Thursday, June 26, 2014

Paris, Take Two

I'm back in the comfort of my own room in Minnesota, wondering how I could have expected to find the time and energy to blog during my month-long journey across western Europe.  At any rate, I will try my best to make up for lost time now.  I did keep a journal for much of my trip so I can reiterate much of what I recorded there, here.
Torrie and me before boarding our plane in Minneapolis
Torrie and I had a long and exhausting trip before we finally reached our first destination: Paris.  The planes had been as comfortable as planes can be (Icelandair is always lovely) but I can never really get a satisfying sleep sitting upright in a space where elbows seem prone to spill over into my personal bubble.  Notwithstanding, I was able to enjoy a free movie or two on the flight from Boston to Reykjavík while Torrie slept and, admittedly, I did doze off for a little while on the flight from Reykjavík to Paris.

As our plane touched down in Paris we found ourselves brazenly greeted by the buttcrack of dawn; we had been traveling with no solid sleep for a good 21 hours.  Needless to say, we were both exhausted.  We used the restrooms in the airport to change out of our travel clothes and freshen up before attempting to leave the airport.  Now THAT was an ordeal in itself.  We were unable to buy tickets from the airport into the city at any of the booths, and when a Parisian girl helped us use a machine to buy tickets we had to pay €20 a piece just to leave the airport!  When Torrie and I reached the Gard du Nord station, we couldn't figure out how to find the line connected to our hotel and opted to walk the distance instead.  At this point, I think a cocktail of determination and adrenaline kept us awake.  Our hotel allowed us to drop off our luggage for the time being (it was about 8am by this point) and informed us that our room would be ready by noon.  

The closest significant landmark to our hotel was La Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, so that's where Torrie and I headed, dragging our exhausted bodies through the misty stairs and streets that led to Montmartre.  When we found the basilica, it was quite lovely.  After taking plenty of photos and enjoying the panoramic view of the city, we decided to find a café for the holy trinity of food, caffeine, and wifi.  Thankfully, the real morning rain didn't begin until we were comfortably nestled around our internet portals in the café, and we spent the next couple of hours waiting out the rain and looking forward to noon.

Now, a tangent regarding our accommodations: Paris is an expensive place.  For this reason, I had tried to find a non-sketchy couchsurfing host for our four day stay in the city.  Unfortunately, the person who had originally agreed to host us stopped answering my emails about a month before we embarked on the trip.  A few days prior to our arrival in Paris, I finally found an affordable room, booked it, and sent Torrie the link.  The day before we left, I received an email from her asking whether or not I had read the reviews: "Get ready for bedbugs!"  Damn.  In pre-travel panic mode, Torrie and I each researched the best safeguards against bedbugs.  We ended up buying ourselves sleepsacks to add a layer between ourselves and hotel bedsheets.  Torrie managed to find some anti-bedbug spray to repel the nasty critters if they did indeed rear their parasitic antennae in our room.

As soon as we got to our room Torrie spritzed the hell out of the bed; we peeled off all the layers of duvet, blankets, sheets, mattress pad... she even lifted up the mattress and attacked the box spring with the bold smell of cinnamon.  Finding no pests, we drew the blinds, rearranged the bed, and passed out until late afternoon.

With fresh burst of energy after our nap, Torrie and I left our hotel and rode the metro into the centre.  We walked along the Seine on our way to the Eiffel Tower which, even after having seen it last year, didn't disappoint.  We were pretty exhausted by the time we reached the Tower, so we sat in the park and rested and talked about deep things until we felt a little more energized.  We got back on the metro to see the Arc de Triomphe, but poor Torrie was feeling sick so we got off at a random stop so she could find a place to throw up.  We did make it to the Arc, but decided to get back to the hotel as soon as possible so Torrie could rest up and hopefully fight off whatever had suddenly hit her.  To be honest, sleep was at the top of my priority list too, so we took the metro straight back to the hotel.
River Seine
Lovely Torrie
Unfortunately for Torrie, her sudden bout of stomach sickness wouldn't leave her alone to rest.  I felt pretty awful in sympathy; who wants to be sick on holiday?  We opted to sleep in and talk about plans for the next day when we knew how she'd feel in the morning.

