Saturday, June 29, 2013

Heaven is a place on Earth (and it's in Slovenia)

Darko (my grandfather's cousin) and his wife Vesna took Anthony and I to a place called Blejski Vintgar, about an hour outside of Ljubljana.  It is one of the most beautiful natural places I can imagine; the water is a turquoise color like I had never seen.

Family Unions

In my opinion, the best thing about traveling abroad is the people you meet.  Especially when they're long lost family that you're meeting for the first time.  Anthony and I were met at the bus station in Ljubljana by our cousin Tadej and his beautiful (and very pregnant!) wife Sandra.  It is amazing how well we all clicked right away; we'd all been worried about an awkward encounter, but that was not the case at all.  The four of us spent the afternoon and evening together eating, drinking, catching up on our lives and philosophies.  It was absolutely perfect.  And Ljubljana is an amazing city.  Incredible architecture, small enough to be accessible but large enough to have everything, including delicious food.
First night in Ljubljana
In the city center
Dragon bridge by night
The next morning we met our cousin Sergej, his lovely partner Mojca, and their adorable 9-month old daughter.  They took us to see more of the city including Ljubljana castle, which is above the city and provides a wonderful view of everything.  We met up with Tadej and Sandra at a delicious Bosnian restaurant for čevapčič.  (I wish I had taken a picture but I was hungry and the food smelled so  You understand).  We also had baklava for dessert, which I did remember to photograph.
On the castle ramparts with Mojca

The guys

After lunch, we went to visit Marija, my great-grandmother's 91-year-old sister.  We also met Darko and Vesna, Tadej and Sergei's parents.  This was perhaps the most exciting part of the trip.  How can I even put into words the awesomeness of Marija?  She's over 90 and has more energy than most people I know.  (Here's a tangent to try and convey my thoughts: for those of you who don't know this, I love making/using acronyms.  My favorite one is SIW, which means "strong independent woman."  It's a kind of anthem among my friends, and Marija is the epitome of SIW.  I hope this helps explain how incredible she is).  Like anyone who has lived through two major wars, Marija has been through a lot of suffering, but she is stronger for it as she was apt to tell Anthony and I in her rapid mix of Slovene and Croatian.  (Tadej and Sandra were gracious to translate for us).  Marija told us that during World War II, she was incarcerated in a forced labor camp and her father was shot and killed by Nazis in front of their house.  But she fought back and became a smuggler for the Yugoslav partisans, hiding letters in her shoes, under plates, and traveling by foot to dispatch information that ultimately led to Yugoslavia's liberation and victory.  I learned in my Europe class this past semester that Yugoslavia was really the only occupied country that didn't need outside liberation.  As we were hearing her story through translation (she talks too fast for my limited understanding of Croatian) I said "Tito?" to show that I understood.  She started speaking rapidly again and went over to her liquor cabinet, pulled out a bottle of Marshal Tito alcohol and proceeded to pour shots for Anthony and I to drink with her!  I can't find the picture of us toasting together before we took the shots, but I know someone got one.  At any rate, it was an experience I will never forget.

After Marija's, we went to Sergei and Mojca's place for dinner and conversation, and more family drinking.  (If I had more room in my suitcase I'd love to bring back some of the currant wine we had there).  The dinner lasted well into the night.  So much fun.

The next day Vesna and Darko took us to see Vintgar and Bled (I'll post pictures in a separate post), and later in the evening we met and had drinks with our cousin Maša and her boyfriend Sebastian, which was a perfect way to end our time in Ljubljana.  We had to leave for Budapest the next morning, but I will be back in Ljubjana this August so more family times will follow.  I feel like I understand more about myself now that I've met my long lost family.  We are truly blessed.

