Thursday, May 31, 2007

A Typical, But Not So Typical Memorial Weekend

Memorial Day weekend has always meant two things for me... lots of friends and camping...

When planning this trip there were several things that I knew it would interfere with back home that I would unfortunately have to miss out on... Seth's graduation (and initiation as a true Bellarmine Knight I suppose)... m
y kindergarten friend Amy's 21st birthday... the Kentucky High School State Track meet (the first one I have missed in ten years)... and of course, a fun-filled Memorial Day weekend.

Memorial weekend has always meant two things for me... friends and camping. While I was disappointed to be missing out on this year's festivities, I had to smile to myself when we arrived at our Venice hostel, only to see that it was indeed a "camping" hostel. Now, Dani and I were not actually in a tent, but we shared a TINY two bed shack (put straw around it and it would have looked just like a little African hut!) in a camping area just outside of Venice surrounded by tons of other campers...some in tents, some in campers, some in cabins. The camp area was also quite nice, having a pool, a bar, pub, restaurant and supermarket.

We actually arrived at the hostel with two other girls whom we had met on our train from Florence. We just so happened to be seated next to them and began talking about our travels and then realized we would all be staying at the same place in Venice. Allison was 19 and would begin a summer program in Rome the following week but came early to do a little traveling. Stephanie was 20 and had been in London several months studying and was using a long weekend to do some traveling. Friends right off the bat was a great thing!

Dani and I were pretty hungry when we did arrive at the hostel...having been surviving on food scraps most of the day, except for splitting half a sandwich given to us by the older couple also sitting with us on the train (who shared lots of travel advice based on their experiences.) The sandwich--simply tomato and cheese--had hit the spot and inspired us though. We hit up the supermarket and Stephanie went in on the purchasing with us so that we could fix sandwiches for dinner.

Now, unlike a true camper I had no pocket knife on me. (I was so disappointed... I have always kept it in my wallet, but it must have fallen out in my purse at home...) but the lack of a knife did not stop us and we McGyvered our way through the situation...Stephanie's Kinko's card had never been put to better use--it was a perfectly good cutting utensil! And the sandwiches were amazing

So, after having already made two friends to spend the weekend with, we still had two to come--but these two were expected: Steph and Kate! (For those who do not know, Steph is Michelle--Nic's fiance--younger sister and Kate is her good friend who has just finished a semester in Florence and the two of them have been doing a very similar traveling adventure to mine and Dani's. It was quite exciting when we realized that we would all be traveling at the same time, so Dani and I matched part of our travel schedule to coincide with their's.)

I have to say, it was so nice to suddenly have a group of friends. Experiencing Venice together was great and then to spend our evenings packing into one of our little huts and chatting for hours was almost as good. Dani and I love each other to death, but having a few new faces around was great and swapping travel stories and hopes was enjoyable as well.

So it may not have been in the Valley like normal and perhaps there was no fire or hot dogs (no frog gigging or mudding or pond swimming), but once again Memorial weekend did include camping and friends and I was glad of that.

Ah, yes...and what would Memorial Day be without the rain while camping?? I suppose I should say lucky for us, every day would begin beautifully--sunshine and blue skies. But every day we were there around 4 p.m. or 5 p.m. the clouds would roll in, the wind would pick up, the temperature would drop and the rain would fall.

I guess I should have started by saying Memorial Day weekend has always meant THREE things...and I indeed found all three this year as well: camping, friends and rain.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Under the Tuscan Sun

While uploading pictures in Brussels I just so happened to catch several friends online. Not having talked to most of them through my entire trip, Nic asked me what the best thing had been so far. I really did not have an answer for him, as so much had been incredible and hard to compare. I now have an answer though.
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Our last full day before leaving Castleflorentino we decided to take the train to Siena rather than Florence, as it is about the same distance. I will be honest... upon first arriving I was not sure why our roommate had told us it would be so great. It seemed like just another Tuscan town and I did not know what we could possible do all day. The city actually lies more on the hillsides than Florence or Castleflorentino which seem to rest in the valleys. So it was quite an uphill hike just to get into the city.

One of my favorite parts about just wandering through a city, rather than searching out particular destinations, is that when you do come upon something beautiful, unique or amazing you sort of feel like it is your own personal discovery. This day our discovery was quite a treasure in my book.

As we crossed over a bridge we found ourselves facing a huge brick-colored stone wall. It stood at least 50 feet high or more. Next to it we saw what seemed to be a park so we wandered on in. As we strolled through this park area we realized that this giant wall stretched on and on and even wrapped around. It began to look more like the wall of a fortress than anything else. When we looked up to see people walking above we knew we had to find a way up top.
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We found a doorway into the wall that turned out to be a wine-tasting place. They told us they were closed so we explained that we were simply trying to find a way to the top of the wall, so they kindly took us through their cellar to the staircase. Unbelievabley, they entire top was a park in itself. We set foot into the sunshine and were knocked back with the sweetest and strongest scent I have ever smelled in my life. The funny part was, there was not a flower in sight! Confused, we wandered a little further and through a stoned archway. The other side was draped in tiny yellowish colored flowers''you could almost see no wall at all! It was magnificent!
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Wandering on through the fortress top park, we found ourselves at the edge of the highest point. After over looking the entire city and the facing hill and those that stretched on for miles for a couple of minutes, I was so happy when Dani read my mind and said she would be satisfied getting food and spending all day up top. I completely agreed. While I am sure we could have found other nifty places and buildings in Siena, there was something so perfect about this view we had found and I knew spending the day there would be perfect.

So we did just that. We went back down to grab sandwiches and then spent the next two hours sitting on the edge of the wall. (Good thing my Mom was not there or there is no way she would have let me sit on the edge of a 75 foot wall.) It was almost like being in a meditation state. The sun was warm but the breeze felt incredible and there was no humidity at all. The land stretched on for miles...this was the Itlay I had pictured in my head and had wanted more than anything to see.

