly pushy and obnoxious was going, I started to have second thoughts. The third and final thoughts came when we were all outside the hostel before we left and everyone around me started smoking pot…out in public. I was very confused then figured it must be legal, but still couldn’t shake the feeling that the S.W.A.T team was going to bust them at any minute and I would be thrown in Spanish jail for association never to be released again to my family and friends back home. Then they mentioned going to buy more, and I excused myself back into the hostel and began the search for better friends. I found them pretty easily. As I was talking to the receptionist, asking for suggestions for a good salsa club I could go to, I overheard a group of people talking, in Italian. It was my lucky night! I asked them where they were from (the Veneto, where I had done my internship!) and what they were doing. They invited me to join them for the night starting with tapas. We left and got to know each other. I was happy when they mistook me for a real Italian, then explained to them how I learned to speak and what I had been doing there. They were a part of a group of friends who like to get together and take trips to random places at random times. These four were quite the characters, having jobs ranging from a chef to a computer programmer. So the two Luccas, Marco, Niccola, and I headed to a bar for tapas. I was able to convince them they wanted Cava by telling them it was a lot like the Italian’s Prosecco. It was a big hit. And the tapas, all so delicious. I had never seen so many different combinations, most of which had fish since we were by the ocean, and one had a type of whipped cheese with something sweet and berry- like on top! We ate enough there to be considered dinner but went to another place to have more Cava and oysters on the half shell which is where we took picture 81 and Lucca spilled Cava down my entire back on accident, picture 82 is him cleaning it up. After oysters we went to have dinner at a place known for their meat…I ordered the spring veggies, and paid 13 euro for four sprigs of asparagus…hmmmmmm, not worth it, and yet another lesson learned: don’t order veggies at THE restaurant for meat. I had an apple tart for dessert which failed in comparison to the gelato of Italy or the tiny pastries of France and Switzerland. We also tried a cider, which was not like a yummy apple cider, or even a yummy spiked apple cider, but more like a nastier clove-y version of a really hoppy tasting beer. Not my bag of tea, but it was fun to watch the servers shoot it out of the big oak barrels into the serving mugs. After dinner we went to find another bar, then a dance club, and finally back to our hostel, arriving at home around 5:30am.

Day 4 in Barcelona was originally my limbo day. I was leaving my plan to chance. If I liked Barcelona I would stay four days, but if I hated it, I would move on to Madrid. Well, there was still so much to do, so I decided to stay (had to switch rooms at the hostel, but was luckily able to stay in the same place). I started my morning with a trip to my new favorite breakfast joint, the market, and then continued on north up La Rambla checking out the little booths and the street “performers” who dress up in crazy costumes and wait for people to give them money. Well, it’s a job, I suppose. I can’t imagine telling my dad, “Yes, I got a job. I dress up as a fairy princess every day and wait for tourists to throw money into my dish.” But I heard through the grapevine that these people actually make pretty decent money, if their costumes are good enough. After that spectacle I made my way to the famous Gaudi church, stopping at pretty plazas along the way, and also stopping to take a picture of the outside of the bull-fighting arena zooming in on a wall splattered with red paint by protesters. The protesters got their way; this summer will be the last summer you can see bull fighting in Barcelona! I understand where the animal people are coming from, but can you imagine Spain without bull fighting? To me that seems like Italy without pizza or gondolas. But, that’s not my decision to make. I also saw a Telepizza which was the pizza place I ate at in Nicaragua! When I finally made it to the church I was shocked and disgusted all at the same time. I just kind of stood there with a “huh?” look on my face. All I can really say about Gaudi’s church as a whole is, “Oh my…” and I can’t believe that the Pope has recently blessed it making it an official Catholic Church. I didn’t even go inside, the outside was enough to give me a Willy Wonka on acid feeling; no need to see more. I went away from there to find something more beautiful to look at, a castle! Parc Montjuic was huge, so much so that I didn’t get to see all of the gardens and was afraid I wouldn’t find the castle, but figured if I just kept heading up the hill I would run into it eventually. And I did (after trying to play with the self-timer and some slides I found, it’s too bad it didn’t work because I shot off the end of that slide and right onto my butt, would’ve been a great picture!). The castle itself was pretty run of the mill for a castle, but the views it offered were outstanding. I had spent the last three days walking all over this city, never using the metro, making it seem so small, but from above you could really tell just how big it was. Then from the other side you had an amazing view of the ocean. I hurried back down towards the beach hoping to catch the sunset. I made it there in time but it was too cloudy for a pretty sunset. I sat there anyway, enjoying the sound of the waves then headed back to my hostel for an easy night. I showered and went to the grocery store down the road to buy a bottle of wine. I spent about 30 minutes trying to decide which cheap wine to buy. They were all cheap, and they were all Spanish, and they were all bound to be delicious (we’re talking Riojas for only 3 euro!). I went with a Crianza for 1.69 euro. It was dark ruby read and has smells of black cherry, prunes, oak, smoke, and hints of fig. On the lips it left a bright berry taste followed by a mid-palate of spics and a taste in the back that started out warm with a spicy chocolate then finished long and full with a coffee and smooth chocolate taste. Wow, I was REALLY impressed with my almost 2euro wine! I took my wine to the common room at the hostel and spent the evening talking with other travelers. I was lucky enough to hear my Yugoslavian friend play this weird looking instrument (pic 144), and it was some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard. He said back at home he performs to make money. I went to bed fairly early, knowing I had to be up early to catch my flight to Madrid. lacked that "loving feeling..."