Friday, June 28, 2013

On Venice

After Florence, Anthony and I took an early train to Venice.  We purposely booked a hostel close to the train station just outside of the city, but unfortunately we had to wait 3 hours before getting to our room.  Since we absolutely do not trust a shower curtained closet as a secure place, this meant we had to sit there and wait.  It was tedious, but the worst part about having to hang out in the reception area is that a massive bee stung my little finger on my left hand while I was waiting for the room to open and I didn't get the stinger out right away.  (Which explains why my whole hand ballooned up so severely a few days later).
 At any rate, we got into the city of Venice in the afternoon and immersed ourselves in the gloriously designed avenues, the mysterious masques, the parades of Hare Krishnas, the church bells, and the hordes of pigeons and tourists.  Towards the evening we got lost and were tempted to hijack a boat like in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, but it didn't come to that.  I can't think of much more to write at the moment, so here is some Venetian trivia.
Venice is made up of 400 foot bridges and 170 boat canals that connect 118 submerged Adriatic islands.  Structures are supported by wooden platforms piled on the islands.
This picture was taken stealthily through a grate... I'm not sure how legal it is, but enjoy!
Giacomo Casanova, Antonio Vivaldi, and Marco Polo claim this spot as their birthplace.
Prayer candles
Feeding the pigeons
Each year, only three new gondoliers are issues licenses following extensive training and exams.
The population of Venice is seriously declining.  In contrast, 18 million tourists visit Venice annually.
The brigade of Hare Krishnas kept showing up wherever we went

On Florence

Florence has a very different feel to it than Rome.  It’s less busy and has less tourists; the entire city of Rome carried a kind of party-ish feel.  Sophisticated and cultured, but still full of exuberant energy and indulgence.  Florence felt more philosophical.
"Man is what he read"
Our hostel was very nice, another private room and bathroom.  I took advantage of that and slept for a few hours after we arrived.  We walked around the city for several hours at a leisurely pace.  The only real problem I had was my right contact lens, which was itching and burning my eye.  We had to stop at a pharmacy to buy contact solution but it still stung, so I ended up taking out the lens.  I tried putting a drop of solution in the lens but it blew away and I had to focus out of one eye for the rest of the day, but it was okay.  I still saw everything I wanted to see.  Since I’m so behind on this blog I will just post some pictures and captions.  Enjoy!
Michelangelo's "David"
Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise"

Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore

Anthony and The Duomo
The house in the background reminded us of something...
Strega Nona?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Two Days in Rome

Anthony and I are on a train to our final destination together, Budapest, and I think it would be a wise choice for me to catch up on blogging now, as I am about to end my mini-tour of Europe and begin my program.

We had no problem making morning plane from Paris to Rome since we slept in the airport and our flight was delayed several hours.  It was about two hours to Italy; there wasn’t even a hint of Customs.  We shared a cab into the city with a middle-aged couple we met in the check-in line back in Paris; a cab was much quicker into the city than the bus, but I had my first taste of Italian drivers in a cab with no seatbelt and the possibility of my own untimely death crossed my mind once or twice.  (There is really no rhyme or reason to Italian driving or if there is, it’s completely inaccessible to Westerners.  I’m so glad Anthony and I decided against renting a car!).

It was a relief to finally get to a hostel.  Our place was in a great location in the city and we were sharing it with two sisters (one of the girls is a friend of Anthony’s and had booked the hostel for all of us).  I slept for until the evening soon after getting there which was lovely because I really needed it at this point.

At about 6:00, Kelsey, Katie, Anthony, and I went out to sight-see.  Can I just say: Rome is awesome.  It’s impossible for me to do justice to the city’s countless marvels with words or even with pictures.  It’s magnitude is really only conveyable through experience.  The architecture is like nothing I’ve ever seen up close before; every building in the area we explored was a masterpiece in itself.
The food was also spectacular and, surprisingly, not very expensive.  The four of us stayed out sightseeing until around midnight.  Back at the hostel, the drinks cost more than I would have liked and the music sucked (I didn’t come to Italy to have to relive adolescent memories through 50 Cent).  But it wasn’t all bad.  I had a nice conversation with a lawyer from Uruguay who was also staying at our hostel, and Kelsey and I danced when the “prices” went up slightly, if you know what I mean... (get it?  50 Cent... prices... okay never mind).

The next day was packed with activities and even busier considering that we all had to check out of the hostel before we left.  Thankfully, we were allowed to stow our luggage at the hostel for the rest of the day so it we didn’t have to repeat Paris. 

We went to the Vatican first, although Anthony decided to meet up with us later because it cost quite a bit to get into the museum, skip the lines, and have an official tour guide.  I was a little reluctant to pay the fee at first but in retrospect I’m glad I took the tour. 

As someone who grew up in a Roman Catholic household, it’s strange to me that I never felt an inclination to visit the Vatican.  I mean, I would have been (and was) happy to take the opportunity when it presented itself, but I’ve always had a million other places I would rather visit.  Now, it’s so awesome to me that I walked through the Sistine Chapel, marveled at the facets of St. Peter’s Basilica, looked across the courtyard to where each new Pope greets the world...  (I was hoping to bump into Pope Francis at some point but that didn’t happen.  Oh well). 

