Monday, November 28, 2011

Mommy, wow...I'm a big kid now!

When I started my journey, I wasn't sure when I would start traveling alone and for exactly how long I would be alone. I had Laura in Oz, my family for a bit in Italy and I knew I would meet up with Jodi at some point. But, I felt certain that when the time came I would be prepared to take the jump into the deep end, even without my little orange arm floaties. Thought it might be like a "Mommy Wow, I'm a big kid now!" kind of moment. Things worked out where I spent the first portion of my trip with Laura, my family and Jodi and I planned to set aside the end of my trip for myself. So, instead of getting pushed into the deep end like I thought I would be, I essentially waded into the pool, step by step, gradually getting used to the feel of the water and learning to swim. You would think, this is a good way to learn. And it was, to many extents. However, I'm realizing that the longer you wait to submerge yourself in the cold water, the more difficult it becomes and the quicker your breaths become. I mean, what if there are sharks, or something done there? Now, the time has come to dunk myself and my anxiety seems higher than it should be at this point. I'm in a much different place than I was even one month ago in all that I have learned from bouncing between countries. But there is still so so much to learn. There are still many mistakes and typical travel mishaps to encounter, but this time I will only have myself to comfort myself and make it comical in order to avoid frustrations and tears. That all being said, with this apprehension also comes an intense ping of excitement. I mean after all, it is a bit exhilarating to finally go completely underwater and emerge to a refreshed world, right? So, now I take a deep breath and wait for the wave.

I left Jodi in the Gallieni metro station in Paris as I boarded my bus to London. She planned to board a plane to Scotland later in the evening. it's just me. After nearly 3 months of travel, I am officially on my own in a foreign country. It's a strange feeling, as Jodi and I have literally been together every hour of the day for a month and a half. I feel a little bit like I've lost an appendage, especially when I turn to the right and ask, out of habit, for Jodi to hold something, only to find the unsavory French fella in the subway looking all too eager to hold my belongings. Or when I go to lay my head on the shoulder of my bus buddy and realize that nope, I do not in fact recognize that shoulder and certainly should not be snuggling with it. Hmm, yes, I must be more careful. If I thought I was tired of being on high alert when there was two of us, I'm more than a little concerned for how hyper-vigilant I will now have to be on my own. I've been practicing my ninja moves and I think if I just swing myself to the left and then to the right really quickly, my toddler-sized backpack will surely generate enough force to disarm any potential attackers. No worries, Mama, I got this covered.

The first song that came on my Ipad when I sat down in the bus was a song called London Skies..will you let me romanticize, the beauty in our London skies..The second song was Man in the Mirror..gonna make a change, for once in my life, gonna be real good, gonna make a difference, gonna make it right..if you wanna make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and make the change...The third song was Ridin' Solo..I'm feelin like a star, you can't stop my shine, I'm riding cloud nine, my head's in the sky...If my life were a sound track I'd say I might buy that album. I feel good; I feel like I'm on the right path.

The day of separation (that's what I'm calling it now) was a tricky one. It began with our train from Bayeux to Caen being about 25 minutes late. Meaning we would have 5 minutes to print our bus tickets, check in and find our bus after we landed at the train station. Thankfully, our bus was late but those thanks were quickly retracted as we couldn't even board the bus because the bus station was closed with nowhere to print tickets. New plan. Bought new train tickets to Paris and boarded with 15 minutes to spare. Spent about 1 1/2 hours at the bus station in Paris trying to print my ticket to London. After a less than helpful information desk, an internet/printer kiosk with no ink, two hotels, an ATM and an internet cafe I had my tickets in hand and waved them proudly to anyone who passed by as we had once again triumphed against the tricky travel odds! I then spent about 7 hours on a bus to London. This included a ride in the Eurotunnel..which is something entirely confusing to me..the bus stood still inside this tube thing which rocked like a boat and had no windows and looked like a tunnel..for over an hour..I'm not typically a claustrophobic person, but that definitely did the trick. Sometimes, I just want to get in my Honda Civic and drive down a familiar, open country road:)

So, now I am in London, back among those who sprecken the English. Hooray for English speaking people!! I felt like a 1st grader who had just discovered the skill of reading as we drove into London - I was eating up all those English words on the billboards and shop windows, amazed at myself for having the ability to string together letters and symbols to make real words!! Oddly enough however, I am finding it an interesting process, this re-acclimating to an English culture thing. I laughed at myself at the underground when I literally had to shake my head and crane my ear closer to the guy at the snack bar because the English language sounded so foreign to me. Sounds stupid I know, but it's true - I wasn't expecting English in return so it took me a moment to decipher the accent and realize, yep, thats english. In my defense, some of the English people here do have pretty strong accents that take some getting used to. As I walked down the streets today, I felt myself being somewhat hesitant to ask for directions because I am so used to employing large hand gestures and animated facial expressions in order to get a semi-understandable response. It can be a bit exhausting. But, now I must sit on my hands and tone down the animation because I'm guessing the charade game might come across as a little over-zealous. The currency jumble is another fun game I'm accustomed to playing - this is when I dump all the contents of my wallet into my palm and offer it up to the waitress, as usually have no clue what any of the coins mean on my first day in a country. Pence? Pound? Peso? I don't know!!! I'm super excited to see ice cubes back in the glass and had a lovely glass of FREE water with my lunch today. I sipped it slowly and tried to make it last forever. I found myself a little annoyed at the good service the waitress provided - she tried to take my order twice before I was ready and asked me at least three times if I was doing dare her be so on top of things!! I was afraid I would miss the slow pace of European dining, and it didn't take long:)

I still have so much to write about all my experiences and all I have seen. I'm several countries behind and plan to do a country recap soon. Until then, cheers!:)

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Wide load coming through!

