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 love..so, 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...