Torrie still wasn't feeling 100% in the morning but she faced the day like only a truly strong and independent woman can and we headed in the direction of the Louvre.  On our walk from the metro stop to the museum, we came across one of Paris's beautiful lock bridges.  Of course, this merited a photo-op.

I don't usually embrace touristy behavior, but in this case I simply had to make this photo happen.
I was thoroughly awed with what I saw for the next several hours in the Louvre.  Personally, I enjoyed the Ancient Egyptian artifacts and Neo-Classical statuary best but, of course, many of the museum's countless paintings impressed me as well.  Da Vinci's Mona Lisa had been talked down on so many blogs as being overrated and tiny that its actual size and composition did impress me more than I had expected.  (I was honestly expecting it to be about the size of an 8.5 x 11 sheet of paper after some of the blogs I read in preparation for the trip).  Overall, we spent the bulk of our afternoon in the museum and since Torrie was feeling queasy again after that, we returned to the hotel for a while.

After a short rest, we went to see Notre Dame.  This cathedral struck me in a different way than anything we'd yet witnessed in Paris.  It wasn't the exquisite gothic architechture that metaphorically knocked the air out of my lungs, (although that contributed to my fascination) but the mystique of a place that is so steeped in history and legend and richness heritage that did.  I mean... wow.  This is where Joan of Arc's mother came to plead for her daughter's life.  This is where the Wolves of Paris finally met their demise, lured by angry Parisians from their forest den after killing dozens of people.  This is where, albeit fiction, every major event of Victor Hugo's novel occurs.  Needless to say, I was thoroughly church-struck.

We couldn't get inside the cathedral but I decided to look up mass times later on in the evening.  A perk of having grown up Catholic is having entry to just about any church in the world through the mass.  Torrie was feeling better so we tried to see the Pantheon and the Père-Lachaise cemetery, both of which had already closed to our collective dismay.  It had been quite a walk around the city by this time, and we were hungry.  We split a margherita pizza at a cute little hole in the wall café near the Sorbonne.  (As an ex-waitress, it still feels weird not to tip service staff but since it's not part of the culture and my wallet was happier for the circumstances, I didn't go out of my way to impose American cultural norms on our French waiter).

Our third day began with a visit to Père-Lachaise.  My initial interest in the place was sparked by the graves of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, and Abelard and Heloise.  As it turned out, Père-Lachaise exceeded my expectations and admission didn't cost anything.  

Next, we went to the Palais Garnier Opera House.  Tickets were only €6 and worth every cent, since we stayed for as long as we liked and saw just about everything accessible by ticket.  Admittedly, it would have been interesting to see the dressing rooms and backstage area but I can see why those areas are off limits.  (Oh, and of course it would have been amazing to go underneath the building to visit the Phantom's lair... but no angel of music was to be found for an escort.  Alas).  
My illegal photograph of Chagall's ceiling
After the Opera House, we visited Shakespeare & Company, the famous English-language bookshop which was one of Ernest Hemingway's favorite writing haunts in Paris.  By this time, the Parisian skies had decided to sprinkle a little, adding even more charm to the city that was rapidly growing on me.  To be honest, after my short-lived albeit miserable time in Paris less than a year ago, I was ready to write it off as grossly overrated and thoroughly disappointing.  Thankfully, I had the opportunity to dispel that unpleasant first impression and replace it with happier memories.
We had a couple of hours to kill before mass at Notre Dame, so Torrie and I visited Luxembourg Gardens as the rain let up.  Paris really is lovely, sunshine or rain.  It was nice to just walk around the gardens and talk with Torrie before going back to Notre Dame.  After the mass service (which was pretty difficult to follow in French, although I surprised myself by how much I understood), we proceeded to walk the entire length of the Champs-Élysées.  By the time we reached the Arc de Triomphe my feet were killing me, but tickets to the top of the Arc were fairly inexpensive so I climbed the 284 steps to view Paris by night.  It was quite pretty with everything lit up, but my camera wasn't able to clearly capture the view.