Traveling is quite different from any other thing I've experienced in my life. It challenges me daily, excites my heart, and provides me with an almost constant new perspective. My view of the world, both figuratively and literally is changed with a quick train ride. I am reminded of how wonderful home is and feel overwhelmingly blessed by all I have at home in opportunity, family and friends. I am reminded of the beauty of this life and allow the hours to slow down so that I don't miss a thing. I am learning to enjoy the minute I am in without craning my neck to see what's coming in the next one. Once you realize that the worst stories often make the best stories and that every single thing happens for a better reason than you originally had planned anyways...all is well with the world.

As I recline in the bus from the Netherlands to Belgium, I look out my window and see several sheep on the hills to my left and to my right. They make me smile because simply the fact that they are Dutch sheep already makes them far cuter than any American sheep I've ever seen. So, I've decided that from now on, when I can't sleep I will be counting Dutch sheep in order to bring sweet dreams.

Every morning I remind myself to take a deep breath and take in every moment and detail of what is surrounding me. I realize I get the distinct pleasure to wake up today, with nothing written on the agenda except the doodled words "enjoy life" with an exclamation mark and a smiley face. Soon, I will have to return to reality. The working world will be knocking at my door again and I will be forced to welcome it in and offer it a beverage. But until then, I will savor these experiences with every morsel of my being.

That previous sentence makes me hungry, which makes me think of all the outstanding ethnic food I've been enjoying on this trip. Here, I will take a minute to divulge a quick bulleted sample of my favorite foods thus far.

Panna cotta gelato- goes without saying that this is my favorite Italian dessert
Langoush - a Hungarian flat-bread pizza
Mulled wine - a Hungarian hot wine with spices and fruit
Kurtoskalacs - another Hungarian street treat that is a spiraly batch of deliciousness
Viennese hot dog - who would have thought my favorite, cheese-filled hot dog would be discovered in Austria?
Frites with mayonnaise - these Dutch fries will have me forever questioning my previous loyalties to ketchup and ranch as my favored dips
Doner kabab - a wonderfully concocted selection of chicken(?), grilled veggies and a toasted tortilla in Amsterdam
Goat cheese salad - best salad of my life in Brussels, the goat cheese was in a very lightly breaded pastry and immediately became the cheese who stole my heart
Belgian chocolate - Neuhaus they aren't lying when they say they know how to make chocolate there. Heaven in chocolate.

Cumulatively, these will be the culprits responsible for my family's inability to recognize me when I step off the plane in December. Also, we have officially diagnosed ourselves with Pastry ADD. Oh, wow look at that beautiful, ancient cathed...mmm! Pastry!!!

Getting on and off the metro tests my ninja like abilities, as I am forced to maneuver my body into some very strange positions in order to avoid knocking the granny next to me out cold with my backpack and tied on tennis shoes. I'm thinking of installing a beeper into the pack to signal to everyone near me, that yes, I am indeed backing this thing up into a crowded train carriage right now. Or maybe I'll just wrap myself in some yellow and black tape to signify "wide load" coming through - I mean, someone should warn these poor people. It's bad enough that I already have somewhat poor body awareness, but strap a giant pack who's size compares to a small toddler, accompanied by his overweight friend..and lookout people, we've got problems. No worries about getting pick-pocketed from behind - I have strategically placed all my dirty laundry in the front zipper pouch, so if anyone decides to get handsy, well then, they can just help themselves to my one and only pair of smelly socks and everything else that goes along with a backpackers recycled wardrobe. Thinking defensively, that's me. My favorite is when I see the eyebrows raise in a slightly judgmental manner while the couple next to me in the tram talks in hushed French whispers about how rude I am to consider taking public transit when I clearly should be standing on a highway somewhere with my thumb extended and my trusty dog by my side. I may not be able to speak French people, but I see your finger pointing my direction and I can only laugh at it.

In traveling with someone it is only natural that you both fall into certain roles, both of which are equally important and necessary. Jodi is the super observant one who keeps us from getting squashed by oncoming cable cars, finds the hidden street signs, spots the Wifi passwords, and discovers the exit we have been hunting for the past half hour. She is also the first to point out the backpacker who just pulled a half empty soda cup from the trash can and proceeded to slurp away. Dude, if you can afford a train ticket, you can afford a soda for one euro. I am the keeper of the map and have been dubbed the Columbus of the trip, doing my best to navigate these strange foreign waters to get us safely to our hostels and attractions. Although with Austrian street names such as Stephenplatz and Swedenplatz, you can imagine there have been a few moments of confusion.

You can trust that when it is time to get up for a day of lazy strolls and sight seeing, I will be up, ready and waiting on Jodi to crawl out of the covers. BUT, without fail, when it is a day that time management truly matters, like when there are scheduled trains and buses to catch, you can absolutely bet that Jodi will be dressed and ready while beating me over the head with a packed backpack to get my snoozing butt out of the bed. But we are both in training to adopt both roles for when we separate. My observation skills are constantly challenged like when we quickly scale the escalators in the metro in search for our bus platform with only five minutes left until departure. My systems are bombarded as we have to make quick choices and answer questions that will alter our travel plans for the day if the wrong decision is hastily made - which way is that train going? does it stop there? Is that our connection? where is the exit? what did that announcement say? did that say platz, plein, or stkfljnakbng?? Do you swipe this thing somewhere or just throw it at the train??