Arriving to Venice on the train brought a bit a panic. I was watching out the window as the land flashed by when all of a sudden it was as if the train itself had turned into a boat and was now skidding across the water. Excitement was building as we pulled up to the mainland; I’d been waiting and dreaming of meeting this city since I was 13. I would finally see the canals, the gondolas, the romance of this unique city! The train pulled into the station and the people peeled themselves from the packed train onto the platform (I had spent the last 30 minutes sitting on the very front edge of a tiny seat with my pack behind me and my knees awkwardly placed between legs of the guy sitting across from me. We exchanged the “I’m sorry this is awkward,” look and I tried not to move for fear of kneeing something important :-S ). It wasn’t hard to find the water taxi I needed to cross the wide canal to get to Rialto, I just followed the masses. Going down the canal on the water taxi wasn’t romantic or exciting since I couldn’t see out the window, but it was cold and crowded. The first sight as we unloaded the taxi was the famous Rialto bridge. I’m sure you know this bridge, even if you don’t think you do. It’s probably one of the most photographed bridges in the world. The bridge and the buildings surrounding it were beautiful, exactly what I expected only… there was no magic. No spark, no “this is my bright and shining moment, all roads have been leading me here” feeling. After all this time, all the waiting and expectation, Venice…wasn’t my city. Luckily the let-down didn’t spoil the fact that it was a beautiful city, and I was still happy to finally be there. I wasn’t sure what time my room for the night would be ready so I decided to carry my pack (ridiculously heavy pack) with me to the Rialto market, which is most famous for it’s fresh fish portion. I had fun looking around all the fruit and veggie stands, listening to vendors try to sell to unsuspecting tourists, checking for the best prices on the best looking bananas for breakfast the next morning. The fish market was beautiful. All the fresh fish, and I knew they were fresh because on my walk over I saw people on boats in the canal unloading it onto palates and palate runners going back and forth from the canal to the market booths. I even saw one lively one jump from the table onto the ground. The market itself was lively with deliveries not only coming up from the canals but butchers and bakers coming with wagons of goods (and dead pigs) from their store fronts to set up their market stalls. I walked around and long as I could trying to waste time while not getting too far away from where my Bed and Breakfast was supposed to be. I took pictures and people-watched until I finally decided I could no longer take the extra 50-60lbs on my back. I bought what I had determined was the best looking bananas for a non-tourist price then headed off in the opposite direction to find my B&B. I wasn’t expecting much out of the B&B since it was only about 35 euro for the night, and I really wasn’t expecting that it would be inside of an apartment building that you had to buzz into, down three side streets only to be recognized by the Chinese fast food restaurant sign, like something you’d expect to see in the crowded streets of NYC. Alessandra, the inn keeper at Santa Sophia Bed and Breakfast let me leave my bag with her in the office and offered to put it in my room for me when it was ready. So I gladly left the pack with her and headed back out to undoubtedly get lost in the canal streets. I had only this one day so there was no time to waste. I head straight to San Marco’s Square…well at least I tried. The streets of Venice are truly charming and have a lot of character in their old bricks but they sure are hard to navigate. If you’re taking Venice by foot there are only certain spots that can get you across the canals, and these spots can be hard to find if you get one or two streets off your route. The city of Venice does try to help out it’s tourist by painting yellow arrows pointing you in the direction of the main attractions on the walls of main intersections, but a lot of the times the intersections would break off into three streets in one direction and two in the other, making it a tricky game of eenie meenie minne mo to figure out WHICH street to the right will lead me to the square? And to make the game even more fun, at times the painted directional words weren’t even yellow and mostly faded, leading one to ponder on whether or not a group of ornery teenagers had gotten bored one Saturday afternoon. My approach to finding San Marco’s square was just to follow the masses, and it worked. I made it there to find the whole thing underwater. At first it was just the far end and the main part of the square under water, but by the time I left the square there were store fronts that could not be accessed unless the patrons had goulashes (which were conveniently being sold at just about every corner). I don’t think I would like to own a store on that square; it would be expensive rent and over half the time you lose about 60% of your customers to high water conditions. Luckily Venice is used to the high water situation and is prepared with boardwalks around the square to allow you to access the Basilica. The boardwalks did force people to walk in two single file lines which made it interesting when someone wanted to stop to take a