to a new blog: http://hitheringandthithering.tumblr.com/
Dearest family and friend folk,
My European ramblings sporadically whispered away without conclusion. Too many modes of transportation and emotions were to blame, as I surrendered to inconspicuous-ness and savored the wintery Christmas markets and my halfway homes in Lanark and London.
I’ll try my best to give a proper retrospective summation of the journey, and life since then, before transitioning into my new reason for keeping this open journal… on January 2 I’ll be moving to Kathmandu, Nepal. I want ya’ll to come with me, as always. So I’ll keep posting photos, words and revelries in hopes of staying close.
Without further ado… a short skip back in time to December 2011…
(cue Beirut song Bratislava)
As within most countries upon arrival, Nick and I were cold and lost once we reached the capital of Slovakia. Neither of us had much impetus to be there besides it being the nearest and cheapest place to fly from. After finally finding the final hostel we’d share on the trip, our spirits were brightened by the Christmas Market. Now veterans of the brilliant tradition of the outdoor European Christmas Market, we ordered some hot wine without hesitation, and the fattiest, most delicious street food in sight. I was mesmerized by the giant ham rotisserie over open flame, and listened to a band with an electric banjo while eating the best rendition of potato pancake ever-Zemiakové Placky. As we were debating over hot red or white wine, a Slovakian broadcast reporter squeezed between us with her microphone. Deer caught in the camera headlights, we were quickly convinced to participate in a battle-of-the-sexes-esque drinking contest of… hot spiked cider. “No thanks” didn’t seem polite at that point, so on the count of three we locked eyes and threw back the first of scalding hot ciders. Some dormant bout of grade school soccer competitiveness welled in me, and I got off to an early lead, unflinchingly chugging 3 and a half cups. The thing about drinking hot beverages in rapid secession is that it makes your stomach feel ready to implode. Nick had caught up to me, or so the newswoman said, as she raised both our hands up calling a “tie.” We were then instructed to walk in a straight line, at which point I realized the cider was spiked. The newswoman and crew left us drunk on adrenalin. We excitedly decided to eat, and only after taking the first bite did we remember how utterly sick and full of cider our stomachs were. We went to bed, woke up to eat the complimentary breakfast in a restaurant full of Americana kitsch. Nick walked me back to the train station, where I caught a bus to the airport and we parted from “our” journey unto short solo stints, mine to rewind back through the UK.
Sheep were camouflaged against all the snow. Donald graciously scooped me up from the airport and took me to Lanark. It was strange and nice to hear and see English language again. An epic storm turned over buses and cancelled the annual Christmas pageant. Journeying to our Campbeltown homeland was out of the question. Donald took me on a grand visiting tour of all the Scotland Stewarts’ homes… his children, his sister. We ate at Witherspoons and The Loch, watched soccer and the BBC. And I got a crash course in Stewart genealogy as Donald brought out the family tree.
The morning I was leaving on a bus bound for London, Donald played a CD of his he picked up while trekking through Nepal. How fateful it now seems in retrospect.
London- I surprised Jim at the front door, as no one had told him I was coming. But he and Molly and Stella welcomed me around the TV and I felt right at home. Susan got home eventually and we stayed up talking late into the night. She and Molly had made dozens of loafs and mini-loafs of pumkin bread for the OAP (old-age-pensioners) tea to be held at the American School in London the next day.
We made dozens of cucumber sandwiches… well-buttered bread and some cucumbers, per proper British tradition. The tea party was heartwarming. The elderly came dressed in their Christmas best and we took their coats and sat them down to listen to jazz. We spent the rest of the day making Sue’s Christmas tradition: biscotti with cranberries and pistachios. I felt so at home in the kitchen with her, for the first time in months. We went shopping with Molly for teddy bears at Harrod’s, a quintessential and absurdly chaotic quest during Christmas time. Sue and Jim and I went to dim sum (like Korean tapas) for dinner and walked around gazing at Christmas lights and window displays. To me they were extravagant, but Jim said compared to past years, they were a tad “recessionary.”
He drove me to catch the train to the airport, but not without trying a few different closed Subway stops, dodging tangles of traffic, and accidentally telling me to go the wrong way on the Tube. With the same utterly calm presence of my father he kept saying “stay calm, it will be alright.” I did end up making it just in time.
(The following is a direct exerpt from notes I took en route, summing up the rest of the journey… )
I’m at wit’s end on the 7-hour Megabus from Cincinnati to Chicago… sans internet. It’s broken and I’m longing to proclaim “AMERICA” to anyone online right now.
This final leg of the trip has really solidified a nugget of wisdom…. sometimes it is worth to pay 50$ to get there 4x faster. And the “deals” usually entail hidden fees anyways.
-a 1/2 hour to get to Victoria Station in London, amidst Christmas traffic
-a 1-hour flight December 11th 8:25 London to Manchester
-a 12-hour layover in Manchester which I spent in the airport Prayer Room doing yoga and reading a Buddhist text
-a 10-hour flight from Manchester to Chicago
-a 7-hour Megabus ride to Cincinnati
-a 15-minute drive home with dad, sure to be the most enjoyable leg of the journey
= thats about 34 hours of travel… totally unnecessary to get from London to Cincinnati
ALAS, I have had ample time to reflect and ease in to America. The transition is, thus far, underwhelming… which is just fine.
^Zagreb graffiti and the train to Budapest
11/29 Mandala Hostel was as typically elusive to find, especially at night. But it was well worth untangling the directions.
We walked into the teal, gold, and ivory-tiled apartment foyer and upstairs to a balcony that overlooked a bonfire pit and courtyard. Strands of warm red and orange lights dangled in the window, illuminating the smoking table outside, and the kitchen table within.
"Alright, if you’ll just put on some slippers," said the owner, pointing to a mound of them near the door. "I hope you don’t mind cats," she added, as a white tail slunk into the common room. The goodness didn’t end…. a stocked kitchen, collection of films, a guitar for borrowing, a wooden loft and meditation room. The woman that owned the place gave us a mini history lesson about the town… one side of the river called Buda, the other side called Pest, pronounced "pesht."
Her partner asked, “so you’re from Kentucky? I’m from Evansville Indiana.” He came to Budapest two years ago, fell in love with the town and the woman who owns the place, and hasn’t left since. Apparently it’s easy to get a living visa in Hungary so long as you don’t work, which he avoids by managing the hostel off the records. He and Nick talked about politics, specifically Ron Paul and the absolutely terrifying proposition of the National Defense Authorization Act bill. Finally, the Evansville dude realized his pizza was burning in the oven, and we realized it was 8:30 and we hadn’t eaten.