I let my ipod play through some Enya and George Winston just to keep my mind at ease and it is crazy how deep into thought I was able to go for such an extended period of time while Dani wrote in her journal. It was hard not to think of my life in general and the countless blessings I am surrounded by. I had seen numerous beggers on the streets only the day before, and while I am pinching my own pennies on this trip and could not give up money to one after another, I always said a small prayer as I passed them. I again thought of their life compared to mine and the things I have been able to do while I am not even 22 years old yet. I looked at the beauty of the land in front of me and was grateful for being able to be so appreciate of it. I thought of the countless friends I have back home and especially of my special family that anyone should consider a blessing to be acquainted with, let alone be a part of. Everything was so perfect it nearly brought tears to my eyes.
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It could not have been planned better as I sat in the train that evening and as it pulled away my favorite Lord of the Rings piece, "The Breaking of the Fellowship," was the first song ot come on. The orange sun was was setting in a pink sky hidden partially by purple clouds. It was day twelve and my adventure was halfway over and I had spent the most beautiful day under the Tuscan sun.

Auntie Joanie... you will love it.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Blogger is Back!!

!!!! I hope everyone has not given up on me and my blog postings! It turns out that we arrived in Venice to find that our hostel had the cheapest internet offer in the area which was still 2 euros for FIFTEEN minutes!! (basically $3) It just wasn't worth it (or in my budget) to get on for long enough to post a blog or do anything for that matter! I have so much to share and catch up on though--including our last day in Florence (which was actually spent in Siena) as well as our whole trip to Venice! We are now in Rome, which is sure to bring some great adventures! Hopefully I will have you up to date soon!! Thanks so much to everyone for reading!!!!

Friday, May 25, 2007

The Italian Festival

What perfect timing to find ourselves in Castleflorentino! Thursday began their "Canti & Banchi" Festival--which, we are still unsure of exactly what that is. (Perhaps a Tuscan version of the Apple Festival??)

As worn out as we were after our long day in Florence, Dani and I forced ourselves out of the hostel on Thursday night in order to go find out exactly what this festival consisted of. We assume it was the opening festivities as there was a parade taking place. It was led by drummers, which we could hear from the other side of town, and followed by many dressed in Renaissance attire--what can I say? I felt somewhat at home except for the lack of pirates amide the crowd.
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We had missed the front of the parade when we got into town, and hoping to see it and develop more of an idea of what the parade/festival was all about we followed the crowd to where we thought the drummers would be coming soon. We hiked it up an incredibly steep hill and all I could think to myself was, "I hate to imagine what Coach Washington would do if he ever got a hold of this place!" At the top the street somewhat widened in front of a church where a street in the opposite direction came at somewhat a "V" angle. We stood on some steps and waited for the parade to arrive and when it did they actually stopped this time. These flag men did a short performace while yelling out a chant we did not understand at all. In the center were what we are guessing were the "witches" which they tied up. It was kind of confusing and strange...but interesting at the same time.

The following night, Friday (our last night in Castleflorentino) we were pretty worn out, but wanted to get a second taste of the festival anyway, so we drug ourselves from the hostel. (You should have seen the obvious stares we received as we walked around town with our plastic cups of Chianti wearing our sweat it not a sin that they do not wear them in public? That honestly saddens me!!)
Anyway, it was quite worth coming out--stares aside! I felt almost like one with the community, aside from the fact I did not know what the celebration was about or anything that was being said. There seemed to be something fun and entertaining on nearly every corner, though, and ten times more people than I thought could be in the small town were filling the streets. Our main mission in coming out was to find the Pinochio show--because it was the one thing on the brochure that we understood! It turned out to be this older man (who was the spitting image of Gipetto (spelling??) himself) told the story of Pinochio. While I did not know his Italian version, it was still fun to watch him become so animated and seeing all of the children watching with great interest.

On other corners we found guy was having a great time with his wash board but our favorite had to be the trio that was similar to a barbar shop quartet... The three guys sang the most upbeat songs while nearly dancing as they played their fiddles and such...It topped it off when the short man in powder blue tux began playing his kazoo.
Wandering through the streets we also slipped past a lot of the food being served. I am still pretty disappointed that I did not stop and take a picture when we suddenly found ourselves staring in the face of a giant roasted pig--and when I say face, that is exactly what I mean!!

On another note... we have learned that Italian boys are quite the opposite of the Brits we came across--much more forward! Dani had a fellow follow her down the Florence street, hiking his bag with him while asking her question after question. Even after giving one word responses in a rather cold tone, he still decided that he "loved" her and was shocked when she did not feel the same way. In the mean time, back in Castleflorentino at the festival, Dani warned me to steer clear of making eye contact in a particular direction as I had a caught the eye of some fellow on a bench, so, of course, I did just as she has recommended. This, however, did not stop the guy. It was not long after that that I found the young Italian speaking words I could not understand in front of me. I simply smiled, shrugged and gave him the typical, "Sorry, I don't understand," back...when he realized I spoke English he simply smiled, muttered something else in Italian, then PINCHED MY CHEEK before walking away. Dani and I got quite a laugh out of it... We,re still not sure what to make of these guys. I suppose we should just take the advise of all of our guy friends from home and stay away from the Italian boys.
Florence was a great time, but having a chance to be a part of the small town festival made being 45 minutes from the main city completely worth it. That's not something you can usually sign up for in the tours.

Florence in a Day

Once again Dani and I hit the streets of an unfamiliar town without any direction or clue as to where we might end up. We returned that night with filthy, aching feet but I have to say the day was a success in the end.

"Firenze" was packed with sights and excitement. Unlike Brussels the streets tended to be crowded and loud. Lucky for us we don't always follow the typical tourist routes and end up finding ourselves on more abandoned streets. Perhaps having a set agenda to see specifics would be good on some level, but approaching everything in our style keeps you from getting so wrapped up in making sure you are on the right street, heading in the right direction and making good time. Instead we can just wander and really take in the new environment, smell the smells, see the people.

