Once Upon a Time in Italia

I realized I hadn’t left England since arriving. So I called up my friend Fiona in Spain, and Amanda in Nottingham, and decided we should try Italy. We left in the early hours of the 30th, and I hardly got any sleep from then on. Amanda and I met Fiona at the airport, then took a bus into Milan, where we’d booked a hostel for 2 nights. We checked into the hostel and then went straight into Milan.

I love taking public transportation, especially metros/undergrounds/subways. It makes me feel travel savvy, and independent. Because it makes me feel like a local. So we took the metro, which is always the cheaper alternative in a big city, to the city center. The first place we went to was the Duomo di Milano.
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It’s pretty impressive in person. We scaled the stairs to the top.

I will say this though: besides the Duomo and maybe a few other things Milan isn’t really the best city to tour. I know The Last Supper is featured in a museum there. There’s apparently a nice lake or something. It’s really a better place to people watch, and shop. Milan is the metropolitan business centre of Italy, and there’s a bunch of expensive shops there. So you can go window-licking. And if you’re into haut-couture? Go to Milan.

Something I’ve only really found outside of England (after having been to France and Italy) is that there are more street peddlers in other areas of Europe than in England. They’ll grab you by the wrist and slap a bracelet on you, or put a keychain in your hand, and urge you to pay for it, and harass you if you refuse. They mainly target tourists of course, so they lurk outside buildings such as the Duomo. If you see a man carrying a slew of bracelets, run away. One Senegalese man got to me, but Fiona spoke Wolof (a language from Senegal) to him and somehow convinced him let me have the bracelet he tied on me for free.

That evening was somewhat of a debacle. I’m not going to explain what happened, but I’ll say that my faith in humanity was restored. People are, in general, kind and willing to help. I met some great Milanese locals that night, so a round of applause for the people of Milan!

We went to bed at probably 2 a.m., and woke up the next morning at 6 to catch our train to Venice at 7. Miraculously we caught the train, then had a nice nap until we arrived in Venice.

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Two thirds exhaustion, one third delirium. Here’s Fiona and Amanda looking dapper.

Then Venice:

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Venice is fantastic. The people were fantastic. The city itself is just beautiful, even the run down bits. There are cute dogs running around everywhere. I urge anyone to go.

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Basilica San Marco

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There’s a phenomenon in Venice called “acqua alta” which means “high water”. In the fall months Venice is prone to flooding. This year they had the worst flooding in decades. However, by the time we got to Venice the waters had receded a bit, so the only parts that were inconveniently flooded were really just Piazza San Marco, which is the main tourist area of the city. Go figure. It’s got the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica di San Marco. Being in Venice in fall, and during acqua alta, meant that there weren’t many tourists at all. It was so hassle free. Although it is a bit chilly (in the 40s fahrenheit), I’d recommend Venice in the fall. Acqua alta isn’t that much of a nuisance either. There are raised platforms that you can navigate to keep your feet dry, or you can get a pair of rain boots and just trudge through the water. It’s an interesting experience and it’s something that locals deal with every year.

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Rialto, a bridge across the Grand Canal, known for its markets. This is a place where you can get Venetian souvenirs. It’s pretty touristy though.

We heard that it was a good idea to wander around Venice, and purposely get lost. A lot of the appeal of Venice is really just in enjoying the city, looking at the buildings, sitting in a random square and watching local kids play soccer. So that’s what we did. We ended up walking around, taking photos, looking at the graffiti.

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Love locks” on a bridge.

We caught the train back to Milan that night. Fiona left for the airport early. Then since Amanda didn’t print her boarding pass for our Ryanair flight back home we wandered around the city at 5 am asking hotels if we could use their “stampa” which is Italian for printer, because our hostel’s printer was broken. After a couple of failed attempts at other hotels, a very apathetic front desk attendant obliged and we printed her ticket and then left for our flight back home. I liked Italy, but it’s good to be back in England. It’s kind of like home now. It’s becoming familiar. I couldn’t image leaving after just one semester.