picture, I’m pretty sure one impatient tourist was about to push another trigger happy tourist off into the water if he didn’t move along a little faster. The inside of the Basilica was beautiful with the classiest gold-laden ceilings I have ever seen. Inside of the Basilica brought me face to face with another “small world” situation. An older man held the door open for me and I said “Grazie,” he replied to me, “You’re welcome, I’m sorry I’m not Italian.” I said “It’s okay because neither am I.” So then he asked me where I was from, and since he was an old man with his grandkids I figured it was okay to tell the truth. I told him Missouri and his eyes lit up. He was from New Jersey but had gone to school at…are you ready for this one?....MIZZOU! Everybody sing with me now, “Iiit’s a small world aaaafter all…” Bizzare. After the Basilica I wondered around the stores trying to find my ring for Italy. I looked at store after store of Murano glass products hoping to find a ring that wasn’t big and gaudy…didn’t happen. I did however find a store that was packed with beautiful, and petite, rings made in Italy in all colors of the rainbow. The old man who owned the store was more than happy to help me find one that was perfect, in fact, he helped me find two that were prefect and when I couldn’t decide on one he gave me a huge discount if I bought both of them, so I figured it was justified to buy two rings for Italy since I had stayed there the longest out of my trip, and really it had felt like home to me. I put on both rings as soon as I left and never could decide which one I like better. When I was searching for rings I also passed and umptine amount of Venetian mask stores. Which I knew that there was such as thing as Venetian masks, and I had always been fascinated by the old masquerade balls but had never put two and two together until now. These masks (the real ones, not the ones sold in the souvenir stands) were individual pieces of art. Each mask was hand cut and formed and then the details were put on by hand. Along with these masks the storefronts would display beautifully ornate gowns that were used for their Carnival celebration in February, which is much like our Mardi Gras. I decided to head towards my next destination, the Arsenal, where there supposed to be large lion statues that I wanted to take pictures of for my dad. I made my way to the coast and began walking, stopping at beautiful Pontes along the way to take pictures. I eventually made it to the Arsenal but the “large” lions were drastically exaggerated. They were tiny, and honestly not really worth the walk over there. I still took my pictures but turned around and headed back shortly after. On the way back I had to stop to get something to make me warm, I was freezing to death from the blowing wind that had a mist of either ocean water or rain. I stopped in a grocery store to buy a tiny bottle of my favorite Venetian drink, Prosecco, and my favorite Italian treat, Chupa Chup. The Prosecco worked to warm up my inside a little but just made my hands even colder. So I decided if I wasn’t going to beat the cold, then I should just give in and join it by enjoying my absolutely favorite Italian indulgence, gelato. I found a gelato shop off the main path and stopped in with only the intentions of sampling but was won over when I was served gelato right off the gelato-making machine. The crème caramel was the flavor of choice for my last real Italian gelato. I licked on my delicious creaminess on my way back to the room. I had spend the entire morning and most of the afternoon walking around and now I was tired. I rested for a bit and refreshed my outfit, putting on something a bit nicer for my planned fish dinner, then asked Alessandra for recommendations on good places to eat. She described to me a place that had great prices and was popular with locals but that was pretty hard to find, so I set out on a search to locate it so I would know where it was when it came time for dinner. I followed her directions, but still got lost several times. I was thrown off by a walkway that was covered and under construction but eventually realized it’s where I was supposed to go. The walkway lead me to a sketchy looking part of Venice and had the restaurant not been a few left turns later, I would’ve turned around. In the end of it all, the “good” prices did not translate to my budget and I decided I’d have to settle for something else. Plus the place looked…dirty. I found my way back to a nicer part of town then tried to head for Campo Santa Maria where I had read in my tourist book that you could watch the sunset from a top of a church there. I, obviously, got lost and met the sunset on the coastline, I hurried ahead to the church but couldn’t figure out how to get up to the top, so I hurried back to the coastline and enjoyed the sunset from a Ponte (bridge). After sunset it was the hour of the spritz, and since this was my official last night in Italy, I was obliged to partake. :) However, in route to a place with good atmosphere and tasty spritz I passed a man who seemed to be lost asking an Italian woman something in English. I decided to play good Samaritan and stop to help translate. I asked if I could help and the Italian woman looked molto felice (very happy) to be relieved of the lost stranger she couldn’t understand. The man, Scott, was looking for a hotel, just any hotel. So we walked a little ways then stopped a