What I didn’t realize (and I doubt I’m the only one) is that the Vatican is not only the headquarters for the Roman Catholic Church and a country of its own, it is also a museum with a wealth of pre-Christian history within its walls.  And it has Michelangelo’s genius all over it.  OH.  That Sistine Chapel.  First, I must express my utter disappointment and anger at the people who blatantly ignored the signs and calls for *silence* in the chapel.  Let me tell you, I’d hate to have the job as a shush-er in the Sistine Chapel; the noise level goes up, the guards say “Silencio” and the noise might subside for less than 15 seconds before getting even louder than before. It was simply infuriating.  I stared up at The Last Judgment and wished that people would notice it and think about respecting the rules.  But I digress.  I almost don’t even care about rude people when I think of how glorious the chapel was to behold.  Of course, I couldn’t take any pictures in the chapel because of copyright laws, but it’s impressed in my mind’s eye forever. 
We met up with Anthony at the Colosseum.  The Colosseum is incredible, but it became eerier and more disturbing to me the longer we were there.  All I could think about after awhile is how this building was once full of screaming spectators, cheering as human beings violently killed one another or early Christians and other enemy minorities were fed to lions and crocodiles.  There is something awesome about the building itself, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of tragedy and injustice.

Anthony and I split off from Kelsey and Katie after the Colosseum.  We visited the Capital among other places, and finally returned to our hostel to get our luggage and make it to our next hostel.  We took a wrong turn and it took us forever to get there, but the location allowed us to make our train for Florence the next day.  More on that soon.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

On Paris.

Okay, I know I've been a bad blogger and I apologize for that.  It's just really difficult to blog when I'm moving to a different location every day.  Anyway, right now Anthony and I are in Ljubjana, Slovenia.  I will talk about this later; for now, I will recap the past few days.

As you might have seen from earlier posts, I'm spending my first week with visiting a few cities around Europe with my brother before I begin my volunteer program.  I landed in Brussels from Reykjavik in the early hours of Minnesota's morning, which was around lunch time in Belgium.  A few weeks earlier, I had booked a train ticket from Brussels to Paris but I was particularly nervous about this step since my train was not departing directly from the airport.  Thankfully, I found a woman from my flight who spoke English (an American expat, actually) and she helped me find the station.  After I bought my ticket at the counter, I asked her how long she expected Customs to take; as it turns out, we had walked through it already.  This surprised me since Customs is always cracked up to be a huge deal.  I guess I didn't really mind that my bag wasn't searched, but I did really want a stamp from Belgium in my passport.

It cost 50 cents to use the restroom at the Midi/Zuid station so I decided to get my money's worth by using the facility to change my outfit, brush my teeth, wash my face, and put on a little mascara.  Needless to say, after flying all night I felt like a total scrub so I didn't mind taking the time to freshen up.

I had a few hours to kill at the Midi/Zuid station so I went to an internet cafe and bought a yogurt and a chocolate chip waffle.  While I nibbled on the waffle and browsed online, I struck up a conversation with a guy from Cape Town who was waiting for a train to Amsterdam; this was enriching in part  because I don't think I had ever heard a South African accent before.
Bullet Train
I slept for most of the train ride, although I was awake long enough to marvel a little at the speed of the train.  The trip was only over an hour, and I arrived in the pouring rain at Paris Nord about half an hour before my brother was expecting me, without WiFi or a cell phone.  Seeing the size of the station, I realized that Anthony would have no way of running into me if I sat quietly on a bench somewhere, especially considering the foot traffic during rush hour.  I decided to take out my umbrella (which wasn't necessary under the shelter of the station) and hold it above me so he'd have a better chance of spotting me.  We found each other fairly quickly and went up into the city.
Now.  I should mention that we had no place to stay in Paris and had decided to sleep in the airport in order to make our early flight the next morning.  This, of course, meant that the entirety of our luggage had to be carried around a city with copious stairs and no elevators or escalators in its metro system. 