Some particular favorite finds for the day were as follows:

The view of the other side of Florence by looking out over the river was fantastic, just as I had's just the sight you would expect and want to see and I am glad our sense of direction worked well enough to lead us to the water.

Florence is full of museums and art, but we the only one we actually found oursevles inside was found on a small street that any normal tourist would probably not even set food down. It was very small and held what I believe the woman referred to as "stint" art. (Her English was very clear, it was just a word new to my vocabulary, so this may be incorrect.) The artwork is very similar to mosaic tiling, but the stones are not cut into geometric shapes and are instead put together to form what looks just like a painting if done well. There were some works that she said took thirteen months and held over 6,000 pieces of stone! Several large rocks sat in the front entrance...the thought of snagging one did cross my mind, as I knew my dad would love to use one in his stone work on the house, but I decided against it in the end.

There are several open stone quad areas in Florence and one we walked into was surrounded by several large, important looking buildings. I noticed that one had an open door, and unlike many open doors we have seen here, this one did not seem to have a rope cutting off your entrance unless you had paid admission. On the chance that perhaps we could walk inside, we went closer and indeed it was a large cathedral open to the public.

It is chancing upon places like this that make wandering without direction worthwhile. There was not an inch of the interior that was not a work of art, whether it be the sculpture work, the statues, domes covered in murals, the fantastic candles and lanterns--I was standing inside a work of art and all I could do was take a seat and try to take it all in. We found the place over halfway through our day, which was perfect time. Hot and exhausted, nothing felt better than to find a place of peace within a beautiful church. (Having found two-liter water bottles for only 2 euro was a pretty good feeling as well, I will admit.)

We enjoyed some pizza and a beer (Moretti) at a small corner stop before heading back to Castleflorentino for the night. Bustling and busy and perhaps considered a "small" city, Florence was full of treasures even on the most surprising corners. Some people told us you could easily do it in a day...I believe there was plenty more to see!
---There are new pictures on Webshots from Florence and Siena, but these computers do not have editing programs so I was not able to do any cropping and lighting adjustments, so they are not up to par YET! Once home I will fix them!--

A Small Town Girl At Heart

After an interesting night's sleep on the couchettes of a train (tucked in a tiny room that Dani and I shared with three Italian men and a French woman) we made a train switch in Milan in the wee hours of Wednesday morning only to finally find ourselves in Florence around 10 a.m. We stepped out of the train station and I immediately tucked my Bellarmine hoodie away--I won't be wearing it again for awhile (which is nice since you would think it is the only thing I have worn since I have been here if you were judging from my pictures.) It was so nice to feel the hot sun again.

Florence was much more of a bustling city than Brussels had been. While Dani and I were very anxious to take on the Italian city, we were also extremely exhausted from so much travel as well as still toting our loaded bags with us. After realizing that attempting to wander the streets with our luggage was not going to work we went to the bus station to get a ticket to the small Tuscan town where our hostel was located: Castleflorentino. While we did have to wait quite awhile for our bus and later found out that the train tickets were actually cheaper, I still hold some level of gratitude for the bus ride we took to Castleflorentino.

While I did somewhat feel like I was back on Bobby Selch's school bus from my eleme ntary school days due to the incredible amount of snaking through the hills we did, the view was nothing like that from the old school bus. We seemed to just climb up on hill, wind back down, only to snake up another. But upon every one of them the view of Tuscany was amazing. From the tops you could see the green rolling hills dotted with cream colored houses that peeked through the trees. Small villages of similar houses covered the foothills and valleys. This is the Italy I imagined and seeing it all gave me such a sense of relaxation that I needed more than I realized.

Castleflorentino was indeed a small quiet town and it rests idealy between Florence, Siena and Pisa. After spending a full day traveling and then finding ourselves in the mess of tourists and craziness in Florence, I felt so relieved to be in this small Tuscan town where the green hills were in such close view. I felt even better when Dani said she felt the same way. I couldn't help but think to myself beforehand that this was a sure sign that I am a small town girl at heart, making me someone worried that Dani would find it a pain to be a 45 minute train ride away from the city we had originally planned to stay in. (She's an Atlanta/Indianapolis girl...Quite a bit different from little old Liberty, Kentucky.) Somehow though, without any knowledge of what we were really doing when we booked the hostel, we had definitely chosen the right place for us both.

I love the cities and their magnificent buildings and streets, but nothing puts me at ease like a small town found in the quiet foothills of rolling green knobs.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Journey to Italy

Talk about a travel day!

Dani and I did not sleep in too late on Tuesday because we wanted time to drop in at the Comic Book Museum (if only to see the Smurfs!) It was quite interesting, but unfortunate that the majority of the comics were not English (of course.) As said though, the Smurfs made me happy and immediately take me back to childhood...what funny little guys!

So, our trip to Florence was going to be a complex one, we knew this. We had to get a train to Paris and then from there get to Florence, and we had to be able to catch a train out of Paris that night meaning we had to be in Paris early enough to catch one. According to our Eurail book it was over twelve hours by train to Florence from Paris so if we had to wait for the next morning it would most likely mess up our hostel reservations. (We are actually staying in Tuscany which is a little outside of Florence.)

We had to wait two hours for our train to Paris to arrive and set foot in Paris right after 4:30. We immediately went to a ticket office--also aware of the possibility that we would have to catch a train at a different station. Fortunately we were able to get a ticket to Florence, but it WAS from another station and now, rather than going straight to Florence, we would take a train that would arrive in Milan at 5:45 a.m. and we would then catch a train for Florence at 7 a.m. Yes, lots of craziness--I told you travel could be overwhelming!

It was around 5 p.m. and our train did not leave until 8:30 but we had to figure out how to get to the proper station, so I suppose it was a good thing that we had so much time. Well, I have to say that Dani and I have gotten quite good at figuring out the underground/metro systems in cities. I find it quite interesting how useful nonverbal communication becomes over here--especially through drawings and symbols. When we finally figured out which trams to take and where to switch over in order to come up at the Bercy train station, another friend man drew us a picture of the street to show us which way to go to find the station. Friendly people make me so happy!