Apparently the area of Belgium we stayed in was not as frequently visited by tourists and the menus were therefore in all French with no English subtitles (like several countries have offered before). Every meal was like a game of Russian roulette..close your eyes, point and hope that what you get in return does not have eyeballs, does not fight back and is something you recognize. That being said, French cuisine is probably my favorite thus far. It was so good I didn't even want to drink my water between bites because I would lose some of the flavor. I did discover that I like Kriek, a Belgian beer that tastes like a refreshing shirley temple, but better. Just don't ask me what I ate, because you know I can't tell you.

The myriad of languages and culture continues to be one of the most mesmerizing aspects of this trip for me. There is at least a 10 second delay in our responses to most people as we sort through the few key foreign phrases we know to determine which language to spit back out. I am the classy one who settles on a hearty, "Yeah that was soo good" with a thick Texan accent when asked by the French waiter if I enjoyed le cordon bleu. I have to bat away the instinctive belly rub and back of the hand face wipe that insists on following that statement.

I do believe that French is one of the more beautiful languages of the world. It is properly placed in the romance language category. German on the other language should hurt your throat that much. I love that when learning to speak Italian I am suddenly amazed at how fluent I am in Spanish. I also love the customary greetings that include kisses on the cheeks. They all seem so genuinely happy to see each other, every single time. Who would turn down all that free lovin every day? You people back home might want to watch your cheeks when I get back, I'm just saying.

I do sometimes miss home and the simplicities of my life without a giant blue backpack garnishing my back. It will be nice to hop in the car and be at my destination in five minutes tops, all without having to pull out three maps, a translation book and the Lonely Planet. However, I will say we have done amazingly well at getting off of our train/bus and strategically working our way to our hostels with minimal time spent being lost, and with absolutely no taxis! Well, there was the exception of the few hours spent wandering around the red light district in Amsterdam at 4 am..let's just say there are some interesting window displays around there that include things that I will NEVER be window shopping for..we jumped into a cab, followed by a bike taxi pretty quickly. Yikes.

Yes, I will definitely miss the feeling of success that comes with finally finding my destination - there is a great sense of joy and personal accomplishment that comes over me and I immediately feel like I deserve a great big pat on the back, a trophy or certificate of some kind and a round of applause. None of these things have been given to me, but I will continue to take my bows when I can.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Made in China

Let me preface this entry by saying that this is not an every day type of entry. This is not the greatest product of my travels, nor how I spend the majority of my time thinking. It is actually, the least of my thoughts and I have since worked through these feelings from this particular night. I do realize how very blessed I am and I would not trade any of my experiences for anything, not even for a box of double stuff oreos and a goblet of milk. But, nonetheless, it is the truth of what I have occasionally felt in the moment. And, I think to fully understand what traveling is to me, I must also capture these days....

Annoyed with travel. Cranky with the backpackers life. 90% of the time the diverse cultural mix that surrounds me is exciting and enchanting..but then there is that other 10% of the time when I am utterly annoyed that I can't understand half of what's been said around me. If this isn't enough to annoy me, I am also perturbed by the fact that I am one of the older people traveling this path and I look up to see that I am surrounded by a fleet of 21 and 22 year olds who are just looking for the next big party and whose idea of a good time consists of nothing more than being next in line for a jager bomb in the jager train. Although I am living the carefree lifestyle as well, their methods of being relaxed and carefree suddenly get on my very last nerve and I feel like pushing them off their happy little backpacking pedestal. These are the times in which I miss the common comforts and ease of home. Things such as my own private bathroom that I know has only been used by me and I know the exact date of when it was last cleaned. Things such as a dresser and a closet to hold my clothes, where I can freely choose from any number of clean items, instead of searching through a smooshed compression sack at the bottom of a backpack that is full of semi-clean clothes that have been worn and re-worn over the past 3 months. Things such as going to bed at night, knowing exactly who is in my room (me) and having the peace of mind knowing that I will be the only one there when I wake up in the morning..knowing I don't have to take inventory and roll call of all my personal, valued possessions before bed at night and when I wake up in the morning. I look forward to the day I can crawl into bed at night without having to repeatedly answer the question, "What are you up to tonight?" if the fact that I am in my pajamas under the covers was not clue enough that "No, I will not be attending the rave in West Berlin tonight". When the sounds I fall asleep to will be only my chihuahuas trying to make themselves comfortable in their beds, instead of the snoring German in the corner, or the restless Brazilian on the bottom bunk. I have been living the nomadic lifestyle for a little over 2 years now, frequently relishing in the fact that I am often times homeless and jobless at the same time. But there are times when the constant planning ahead that travel entails is too much to take. When the research required to find a good bed for the night and the easiest transportation to that bed is just agitating. Some just hire me a limo, load up my bags for me, give me a cozy and clean blanket complete with a matching pillow, feed me cookies and hot cocoa and take me to my luxury hotel room please.