We stopped for pizza and ice cream in a little hole in the wall cafe.  I can't complain about the food.  I left Anthony with our luggage and explored a few shops on the block for a minute.  To be completely honest, I was so thrown off by the jet-lag that I'm not sure how much enthusiasm was possible, notwithstanding the heavy luggage and nasty weather.  I really just wanted to sleep somewhere but seeing as there was nowhere to go but the airport, we decided to go the the Eiffel Tower, first by train and then by foot.
As an overall enthusiast, the presence of these beauties in the fashion capitol of the world thrilled me
Admittedly, the Eiffel Tower is incredible.  It's much larger than I had expected, although the place was swamped with tourists.  Anthony and I took turns sitting on a bench with our luggage after we got there.  When I got close to the Tower, I wanted a picture with it.  Since my brother was with our stuff, I politely asked a nearby girl (that I had heard speaking in English) if she could take a picture of me with the Tower.  Immediately, she says "Niet" (in a very western accent) and then says "Sorry" in perfect English before scurrying away.  Okay?  What the heck?  This girl was clearly not Russian and I couldn't understand why she was so rude.  I mean, how hard is it to take a picture?  On the one hand, I understand playing that you don't understand/speak a language to avoid having to talk with some creep, but I don't think I was giving off the creep vibe to this girl.  Whatever.
It was getting dark and Anthony and I had to get to the airport, so we toted our heavy bags across the city (again!) and went back into the metro station to find our way to the airport.  By this time we were both exhausted and cranky and sore from carrying around so much weight.  According to the time table, we couldn't catch a train directly to the airport but a bus could take us there.  We ran into two girls from Mexico near the exit and discovered that we all had to catch the same bus to the airport for early morning flights.  Anthony and I tried to go through the exit line, but our tickets had apparently expired and we didn't want to dump any more money into the French economy, towards which we felt (feel) hearty disdain... (stupid train system, stupid stairs, stupid expiring tickets, stupid pay toilets, stupid rude people... Ugh).  We asked the girls if we could go through the treacherous sliding doors after them; Anthony was fine, but the sudden automatic doors slammed on my face and nearly snapped my glasses in half.  Now we had a problem: the three of them were on the other side of the doors, but I was stuck in the station with a ton of luggage and with no way to get out.  We tried prying the doors apart but it was no use.  One of our new friends suggested that I lift my luggage over and climb on top of the stand, crawl out above the doors, and jump down.  It was pretty nerve-wracking, but it worked.  The second I got out, we ran up the stairwell as fast as our luggage would allow to catch the bus.  However, the driver informed us that the buses to our airport had stopped running a few hours before.
...what?  By this time, it was around midnight and we were stuck in Paris with no knowledge of the language and no public transportation to where we needed to be.  (This experience had no semblance to Owen Wilson's adventure whatsoever.  Boo).
No Owen
To make a long story short:

We want a taxi.
None of us speak French.
None of us know which number to call.
We are tired.
A big French guy approaches the three girls while Anthony is trying to communicate with people getting into a taxi.
He says he is an off-duty taxi drive with a car who is willing to drive us to the airport.
We don't know if this is a scam.
We remember the movie Taken.
Anthony walks over and questions the so-called driver.
He offers to drive us for 40 Euro.
We all refuse and cross the street.
A helpful security guard (not all French people were mean to us) calls a cab for us.
We get to the airport.
We say goodbye to our Mexican friends.
We look around the airport for places to sleep.
It is eerily empty.
We set up stuff on chairs and a girl tells us that there are empty beds upstairs.
We find a room full of 100+ cots and many sleeping people.
We stake out two cots and stow our luggage underneath.
Sleep is my only wish.
I notice that the snoring sounds like lawnmowers.
It won't get any quieter.
Across the room, a French guy gets up and kicks a snorer's bed.
There is a pause.
The lawnmower revs up its engine.
I know I won't be doing much sleeping.
I wake up every 30 minutes to check if anyone has taken my luggage.
5:00 am comes too soon.

So. That's the Paris fiasco.  In retrospect, Anthony and I didn't get the worst deal; we did get a free (if miserable) night in the airport and we made it to our destination (Rome), which was a glorious adventure.  Also, Paris only ever factored into our overall plans except as a rendezvous (hey look! French!) point, so it's not like we really missed out.  I do have friends who love Paris and have had enriching and romantic experiences, so I shouldn't completely dis the city.  It was just quite disappointing to see the setting of Les Mis fall so short, but I suppose these things happen.  Italy and Slovenia have been so much better that I won't complain anymore.  Plus, I'm really really tired and need to get sleep.  More soon, I promise.


Thursday, June 20, 2013

When in Rome...

... it is difficult to find the time to blog.  But I promise to tell the tale of my trek from Minneapolis to Reykjavik to Brussels to Paris to Rome.  When I find the time, I will write out what I have learned thus far in the first few days of my adventure.  Right now, though, I am making the most of experiencing Rome, so I will have to hold off for now.