Well, the Bercy station was tiny but full of people. It was going to be a 2 1/2 hour wait, which would have been incredibly boring had we not made another new friend. Sadly, we got to talking to this guy so much that suddenly when the train arrived and we stood up to board, he was gone before we even got his name! He was from China and studying in Milan, but spoke English very well. It was one of the most interesting conversations I have ever had simply due to the insight we received on the perspective of someone from the other side of the world. We spoke a lot about languages. He was surprised that we would be going to Italy with no knowledge of the Italian language, but we explained that we did know some Spanish, which is similar. "Spanish??" he said with a puzzled look. "Why Spanish?" It was so strange to both Dani and I that someone would ever find this odd. Of course we would know some Spanish. Who in America today does not know some Spanish. We explained that it is the second language in America and how most people learn at least some and it has become a school requirement and is useful in attaining a lot of jobs. He still was very surprised as we also explained the large amount of latino immigration and influence. To me this stuff is such common knowledge, so it was so strange to realize that for other people it would be unusual to learn some if any Spanish every in their lifetime.

Dani and I also got a good laugh when talking about food with this man. He was carrying with him two large bags of Chinese food to take back to Milan with him, as he said he missed it a great deal. He asked us what food we missed the most and of course we told him Mexican. So then he said something about enjoying Mexican as well. "What is that chain? It's with Pizza Hut? I like that." Dani and I both began laughing. Taco Bell??, can you even really call that Mexican food? Not that I don't love my TB, (it is nowhere to be found here and that is such a tragedy late at night.) but it is most definitely nothing like authentic Mexican food and for someone to think that is quite sad! He has no idea what he is missing out on.

This led to talking of fast food and would you believe how much people over here love KFC?? In fact, the do not have much KFC in Italy, but it must be huge in China. He told us that he had actually missed his train earlier that morning to Milan because he had seen a KFC at the last minute and wanted some so bad that he rushed to get some, thinking he had time and ended up watching his train pull away without him!

There was one thing that we were able to relate to with this guy as we sat in the crowded train station. He brought up American TV shows that he enjoyed. While Prison Break and Desperate Housewives are not shows Dani nor I ever watch, the last one he asked us about made us both laugh.
"What about Friends?"
Haha...I always knew that no matter what type of situation you were in or where you were, somehow life could relate to Friends, and people would understand!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Brussels: Only For The Adventerous

picture 067I'm glad that Dani and I are adventurers or this stop on the trip may have been a bust. It seems that 90% of of our fellow hostel stayers have said there is nothing to do here or they spend part of the day out and then come back here to sleep or do laundry or get on a computer. Given, Dani and I did not rush out of the hostel yesterday morning (did our blogging duties and drank some good coffee and so forth first), but we left for seven straight hours and stayed entertained the entire time.

The museums are closed on Mondays so that was off the list, but we started by heading back to the market/tourist area around Grand Place (the huge quad I mentioned yesterday.) We had to find Brussels' famous "Mannekin Pis" which is a 2 1/2 to 3 foot statue/fountain of a naked little boy peeing. I was actually expecting it to be larger, but hangs from a wall and he pees into a fountain. Apparantly there is some story to go with it about this boy getting lost and when his father finally found him he was peeing. (Why a statue for this? Who knows...I don't understand anything here.) But I'm pretty sure the whole thing has only been an inspiration to the people of Brussels. We were out last night and at two different times we passed guys peeing in the corners of buildings on the streets. Yuck!

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We wandered from the statue back to the area where we had enjoyed our sandwhiches the night before and purchased another (being so cheap and all) and this time capped off our meal with a chocolate covered waffle. I'm not sure what the logic in that was having already discovered how incredibly sweet the waffles are and at this point we had already been handed several free samples of warm chocolate truffles in the streets--which are lined with one chocolate shop after another. I seriously think you could make yourself sick from wandering the streets and trying a free sample from every person that offered you something. So, as said, I suppose we really weren't thinking when we ordered a waffle with chocolate; we were just lucky to have been splitting it because eating the entire thing by oneself is sure to get anybody sick! The chocolate was poured on so thick to the point we had to scrape half of it off to the side--and believe me, I am a lover of chocolate! Even then we could barely eat the thing due to its richness. Incredible.
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We left the market area and continued our journeying through the city. The whole place seems to be on giant hill because we managed to climb up very high without even realizing we had done so (I guess we have been at Bellarmine for too long.) We found ourselves at the Grand Palace (unfortunately it had construction work being done on it and it was not so pretty), but what was worthwhile was the long open ledge beside the palace. It was lined with a stone wall/fence and from here you could see nearly the entire city. This is when we realized how far we had walked that day and how far up we had traveled. The only thing keeping us from seeing all of Brussels, I'm sure, was the fog that seems to just rest in the city.

Having been on foot all day so far we sort of took a break just to take in the view, which was a fortunate decision as a fellow traveler came by asking me something about his camera. At first I thought he wanted me to move so he could get a better picture, then I thought he wanted me to take a picture for him. Then I finally realized he wanted to take a picture of me sitting on the ledge with the view of the city behind me. Of course I said sure and realizing afterwards that he actually spoke very clear English, Dani and I ended up talking to the man for about fifteen minutes. He was from India but had accompanied a friend to a conference in Germany and while his friend was at the conference he was spending time traveling. His name was Chris (said Krish) and he told us his thoughts on the Italian cities we would soon be visiting. It is so fascinating to me to get these opportunities to meet completely new people from that come from completely different worlds. In the entire time span of your life, you may only spend a very small portion with this individual but you still get a small peak at a world and life you could never have known.
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That night we also spent time with two travelers from our hostel. Joe was from New York and traveling around and Marco was from Argentina and only spoke so much English, but enough to have a good time with us. It was a Monday night, of course, so the town was pretty dead, but it was nice that we had found fellow English speaking friends to spend time with and get to know, because if Dani and I had gone out alone it most definitely would have been difficult to meet anyone knew--not knowing who would be speaking which language!