It's a strange thing and makes no sense that I can be sad and discouraged while living what is by most standards considered the ideal and enviable lifestyle. It's not fair by any means that I have the right to feel down and melancholy, yet here I am. In spite of all attempts to explain these things to myself, I still lie here at 1:30am, wondering what the heck is wrong with me. Maybe I'm just being hormonal and I need a strong dose of Midol with a rum and coke to chill out. I'm loving it, yes. But, why am I not loving every single second? Why am I wasting ANY time and energy on these negative feelings? I feel disappointed in myself. Part of me feels like I am not making this trip all it should be. Like there is some pre-established standard for traveling Europe for 3 months, and if it is not met than I am to be considered a failure on all accounts. Is this pressure real? Or is it imagined? Am I placing it on myself? What if I don't see the right things, do the right things, learn the right things or meet the right people? But this is my journey right? What am I trying to prove? And who am I looking to for approval? What if I disappoint RIck Steves, or the authors of the Lonley Planet, the Europe on a Shoestring edition? I feel like I am constantly searching for what will change me and wondering what it will change me into. It is a dramatic metamorphosis that I seek. But what exactly do I want to change? What am I learning and is it enough to satisfy my hunger for transformation? I want self-assurance. I want pure confidence in who I am and what I believe. Even if it is a strong sense of opinion on what is the best bath soap to use, I want to be able to stand firm and debate it against some of the greatest minds of the nations. I want to not only feel intelligent, but truly be intelligent. I want to have an infectious love of life and a peace that exudes from me, like my best friend who's wisdom and chronic optimism for life is undeniable. I want to be encouraging and uplifting, to inspire people in simple and extravagant ways. I want to be influential, not forgettable. And I want to be able to find all these things from within, and not have to rely on an external source to fulfill these desires.

The emotional highs and lows of travel are insane. I can wake up feeling tired, uninspired and a bit overwhelmed but the instant I am showered and ready and I step into the fresh air of a new city I am literally instantly transformed into a renewed person who is excited for the adventure of the day. Why would you need to pep talk yourself to travel the world on basically a very extended holiday?? Because sometimes being in a foreign country for every minute of the day is overwhelming. It's like getting a new toy for Christmas; it's the one you've always wanted. And you play with it and you love it because it is just what you asked for. But, maybe there are secret hidden things that you don't know about this toy, and to find out about these secret things you need to read the instructions. Only, your toy has been Made in China, and the instructions are in Chinese. Sometimes you just want simple when all you get is a foreign form of complicated.

And probably what is most frustrating of all, is being ashamed to admit any of this.

Friday, November 11, 2011

I am the stupid one.

The stress of train travel in a non-english speaking country can not be adequately addressed with just the simple use of the word "stressful". This is not true in every instance, but there are the occasional rides that stick out above the pack. Our journey from Austria to Poland was an interesting one falling into the uber stressful category. At one point I was left standing in the doorway of the train, with ALL of our combined luggage thrown haphazardly over my shoulders, straddling the gap with one foot in the train and one on the platform, watching anxiously for Jodi's head to bob up the stairs with our tickets in hand. The plan was to either jump to the platform if the train began to leave before she returned, or to heroically extend my free pinky towards her to pull her up onto the train as it pulled away from the station if she succeeded in getting the tickets. Time after time I have found myself sitting perched on the edge of my seat with my nose plastered to the window and hands hooked through my luggage, with feet ready to run as I look to see which station the train is arriving at. If it's my stop, I might have about 1-2 minutes to gather my belongings and squeeze through the open doorways. It is of no help to me that for the past 10 minutes the conductor has been announcing our upcoming stop and several other snippets of important information because I am constantly reminded of just how little I know in the realm of foreign languages. We have now gotten smart and decided that buses are the way to go.

I am incredibly thankful that everyone else in this world is far more cultured and educated than the average American and they DO know other languages, especially English. Because in talking with them, it is THEY that save me every day because it is THEY that know enough of another language to communicate with me. I am the stupid one. At this juncture, I slap my forehead and realize that, once again, I need to stretch beyond what is standard and typical in my own society and step into another world of culture and education.

At one point I found myself becoming agitated at them for not speaking MY language in THEIR country. I quickly reprimanded myself and set about making up for my thoughts with a plethora of over-zealous smiles and winks.

Those blank conversations when they are speaking directly at me in a completely different tongue can be both agitating and amusing. Knowing the context of the situation is critical. Like for instance, take the Polish ticket collector on the train..when he said "blah blah blah" and I resigned to answering "Euro?" with an upturned question mark in order to determine that, Yes! We are speaking about what type of currency I will be paying with. Or the take the German lady who was sitting in front of us at the German movie theater, which was showing an English movie with German subtitles. By the 3rd time around, it was quite evident that her turning fully around in her seat and hissing at us using an especially forceful combination of German words meant that she did not in fact appreciate the rustling of our package of gummy bears during the movie. Didn't need Rick Steve's translation book for that one.

It is most unfortunate to be walking down the street and to overhear the people behind you talking about how uneducated and ignorant many Americans appear to be. What was even more unfortunate was that after listening (yes eavesdropping) further into the conversation was the realization that what they were saying was in all actuality fact rather than fiction. I was rendered speechless of a rebuttal because although they happened to be talking about a few specific encounters with some rather daft people who had no idea that Hungary was also a country and not just a reference to getting the munchies, they also hit on some points about our country that were sadly true. Things such as we don't even know our own geography, much less that of the world; also mentioned is that we know nothing outside our own politics and our own language. I wish I could refute these statements, but I am sadly one of those daft Americans.

There are several key things that are super important to take note of and learn fairly quickly when entering a new country. These are the things that will stave off awkward moments of classic American embarrassment.

1) What is the word for "women" in regards to the restroom? This is of superb importance, especially when my usual method of looking for the image of the girl in the skirt fails me due to the lack of pictures on the door. I was sadly mistaken in Austria when I entered the "Herren" instead of the "Damen". Oops. Auf Wiedersehen to you too, sir. Thankfully, "WC" seems to be the universal abbreviation for "water closet", so I am safe in assuming that is a good direction to head when in need of a bathroom break.