I'll have to leave you with a few pictures:

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

On Iceland, sunburn, luggage, and my first-ever passport stamp.

Good morning!  If I knew the Icelandic morning greeting I would type it here, but I am too lazy and short on free Wifi time to bother googling it.  I write this from the Reykjavik international airport, after a six-hour flight from Minneapolis.  I should begin this post by stating that I had had delusions on grandeur regarding my absent "packing post," so I'll just include a couple of pictures of that here.  Maybe I'll be more detailed later on, but there was no time to photograph and document everything. 
Layer-ers: dresses, cardigans, blouses, and camisoles
I actually fit everything into two bags, which is quite an accomplishment for me. Most of the space was taken up by my quasi-Euro wardrobe, which I have more or less put together with thrift-store finds and a few tried-and-true accessories.  The only brand-new item I packed was a pair of new sandals (Thank you, Tracy!).
More tops, a long skirt, scarf, sarong, zippered tote bag, and two pairs of versatile & comfortable shoes
My last few days in the United States were mostly consumed with last-minute preparations for this trip; in retrospect, I realize that some of these should have been taken care of long before I got around to them.  Tanning, for instance.  Italy is going to be hot, and I realized that I would benefit from a base tan, especially since I've had almost no sun exposure lately because of the grey and nasty weather.  On the day before my trip, (yesterday? Two days ago?) I decided to tan in a maximum strength bed for 12 minutes.  I also repeated this process about 10 hours before I got on the plane... Okay.  A word of advice: don't be like me.  Within a few hours of my first tan, I could feel the burn all over my stomach and back, but I still went back to the tanning booth the day of my flight.  Long story short, you know that girl, reeking of aloe and vinegar sitting next to you on the plane?  Guilty as charged.

My initial flight to Brussels has a layover in Iceland (hence this post) and I am already struck with affection for this beautiful little country.  I'll be spending a week here before I return to the United States, but just being in the airport is a thrill to me.  I had actually hoped to do a foreign exchange program in Iceland after high school, but my plans fell through when my potential scholarship funds crashed alongside the Icelandic economy.  It all worked out, though.  I went to college instead of going abroad; four years later I have a degree and the time is *finally* right for traveling. 
Trekking backpack and carry-on (which had to be checked due to weight)
Oh yeah.  It occurs to me that I have not explicitly stated why I'm flying to Brussels, and what I'm doing before I begin teaching.  Since my brother Anthony is currently backpacking around Europe, I purposely booked my flights so I could meet him in the window of time before he returns home and before I start teaching.  For this reason and due to money, I will be flying into Brussels, hopping on a train to Paris, and spending a few hours there before we fly to Rome the next morning.  (Admittedly, this is a really roundabout way of getting to Italy, but believe me when I say that this saved me a significant monetary amount on airfare).  We'll be staying two nights in Rome, one in Florence, and one in Venice before heading over to Slovenia/Croatia where we'll be hanging out with relatives.  Our final destination together is Budapest, Hungary where I will begin my orientation and Anthony will fly home.

Speaking of flights, my flight to Reykjavik was the most comfortable and smooth that I've had thus far.  For anyone who hasn't flown with Icelandair, it is so charming.  First off, everyone on the flight was given a sweet Icelandic water bottle, a pillow with a bilingual translation of an Icelandic lullaby, and a blanket with the message "Miss our hot springs? Warm yourself with this instead" embroidered on it.  I couldn't sleep much on the flight, but that had nothing to do with discomfort and everything to do with emotional anticipation and the fact that every seat was equipped with complimentary movies, music, and shows.  It also included a real-time progress report/map on the flight.  Between bawling my eyes out during The Time Traveler's Wife and cracking up at Office Space, I took some aerial shots from the window. 
After touching down in Iceland and waiting to get my passport stamp, I was going insane with anticipation.  I purposely got in line for a booth on the far right because I wanted the cute guy to stamp my passport; he welcomed me to Europe in his Icelandic accent, and here I am now, waiting to depart for the rest of my European journey.
Stamped and official, courtesy of the gorgeous Icelander
Even though it's morning in Iceland, it's night in Minnesota.  Despite my ignorance to the morning greeting, I do know how to say "good night" in Icelandic, thanks to a sign printed on my headrest of the plane:
Good night is "goða nott" in Icelandic.
It has a soft and cuddly sound.
Bring on the adventure
How can one not fall in love with a country with that kind of charm?  Anyway, I will end this post now.  Until next time, goða nott!