Jardin du Luxembourg
When we reached the hotel both Torrie and I were ready to get some sleep before our trip to Versailles the following morning.  However, actually accessing our room turned out to be more difficult than expected.  Our hotel was staffed 24 hours a day, so when we left the room we dropped off our key with the concierge, and when we arrived back at the hotel, we picked the key up from the desk.  Simple enough, right?  Wrong.

When we entered the hotel we greeted a yet unseen concierge and I asked for the key to our room.  As I held out my hand to receive the key he clasped my hand in between his hands, staring at me and asking my name, whether or not I spoke French, whether or not I wanted to learn French, and how I liked Paris.  Now, I'm no stranger to advances from creepy guys.  In fact, my college friends used to refer to me as "the magnet" because I seemed to attract every weirdo within a 20 mile radius.  But being used to this kind of encounter hardly makes it more comfortable.  After what seemed like a long time he let my hand go and we bolted up the stairs, hardly holding in laughter until after the door closed behind us.  Honestly, Torrie was more amused than I was but even I found the situation a little funny.  Unfortunately, when I tried to log on to the internet I realized that my wifi had expired and the only way to get more would be to buy some from Monsieur Happy Hands at the front desk.  Joy.

I could tell right away by his too-eager face that he was thrilled to see me again.  I politely asked to buy wifi and he grabbed my hand again, ignoring my request for wifi and instead telling me I was "so beau-ti-ful" while maintaining a death grip on my hand.  I wasn't excited to have my hand violated a second time but I didn't know how to get him to release it without making the situation even worse.  As a result, I had to endure talking to him.  Our conversation went something like this:
Him: "How you like Paris?"
Me: "It's beautiful."
Him: "You move to Paris?  Live with me?"
Me: "I don't think so.  I have a job in the States."
Him: "No, you are so beau-ti-ful.  Live with me and work here.  You will do it?"
Me: "No, thanks.  I don't think so."
Finally, he let go of my hand and took my €3 for wifi.  I bolted out of there as soon as he printed out my wifi password and slammed the door of my room behind me, relaying the story to Torrie.  I slathered my hands with hand sanitizer to wipe away the residue of aggressive concierge and logged onto the network.  I hoped that the weirdness had ended at the front desk.  Unfortunately for me, the phone next to my bed let out a screeching ring and I hesitantly answered it.
Me: Hello?
Him: Hhosa? (This is a really unattractive way to pronounce my name, by the way).
Me: Yes?
Him: How is wifi?  Everything working okay?
Me: Yes, it's all good.
Him: Do you like beer?  Wine?
Me: Uh... what?
Him: I give you beer and wine, you come to see me at desk.  Drink with me.
Me: Um, no thanks.  I need to go to sleep.
Him: No!  You come down and drink with me!
Me: Sorry, I don't think I can.
Him:  You must come, Hhosa!  So beau-ti-ful Hhosa.
Me: Um, maybe... (I had ZERO intention of going there but for some reason I couldn't just spit it out that I was absolutely not attracted to him and I would never, ever drink with him).
Him: Okay!  See you soon!

I slept uneasily that night, knowing that the creepy concierge was a mere three floors below our room, lurking in all his sliminess.  The next morning Torrie handed in the key as we ran out the door to Versailles and I didn't turn back as he called after me.  In fact, I ran out the door like it was on fire.  We got on the metro and were two stops into our journey when panic socked me in the stomach.  "Torrie, you don't have my Versailles ticket, do you?"  "No, I gave it to you yesterday."  NO.  In my scatterbrained glory, I had left my ticket to Versailles in my room at the hotel.  The hotel with the room keys retrievable only at the front desk.  The desk where the weirdest man in France with a major craving for me was now sitting...