2) What are the words for push\pull? If you pull when the door clearly says "Drucken", you will look like me when I successfully face planted into the glass door, leaving a smudged imprint of my humiliated expression.

3) Just because they are speaking to you with a rare blend of accents does not mean that you have to alter your own American accent in order for them to better understand you. I have to physically stop myself from over-enunciating and adding and subtracting syllables at my own free will. Just speak English, Stacia.

4) What is the word for "exit"? I've learned it's always a positive thing to head toward the initiation points of the wind tunnel and sunlight. It's worked out for me so far as I have not fallen off any train platforms yet.

5) Deciding which direction to go based solely on the first and/or last letter of the street name is not always the smartest idea. Especially when you are in Austria or Germany and every other street name ends with -gasse, -straBe, or -platz! Just pick what sounds most similar and go with it. Hackeshacke becomes Hacky Sack Road. And Spaunade becomes Cocker Spaniel Ave. Done and done.

6) Always ask for water with "no gas" to ensure you will have a refreshing drink rather than one that tastes of bitter bubbles. And I will never again take for granted the never-ending supply of free water at American restaurants, as the European ones seem to get pleasure out of seeing who can charge the most for a 1-L bottle.

7) Try as I might, simply gurgling my throat followed by a few coughs does not translate to German and I might as well surrender any and all attempts at speaking this particular language, as I am sure I have fully insulted an entire country by now.

I'm learning though...every day, I am watching and I am learning:)

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The survival of the linguist..

After we dropped off my family at the train station in Rome we boarded our own train to Firenze (Florence). The plan was to spend a few days simply relaxing and absorbing the Italian lifestyle before beginning our upcoming multi-country trek. We toured the Ufizi museum, saw the Michaelangelo's the David, strolled through every piazza, and walked across the ponte vecchio in the rain. Missed out on the Boboli gardens because of the rain. I am by nature categorized as a "foody". (quick shout out to Hannah here, she gets me:) I love food and the food experience. One of my favorite things about Italy has to be the dining experience. It is culturally encouraged and expected to spend at least 2-3 hours at dinner, relaxing and taking time to enjoy each course. This is just another testament to the drastic difference in the pace of life between Italy and America. Jodi and I jumped right into this expectation and sat and enjoyed a dinner for almost a full 3 hours on a couple of different occasions. It's one of the best feelings to sit with a good friend, a glass of wine and an amazing dinner. There is just something about this atmosphere that makes for the best conversations about life and everything in it. We raised our glasses (whom I affectionately named Guiseppe) and toasted to a brilliant life. Another one of my favs from Italy? Winking waiters named Alessandro and Rafaele. Mmmhmm, I do not mind those Italian eyes and accents not one bit:)

From Florence we trained it to Venice and spent the afternoon getting lost in a labyrinth of ancient roads all somehow connected to the Grand Canal. There are seemingly hundreds of small paths winding around the river with countless options of where to turn and it is easy to get lost in an Italian time warp taking you back several years into an old-fashioned, romantic Italian love story. I would have loved to hop into one of the classic gondolas, the iconic boats of Venice, but I figured I'd save that small fortune it would have cost me for food and accommodations for the rest of my trip! Instead, I simply watched them float down the river, admiring how romantic it all seemed while simultaneously secretly hoping for one of the gondoliers to slip and fall! I'm completely amazed at how they stand on those teeny tiny things and navigate through such narrow passageways without killing themselves.

After Venice we found ourselves in Verona, the hometown to the beloved star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet. We ambled down the cobbled streets from one gelateria and ristorante to the next, soaking up as much Italian culture as we could as we knew this was our last stop in Italy. We toured Juliet's house and I waited on her balcony for my Romeo for as long as I could before Jodi pulled me away and said it was time to go. According to stories, placing a hand on the right breast of the bronze Juliet statue in the courtyard is meant to bring you a new, as strange as it felt to take that picture in front of heaps of tourists, we jumped right in line and joined the tradition..wouldn't want to miss that chance at love:) I was sad to realize the wall from Letters to Juliet does not in fact exist as portrayed on the movie, but I did contemplate writing a letter to Juliet and as they do give you several options on how to do so I feel certain mine would be answered by those Secretaries of Juliet. For the old fashioned romanticists, there is the hand written and dropped in a box adorned with a heart method, or for the more technologically savvy you could just shoot her a quick email from a heart shaped computer, and lastly for the lazier few you could just pick up the phone and give her a ring. (They do guarantee that every letter will be answered and the Secretaries are legitimately recognized and respected by the city of Verona). We heard from the girl in tourist information that there would be two concerts that evening at two of the local churches. Classical music she said. So we said, sure, that might be culturally saturating. We entered the giant cathedral and took our seats in the front row (Front row...really? An obvious mistake). Then we sat and listened as the man in front of us spoke in fast-paced Italian as he introduced the organist and his musical selections. We listened as patiently as possible awaiting the music for what seemed like an hour and could not help but crack up at the two of us as we looked so lost and confused listening to what seemed to be turning into an Italian sermon. The crowd giggled at what he said, so we giggled. The crowd mumbled a response to him, so we mumbled a response to him. Finally, the music began. But oh wait, the long winded man was not finished. His job was to interject commentary between EVERY song..we left after 3 pieces and barely made it out of the cathedral doors without bursting into laughter. Needless to say, our attempt at gaining a cultural experience proved both successful and ridiculously amusing. By the way, I did not know that My Country Tis of Thee is also known as God Save the King in Italy. Hum along and learn something new every day I suppose. Jodi and I have developed an uncanny ability to spot a gelateria from about a mile away; this is a brilliant talent that I feel comfortable boasting about. My last gelato experience in Italy was by far my best, as I fell madly in love with a panna cotta flavor dressed in an elegant waffle cone and bid a sad ado to my delectable and faithful friend.