Two days in Brussels was just about perfect, and now we look forward to over a week in Italy--as long as we make it! It will be a long journey!

---Thanks to all of you who have been reading my blog!! I enjoy your comments and so forth! It gives me more inspiration to write knowing there are people enjoying it!---

Monday, May 21, 2007

Waffles Save The Day!

While I thought Brussels was going to be a disappointment due to the slow start, my opinion quickly changed after a stroll around the town yesterday evening.

Now, the reason I say "town," when indeed this is no small place, is the simple, quiet atmosphere I feel here. Given it was a Sunday, but the place was so quiet!! I think the streets of down town liberty are louder on any given day! It's a huge place but the streets were not busy at all and everywhere you went you only heard low voices--if that--and the hum of cars. I absolutely love that about it! If the streets were packed with people all rushign about and jabbering on in languages I did not understand, I think I would continue to feel overwhelmed, out of place and lost. Instead, I can take my time strolling the streets, unsure of which way I'm going or how I'll get back, and I dont' feel intimidated.
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If you make it to the right area the streets turn all to brick and stone and the buildings come closer together. One stretch was restuarant after restuarant with outside seating, colorful canopies draping over top, their menus on huge boards out front with men trying to lure you in with deals like, "First drink is free--you can try anything you want!" Sorry, but I don't think one free drink will make up for the price of getting the meal to go along with it!

picture 031Next, I finally found a church I could explore the interior! The Cathedrale Sts. Miguel de Gutege seemed to be the tallest I have seen yet--but this may have been an illusion created by the hill it rests upon. The hill is not incredibly steep (By the way, much of the city seems to be on a hill) but as you approach the cathedral and are forced to tilt your head back incredibly far in order to see the top, you get a feeling that you are going to topple ver backwards! The inside was indeed massive with one branched out area after another all filled with beautiful architecture and colorful stained glass windows, huge sculptures and an organ of unbelieveable size! It was even being played as we explored the place adding to the special feeling of it all.

Knowing we still had a full day of exploring ahead of us (and also learning that museums are closed on Mondays--scrathing that off our list of options) we decided we would head on in for the evening. We figured it would be good to catch up on sleep, plus it had been sprinking on and off. However, we happened upon a market area full of food joints. You have no idea how excited I was to see the prices! I ended up paying 2.50 euros (about $3) for what reminded me of a Jimmy John's sanwhich due to the kind of bread it was on. After nearly two straight days of crackers, a sandwich has never tasted so good! I got Hawaiian chicken salad--which had cocktail sauce in the dressing and pineapple as well. We've already scouted out some other decently priced eateries so I'm relieved about that.

picture 038Of course, though, we had to finish up with a waffle. Okay, so America has butchered the Belium Waffle. Honestly, I can't usually tell the difference from one and a normal waffle back home, except I always notice the Belgium ones to be puffier. This one was incredible and after eating it I was sure that Brussels was not a mistake. Dani actually bought it yesterday and added strawberries and creme to it, so imagine strawberry shortcake--times ten! The waffle itself was so sugary and sweet. I just don't understand why they do not try to replicate these more authentically back home! If the waffles turned out this amazing, I can't imagine what the chocolate will be like!

picture 046So we were finally ready to head back as we passed a tiny ally and just so happened to notice a beautiful clock tower on the other side of the gap. Since we had yet to see what this was, we thought we'd make a quick detour to check it out--being right there an all. So we walked through and out of the ally and talk about being knocked on your butt. It opened into a giant brick quad probably the size of an indoor track or larger. Every side was lined with a different magnificent building of grand size. They were all very unique, covered in large towers, sculptures, arched windows and everythign imaginable. I began snapping photos and even used the video options on my camera but it did not take me long to realize that it did not matter what how I attempted to capture the splendor of this site, there was no way to do so.

A rough start, but between the open cathedral, quiet streets, grand buildings and delightful waffles, Brussels is going to be all right.

The Unfortunate Arrival

After a little over two hours of sleep it was time to be headed for Brussels. While I did sleep some on the eurostar from London, I did not want to sleep the entire time as watching the landscape and scenery from the train is one of my favorite things to do while traveling.

Now, I have to admit...When we first got here, it was very overwhelming and that feeling of, "Great, now what?" finally hit. It is a strange feeling to know that you are completely on your own and there is NO ONE you can turn to and ask questions or do the next step for you. So when you don't even know what the next step really is, and you are in a place where you have to search for the English version of everything--hoping there even is one--you get a little shakey. I think Dani and I had a similar feeling when arriving at the Brussels train station, because rather than immediately going anywhere or doing anything we found an internet cafe and spent a good deal of time there.

Eventually we knew we had to leave the train station and find our hostel though. Fortunately, our confirmation sheet from the reservations--which we had printed out--had very descriptive directions for reaching the hostel. UNFORTUNATELY, it was all English and all the signs and descriptions around us were in a mix of French and Dutch--so we did not even know which language to use if we wanted to! We would ask people questions but half of the time their answers made no sense or ended up being wrong! I think we rolled our luguage in circles for a good thirty minutes trying to figure out the difference in the tram and metro, where they ran, where we were supposed to go and get off, where to get tickets, which tickets to buy--aah! Lucky for us, we figured it our correctly the first time--I must say, however, I do not like the trams here--the tube was much more spacious.

While we found our hostel without a problem, our troubles were not over. Turns out we had to pay in cash--but of course we weren't carrying 80 euros just on us! The hostel worker directed us to a bank that had ATMs (mind you it was Sunday so of course they weren't open.) Well, for whatever reason it would not let us take money out--every machine said the transaction was interrupted. We found another bank and continued to have the same problem. None of her cards were--none of mine! Great. How in the world were we going to get in the hostel now?? Where would we sleep!? You see, the worst part about these situations is, sure, we could call up someone back home--a parent--and explain the crisis, but what is anyone going to do back in the states but say, "Oh no, that's no good..."

