Saturday, August 23, 2008

Rome Alone.

(The preceding title is accredited to Veronica Castro. Please send all the book deals to her. She is in Cairo.)

So as the title indicates, I am on the last leg of my journey in Europe. I am in Rome, alone, and spending one night in a scary hostel before beginning my 24 hour journey that lands me in Nairobi. The trip to Rome was interesting, involving 17 hours of train travel, almost being fined for somehow ending up in Switzerland, and an old German lady offering me carbonated apple juice.

Traveling alone has been a very mixed experience for me. Until this point, even my more daring adventures have been with at least one other person (namely my twin). I can now say, traveling alone is a whole different ball game. On one hand, it is insanely frustrating. There is no one to vent to, to help you, or provide the much needed safety of numbers. Being alone and female has lead to two scam attempts and three inappropriate comments... in the few hours I've been here.
However, it is so rewarding. Even little things like getting a vegetarian sandwich from someone that doesn't share a common lanuage, or finding your hostel with two bags (and lugging them up 7 flights of stairs) makes you so proud of yourself.

I have been spending the last few days trying to mentally wrap up my time in Europe and prepare for the journey ahead. It hasn't been easy, and this post is an attempt to help the process. So, for everyone traveling in the near future (which is like 90% of my friends) or ever, here's my advice:

List O' Practical Advice
1. Bring a Tide to Go pen. Or seven. Seriously, they saved the day on more than one occasion when lasagna, gelato, or wine went flying.
2. Pack all of your clothes in zip lock bags. They compact your clothes, allowing you to squeeze one more article of clothing in there, like...
3. Underwear. Pack what you think you need, then pack 5 more pairs. Honestly, you can wear the same pair of paints, tanktops, etc. for a week if needed but one pair of underwear only lasts like three days (just kidding... I think).
4. If you have a Eurail pass, which you should, then get reservations. That means when you arrive in a city, go find the tickets desk and get a train booked for when you leave. Yes it costs a few euros, but if you don't you'll likely incur bigger charges when 2nd class fills up. Also, read the fine print on those suckers.
5. Bring a guide book for each country (Okay, Dad, you were right all these years). We didn't because they are heavy, but I would have gotten so much more out of everything I saw if I had information, as most touristy things here don't have convenient, English descriptions with them. Get one with a phrase book in the back.
6. Rent or buy a cell phone for the time your abroad. Seriously. It was a trip saver on more than one occasion.

List O' Not As Practical Thoughts
1. I really enjoyed everyone who went on this trip (7 total), but I think the majority of the stress we experienced was at least in part do to the number of people. Bring 4 or less, it'll decrease the arguments over food, waking up, what to see, etc.
2. In some ways I liked the change of scenery by moving from country to country (leaving Italy, for example, was a bit of a relief), but in others ways I really liked spending so much time in Germany, giving me a feeling of knowing the country.
3. The stupid America tourist stereotype is sometimes justified, and sometimes it's just a way for mean people to be mean to other people that have taken an interest in their culture. Try to be as unobtrusive as possible, but remember that you are not being inherently obnoxious by visiting a country, even if you don't know the language.

That's it. My next post, whenever that is, will be from Kenya! Stay safe, and good luck for all of you who are starting work or classes.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Don't be dismayed at goodbyes...

I am currently in a McDonalds in downtown Paris, on my own (!!) computer using free (!!) wireless. The McDonalds is currently playing "Soldja Boy" on the speakers, which I think a few of my AU girls might find humorous.

I said goodbye to Andrew and Jan an hour ago on a dirty, crowded Parisian street. I say goodbye to Bethany in less than an hour. Today is not going to be a fun day. I'm in transition now, kind of in between my Europe travels and my African studies. It's relaxing, but I'm ready to be somewhere to stay.

Now, the story about my camera. As some of you know, I have a pretty awesome Kodak camera given to me by a person whom I am very fond of. It was innocently dropped near the Eiffel Tower and no longer functioned. In retrospect, it was actually kind of nice to see Europe NOT through the lense of a camera. But, for Africa, I decided that a camera was not optional. So in Frankfurt I tracked down a camera store and negotiated, in German, the purchase of a fairly nice but fairly inexpensive digital camera. I was content. The NEXT MORNING, I'm packing and decide for kicks and giggles to try turning on my broken camera. It works. Perfectly. Someone upstairs clearly is having a laugh at me and my wallet's expense.