Things America needs: Piazzas - why don't we have large open squares and spaces devoted to conserving architecture, sculptures and cultural beauty with endless cafes, restaurants and ice cream shops? I say we need them, lots of them. Waiters that are paid not by tips but by greater than minimum wage - the quality of service is so much better when the waiter's job is to not bombard you with quick, almost annoying service but to instead allow you ample time to enjoy your meal without interruptions. Gelato -
it's just better, that's all there is to it. To abide by military time like the rest of the world, so I can stop being so stinking confused over here. More elegant greetings for each other - there is something much more endearing about "Buona Sera" than "Hey ya'll, how ya doin tonight?"

*Budapest or Bust*

With tickets in hand we waved arrividerci to Italy and boarded a 15 hour overnight train to Budapest. No, Budapest was not on my original plan for travels, but apparently one brief conversation with a backpacker in the subway of Rome was enough to convince me that it was a trip worth taking. Unfortunately, we did not have beds on this sleeper train, but only some very awkwardly arranged upright chairs in which we spent our time trying desperately to discover a comfortable sleeping position. The heat was turned on and up and there were some super bizarre looking cabin mates directly around us making our cozy headquarters for sleep a bit more challenging still. We received 4 different unreadable smudged stamps on our passports as we were awakened at least 7 times by people asking gruffly for passports and train tickets. But, as we have learned to do, we laughed about it, got as comfortable as possible and snoozed our way into the capital of Hungary.

The language barrier continues to prove comical as I find myself in constant staring contests with others as we play "Guess that nationality" and attempt to determine what language the other speaks and how it will be best to communicate. It becomes more apparent how important it is to at least learn the small phrases such as "Thank you", "Yes" and the traditional greetings in order to be armed for small daily encounters. I stare blankly at people as they greet me and I mull through the random phrases that are dancing through my head, none of which are in the correct language. I catch myself as I almost blurt "Buona Sera", "Si", "De nada", "Scuzi" and "Grazie" to the Hungarian waiter, when I myself am clearly not even Italian nor do I speak Spanish. It's the survival of the linguist out here.

It is an interesting and amazing thing to enter a country of which you know absolutely nothing about. My knowledge base of Budapest is that they speak primarily Hungarian and apparently it is actually two sides of a city split in half by the Danube river, one side is known as Buda and the other is, yep, Pest. We quickly found the ATM and even more quickly withdrew entirely too much money all at once due to our faulty ability to convert the American dollar into Hungarian forints (about 240 forint to $1). This means our typical dinner could easily cost a couple of grand, and that is when I like to pretend I am a Hungarian millionaire. After finding our way to the hostel with successful use of the bus system we went out in search for our first Hungarian meal. The menu reads like this: potatoes..meat...more potatoes..cheese..more meat, and so on and so forth. The meats are endless: veal, duck pate, duck breast, goose liver, perch, salmon, deer, boar, beef, chicken, pork..all on one side of the menu. These Hungarians know how to prepare a hearty meal that will fill you up plenty for the remainder of the day and serves very well as a good comfort food for the cold weather that is beginning to take over these fall days. Our hostel was going out together for the night to join in with another hostel for a pre-halloween party, so Jodi and I suited up in the most convincing costumes we could gather from a random box of misfit costumes the hostel provided and went to see how the Hungarians party at Halloween. For 800 forint you could get a ticket for a bowl of goulash served from a steaming cauldron and a glass of mulled wine (hot wine which tastes like cinnamon cider = yummy). Two more days of discovering Budapest to come...

Nothing with eyeballs please...

The rest of the story...again, get comfy:)