Turns out there was a secret door we only noticed when a man came walking out! I saw him from behind me and thought, "Hmm, I thought the bank was closed--where did he come from?" I went to the door and saw a card swiper and tried my debit card--DING!--The light turned green! Inside there were about six or eight different types of machines. The first ones gave us the same rejection as the others but FINALLY one asked for my pin number and the transaction was a success!! I had hard cash in my hand!! THANK GOODNESS!!

At least the hostel has paid off. There are a lot of Americans and it's great to hear some English. The workers are very patient and accomodating. The rooms are clean--we share one with 14 other travelers--and they provided bedding (including a nice big comforter!) There is free internet (no USB connections though, so I'm going to have to figure out how I will get pictures on here.) Oh and even better--free coffee in the mornings!! It's an entire coffee/espresso/cappucino machine!! I've been missing that!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

London Night Life

img_5920Dani and I couldn't stay out late in London due to having to catch our train to Brussels at 8:30 a.m., but we did not want to completely miss out on the night scene, so we stuck around just enough to get a taste of Picadilly square, Leichester and Covington Gardens.

One of the main reasons we wanted to do this was because Dani has decided to write one of her papers on pubs throughout Europe--particularly because of the fact she worked at the pub, actually named "The Pub," on Fourth Street--and wants to see how authentic it actually is. We started at a place called Oneil's. Bars in England tend to get crowded quickly due to the fact they like to build upward rather than outward. They all extend back quite far but are never too wide and after you put a bar in the middle, it gets quite tricky to squeeze by people.
We found some locals who gave us their two cents on the pub and other pubs around the area. They recommended a local pub to visit, Porter's, but we were unable to find it once we left Oneil's. (We realized we did find it after the event, but at the time we did not realize it was actually a pub.) So instead we stopped in place called Walkabout, which we'd also seen in Brighton. While it was a pub, it was a much more energetic scene with live music and lots of dancing and singing along. I must say that I loved the choice of songs being played by the band that included U2, Oasis, "Breakfast at Tiffany's"...and even "Walk this Way." (Imagine that in an English accent and go ahead and laugh to yourself...we sure did.)

While Dani was going over the drink options--trying to find something cheap due to the dollar to pound transfer rate already eating away at our wallets--a friendly fellow leaned over and told her to throw the price list away and handed us each a Victoria Bitter and went on his way. The drink turned out to be all right. Nice flavor without any hanging aftertaste.
Walkabout Bar
Unfortunately just as we were starting to get into and feel comfortable with London night life, our curfew was coming and we had a bus to catch back to Oxford. I suppose the pub crawl will just have to continue in Brussels.

Loving London--And Neverland!

What a crazy long day in London!! KK decided to join Dani and I for our adventures around the city, which was quite nice. I felt like some poor street child most of the day though as my feet got more and more sore and my body became exhausted. We packed peanut butter crackers and granola bars to hold us through the day in order to avoid the costly dollar to pound transfer rate. But I'd walk past restaurants with their aroma pouring into the streets and I would just look inside and I saw the prices. All I could think about was Oliver. ("Please sir, Can I have some more?") I was very grateful for KK and her willingness to share snacks that saved me quite a bit of money.
We visited all around the city:

The British Museum: We only spent a short period of time here. Obviously a person easily spend a day but I didn't want to miss everything else. It just reminds me of what an endless wealth of history is out there about our world. It's hard to even consider actually.
St. Paul's Cathedral: Huge and beautiful. It was closed for going in by the time we got there. (Everything closes so early--even the coffee shops and so forth close by 6 p.m.!!) I'm quite jealous that KK got to go to Easter Vigil Mass here.
The London Tower: The old stone wall that surrounds it with the towers peaking up from the inside--amazing! I loved the old look to it! Unfortunately it too was close. We could also see the Tower Bridge from here, which was ten times cooler than the London Bridge--which is basically just another bridge.
Westminster Abbey & Parliament: This was also where we got to see our Big Ben! This area stretched on quite a ways with all the beautiful structures. Again, I couldn't go inside the abbey and even the church next to it was close, which was a disappiontment, but simply getting to see the outsides of these places is amazing to me.

I actually skipped the first place we visited it--because it was the most important: Hyde Park, the Peter Pan statue! We had a little difficulty finding him, but when we came around the corner to see it all I could think was, "Oh THERE you are Peter!" (Hook quote...I'm obsessed.) The best part about this experience was the little boy who came along just as we did. He was probably three years old and his dad let him begin climbing on the statue. He talked to the animals and to Peter and was having such a great time--the statue might as well have been his playground. How is it not suiting, though, that a little boy finds so much joy with "the boy who refused to grow up." His father/grandfather kept telling him they must go and the boy would say in his accent, "We can't go! He'll go away!!" When he was finally forced to depart Peter, the boy turned and waved and said, "Goodbye Peter Pan!" I smiled the entire time I stood there.

Beating The Odds

Now this is a story that is still blowing my mind. I cannot believe the world truly is so small...

It was a busy day in London for Dani, KK and I as we made our way from site to site--we got pretty good with the tube system, having only messed up once so far. We were just leaving the London Tower and on our way to see Big Ben when we came down to the Underground. We saw a train sitting there and ran quickly for it as not to miss it, but once on we realized no one else was and the train was stationary. We filed back out and went to the other side as another train, going in the direction we needed, pulled away. A few minutes later we saw the stationary trian begin to fill up. Assuming these people knew something we didn't, we got back on thinking it would now depart. Waiting, waiting, waiting, but no such luck. In the mean time a train on the other side comes and loads again. Finally when we decide this train really isn't moving, we climb off but the other train leaves too quickly for us again.