The couple recommended The Blue Rose restaurant for good and cheap Hungarian food… perfectly-pickled everything-beetroot, cabbage, and paprika (a pepper)- and spicy meat and potatoes. Most meat dishes were even covered in and stuffed with other types of meat.
The rainy night hearkened us to retire to the hostel after dinner. It was a great place to hang out anyways, the kitchen brimming with friends watching The Office and talking in English and Hungarian. It felt more like an apartment, with its handful of permanent residents looking very at-home with their shirts off and dirty dishes strewn in the sink.
Per the hostel owners’ recommendation we looked up the Hungarian State Opera house to find one seat remaining for the Nutcracker Ballet for a mere 17 Euros. I went to bed pouting like the little girl I used to be, so eager to see the show when my aunt used to get free tickets to the Cincinnati Nutcracker, and take me.
11/30 But upon waking up at 8 to re-check for available seats, there were two right open right next to each other. “We have to go!” I yelled at Nick, waking him up. I ran to the shower and put on my best outfit, which was a laughably-worn red sweater, black skirt, and the fancy boots, aka the ones that aren’t for hiking. Nick broke out the khakis. And it’s a good thing we were dressed so fancifully… because our seats were in A BOX, to our suprise upon arrival.
About half of the theater seats were in boxes, so I guess they weren’t rare, but they felt royal trimmed in red velvet and framed in ornate gold paint.
The Nutcracker always reels you in after the first intermission, I had forgotten. While Nick seemed enthralled with the theater, he was less-than-so with the ballet, UNTIL the second and third segment. We were both in a grinning daze after the snowflake ballerinas flitted across the stage and Clara’s grand dream unfurled with an array of performances.
Her nutcracker prince even took her sailing and into caves, adventure I don’t recall the pair having in the Cincinnati version. Nick and I ate big pumpkin seed pretzel during the second intermission. The whole event seemed so familiar…. folks of all ages, all of them outdressed by the young girls in their Chirstmas dresses pirouetting during intermission, dreaming of a Nutcracker prince, or someday dancing the coveted part of Clara.
It was nearly dark outside by the time the curtain closed. I had vaguely remembered the Nutcraker being such a marathon. Giddily, we walked down the Andrássy Avenue to Heros Square, which was in close proximity to a giant ice skating rink, a circus, and the biggest and oldest Turkish style bath in the country.
We thawed out at the hostel. Nick strummed a guitar for the first time in months, and time dissolved as we sung the duet (amongst others) “In Spite of Ourselves,” by John Prine.
In spite of ourselves
We’ll end up a’sittin’ on a rainbow
Against all odds
Honey, we’re the big door prize
We’re gonna spite our noses
Right off of our faces
There won’t be nothin’ but big old hearts
Dancin’ in our eyes.
Shamelessly both wanting to go back to The Blue Rose again, we did, to order different variations of soup/meat/potato/pickeled-ness. Nick bravely ordered “Hungarian style,” which was the strangest taste to grace my tongue in a while, upon trying a bite. I got turkey, in late celebration of Thanksgiving.
The couple that owned the hostel had suggested a bar that was on the walk home. They asked, the last night, whether we felt up for it. “Depends,” Nick said.:”Is it exceptionally awesome?”
"Oh, this one IS exceptionally awesome," Evansville friend had said.
And he was right, was the best bar I’ve ever been to. I sipped a whipped cream topped hot chocolate and Nick had a beer at Szimpla, a bohemian underground cellar garnished in disco balls, TVs playing art films, eclectic furniture, and grunge art. We met a Cincinnatian who said he had seen us at the Blue Rose earlier. A St. X grad, he was traveling around Europe and visiting his brother in Austria. He walked away leaving us to bask in what we declared to be the most perfect bar lighting and vibes we had ever experienced.
We went “home” to the Mandala hostel and watched I Heart Huckabees, which each of us had watched in high school, respectively. Existentialism hadn’t quite resonated with us in 2004 when the film came out, we decided, because we found it roaring-ly funny, now, with a few existential crises, activism woes, and philosophy classes behind us .
A quote from the movie: “Well, um, for instance: if the forms of this world die, which is more real, the me that dies or the me that’s infinite? Can I trust my habitual mind, or do I need to learn to look beneath those things?”
12/1 This was to be our ultimate day of rest, we decided, with culminating plans to visit the famous Szechenyi Bath and Spa, the largest medicinal bath in Europe. It’s water is supplied by two thermal springs and contains sulphate, calcium, magnesium, bicarbonate, believed to be healing elements. Budapest is full of Turkish baths that boast Ottoman architecture of octagonal pools, cupolas and colored glass windows.
We slept in, ate our trusted muesli and milk, and searched for the canteen restaurant of our dreams, recommended by the hostel owners. But we should have known not to set our hearts on something so heavily whilst traveling. After quite a lot of misdirection, we found it to be closed, and ate instead at a kosher cafe with a view of the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe. It has quite a history… built between 1854-1859 by the Neolog Jewish community of Pest, bombed by the Hungarian pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party in 1939, used as a base for German Radio during World War II, damaged by aerial raids during Nazi Occupation and the Siege of Budapest. During the Communist era the damaged structure became a prayer house again for the much-diminished Jewish community and was restored from 1991 to 1998.
After eating and after borrowing towels and flip flops from Mandala, we perused the famous Great Market Hall, a three-story indoor market with colorful Zsolnay tiling on the roof. The ground floor was plentiful with produce, meats, pastries, candies, spices, and spirits, while the second floor harbored eateries and craft booths.
When we alas arrived to the bath, we were directed to separate locker rooms, a more nerve-wrecking experience than I anticipated, having not separated from Nick since we met in Switzerland. I remembered a night in Portland Oregon with my lady roommates in which we went to a community bathhouse and bathed naked under the stars with other women, just chatting and relaxing in the warmth. It also reminded me of my childhood swim club bathroom… women of all ages getting undressed and redressed in plain view. Women with cellulite, curves, wrinkles, and birthmarks parading in these locker rooms amongst each other, beautiful and perfect in what some may call “imperfection.”
After basking in awe of human form, I joined Nick outside in one of the three steaming pools where, in the daytime, men famously play chess whilst bathing. The night time bathers were of all walks… locals and foreigners, kids and grandfolk, men and women.