Day Two (Monday): The plans for the day were to venture into a few of the towns surrounding Cortona. After narrowing the list down to two towns, both within about 30 kM from Cortona we felt pretty confident about our day's plans. Oh man:) We patted ourselves on the back for figuring out the bus we were sure would take us to the correct train station that was 2 miles away and hopped on as it pulled into the town square. AN HOUR later, we arrived at a completely different train station, in surprisingly enough, one of the towns we had actually meant to visit but had knocked off our list. Of course. Quick glance around Arezzo and we jumped right onto the train for Montepulciano. Although we had obviously gone out of our way to get there, both the hour long bus ride and the hour long train ride through the Tuscan countryside to Montepulciano were thankfully extremely beautiful and scenic. The train dropped us at the station and we looked around only discover that aside from a tiny restaurant across the street, that was about all that was there. We realized we were still 10 km from the place we intended to be and asked for the taxi number to take us there. Here enters Paolo, the cab driver. Paolo takes us into Montepulciano and promptly drops us smack in the middle of the square. Our breakfast of croissants and cappuccino is quickly wearing thin and we begin our hunt for food. Here is where we learned that Italian restaurants typically close between the hours of 2:30 and 7:30. No worries though, we found the perfect little place tucked away in a cave-like entrance with a breathtaking view of the rolling green hills and vineyards. With pasta and wine safely settled into our tummies and hearts we wandered the hilly streets of Montepulciano. This is the town where they filmed some scenes on New Moon and it is even prettier than in the movie. Time to head to the train station and we realize we have no way of getting there. I used what little Italian phrases I knew and placed a quite ridiculous phone call to the taxi company attempting to tell them where we were in this little town. 30 minutes later, here comes Paolo for ride number 2. As he is dropping us at the train station Hannah, Mama and I notice he is talking to Jodi and Jenn outside the cab doors. He looks as if he is trying to get a point across and is speaking in a very convincing tone. Jenn looks at him like he is speaking not Italian, but full on gibberish, and Jodi is nodding and smiling vehemently. She relays snippets of the conversation to us later with a broken translation of something similar to "it might be difficult to get a train to Cortona tonight but...". We say thank you and bounce off to check the time tables for our train. Realizing we have an hours wait ahead we grab some snacks from the tiny diner and perch ourselves outside in the plastic chairs to await our train in the freezing cold. Here Jenn learned that the wrong emphasis placed on the wrong syllable yields very ugly looks from women who could care less about American tourists. "Toy-let-TAY? TOY-let-tay?":) 15 minutes before our train is to arrive we move across the street and arrange ourselves huddled together on a bench at the platform. Body heat is key here people. Not a soul in sight. Except for a fairly scraggly looking man dressed in camo pants who is smoking a cigarette and occasionally appears out of the darkness several feet away. Every few minutes an announcement would come on and we would all fall silent and listen intently to the fully Italian message, sure that one of us would soon be able to magically decode it. Translated we heard: train, arriving, Cortona...we think, Oh good, our train to Cortona will be arriving soon. About 5 announcements later we are still bundled together on our little bench, anxiously awaiting our homebound train. The scary man from the dark approaches and begins to tell a story with animated hands. "Niete treno. Blah blah, Italian blah, shoppula, italian blah, niete treno. Shopping, blah." Excuse me?? No, we don't want to go shopping, we are waiting for our train..please go away. He continues, "Niete treno. NO train. Broken-o." And it clicks. Sooo..what you're saying is there is no train?? Not at all? No train tonight? "Si! Si! No train!". And cue eruption of laughter, followed by the catch phrase of the trip - of course! A quick phone call to Paolo and he arrives in his heroic minivan to escort us home. First words out of his mouth as he opens the car doors for us.."Hahaha I tell you!! I tell you!!" Classic:) This man got a well deserved photo with us at the end of the ride home. We later learned when asking about a train ride for a different day that the word that sounded so similar to "shopping" or "shoppula" was in fact, something entirely different in Italian and meant "strike". The trains apparently often go on strike and we fortunate enough to try and travel on such a day. We had dinner and wine at "The Grotto (cave)" which was like eating in a fairy tale restaurant with all the perfect touches for a genuine Italian experience. Like any true tourists would, we pulled out our Rick Steve's Italian phrases pocketbook guide and began practicing our Italian. We decided it might not be the best place to do so when Jenn received a funny side glance after yelling "Crepi!!" (translated: Drop Dead!) at the passing waitress. We all sounded like a table with an anger problem as we found the more colorful pages and learned the phrase for "Damnitt!" and the waitress laughed and asked "Oh, so you are practicing your Italian? That's good."

Day Three (Tuesday): We boarded a Florence bound train with the US consulate marked first on the to-do list. The consulates first words were "Yes we give passports, have to get your picture somewhere else." Of course you do. As we arrived at the tiny shop several blocks away we were greeted with "Yes, we take photos..but...the electricity is out!" Haha, of course it is:) We walked several more blocks to a different shop and were greeted with "Yes, but...the computer is down." Of course it is:) Thankfully, the computer rebooted, Mama had her photo op and we traipsed back to the consulate. A little over and hour later, Mama emerged with her new passport in hand and we were free to roam the city of Florence for the rest of the day. First order of business, pizza. We ordered three pizzas to share and when they arrived I dove right in somewhat recklessly. I looked up from my end of the table with mozzarella cheese hanging from my chin (classy I know) and realized that I had somehow missed the memo that "Oh, we are doing small pieces??" I sheepishly removed the entire half of pizza that was currently residing on my plate and divvied it up accordingly. Jodi sadly realized that she had lost her phone somewhere outside the embassy and after a quick jaunt back to the site of the incident we realized it was gone forever. One of the super unfortunate events that happen with traveling, but she took it like a champ and rocked on with her day. We spent the afternoon wandering through the streets of the market buying all the genuine Italian souvenirs family and friends could ever ask for and, of course, had at least 2 more helpings of gelato. Dinner consisted of a trip up the incredibly steep hill to our local coffee shop where we purchased an Italian smorgasbord of cheese, bread, olive oil, spices, salami, pesto and truffle sauce, wine and limoncello to take home to the villa. Yuuummm.