Tired of playing this game we decide to forget about that stationary train and just wait for the next one to arrive on the other side. Typically we have not had to wait more than a minute for a train, but this time it was at least a good five minutes--it felt much longer, but you know how those things can play tricks on you. Finally a train arrived and we piled on an took seats. It was around 6 p.m. or 6:30 p.m. so we were getting pretty worn out.

So, I'm sitting there in a daze when I hear my name, "Rita?" as a short hair blond girl leans over towards us. I blinked my eyes and my jaw dropped open. "Oh my gosh--Sara Sowder?!"

Yes, that is right. It was long time friend that not only goes back to Bellarmine--but tiny little Casey County as well, as she graduated with Nic--crossing my path there in London, England! Not only had we found the same tube line at the same time--but the same car! I had messaged her on facebook before my departure from the states to tell her I was coming to Europe since I knew she had been studying at Oxford, but I had also been informed that she was not currently at Oxford due to traveling throughout Europe before having to return to the States. She had never received my message and did not even know that I was in England.

So, you tell me, what are the odds that two girls from little old Casey County cross paths on the London Underground? Well, we sure beat those odds.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Oxford Experience

Aside from Harry Potter like ways, Oxford had lots more to offer. I'm really glad that Dani and I had time in both Brighton and Oxford (as opposed to only London.) The two towns in which we actually stayed are so completely different, giving us very different tastes of England. While Brighton had a very modern and liberal feel to it, Oxford feels much more reserved and traditional.

Dani and I ventured some on our own while KK was in her tutorial in the morning. We did not have to go too far though to begin to see the old, intriguing buildings. I also found myself interested in an old graveyard we found in the divide between street sides. Many of the tall, tilted gravestones could no longer be read. I wish I could have read the dates on some of them--who knows how old they could be! There were even several tombs, also made of stone that looked quite ancient.img_5797

When KK was done we met her for lunch and then she needed to get to the river to race with her rowing team. We walked to the river, which was most definitely a brilliant plan. (Not that it's not what KK does every time she heads down there.) I cannot tell you how many times I turned a corner only to have my breath taken away again. It is unbelievable the structures that you find here and how magnficent they all are. The Oxford Bodeleian Library is magnificent with a massive stone quad in the center. Unfortunately for Dani, the book lover and library freak, we didn't have time to go in and it was closed by the time we got back.

(Side note: Everything closes SO early around here! Nothing but the pubs stay open past 6 p.m. Most places don't even stay open that late!)

We also passed several of the other colleges as well as the observatory, better known as "The Camera" due to the camera attention the great dome brings. My favorite though came closest to the river with Christ Church--which is actually one of the other Oxford colleges. There was one view of the college with the war memorial garden in front that I could have just gazed at for hours. I wish that could be my yard.

Watching all of the rowing teams was also fun. Dani and I decided that it almost reminded us of some sort of sorority/fraternity event with the way so many of the teams got crazy and goofy with their "uniforms." None of the teams had official school uniforms to wear but the members came up with their own clever ideas. For example, one group of girls called themselves the Pink Ladies and wore hot pink dress type things with other cute pink accessories and fancy boots. (I might add that this team did not turn out to be so good...)

Our favorite team got ready at the dock next to KK and her team. These guys were all wearing different neon colored tights and I am talking like ballet tights, not running tights. They also had neon leg warmer type things on their forearms and calves as well as ridiculous shirts. My two favorites though were the two guys who went against the flow and wore gold and silver leggings. I was pretty impressed.

KK looked really good on the river with her team...of course I do not know what to look for but apparantly they did do very well. Maybe we brought them some luck.
We finished our night by taking a quick stroll around the corner from her room after dinner to stop in at the Eagle and Child pub, which is the pub that J.R.R Tolkien and C.S. Lewis used to meet and hang out. We did not actually stay and hang out because the place was jam packed--their pubs aren't very wide here due to the fact they tend to build things up rather than out. I could totally see it as a place for these two guys...Looked like a place Merry and Pippen may have stopped in for a pint. Yes, I'm a nerd...forgive me. I was in Oxford mind you!

I can only post the pictures by using webshots because I already took them off my camera. To see more though just click on the pictures and it will take you to my webshots!

The Harry Potter Dinner

I suppose you could say I got a nice Oxford student experience yesterday as Dani and I joined KK in the dining hall for both lunch and dinner. It is so completely different from strolling into Kosters and wandering about until finding something slightly appealing. We actually had to sign up for our meal the night before and specify what we wanted on the menu. (Smart, I suppose. It must cut down on wastes.)

Then, the hall is, of course, like every other room in this place: high ceilings, pretty lights, long tables, large portraits on the walls. We could not sit until the prayer had been said and then our meals was brought to us by course. We had fish and chips (oh so English) and lucky for me it was REAL fish and chips--KK says often times that is what the menus will read and then they totally jip the students and serve some other form of potatos.

As if this style of eating wasn't formal enough, that night we accompanied KK to Formal Hall, aka The Harry Potter Dinner. This is a regular Friday ritual. Everyone has to dress up and they where their "gowns." Now, these aren't actually what I would call a gown. Imagine it this way: Take a graduation robe, cut it off a the thigh and cut the sleeves off. Don't button it up. Put a collar on the back. Leave a long flap hanging from the shoulder on each side. What do you do with this flap? Um...let it just flap, I guess. It serves no purpose and just looks kind of ridiculous. Why do they wear these gowns? Because they are told to I suppose... I can't say I was jealous not to have one.

Again, we had to wait to sit at the table, but this time we had to wait for the President of the College along with these other important guys to file in. The president bangs the gavel, says a prayer, then we sit. The meal has courses again--which started out with this giant mushroom, ick! But it ended in a yummy caramel dessert. I've learned the food here is much more bland and plain. Like the whipped cream in the dessert was simply nothing more than whipped cream--no sweetness to it from added sugar or anything. I also took note that any time someone left the room before the meal officially ended, they had to bow to the head table.