Nick and I were giddy amidst the bathing playground. After dipping in the two lukewarm outside pools, we went indoors to test out a few of the different temperature pools. We soaked in the hottest, jumped frantically into the coldest, and were propelled in circles around a bigger pool by giant water-jetstream. We tested our sweat glands in the hottest sauna available, watching old men sit with ease right next to the furnace. My guts clenched and I felt suffocated by heat and humidity, a thick blanket. While I was getting out of one of the hot tubs I had to sit on the floor as the world around me spun and turned black. As I dizzyingly regained my senses, I thought in sequence… “Where am I?… I’m in Europe… at a bath. Alone? No, Nick’s here,” and then snapped back fully and gulped down some water. We joined the outdoor jetstream, a giggly and screaming group of folks our age, cast violently in circles around the center of the pool. My heart stopped as I felt my glasses fall into the vortex of feet and frolicking. Unbelievably, I reached down with conviction and snatched them from the floor before they were crushed. A bit waterlogged, we decided to leave after three or so hours.
I had never felt so refreshed in my whole life. The thermal springs and varying temperatures had pruned my toes and made me feel like a feather. As we stepped out into the cold, I felt my blood circulating better. I was heated from within and felt unstoppable. For about $15 we experienced what would have cost hundreds in the states. Many locals have passes and go weekly… such an accessible experience that would be labeled “luxury” at home.
In all our post-bath bliss we took an extremely long (we got lost) way home, and ended up finding food just before restaurants started to close. With bodies radiating from pickled goodness and hours of bathing, we declared Budapest the best city in Europe, and we slept well.
11/29 Zagreb at night was thickly shrouded in fog, which made for a mystical and hazy landscape aglow with Christmas lights.
Wanting to savor the city for a night, we ventured out sans agenda and happen upon an picturesque outdoor performance of traditional Croatian music and dance. We were told that the city square stage hosts performances every night of December, leading up to Christmas. Our train-travel-induced stress flickered out as we watched the folk performance.
After stocking up on Croatian currency (Kunas) we ordered some hot wine, red and white, in the big tent pitched near by. People behind the counters were serving hot beverages and hot dogs, which they would stuff into the holes they made in baguettes. There were sitting and standing benches, a DJ, and heat lamps inside. On a Tuesday night, people were filling the tent and venturing outside to the stage.
After the heart-warming Croatian music, the perfomances abruptly veered to modern dancing and break dancing, both accompanied by American pop tunes.
Our one premeditated destination in Croatia was BP Jazz Club, heralded by the New York Times and local websites. Leo, who worked at the hostel, told us that BP (Bosko Petrovic) had died about 6 months prior, and they had closed it. BP had allegedly smuggled a vibraphone into the country when it was under strict communist rule. “It’s a barbecue,” he alegedly told the border patrol.
With our BP Club hopes dashed, Leo gave us awful shots of Croatian liquor and pointed us towards another venue with live music. Purgeraj, “Home of good music,” was right in the middle of Park Ribnjak. White paper lanterns polka-dotted the ceiling of the sunroom, which made the foggy, glowing outdoors seem like a continuation of the smoky, lantern-lit indoors. A woman sang while two men played music, starting out with familiar songs like Roxanne before progressing to songs sung in Croatian, including Happy Birthday.
11/30 We walked to the bus station after getting some irresistable fried dough balls sold along the way. They reminded me of the doughnuts we would make on early mornings at “Grandmaland” when I was a kid… tossing a hunk of dough into boiling oil, removing, and then shaking it in a bag of cinnamon sugar.
The bus ride was almost entirely obscured by fog. I couldn’t see twenty feet from the bus for almost the entire two-hour duration of the ride.
Nick and I got off the bus at Munjuke, a scattering of apartment complexes anchored by one small grocery. A man pointed us to Sonja’s apartment, which was entirely unmarked.
Sonja came out of her apartment with her three-year-old big-brown-eyed daughter, Lara. She showed us up to the third floor where we would stay, an entire flat… living room, kitchen, bathroom and washroom. We had no idea we were in for such kitchy luxury, decorated in driftwood, lace, and old knick’knacks. She told us to come down at 7 when her husband was home, and to go enjoy the sunlight while we could.
We bought Croatian chocolate with pop rocks in it. It sizzles and snaps in your mouth.
Plitvice Lakes park was a 15-minute walk away, and was a total ghost town amidst the lull between ski season and summer. Stray cats lurked everywhere, and one followed us and let me hold her for a few minutes. We stared into the clear blue green water and speculated on why it was such a vibrant hue. Casting shadows with our arms over the water, we herded hundreds of fish from the boat dock.
Having found our deserted lake paradise, a flat to ourselves and chocolate that sizzles in the mouth, we decided to tell Sonja we would stay another two nights.
"Okay, no problem," said Damir, Sonja’s husband. They let us use their internet as Lara watched the same 3 songs on repeat: Forever Young, and songs by Aqua, and Boy George. She knew all of the dance moves and words, throwing up her arm in unison with the dancers on screen.
For lack of internet in our flat, we watched some funny British sitcoms and some winter sporting events, which were the only things we could find in English.
12/1 After eating and questing for an ATM machine in the sprawling array of empty hotels, we bought tickets to the park. The woman at the counter gave us tickets for half price on account of the west part of the park being closed due to ice. But once we left the ticket kiosk, the shuttle took us straight to the forbidden and frozen west end. We slid a little on the icy planks that interwove past waterfalls and lagoons of crystal water. We had the whole park to ourselves. While I’m sure it is a sight to see in in the height of its verdant summer days, the solitude and icy, diamond-crusted winter days seem just as good.
Though the woman who sold us our tickets, also told us the boats weren’t working, one came to get us from our long hike to the other side of the lake. Starving, we went from one empty over-staffed hotel to the next, finally finding one with a restaurant open all day. They laughed that we were eating there, as it seemed they hadn’t had guests in a month.
Amidst a hundred empty tables, all set with glassware and utensils, we ate soup, bread, local sheep’s cheese, and respective forms of potatoes. Nick had fries. I had my newest favorite potato form, gnocchi.
After taking our sweet time at the grocery, we found ourselves without sunlight, during hours that were too early to eat, in a town with no public house/square/bar. Thus ensued an entire match of card game “war,” and one of “speed.” I taught Nick how to draw leaves on Adobe Illistrator. We played with photobooth, taking photos of what looked like us on a roller coaster and infront of the Eifel Tower. We watched The Simpson’s in German and the Pawn Shop show in English. We cooked dinner and went downstairs to use the internet.
After using the internet in Sonja and Dormir’s apartment, we ended up hanging out with them and Lara for a while. Lara was unbelievably energetic for what was supposed to be her bed time. She shouted things in Croatian at Nick and I, and Dormir laughed and said she was shouting about cats. She drew me a flower and rambled on about different animals, eventually shouting “ARIBA, ARIBA, AAAARIBA,” which means fish.
Dormir told us about the lakes and karst region in Croatia. He and Sonja were the first couple married under the big waterfall of Plitvice after the war. Their home and Dormir’s parents’ home next door are the only two residences with addresses in the park.