Alla prossima.

Hello, Hallo

As part of this little project, one of the first things I should do is write an introductory pre-departure post, so that you can all compare me before and after this European experience. However, I must confess that I have cheated. I’ve already been in Europe for a little over a month, and still have about a week before I start going to class. So far I’ve visited the following cities (some more thoroughly than others), in more or less consecutive order: Amsterdam, Utrecht (the Netherlands) – Milan, Venice, Rome (Italy) – Lugano (Switzerland) – Prague (Czech Republic) – Munich, Dresden, Berlin, Wiesbaden, Rudesheim, Frankfurt am Main, Koblenz, Bonn, Cologne (Germany) – Brussels (Belgium).  Here are a few of my favorite shots (btw, it breaks my heart how many pictures I’m cutting for the sake of brevity):

Inside the Coliseum in Rome, Italy
Inside the Coliseum in Rome, Italy
View from a gondola in Venice, Italy
View from a gondola in Venice, Italy
Rudesheim, Germany
Rudesheim, Germany
Nobody tells you Brussels, Belgium is this beautiful!
Nobody tells you Brussels, Belgium is this beautiful!
Amsterdam, the Netherlands at nightAmsterdam, the Netherlands at night

As you can see, I’ve been a bit busy, but there’s still so much more to see! It’s been an absolute blast of an adventure, and I wish I could do this for much longer. I wish I had more time, but I digress… Anyway, for those that don’t already know, I’ll be spending this fall semester studying at Universiteit Utrecht in Utrecht, the Netherlands. I was already there for a couple days when I first arrived in Europe to leave most of my belongings with my good friend Betty who lives there, so I have already seen a little bit of it of the town, and I must say it’s such a pretty place. I know it’s not the same since I’m not giving an on-site, immediate description of my first days in my new temporary home, but here’s one thing I can tell you about my first impression of Utrecht:

Bikes! Bikes everywhere!

Well, there aren't that many bikes in this picture of Utrecht... but it's cute!

One thing everyone will tell you about the Netherlands (or, as some Dutch people will call it, Holland—but I’ve been reprimanded by a couple of Dutch people for saying that, so I’m just going to cover my bases and say it the long way) is that it’s a bike country. Biking is literally the primary mode of transportation within towns and cities, and you will notice this right away. Many streets—traffic lights even—are intended for bikers, and even as a pedestrian you have to watch out for them. People ride them to school, work, parties, bars, and they do it in any weather. In any clothes. (Yup, girls bike in their skirts and dresses—they don’t pay any mind, and neither should you). There are parking lots specifically for bikes, and everyone makes sure to lock theirs in at least two different places, as apparently they get stolen quite often. As you might imagine, finding your own bicycle in a sea of other similar-looking contraptions can be difficult—plus, the more inconspicuous ones, being harder to identify, are commonly stolen. As a result, people like to “pimp out” their bikes quite a bit. Some people cover them in spray-paint, stickers, or even duct tape, and lots of girls like to personalize theirs with special baskets and artificial flowers around the handlebars and other areas. I know I’ll be buying my own bike soon (and yes, I do plan on getting a basket and at least one flower for it), but for now I must say it’s an adjustment. Not being used to biking everywhere, I must say I was left a bit… sore.

Exhibit A: Betty, showing me how to properly park a bike on the second story.

Exhibit A: Betty, showing me how to properly park a bike on the second story.

Another thing I’ve enjoyed here is that lots of the food which we consider more luxurious and specialized is a lot more common here, and is hence much cheaper. Whereas people usually just go for pre-sliced loaves of sandwich bread in the US, Europeans seem to prefer getting rolls and baguettes. Actually something I had never seen before which seems perfectly normal here is to buy packages of slightly-undercooked bread and then putting it in the oven for 10-15 minutes. Then you end up with practically freshly baked bread any time you want, which is fantastic. It’s also much cheaper to get fruits and vegetables, berry jams and nut spreads like Nutella, [supposedly] healthier, more natural cereals like Muesli, and “fancy” cheeses like Gouda and Brie. Inversely, I saw a box of American Lucky Charms cereal on sale for 7 euro!