Day Four (Wednesday): This was the day dedicated to exploring all Cortona had to offer. It was a little drizzly throughout the day, but the thing about being in a teeny tiny picturesque village in the tuscan country side is...who cares!!:) I, being the good friend that I am, gave Jodi my terrible cold that I had brought from Australia and so she felt crummy and had to stay behind this day. But, me, being the good friend I am, did take her some beyond amazing ribbolita (fantastic veggie soup with bread) for a late lunch. The streets of Cortona are cobbled and narrow and are lined with countless little shops selling genuine Tuscan artifacts like Italian leather, beautiful ceramics, and super fresh fruits and vegetables. Fact: a kaki, is a fruit that tastes like a fruity pumpkin..even when it gets squished in the bottom of the purse! After lunch at the theater cafe in the piazza, we checked out the duomo and one of the beautiful lookouts over the hills. You know it's a good day when a person standing by comments "You girls have been into the vino rosso a little early today huh? As you should be!" When in fact, we had not, but I can see how watching Hannah, Jenn and Mama try to jump for a picture may give that illusion:) Next up was the 2 mi (one way) trek to Bramasole, the house that the movie Under the Tuscan Sun is based on. Although we were afraid certain members of the group might have a heart attack before we reached the top:)... we did finally make it, and it was well worth the trip. The house was beautiful and it was actually a pretty neat experience to get to see it. One of Mama's primary reasons for wanting to visit Tuscany, and Cortona specifically, was spun from her love of the movie and other books by Frances Mayes, the author. So, when a man pulled up to the house that is supposedly owned by Frances Mayes and her husband, we just assumed this man must know her closely. He introduced himself as Frances Mayes husband, chatted a few minutes and then walked inside. Mama sat and stared at the house with a pleased, yet nondescript look on her face. "Mama! Why did you not say anything else to him??" What? Why would I? "Because that was her husband!!" It was??? How do you know? Why didn't you tell me it was Frances Mayes husband?!? LOL, apparently the lack of oxygen from climbing that hill wore her poor little ears and brain out and she just blitzed right through the conversation without noticing that she had just met one of her most admired authors husbands. Fortunately, he did come back down a few minutes later and Mama was able to redeem herself, engage in a great conversation and take a picture with him. (Although, it should be said that she did almost miss him again because she was pitching a bit of a fit at us for not telling her it was him to begin with! Haha, oh Mama:)

Day Five (Thursday): Although we were becoming pros at navigating the train and bus systems, we still had close calls every now and then with making the right train at the right time. In a perfect example of these rushed mornings, we had just bought all our tickets at the machine and had about 2 minutes to make it across the platform where Mama was waiting to board the already present train. I rounded the corner, ahead of the pack and yelled back with an overly enthusiastic, "Let's Go!!!" As I sped around the corner however, my Toms lost all traction and I promptly fell to the ground in a sideways skid and slid into the door like I had just hit a homerun. I hopped up as quickly as I had fallen and yelled back to the girls who were all doubled over laughing at me, "We don't have time to laugh!!! Let's Go!!!" We made it onto the train with literally a second to spare. Pisa proved to be well worth the trip and we all took our pictures trying to hold up the famous leaning tower. We had extra time that afternoon and used it to revisit Florence. We strolled across the Ponte Vecchio, or "Old Bridge" where couples can place a padlock on the bridge, throw the key in and receive eternal love. We meandered through the Piazza Signoria to get a look at the fake David statue, found that more gelato and limoncello were in order and then made our way back to the train to Cortona.

Day Six (Friday): Rome in a day. That was the plan. We used the metro and made it safely to the colosseum with all our money and passports present and accounted for. So far so good. Walking up to the colosseum is an experience in itself as you can't help but feel overwhelmed by it's natural beauty and the historical significance of it's presence. We excitedly approached the gates to enter and came face to face with sign which read "We are sorry to say that the colosseum is closed today for circumstances beyond ones control." By this point in our trip we are definitely not surprised by this, so we laugh and again say, OF COURSE:) Fortunately, the colosseum is fantastic in itself and we were able to get a great experience even in just standing in the shadow of the base of it. Lunch was fabulous as always, but with one exception...As I chomped down into a piece of Mama's lunch, I commented "Hmm, it's good but it tastes a bit fishy.." And Hannah laughs and says "Yep, there are anchovies in there" She knew the whole time but was paying me back for knowingly allowing her to bite into some liver pate the day before. Paybacks suck, especially when you are ordering from a foreign menu. We did see the phrase "Nothing with eyeballs in it" in our translation book, but we were just hoping we would not actually have to use it. As we walked into the vatican city, the first thing we noticed was a ridiculously long line to enter St. Peter's Basilica that wrapped around the entire square. Knowing the doors would be shutting within the next few hours our hopes of seeing everything were briefly dashed. And then a dodgy looking man approached and asked if we spoke English. Hesitant at what he might want, we reluctantly answered yes. Turns out he was recruiting for the last English walking tour of the day and if we hurried we could join the group before the doors closed for the day. So, away we went, being led like cattle with a group of all the other English speakers into the Vatican City. Our tour guide was a guy from Ohio who happened to be an amazing aficionado of all things pertaining to the Vatican. We were able to see all that a tourist is allowed to see inside the Vatican walls in just two hours while learning all sorts of fun trivia about everything. We toured inside the Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the inner courtyards, and all the additional rooms and hallways filled with sculptures and artworks from years past. We learned about secret rivalries between Michealangelo and another artist from his time, that pinecones are symbol of fertility, that Nero was purely evil, and that apparently Tom Hanks is responsible for leaking the location of the secret passageways into the vatican in his movie, Angels and Demons. We got our daily dose of gelato, some more vino for the villa and headed home to begin the sad task of packing.

Day Seven (Saturday): We planned our last transit adventure for the final day and set out with Rome as our destination. After lugging all our baggage up the treacherous hills we had one last breakfast of croissants and cappuccinos and hopped in a cab ride to the train station. Mama received an offer to stay with Enzo, our nice little English speaking, Italian cab driver, in his "big house", but even with her love of Italy she strangely turned him down. You rethinking that yet Mama??:) A three hour train ride later we arrived in Rome and hustled to the express train that would take the girls back to the airport. After a week of amazing eating, toasting, laughing and living it up Italian style, we kissed, we hugged, I cried and we said goodbye. As much as I love the freedom of this nomadic life, it is the continuous series of goodbyes that I find to be one of the hardest things to overcome. Cheers to a perfect week Under the Tuscan Sun girls:)