12/2 We ventured out after noon to hike the eastern side of the park which included the big waterfall and some small caves. We were followed by the same stray dog for the first half hour of our outward journey and the last half hour of our return. At the market we ran into Sonja and Lara. It had been a while since I had run into a familiar face at a grocery. It felt nice, even though wasn’t at all unlikely in such a small town.
We cooked our green pasta noodles for the third night in a row, and indulged in an interesting looking frozen cake. It was hazelnut and rum flavored, and topped with cream, filled with ice cream. We both said “interesting,” after taking the first few bites. We ended up gutting the cake for its ice cream, before walking downstairs to hang out with Damir, Sanja and Lara (who drew me another flower.)
11/25 I remained skeptical of Slovenia as we stepped off the train into the coldest air yet, at 2 o’oclock in the morning. An ominous plaque at the train station commemorates Jame’s Joyce’s ONE night in the city… quite a claim to fame.
Our hostel reception desk was not open past 11p.m. and they had instructed us to get the key at a nearby 24/7 sister hostel. I fell asleep doubting that I would ever feel as excited as Nick was about the country, which he had visited in 2009.
11/26 Christmas greenery was being strung above the streets and a large Christmas tree was being dressed in the middle of town. Men played music in the streets and throughout the plethora of markets. Slovenians seemed entirely un-phased by the biting cold, as they sat outside of cafes for hours sipping hot wine or coffee that was surely cold by the time they left.
After passing through a colorful alley of dried flower arrangements for sale, THE market emerged… not a tourist market, but a producer’s farmer’s market. Our hearts beat faster as we perused the varieties of apples, vegetables, squash, and towering pyramids of fruit called “khaki.” We bought with wild abandon, enough food to feed us for days, and celebrated with the best plate of street food I’ve ever tasted- fish, potato, tomato, and Lasko beer. At the market, there was even a 24/7 vending machine for raw milk, and one with various small-scale farmer-produced cheeses and jars of honey. We were in real-food heaven.
Slovenia immediately felt “real” in the way that Kentucky does… undiscovered by tourists, prices un-inflated accordingly. I felt more like myself, than I had in months, buying vegetables from a farmer.
After bringing our treasure back to the hostel, we climbed to the castle and witnessed a boisterous winter wedding party. After descending, we bought a few supplemental groceries and cooked a pumpkin curry in celebration of good ingredients alas. The produce would feed us for two more nights… a verdant stirfry of potatoe and brussel sprouts and greens, and then a potato and bean stew. The meals were my definition of decadence… fresh local ingredients, spicy, prepared with one’s own hands, and shared.
11/27 We walked outside of the city along the river the following day, and talked a lot about impending life back in the states… where to go, what to do next. We threw handfuls of golden Ginkgo leaves into the air and let them shower down. We watched boy feeding a Nutria in the water, off the dock of a boat-bar, and we stopped to thaw out in a caffe and shared a Grog and Black Hot Chocolate that was as thick as pudding.
Slovenia is big on bees we learned whilst buying some honey wine. All of the folk art shops sell painted panels that go on beehives. Each depicts a different story and idiom, such as “women have to beat the lies out of men’s pants.” There are awful ones too, like a machine that men bring their old wives to… in goes the old and out comes a newer, younger, thinner woman. Also, there is one of a man dulling a woman’s “sharp” tongue on a grinder.
As I read further in Farm City, Novella talks about visiting Slovenia and going to the bee museum in Bled. “When a beekeeper dies, someone has to tell the bees. I learned that at a beekeeping museum in Slovenia years ago,” she wrote. The museum shows a movie that features a grandfather on his deathbed, instructing his grandson to tell the bees. “The whisperer would feel the heat of the hive, generated by so many thousands of bees. He would smell the wax and propolis. Hear the noise of the bees, as if they were wailing, too. I could see how this act would be consoling in the face of death.”-NC
11/28 On our last day in Slovenia, we took a bus past Bled to do some hiking around the mirror-like lake for hours. As we were heading back to the bus stop, we decided to wander up a hillside and climb into a hunting post to view the setting sun. Past the hill was Triglav National Park Slovenia’s only national park. How did we miss that?! Shirking our bus catching plan, we walked over the hill into the park. “WHOA,” Nick exclaimed after glancing over a quaint bridge. Bellow it were crystal blue waters, totally unexpected and breathtaking. We could hear waterfalls gushing in the distance an, upon reaching them, we found icicles dripping from above and bubbling from bellow.
The ethereal ice-encrusted falls reminded me of falls at Red River Gorge and Shanty Hallow in the winter. We watched a red kick ball violently float downstream before we walked back to the bus stop, stopping to gawk at the pink sky and grab a small pine branch and sing “Oh Christmas Tree.” Realizing the bus, which came only once an hour, would soon arrive, we started sprinting towards the stop. We sprinted even harder as we watched the bus start to leave. It was held up, thankfully, by some other travelers. With bright red cheeks we took off our coats and collapsed for the two hour ride. Another close call.
"I like being a stranger," the man we met at the hostel told us. Nick and I had been pondering about how people travel for years at a time without missing familiarities. With home sick hearts, we wondered how that lifestyle could be sustainable or fufilling. And coincidentally we met the Canadian/American middle aged man who told us. He was amidst a year-long travel stint with his wife who was from China. "I don’t like ‘home,’" he said.
After talking to him for a while, we mulled over the words and mused about why we did like “home,” Kentucky, why we liked community, our hive.
11/24 We decided to stay a night in the city that may be underwater in our lifetime… Venice, the land of no cars.
Nick joked about a high-speed gondola chase, but indeed all of the emergency/ law enforcement vehicles are boats. Even the public transportation is by boat.
Venice is a city that makes me feel like I did as a kid stumbling upon a new playground. There are bridges connected to bridges, connected to bridges. Fruits and vegetables are sold off of boats in the canal. You can hear accordion players aboard gondolas, sauntering down the passages. And despite its fairy-tale touristy surface, in the winter it feels like a typical Italian neighborhood. The hotels and restaurants and glass shops are empty, while the residential quarters teem with life… parents walking their children home from school, people buying vegetables after they get off work.
And we found out why they opt for their own cooking. As far as we experienced, Venice is not a place to eat Italian. We couldn’t find a place that seemed authentic. They all served “Italian” food like you might find it anywhere outside of Italy. Pizza comes in triangle shape, bread is hardly edible.
Comically, we were trapped in Venice for Thanksgiving, a day that should entail anything but fast or fake food… or Italian food, for that matter. So we fled one place after drinks and an appetizer to go where the Italians were poring into. But it ended up being an Italian chain that charged a cover fee. Defeated, we ate our weird bread, drank more wine, and ordered simple dishes. (Sigh) I cried when we got back to the hostel.