A modest lunchtime picnic with baguettes, Brie cheese, hummus, strawberries, grapes, rose wine, chips, and more.

A modest lunchtime picnic with baguettes, Brie cheese, hummus, strawberries, grapes, rose wine, chips, and more.

Anyway, I don’t want to make this post any longer. Since we’re on the topic of food, here are pictures of some of my favorite meals I had from around Europe. ‘Till next time and, as the Dutch say, eet smakelijk! (Translation: bon appetit!)

Pancakes in Utrecht, the Netherlands Pancakes in Utrecht, the Netherlands
My brother-in-law, Carlos, and my first Italian gelato in Milan, Italy. What they say about Italian gelato... it is all true. My brother-in-law, Carlos, and my first Italian gelato in Milan, Italy. What they say about Italian gelato… it is all true.
Pretzel in Munich, Germany! As you can see, it was as big--if not bigger--than my purse. Pretzel in Munich, Germany! As you can see, it was as big–if not bigger–than my purse.
Crepes with my friend, Linda, at Museumsurferfest in Frankfurt, Germany! Crepes with my friend, Linda, at Museumsurferfest in Frankfurt, Germany!
Kebab with my friend, Laura, in Cologne, Germany!Kebab with my friend, Laura, in Cologne, Germany!Last but definitely best: Belgian waffles in Brussels, Belgium! My life changed after the first bite.Last but definitely best: Belgian waffles in Brussels, Belgium! My life changed after the first bite.

Gelato, Calzones, and Pickpockets?!

I’m behind on my posts so I want to backtrack a few weeks to the weekend I spent in Milan. It was the first time I travelled out of France since I moved here. Over the trip I learned a few things about traveling in general and also got to visit my grandmother’s homeland (I am a quarter Italian you know!). I saw landmarks, ate gelato, watched people fall victim to typical tourist traps, and took a ton of pictures. Overall it was a great weekend!
A group at my university here called Interculture (a group for enrolled students and exchange students to interact much like our NaviGators) organized the trip, so naturally the bus left almost half an hour late (nothing here is punctual). The bus driver hit a few curbs and stalled the bus before we were even a block away from Place de Gualle (the central square in Antibes). Once we were on the highway things went much more smoothly though, and an exhausted gaggle of students clambered out of the bus and into a hostel approximately four hours later. It certainly wasn’t a five star hotel, however the hostel was much nicer than many of the horror stories I’ve heard regarding European hostels.
The next morning we ate a free breakfast of cereal, tasting mostly like cigarette ash, when a fellow student realized the couple sitting next to us stole her purse containing her money, bank cards, and passport. We all learned firsthand how quick a pickpocket can be and how important it is to be aware, no matter how seemingly safe your surroundings are.
Later that morning, walking out of the subway, my mouth dropped open in awe: the center of Milan, near the Duomo (Italian for cathedral) is absolutely gorgeous. This was my view as I emerged from the subway station:

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At the Duomo, we took a look around inside, and even got to climb to the roof to see an aerial view of Milan. To a girl who grew up in the magical land of Orlando, the Duomo is slightly reminiscent of the Disney castle.
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The rest of the day and most of the following was full of the typical tourist excitement—scammers trying to hand you “free souvenirs” then demanding money and following you if you refused, tons of pictures, window shopping, etc. The food we ate the first day wasn’t very Italian at all. It was overpriced, mediocre, and overall disappointing. The next day however, we found a hole-in-the-wall type pizzeria called “OK! Pizza”. I ordered a fairly cheap calzone that turned out to be huge and positively delicious with a strong Italian espresso.
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The weekend in Milan was a blast, but I have to admit I was relieved to return to Antibes and have a day or two to recover before my classes on Wednesday. It was an eerie feeling leaning over to tell me friend I was “glad to be home” when we arrived in Antibes. I’ve only been here a month and already it’s starting to feel a bit like home. Until next time… Au revoir!