Oh, and my glasses have broken in half.

Otherwise, life is good!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Amsterdam, a city of drugs, prostitutes, and... lots of kittys.

One thing that has surprised me about this trip is how much these cities live up to their stereotypes. Now, don´t get me wrong, I have been surprised throughout this trip by certain aspects of Europe, but for the most part, they are what they are supposed to be. French people are actually rude, Venice actually has a ton of gigantic canals and gondolas, and Amsterdam actually is full of drugs and prostitutes. Given that all of the cities I have seen depend on tourism, the cynical part of me thinks that these cities have no cultural freedom, but rather have to be what we want them to be. Thoughts?

On a lighter note, I really did like Amsterdam. It was quirky and very open. It was refreshing to see drug policy and sex worker policy enacted in a way that didn´t fill prisons with people who have almost no negative impact on society. Maybe the people that insist that arresting working women every other night while the johns go gree is a good idea should check out Amsterdam, where the women are healthy and earning a living wage, and society hasn´t collapsed around them.

Our hostel was right at the entrance of the red light district, so we really didn´t see much beyond that. We did take a walking tour that included the Old Church, Anne Franks house, etc. Other than that, I ate a lot of Chinese food and falafal and spent a lot of time wandering around, marveling at the reality of Amsterdam. Oh, and there were kittys everywhere!! There are a lot of mice in Amsterdam, so every hostel, business, and even restaurants have at least one resident cat. The one in our hostel was named Micky, was pure white and liked to sleep on the stairs.

I am now in Frankfurt, spending a bit more time with Andrew before leaving for four months. Given that I chose this and want this, I almost feel like I´m not allowed to be sad. But I am. So deal. We haven´t really seen much of Frankfurt, we´ve mostly been relaxing, eating, and watching movies. Nice after such a long trip.

I got my schedule for Nairobi! For those of you who don´t know, I will be taking two classes at the United States International University, which is an African university, taught by Africans, with African classmates. For those two classes I will be taking Politics in Africa and International Organizazions. Two times a week, for an hour and forty minutes each time, on Tuesday and Thursday. Very excited! For my other two classes I will be taking intensive Swahili and The Politics of Culture in Kenya with other AU students. My last three credits will be an internship with a non profit based in Nairobi.

Geez this is long, but the internet was cheap so I must take advantage!

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ich bin ein Berliner?

Hallo! I've spent the last four days in Berlin, and I must say it has been one of my favorite cities so far. I loved speaking the language, and I loved the city itself. Berlin is not really the traditional German city at all. It's a city of the world, very clearly. I think it's accurate the say that Berliners consider themselves Europeans first, and Germans second. This made the vibe of the city to be very forward thinking and exciting. I think I could definitely live here someday.

Another interesting thing about Berlin is the effects that World War II had on the city. The vast majority of the city was bombed to smitherings by the Allies during the war, so they're STILL rebuilding a lot of buildings! The combined stress of the Berline Wall/Communist occupation and the Nazis has made the attitude of the city to be a very regretful one. These Germans are determined to be progressive and move forward in peace without forgetting what their history was; there are memorials and remenants of the past purposely left all over the place. German pride is also an issue; I have only seen one German flag the entire time I've been here, and that was on the parliment building.

We took a walking tour of the city, and therefore saw a lot of things, including the place that Hitler commited suicide, the Brandenburg Gate, Potsdamer Platz, and sections of the Berlin Wall. We even went up to the top the Parliment building and walked on the glass roof.

In other news, Andrew and I have found the cheapest hostels to be in Frankfurt, and so we're heading there very soon! A few of us are heading to Cologne after that. Thanks for all of the suggestions!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Women from Prague look like models, and men from Prauge look like hair band members.

Prague was an interesting experience. I loved crossing the line between West and East Europe, the imaginary line that meant the difference between learning about it during school and not. Prauge, being the most "Western" city in Eastern Europe, was pretty developed and definitely had the food, squares, and nightlife typical of other cities that I have visited.