Few things frustrate me more than overpriced bad food. The politics, production, and preparation of food has become a religion to me. Lately I’ve been reading Novella Carpenter’s book Farm City. She came to Western last spring to see our sustainable garden plot and to talk about her experiences as an urban farmer in Oakland, California. Her comical struggles and those of Barbara Kingsolver in Animal Vegetable Miracle, make me hyper aware to how difficult food is to grow and how detached most American consumers are from what they put in their body.
I’m coincidentally reading the part in the book when Novella prepares to kill her own Turkey, one she named Harold, for Thanksgiving dinner. Here are some excerpts:
-Novella quotes The Encyclopedia of Country Living: “Doing our own killing, cleanly and humanely, teaches us humility and reminds us of our interdependence with other species.”
-She reflects: “At the grocery counter or farmer’s market stall, the cost of the meat I bought factored in the cost of the bird’s life—feed, housing, transportation to market. A small portion of that cost included a kill fee. I had been comfortable allowing someone else to be my executioner. And suddenly, all the meat I bought, even though I had considered it expensive at the time, seemed under-priced.”
-“… to know his life force would be transferred to me in the form of food, felt sacred.”
We salvaged our Thanksgiving abroad though (the second for both of us because we were both in India two years ago, albeit respectively and in different regions.)
I introduced Nick to the Cincinnati Enquirer Turkey decorating contest. The spread has always been part of a critical Thanksgiving morning tradition in our house, to critique the paper’s selections and laugh at the politically relevant, or just plain absurd, turkeys. Nick called Susan, his mom, who is living in Houston. I called home too. My mom, dad, and Bridget answered from different phones in the house. Dad sung the Turkey Song and told me they bought a free-range local turkey in my honor. Mom listed the other mouthwatering dishes on the table. They had hosted her family in the afternoon and were about to head to Grandma Stewart’s for Thanksgiving feast round two, which would surely entail THE famous Sticky Buns. I longed to be home, but was so happy to hear their voices. Nick and I listened to Paul Simon’s Graceland album and shared a piece of Swiss chocolate. I felt grateful… for family and friends, for the opportunity to be in Venice and to share the holiday with Nick. Grateful for Paul Simon and comically bad Italian food even.
11/25 Famous American art collector Peggy Guggenheim lived in Venice until her death, amassing a beautiful collection of Dali, Max Ernst, Pollock, Magritte, within it. The collection is on display in her Venice home-turned museum, which has been my favorite art museum on this trip. The woman had brilliant taste. On the opening night of one of her galleries she wrote: “I wore one of my Tanguy earrings and one made by Calder in order to show my impartiality between Surrealist and Abstract Art.”
We spent nearly a half hour in the sculpture garden, which is home to a wishing tree given to Guggenheim by Yoko Ono.
There were neon-illuminating words fixed upon a leaf-shrouded wall that read “Se la forma scompare la sa radice e eterna,” which means “If the form vanishes its root is eternal.”
We savored the quality-not-quantity art museum all afternoon, had a picnic by the water at sunset, ate one last mediocre Venician meal, and bid Italy “Ciao.”
11/22 The mustached man at the hotel didn’t speak a word of English, when we arrived, but he ushered us upstairs. We went out to buy beers and drank them in the streets (which is permissible in Italy and most of Europe,) relishing the feeling of being in a city too small to have a metro.
We sat in the shadow of the Duomo, my favorite church yet. Its teal, cream and red-tiled beauty was spectacular. Still no Stenhaul syndrome, though.
11/23 Florence is a beautiful city and had a peak we could hike to, a river, a park for us to swing. The cobblestone streets are trodden by foot and bicycle more often than they are by car. But the city’s greatest appeal, we decided, was the food.
Dinner one night began with complimentary champagne flutes.
Next course: bruchetta, bread slices baked with olive oil, tomato and herbs. Also, fresh bread to dip in olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Next course: a side of grilled vegetables to share, potato pasta for me, ham tortellini for Nick.
Next course: Tiramasu to share.
Finishing with: A bottle of red wine. Complimentary limoncello shots.
<On the walk home we stopped at a photobooth.
The next day in Florence was overcast with news of Lesley’s mom passing. I wanted to be home, to bake a pie and go to the service… be there for her in a more tangible way. The day was wrought with reflection and feelings of helplessness. Alas, Lesley is one of the strongest women I know, and I know she is surrounded by love right now. I can only send good thoughts from here.
Death is ever humbling. Amidst it, all petty gripes melt away to reveal pure gratitude. I relate any new experiences with death to the most jarring one in my life thus far, that of my cousin Evan a few years ago. In the wake of such unthinkable tragedy, I felt like I understood a crucial and beautiful human reality. I felt helpless. I felt finite. My family clung to each other. Friends cooked and comforted and came to the funeral to pay respects before Evan was ushered to his final resting place by a John Deere tractor. Words didn’t mean anything at the time. Presence did. For weeks, It felt so wrong for the world to go on, for people in my dorm room to be laughing at stupid internet videos or complaining about the size of their thighs.
Ultimately, you can let death defeat you or you can embrace the inevitability and humility of the grieving process. On the eve of Thanksgiving, this reminder of death makes me wish that I could be home with family and friends. I feel acutely grateful for all of you at home.
Our last meal in Florence was what we had been searching for… a place with no English on the menu. Only Italian in the air… words and scents. We followed suit in ordering a cariff of cheap house wine, which no table was without. The cook behind the counter kept doing shots of it as he casually prepared the food. A man came in to sell flowers and the child of one of the restaurant owners bought one and gave it to his mom (at the bidding of his dad.) Everyone in the kitchen and at the tables were boisterous, happy, vibrant. We ate hot bread with cheese, and ravioli. I sat back in my seat in full understanding of why people come to Italy on culinary quest.
11/19 “The Yellow,” our hostel in Roma, was conveniently a few doors down from what we decreed the best pizza in town. For 6 Euro we split a liter of Italian beer and a big rectangle slice of artichoke and tomato pizza, heated upon ordering. In Rome, you choose the pizza you want and pay by weight of the slice. And it’s square shaped, not triangular.
The woman behind the counter was quintessentially Italian, straightforward and strong-spirited. She wore slippers, rolled her eyes at the customers in front of us, smoked a cigarette outside and told us what beer to drink- “You want that one. It’s nicer. Same price,” she said.
We chatted with two Australian girls, whom we would run into the following day at the Colosseum. They told us to go to Florence, and to buy the Italian boxed bread similar to fruitcake.