Torrie couldn't come with me because of her ticket; it wouldn't be fair to expect her to buy another ticket because of my oversight.  I jumped off of my stop and ran up to the hotel, purposely appearing out of breath and hurried.  I insisted on the key, refused to give him my hand, ran up to my room, located my ticket, locked the door, and gave the key back.  He was obviously annoyed with my disinterested manner but I repeated "I'm late" unapologetically before leaving in a rush.  Back on the metro, Torrie and I navigated our route to Versailles.  The line we were supposed to take was closed so we had to find an alternate route at a separate station.  It was a hassle to get there, but eventually we found ourselves approaching Château de Versailles in all its decadence.
Could you imagine being a French peasant marching on Versailles?  Your children have starved to death, you can't afford to buy bread.  You know that the monarchy is rich but you've never been far enough from your home to know how they live.  You join with a mob to storm the palace and you see THIS. SOLID. GOLD. GATE.  Honestly, is what followed any surprise?  Obviously, the revolutionaries did some terrible things, but I can't say the royalty didn't have it coming.  Versailles is beautiful, but at what price?
Hall of Mirrors
We spent several hours touring the palace.  I found it to be impressive, but the overt gaudiness of many rooms took away from the beauty a simpler design might have allowed.  As could be expected, the crowds were pretty awful.  I can't imagine living in the town of Versailles... I would really hate the swarms of tourists coming through every day.

Our train brought us back to the metro and we switched lines in order to see the Catacombs.  There was a huge line and we knew it would be a long shot, but we waited anyway.  Unfortunately, we were about thirty people too far back in line to enter.  Boo.  At this point we were both pretty hungry so we had lunch at a little café by the Moulin Rouge.  I splurged on an assortment on French cheeses and Torrie had her own pizza.  The restaurant owner was from Montenegro and had the cutest little girl running around the place.  Unlike my first visit to Paris, almost everyone I met this time was kind and helpful.  After dinner we went back to the hotel to pack and figure out whether or not we'd have to sleep in the airport to make our morning flight.
Moulin Rouge
Thankfully the staff had changed by the time we arrived back at the hotel.  The (non-disgusting) concierge informed us that the metro didn't start running until 6am, which tipped the scales in favor of sleeping at the airport.  Actually, it was a relief to know we'd be at the airport plenty early and we'd even have time to nap at the hotel after packing.  When we were ready to leave, I backed out of the room with my luggage in tow, shut the door behind Torrie when a voice from the shadows stopped me in my tracks. "Why you check out tonight?"

Areyoufreakingkiddingme.  Him?!  Again?!  Somehow, my not-so-secret-admirer had chosen the opportune moment to creep up on us.  "Yes, we have to go now."  "No!  You stay the night, take taxi in the morning!"  Jeez, this guy really seems to know what we should do more than we do.  We insisted that our flight was too early and a taxi was too expensive as we locked the door and exited the hallway.    Ugh.  It really was unnerving to see him again, but at least as we left the hotel we knew that would be the last we'd have to put up with him.

So, Torrie and I spent the night in the airport.  I was able to sleep on the cold hard floor for a few hours and she was able to use the free wifi to talk to her boyfriend, so it worked out okay.  It's funny to me that both my trips to Paris ended with a night at the airport, but this time I left the city with a thorough appreciation for its charm and appeal.  I hope to return someday and see all we didn't have time to see this time around!

Next up: Madrid and our reunion with my date to the homeschool prom.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Teach Pray Love Returns

Life over the past several months has taken my presence away from the blogosphere.  Under previous circumstances, I'd be posting this entry to my sister blog, but since one of the most significant components of what's been on my life's agenda is another trip to Europe, I'm relaunching this one.