There were, however, several notable differences between Prague and other more visited countries:
1. The language. While I didn't know French, Italian, or Spanish, I at least could read the letters and make a stab at pronouncing a street name when asking a poor local where I was. Czech, not so much. This made navigating the metro or even reading the Czech map a rather entertaining disaster.
2. The money. No Euro! At first we were excited about this, but quickly realizing that dividing everything by 15.5 to turn Korunas into Dollars was no fun. It also wasn't nearly as cheap as we were expecting. Still, an adventure.
3. The people. While this is stereotypical, Eastern Europeans really seemed to be a darker, less smiley, more Iron-Maideny version of their Western counterparts. We went dancing, and the club attendees ranged from honest to god Czech models to men that looked like greasy hair band members. Weird.

Otherwise, we saw where the Velvet Revolution started, checked out the Communist Museum, and walked across the Charles Bridge. A super cool experience that I would recommend to anyone looking for a different European adventure while wanting to stay on the less risky side of things.

In other news, Veronica has joined us! It's really nice seeing a fresh face after a few weeks of the same (beautiful, of course) faces. She also still has the "we're in Europe!" mood to her, which is a refreshing reminder that despite being tired this is still super cool!

I hope everyone is prepping for the new year, and getting lots of yummy sleep and free refills.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A post on Italy... and Gelato.

Alright, so it has been a while since I last posted, so I'm going to do a super post for all of Italy for my adoring readers. I'm currently in an internet cafe in Milan, and am hungry for cheap pizza. But, first, a post.

What to say about Rome? We spent 4 days there, and it can pretty much be describe with any adjective that comes to mind. It was loud, exciting, dirty, hot, ancient, disorganized, and overall a lot of fun. We saw all of the basics, including the Colosseum and Roman Forum. After my rather powerful feminist upchuck reflex eventually subsided, I actually enjoyed the Vatican as well.
Two things I loved about Rome were the huge numbers of motorized scooters, and of course, the Gelati. The Roman streets are covered, in a very literal sense, in every type of scooter you can imagine. From brand new classically red Vespas to beat up, taped together who-knows-what, every Italian had one and knew how to aggressively veer past the poor souls who were in cars. I loved, and plan to get one as soon as I get back to DC when I can afford one, so future apartmentmates beware.
This brings me to gelati (this, as I learned, is plural for gelato). This delicious Italian treat was served at every single street corner in Rome and Venice in "Gelatirias". We ate several scoops after every single meal, and it was epic. My favorite flavor (after sampling about a dozen) is pineapple and lemon, although not together.

This city delighted me. While Rome is ancient and full of interesting things to do, Venice held the charm and vibe that I expected from an Italian city. It is easily the most humid place I have every been to, and I don't think I'll ever dry off. This humidity combined with age means that the paint is peeling from every building and gives off a lazy feeling from the buildings and streets themselves. The canals stank, but we bought a day pass for the city water bus system and spent much time enjoying the cool breeze as we puttered through the city. There are no cars in Venice, which I didn't realize for a long time and kept on wondering why I felt so peaceful. We used the water busses to boat to two islands off of Venice, Murano and Burano, famous for glass blowing and lace, respectively. These islands were Italian Fire Islands, honestly.
Our lodging was in the country about 30 minutes outside of the city. It was a little creepy, being in the middle of a corn field and all, but our place to stay was actually a little cottage which was very charming and private and... attached to a pizzaria with the best pizza I've had in Italy and a cat named Amore. Sweet.

In an unexpected side tour, I am now in Milan before jetting off to Prague tomorrow afternoon. We have about 24 hours here, and we are taking it easy before the last leg of the trip (Prague, Berlin, and Amsterdam). The Last Supper is here, but you have to book a ticket about three months in advance to see it, so we are just soaking up the vibe and relaxing. It is a very Italian city, not nearly as touristy as Rome or even Venice. Our English is only getting us so far here! I will be very relieved when I get to Germany and can finally speak the language of the culture I am visiting. And I'm super excited to see Eastern Europe!

Overall, we are becoming experts in navigating train stations and metro stations in foreign cities and finding reasonably cheap food on a very expensive Euro. Our sign language for "how much is the Coke?" and "where the heck am I?" is improving as well. It's an empowering experience, dealing with problems independently and traveling in a way that doesn't break the bank or offend the people we are visiting. This trip is great preparation for Africa, and it only makes me more excited for the next several months! I miss you all though, so e-mails would be greatly appreciated!

At the end of this trip, I will be taking a side trip with Andrew for a few days before heading off the Africa. Any suggestions as to where to go? Your options are: any town in Germany, Belgium, or northern France. Go.

Oh, and happy birthday Dad!