priest and I asked in Italian where the closest hotel was. He lead us to a nice boutique hotel just around the corner. At this point my plan was still to drop off Scott then head off to have a spritz and dinner on my own, but when I told Scott of my plans and that I wanted a fish dinner but wasn’t sure if it would be in my budget, he offered to buy me dinner as a thank you for helping. How could I say no? So I waited in the lobby with the receptionist while Scott freshened up. I got another dinner suggestion from the receptionist and some suggestions on where to find a good spritz as well. When Scott was ready we headed towards an area that was really populated with bars and restaurants and found a place to have a spritz. This was exciting for me because Scott had no idea what it was, so I was getting to introduce one of my favorite things of Italy to a newcomer! Scott loved the spritz, so much so actually that we had to try them at 4 different bars then compare to decide who had the best one. We spent our spritz time chatting about our lives. Scott is a Canadian living in San Diego and right now is traveling the world, on no budget and no time limit, allowing himself time to write his screenplay. He had great stories about all the people he had met and connections he had made. He wouldn’t tell me anything about his movie, very hush hush, but gave me his card so I would know when it came out that it was his. At the last bar we asked for another suggestion for dinner. I asked in Italian (because they are more likely to give you a real, better, suggestion if you speak their language) for the best non-touristy fish restaurant. He gave us a name and we wondered off into the streets of Venice in hopes of finding it with directions to the effect of “At Ponte A don’t follow the road but go straight, there will be a piazza at the end of a side road, the restaurant will be in the corner, tell Franco that you spoke with Alessandro at Bernies and they’ll let you in.” So amazingly enough, we managed to find the place with the help of a few locals, but it wasn’t open. Defeated and knowing the other suggested restaurants were too far away we went back to a Trattoria that was full to the brim, assuming it was be delicious if it was that busy. We were lucky enough to get right in but we were in the corner smushed to the wall. The food was worth it though. We shared a bottle of Prosecco and a seafood appetizer plate. For our main course we had clams and pasta noodles with a sauce that was made from the ink of squids! It was completely a purply black color. For dessert we shared a tiramisu, which was honestly sub-par (once again Nonna’s in Springfield beats out the classic Italian…must’ve been those amazing pastry chefs at Nonna’s! ;-) ). After dinner we made our way back towards the Rialto bridge area so I could be close to my B&B then stopped at one last place for the last drink of the night. We happened upon one of those places that you can write on the wall, so I was lucky enough to leave my signature in Venice forever. Well, at least until they paint the walls, and that’s good enough for me. Scott walked me back to my B&B and we parted ways. Who knows if he went home or went back out, but I was done for the night.

The next morning I drug myself out of bed at 7am to shower and get ready to make a long walk to Piazza Roma in order to catch my bus to the airport then to take the plane from Italy to Barcelona, Spain. I was having a rough time finding Piazza Roma. I had to stop several times to ask people, couldn’t find the little yellow arrows, and when I finally found the area I only had 10 minutes to get to the bus before it left. When someone told me that the bus station was on the other end of the long stretch and across the canal, I started to jog-walk, running at this point was out of the question…my pack seemed particularly heavy and my head was pounding (let’s call a goat a goat here people, I was huuungover). I made it to the ticket station 5 minutes before my schedule said the bus left, but when I got to the office there was no one there! How could no one be there 5 minutes before the bus leaves? So I started to freak out because according to my schedule the next bus didn’t leave for another hour and with travel time I would miss my flight. When the person finally showed up right as the bus was supposed to be leaving I asked him if I could still buy a ticket for the bus leaving now. He informed me that there was no bus that left on the hour. I showed him my schedule and my heart sank a little when he told me it was old. He handed me a new schedule and I calmed down a little seeing that the next bus left in just 15 minutes. So I would still make my flight. I bought my ticket then wasted some time buying some candy and waiting by right by the bus so there was no way it could leave without me. At the airport the line for checking into our flight was ridiculously long. Of course on a day that I felt like that it figures the line would be so long. It got even worse on the airplane. I have never been so uncomfortable or sick feeling in my life as when I was hungover on that plane ride. Learn from my mistake, DO NOT put yourself in that situation because all you really want at that point is someone to push you out of the plane. Feeling horrible did keep my mind off the fact that this might be the last time I see my beloved Italy. I’ve never seen a more lovely sight than Venice from the air.