We walked around and Nick told me about Stendhal Syndrome, “a psychosomatic illness that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations when an individual is exposed to art, usually when the art is particularly beautiful or a large amount of art is in a single place.” The man who coined the syndrome, experienced it first in Florence Italy. Looking up at the beautiful white-winged lion statues and others of gods and goddesses, dripping in gold, I could see how Italy’s wondrous sights could make someone foam at the mouth.
11/20 We spent a while at the Colosseum in the late afternoon hour. It was strewn in good light and crawling with cats. We laughed at the realization that the cat-chase-bird event was the only Colosseum sport to exist anymore, in the arena once inhabited by lions, bears and gladiators. In it’s early days, Romans would even fill the arena with water.
I thought about the evolution of sports… the carnal, but well-padded nature behind football and rugby, the exhilarating risk of NASCAR races, the rowdy audience we witnessed at the USA/France soccer match in Paris. Euphemistic versions of war and predator vs. prey, still prevail as popular entertainment.
Outside of the Colosseum, vendors sell cheap figurines and the two hottest novelties… flexible camera tripods and strange squishy pig-shaped blobs that flatten upon impact with the ground, and then slowly reclaim their form. Ah, tourist traps.
We accidentally found the Trevi Fountain. I recalled it from a number of teenage-girl-type movies in which the fountain looked so serene and romantic. In reality, it’s swarming with tourists who want to toss in change… one coin to ensure a swift return to Rome, two to meet your true love there, three to get married to them. According to our guidebook, the fountain collects 3,000 Euros a day which is used to subsidize a supermarket for Rome’s needy.
We headed back to “The Yellow” to claim our free complimentary drinks. Mine was aptly a Limoncello, a popular Italian liquor. Then, we got on the infamous Roman subway, bound for Nick’s friend Ale’s home. The subway has just two old lines, and is absolutely covered in graffiti. Gypsies stand by all the ticket machines to “help you,” but for a price.
Ale greeted us and drove us to his flat. A born and bred Roman, he teaches American literature at an Italian University and his shelves hold books by Flannery O’conner and his favorite- Tennessee Williams. Ale used to be a journalist and even interviewed Joyce Carol Oates, back in the day, for an Italian magazine.
He effortlessly cooked an incredible pumpkin risotto and zucchini frittata as we talked about the importance of good Olive Oil, always Extra Virgin.
Ale went to work at his desk on planning a film festival, after recommending that we watch Six Degrees of Separation. In the movie, one of the main characters is taken up on a scaffolding to The Hand of God in the Sistine Chapel, and gives it a high five.
We had mixed feelings about the movie, which we decided was convoluted with “meaning.” In essence, it was supposed to emphasize how we’re all just six degrees from anyone on earth… the Queen of England and aboriginal tribesman alike.
Traveling makes me believe it. The world feels smaller everyday.
11/21 After a slow Sunday start, savoring sunshine from Ale’s plant-shrouded balcony, we braved a post-Suday-mass crowd at the bakery, and took the bus and metro to the Vatican. We walked around outside of the Forum a bit, having just missed the doors closing for the day.
At dinner the waiter sensed our slightly-defeated spirits and brought us free cake. He told us the key to good Italian food is simple… start with olive oil and garlic. As Lady Gaga’s video played on the tv, he reminded us she was Italian and showed us photos, on his phone, of her uncle, a skunk-haired Italian who is fairly famous there.
We sat is the old flower market and made the long journey back to Ale’s. We said our goodbyes since we would be leaving before he awoke, and we left him with some mint julep bourbon balls.
11/22 The Vatican museum is home to oodles of roman sculptures, but I found the rooms themselves to be the most impressive, in every direction you look. The floor is meticulously covered in mosaic. The ceilings are intricately painted. The walls are equally ornate. And the Sistine Chapel. Wow. We stood with our necks crooked up trying to imagine Michaelangelo painting such a canvas. Nick said he tried to escape, but was forced to finish. I can’t say I blame him for wanting to escape. I can’t say I blame the Catholic Church for not letting him. The awe is not diminished by the constant hyms of “silence” and “no photo” coming from the guards.
After a few hours of utter awe, we found some relief in the less stimulating room of pope mobiles and in a stairwell where we posed with an agressively adorable photo of the pope and a koala.
We arrived early to the train station bound for Florence. I waited at what we thought was the correct platform while Nick double-checked that it was.
"This is the wrong one," he gasped, a few minutes before the train was to depart.
If we didn’t catch the train we would have to wait another two hours and get in to Florence late at night.
With packs on, we sprinted for five minutes, dodging dozens of more leisurely-paced people. We stopped twice to ask where the platform 2e was, only to find it past the end of the numbered platforms and tucked behind them, out of sight. As the conductor blew his final-call whistle, we heaved ourselves on board, panting.
After collapsing in our seats, in soreness and astonishment, we read the whole ride. I finished the Bhagavad Gida as Nick read Moby Dick.
11/15 “The rain in Spain…”
The overnight train was like summer camp, six tightly-packed beds in a small cabin. Nick and I were both on top bunks. The red wine in my belly, the heat of the cabin, and the subtle movement of the train, lulled me to restful sleep… en route to Barcelona.
Stunned by the size of the city, we boarded the metro to get to our hostel, Rambla’s Home. Little did we know we wouldn’t step through the door for another four hours.
Our first failed attempt was my blunder. I had somehow looked up the wrong address. We found a small reprieve, a cafe with wireless tucked in the back of a store, on an outdoor terrace. We should have recognized the omen when we smelled it… the owner’s dog relieved itself right in front of our table, as we started to feel the first few raindrops.
Re-energized, we set out for the new location we had just looked up. We rambled down The Rambla, past markets and outdoor restaurants, and billboards for Paella, excited to put our bags down and walk around.
But the rain started pouring, giving me an opportunity to dawn my poncho for the first time on this trip.
The elusive hostel was nowhere to be found and Nick was re-directed to a new address upon asking a man at another hostel.
With soggy and defeated morale, we ducked into a tapas restaurant for Sangria. His was infused with mango, mine with ginger and chamomile. Nick called the hostel after wandering around solo, in search of it.
After four hours of rainy-weather, big city, misdirection-al frustration, we found it, “Rambla’s Home,” a tiny handwritten plaque near the mailbox.
The adventure, in which we say plenty of Barcelona (backpacks unfortunately intact) was enough for one night. We had a wonderful soup and beer dinner, did laundry, and talked a little to the hostel worker with what few sparse common language we shared.
The hostel was everything I envisioned in Spain… worn-around-the-edges pink walls with ornate white molding, green and yellow stained glass, a terrace that lay under residential apartments… strings of laundry and scent of Spanish cooking.
With still-rain-trodden spirits we went out in the afternoon to eat a good meal. We ordered a liter of Sangria to start, and then tapas off a list.