The meal ends when the president again hits his gavel, everyone rises, and he says something--I didn't really catch it--and they exit. Dani and I decided it would be rather humorous to have tied everyone's gown flaps to the backs of their chairs so when they rise at the end of the meal their chairs come up with them. Yes, yes...sometimes our minds think like ten-year-old boys. (We've hung out with The Man Clan for too long.)

We thought the event was over, but then KK led us upstairs to the "JCR" (Junior Commons Room) where the students socialize over snacks. Last night's snacks included strawberries (some dipped in chocolate--mmmm!) and a drink called Pimm's. This alcoholic drink, let me tell you, did not look so appetizing. I could name several friends right off that wouldn't even give it a chance. Floating through the drink we spotted blueberries, orange slices, mint leaves, apples and--was that a pickle?! Yes, also cucumbers. All the floating chunks sort of gathered at the top of the pitcher forming a foaminess around it, making it that much more disgusting. But you know me, fearless with food, I tried it. It was actually very good. Somewhat of a ginerale flavor. Even Dani wanted a second glass--so that's gotta say something for Miss "I eat grilled cheese every day."

The food for the day may not have been my favorite in the book, but, for one, it was free, and two, it was definitely an experience!a

Thursday, May 17, 2007

From Town to Town

So today we got out of Brighton later than planned meaning we didn't have as much time in London as we'd hoped to before having to head on to Oxford. (No fear, we will have lots of London time on Saturday.) Even though the bus rides are kind of long--typically two hours--and it seems that we are "wasting time," I actually don't mind it. It's a chance to ride through the cities and see more than I would by walking--and let me tell you, I am constantly in awe. There are just too many beautiful buildings! I've always been infatuated by architecture of sorts, so seeing all of this just continues to amaze me. Riding to Oxford we passed so many open fields that were so incredibly green! With the rolling hills it was beautiful. That on top of the fields of sheep just reminded me that much more that we are indeed in England.

We did find enough time to make a quick trip to Hyde Park today, but once there we found out the Peter Pan statue is on the completely opposite side from where we were. So Peter will ju
st have to keep waiting for me--I will see him though!! What little we did see of the park--which included the Rose Garden--was beautiful and had the most amazing smell! I think I could have sat in therapy for hours. Then we made a quick walk to Buckingham Palace. Of course as soon as I saw the guards in their goofy hats being all serious, all I could think of was Little Ben following one of them around doing what he and "The Man Clan" call the "Kevin Nash" in attempt to mess the guy up. Let's be honest though...Who doesn't dream of being a complete fool next to one of those guys? Gosh, they must have so many great stories from the idiots they see.

Our trip to Oxford wasn't quite as long as predicted (after we finally figured out which corner to stand on in order to catch the Oxford Espress to get there.) While we did have to spend a decent amount of money on travel today, KK is saving us now that we're here. She fixed a large pasta dinner--I could finally eat until I was stuffed again! (Which all we'd had so far in the day was a tiny yogurt and some soup that was basically nothing more than broth.) And tomorrow it seems we won't have to worry much about food either as we're going to join her for lunch in her dining hall and then their "formal" dinner...which she describe as a "Harry Potter Dinner" of sorts... so I'm curious about that.

Beyond the food we plan to explore the city--we passed soooo many amazing buildings on our drive in so I'm anxious to see more! We're also going to watch KK row in the afternoon. Ah yes, and the other thing I am loving about our stay in Oxford...this room is so much warmer! I can finaly sleep in a tshirt again!

Strolling the Streets of Brighton

It was a quite a full day in Brighton yesterday. Jyn's map got us around quite well--even with Dani's poor sense of direction! We made our way down to the shoreline and back to the Royal Pavilion. The place is beautiful--especially with the garden that surrounds it in full bloom. We did not actually go in the palace due to the costs (I couldn't have taken pictures inside anyway, so where's the fun in that?!) but I did learn that it was King George IV's seaside palace, which somewhat reminded me of sitting around with all my friends just last week and dreaming up the mega mansion we'd build with lottery money. Of course, King George's "for fun" palace was filled with elegant rooms with furniture that I would be afraid to even touch where as ours would be filled with...well, it's too ridiculous to go into all that right now.

We walked down a million narrow streets filled with the most random shops--picture Bardstown road all squished into an eighth of the space it is in now, and cooler. I was disapp
ointed that all of the churches that I tried to get in were locked up. I have quite an infatuation with seeing the insides of churches when they aren't having services. There is something so special and holy about an empty church. I don't think anything gives me quite the same sense of tranquility--not that I don't enjoy regular mass or anything. I also just enjoy churches--especially those over here--due to the age. Maybe I'll have more luck with the churches later in this journey.

We met up with Jyn in the afternoon and explored more of the town while stopping in a pub type place for a snack--well, we thought it was a snack but since when do places serve side salads with onion rings? Not that we complained--at least we felt a little healthy!

We returned to Jyn's house and had a little down time before going out for the night. We stopped in at a bar, Heist, where I enjoyed some sort of cider--I've forgotten the name at the moment and Dani isn't around to remind me--but it was most definitely an A+ drink! We then went on to a club found along the shoreline that was full of mad dancing. And I learned three things about English boys in clubs.
(1) They actually dance. By that I mean they don't stand along the walls and creepily stare at all the girls while they dance. Instead, just like the girls, they also dance around with their friends.

(2) They don't take initiative. As opposed to in the states where you
can accidentally make eye contact with a guy and suddenly he's all up in your space, these guys don't come dance with you even when you've made it quite clear that you aren't trying to avoid them.
(3) They don't grind all over you--thank goodness! They will spin you around and just have fun. It may have helped that the music selection at the section of the club we were in could have been something that we would have put on at a track party (which included Backstreet Boys, Grease, Dirty Dancing, Girls Just Wanna Have Fun) so you could not help but just dance around and have a good time while singing along.

Needless to say, we had a really good time.