You circle the ones you want and they bring them out in little miniature dishes, each a small work of stacked and garnished art. I like tapas tasting… filing up on beautifully-crafted snacks.
We then ventured to the Gaudi-designed (CHURCH). It reminded me of a cob house, organically sculpted, but with cubist figures of Christ and the saints.
Still fighting to keep morale less soggy than our shoes, we walked uphill to Parc Güell, which overlooks the city and coastline, and is a gaudy Gaudi array of colorful mosaics.
I felt, atop the highest point, as peaceful as I always do ascending anything in the world. It may be the Capricorn in me that always wants to climb, but I always feel most at peace with a place once I’ve seen it stretched out bellow me.
We cooked another dinner variation composed of the giant box of heart-shaped pasta we had bought, drank Spanish beer, and watched Midnight in Paris (which Nick craftily downloaded somehow.) We laughed about how they always portray Paris as being so quaint and empty-street in the movies.
The movie, a Woody Allen production, was lighthearted and fun, albeit factually questionable. Owen Wilson goes back in time to his notion of the Golden Age… Paris in the 1920s, where he befriends Gertrude Stein, Heminway, F.Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Picaso and Dali. He finds people in the 20s pining for their own notions of past Golden Ages.
I thought about how easily I fall into thinking that the past was simpler, easier, more ideal… how different geographical places in the world will make me happy, will be romantic and beautiful in ways that my Kentucky backyard isn’t.
And I feel content knowing that Parisian streets aren’t as dreamy as the silver-screen shows. I think back to being an extra in the Bollywood film… realizing how difficult it is to shoot the perfect scene… 12 hours of grueling quest for perfection, and that’s even before edit.
I bask in the gritty, busy, baguette&cigarette-butt-latent Parisian streets in their perfect imperfection.
I soak in the rarity of such rainy skies in Barcelona, even if I can’t buy a postcard of the city on such a day.
I anticipate being more content with Kentucky, and any home I encounter, knowing that everywhere is as rainy and gritty as you make it out to be.
All talk of contentedness in mind, it was still REALLY nice to have a sunny day in Barcelona.
We decided to head straight back to Parc Gruell, and spent the day walking around cactus and flowers. We were serenaded by guitar amidst our picnic of pastries, grapes and corn nuts. We shared crumbs with pigeons, breathed deep sighs of relief to not worry about getting anywhere by a certain time, or about keeping our packs dry.
"Let’s go there," Nick pointed at a range of hills in the distance.
After walking through the smaller town on the other side of the park, hearing a choir of school’s recesses, we started climbing up towards the top. We watched the sun start to go down, counted the different shades of blue in the sky, and relished in the feeling of being out of the big city.
But only for a while, as we hiked back to the heart of Barcelona. With a climbing-induced pang of hunger, we knew exactly what we wanted for dinner-Paella. We had seen it on absolutely every restaurant billboard, but quested for it much longer than we anticipated (thus is travel.)
On the way back to the hostel we ran into a loooong string of protestors. The crowd was dense and extended for at least a dozen blocks. They were mostly students, carrying signs and banners in Catalan.
We could read two of them though… one in English that said “Fuck this, I’m going to Hogwarts,” and another that said “NO,” and had scissors drawn in the “O.” No cuts… a rally for education rights. It made my activism-blood in me bubble.
But we had a ferry to catch.
11/18 Infact, I write to you from said “ferry,” an economy cruise from Barcelona to Roma, that our Eurail passes allowed us on for discount. I had in mind the type of ferry I had been on already… moderately sized, laid back, equipped with free internet, comfortable. This “ferry” is actually a cruise ship… a retired one I guess. It boasts an empty swimming pool on deck, as well as a bar, internet for 8 Euro an hour, a spa and wellness center.
But the only people that seem to be on it are truckers, as it accommodates their semis on board. Once we boarded, they pointed to a cinema-like room and said “choose a seat.” Aboard this 20-hour ferry we were given barely-recline-able seats in a blue-lit room. Every hour, a voice would come on the speakers reminding us that the restaurant was open.
We sprawled across empty rows of seats and slept on our “luxury cruiser.”
Awakened by more speaker announcements at 10 in the morning, we confusingly sat through a 30-minute safety drill wherein staff marched by with hard hats. They announced how to put on safety vests, and versed us on how many people each dingy boat would carry if the boat started to go down.
Once it was over, Nick and I ate our grocery baguette with Nutella, on the deck of the boat. We spent a good deal of the morning wondering what Semester at Sea is like (Joey Coe,) and marveling at how blue the water really is.
We’ve spent our hours since, wandering around the boat, avoiding the sleeping cinema. We ordered a beer on the deck and ate all the free pretzels at the bar. We read. I finished Illusions The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach. Nick appropriately read Moby Dick at sea, but to a comical background playlist of Janelle Monae, Prince, Bob Marley, Michael Jackson.
We’ve almost survived 20 hours of “luxury cruise” now, sitting aboard the deck with chain-smoking Spanish and Italian truck drivers. We are watching the sun set and shivering amidst ocean wind.
Paris was a blur of bright lights, warm hospitality, crammed metro rides, baguettes galore, an impromptu fútbol (soccer) game, new and old friends.
11/9 Eating a baguette with cheese outside AFP, Agence France-Press, Nick and I waited for our Couchsurfing host, Benjamin, an IT guy at AFP, to get out of work. Out of breath, he emerged a few minutes late and explained that he had to get home fast to rent a moving truck and pick up his new furniture. Hastily, we followed him home, where he left us the key and a balcony view. I curled up in a stomache-achy ball while Nick made soup and bought beer. Ben came home hours later, just as out of breath as when we first met him. We helped him transport his new futon up to his 9th floor flat before sharing a bottle of French red wine, and finally getting a chance to talk.
Observation: Parisians must consume millions of baguettes a day. Their fondness of them cannot be overstated. They walk around munching on them at all hours. They carry up to ten under each arm. You can’t walk more than a block without smelling baguettes baking in the oven.
11/10 Fresh oranges, pain au chocolat, croissants, a baguette, butter, jam, coffee and orange juice were splayed out on the table, a proper French breakfast, Ben said. After licking our fingers to gather every last buttery crumb, Nick and I walked to the Catacombs, an underground ossuary that holds the remains of about 6 million people. (Not before figuring out how to use the free public toilet boxes on the street. They talk and self-clean after each person exits.) The rows and rows of bones were utterly humbling and beautifully arranged. We had tea before walking around at Jardin du Luxembourg, trying to meet Ben (he was unable to make it due to studies,) and following the canal as the sun set.
11/11/11! “Meet us at 10:00 am at the pyramid in front of the Louvre?” Tracy wrote. Ahh, to rendezvous sans cell phones. As Nick and I were walking towards the pyramid, I heard three voices in unison yell “Collllleeen!” Tracy, Liz, Meg, and their friend Alex (all on fall break from Harlaxton College in the U.K.) were walking with Tracy’s friend Ben (a San Diego-an studying French in Paris.) Reunited! Tracy, Nick and I walked to fetch a baguette and crêpe while the others went into the Louvre. We sat down to order coffee. I ordered “cafe.” Tracy ordered “cafe noir.” We both ended up with teeny tiny espressos, and laughed. Paris does not do American coffee.
We wandered to Notre Dame, where Tracy was to meet Josh, another Kentucky friend studying in Europe. Nick and I went inside. I was awestruck with the magnitude, the colors, the stained glass, the familiar smell of incense. We then treked, for what seemed like hours, down The Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe. The avenue was lined with hundreds of French flags, leading up to one enormous one, under The Arc, to celebrate Armistice Day which commemorates the armistice signed between the Allies of World War I and Germany, which took effect at eleven o’clock in the morning—the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. Earlier that morning we had seen President Nicolas Sarkozy on TV, giving an address from The Arch.
Afterward, we met our growing group, now eight people, back at Notre Dame, and bought honey desserts at an Algerian bakery. Nick and I ate a grand French dinner before going back to the Irish pub where we were all to re-meet for the USA vs. France soccer match. Only Tracy’s friend Josh remained, with plenty of Kentuckians from Centre College.
A greasy bag of KFC sat in the corner while many of them painted their faces with stars and stripes. The bar was the official meeting place for the The American Outlaws, an intense unofficial supporters’ group for the US men’s soccer team. Some of them had flown in to Paris from the States, just for the game. We all headed towards the stadium, which was nearly sold out. Buying our 10-Euro tickets late was quite a conundrum. Nick and I walked around the stadium nearly three times before fatefully running into Liz, Alex, and Ben. We bought nosebleed seats and I freaked out a bit when security told me to check my camera at the gate because I “might throw the lens.” The game was the rowdiest sporting affair I’ve ever witnessed (though admittedly I’m no connoisseur.) (Interesting fact: the only beer they sold at the game was non-alcoholic!) The entire stadium did “the wave,” and a French man shook each of our hands, sarcastically, when France scored the one goal of the game, to win it. We joked that we wouldn’t have wanted to be around that mob if America had won, anyways. Our big ol’ group reunited and waited for the metro lines to simmer.
11/12 After staying with Ben for three nights, Nick and I moved on to my friend Sylvain’s house just outside of the city. I met Sylvain in Prague, when he was in town to attend an IT conference. After dropping our bags at his house, the three of us ventured to Occupy Paris, where the police-force seemed to outnumber the protesters. It was the only Occupy site I’ve seen where tents were banned.
We then ventured to Montmartre, home of Moulin Rouge and the white-domed Basilica of the Sacré Cœur. Artists like Salvador Dalí, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso and Vincent van Gogh once worked in the area, for reasons that became very apparent as the sun set, casting the city in gold.
A man put on a puppet show of the tale of Noah’s Ark. We saw gold-dusted macaroons on the same street as we saw a homeless woman with her sweater-clad cat.
(Every homeless person in Paris seems to have a dog or cat. Many wealthy people seem to carry their pets in fancy handbags and even roll them down the street in strollers.) Sylvain’s two Parisian friends joined us and we met our big ol’ group of Americans for Thai food, only to find the restaurant closed. After trying to find a suitable plan B, we decided it would be best to part ways and meet later (though we never actually did.) Sylvain, his two friends, Nick and I went to eat crêpes and drink cider. We talked about French etiquette (always finish your meal, keep both hands above the table, point your fork-end and knife-end toward each other, after a meal, to show it was satisfying.) They told us, in France, Dora the Explorer speaks in French and teaches English (totally negating her role as Hispanic-American cultural/language ambassador.) So strange! We ate waffles and Nutella (the peanut butter of France) outside on the street while watching two artists paint on canvas with spray paint, or as they are called in French- “paint bombs.” A third friend of Sylvain’s, a tri-lingual IT guy from Crete, joined us for an hour-long walk to the Eiffel Tower. On the hour, it busts into a five-minute splendor of shimmering lights. Sylvain said they re-paint the tower a different color every three years. We walked beneath it, and then further away, to view its 11-o’clock sparkle show.
11/13 All more-than-a-little-bit exhausted, Sylvain, Nick and I wandered out in the late afternoon, after another authentic French breakfast. We went to Bibliothèque nationale de France and later found what we declared to be the cheapest meal in Paris… a savory crêpe, sweet crêpe, and a drink for five Euros 50 cents. We wandered outside of the Centre Pompidue, watching fire spinners and magicians, and a man who balanced a unicycle on his face. Excessively exhausted, we headed home to make Sunday dinner, à la Bowling Green tradition. The markets were closed, but we bought a baguette and three extravagant individual desserts. Sylvain brought out a bottle of French beer, brewed with a Viking recipe. We ate lentils, peas and carrots, with Dijon mustard. And we watched episodes of The IT Crowd and The Big Bang Theory. Then, Sylvain pointed out scenes in Paris where the film Amélie was shot, until his cat Mila (Bulgarian for “sweet”) perched in front of the screen.
11/14 Nick and I were on our own in Paris, a first, since Sylvain had to work. I had patiently waited to see Musée d’Orsay, saving it for last so that I could spend a leisurely day savoring the impressionist strokes. “Closed Monday” read the sign, garnering tears in my eyes. I sat along the Seine mourning, and trying to regain composure. With a few deep breaths, I was able to put the tragedy behind me in order to make the most of the otherwise-lovely, sunny day in Paris. Nick and I decided to pay to walk up the dizzying spiral stairs of Notre Dame. The golden hour sauntered across the city and the church’s bell towers, leaving me in silent wonder, finally able to orient myself with the sprawling city below. I spent a long time staring at a spider spinning its web at the very top of the cathedral. Once we wound down the stairs, we walked to Shakespeare and Co., my very favorite bookstore to date. It’s haven for English language in the heart of Paris, once a gathering place for writers such as Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, William S. Burroughs and James Joyce. Books paint the walls, and the upstairs is composed of magical reading nooks, a room with a piano, and strings of colorful lights. I was feeling peaceful, finally, in Paris… until we took the metro back to Sylvain’s during rush hour.
Once we reunited with our friend, he joined us for the hour-long journey to our train. The three of us shared a last meal outside of the station… the best yet, including Crème brûlée and red wine. "À la vôtre" to France and friends.