If you know me in real life and feel left out that you missed my news, don't.  For a long time, I was unsure whether or not I would be able to go on this trip so I kept it under the radar.  After I took the leap and purchased my plane ticket out of Minneapolis, I opted out of telling people because I've grown sick of social media knowing more about my life than I do.  I guess I just wanted to keep something for myself.

At any rate, I am currently waiting to board my flight from Boston to Reykjavik en route to Paris.  I never imagined that I would return to Paris less than a year after the ordeal that happened during my short time in Paris last summer,  but fate has an artfully unexpected manner of course. To elaborate:

This trip (which will last for the next month) all started with a card in my mailbox this winter.  I walked to the driveway to get the mail and was greeted with the news that my dear friend Kelly was chosen for an internship at the Cannes Film Festival in southern France.  I was thrilled at the prestigious opportunity for my friend and ecstatic when, a few weeks later, she invited me and Torrie to visit our friend Caleb in Madrid (where he has been living since January).  While I was ecstatic at the invitation, I didn't think my tip money would suffice for such a big trip.  Still,  I was determined to try to work out something: these are three of my closest friends in the world.  We've all known each other for 10 years and suffered through adolescence at its worst. (To elaborate: ten years ago, I still thought John Lennon and I had a love that transcended the grave.   If someone sticks with you through your dead boyfriend delusions, that's true friendship).

Anyway, looking for inexpensive flights and having a goal to work toward eventually allowed this trip to happen.  And I have to give myself credit for tenacity: I earned a fair amount of money by letting people stick me with needles and extract my plasma.  With the money to finance flights and lodging, Kelly,  Torrie and I arranged our plans through video chats and message boards and what I had initially expected to be two weeks in Madrid has morphed into an elaborate month-long journey through the Iberian peninsula and the British Isles with Paris as a starting point and the final four days in Newfoundland.  It's more exciting than I could have imagined and I couldn't be happier to have the privilege of seeing more of the world. 

I will post pictures once we get to Europe.  I want to blog as well, but I'm still getting to know my tablet so I can't promise impeccable spelling or punctuation.  I hope this entry answers all the burning questions that popped up on Facebook when I mentioned my flight to Paris.  Check back tomorrow for pictures and updates! 

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Land of Fire & Ice

I think I've put off this post for so long because I don't want my summer abroad to be over.  Reykjavík, Iceland was the charming conclusion to the bold and daring adventure I lived last summer, the beautiful punctuation mark of my journey.  I want to hang onto it, and maybe part of me is still reluctant to acknowledge that it's really over.

Seeing that it's been four months since I returned to the United States, though, it's high time I suck it up for the sake of posterity.  You're welcome.
In suit of my misguidedly late night, I slept on my hosts' couch into the early afternoon.  My host was at work by this time but I met his girlfriend just before she left for her university classes.  With the apartment to myself, I unpacked my towel and hair products to make use of the shower.  Prior to acquainting myself with the fountain of running water, I had been completely unaware that Icelandic tap water has an incredibly high sulfur content... which means that showers smell like rotten eggs.
A Note on Couchsurfing *
By the time I left the European continent, I was completely broke.  Moreover, I had read that everything is quite expensive in Iceland, and my stay there would cover seven nights. There was simply no way I could even charge that amount of money to my credit card.  I found my solution in
Beginning with the infamous two-mile trek I covered in my last entry, I stayed (for free!) for three nights with a young couple in their late twenties who had been generous enough to send me a message after I'd written about my need for a place to stay.  This allowed me the time to meet with my next host in person before staying with him for the remaining five days.
*I don't wholeheartedly endorse staying with strangers in foreign places, I have to admit that the idea turned me off when I first heard of it, and I wouldn't encourage it just anywhere.  However, Iceland does have some of the lowest crime rates in the world, so it was a pretty perfect place to couch-surf.
After showering and doing light research on the best deals for Reykjavík, I ate a meager breakfast of Swiss chocolate (purchased in Zürich's airport) and a handful of pistachios (from the package that had faithfully accompanied me through the entirety of my journey) before heading out to the bus stop.  The weather was misty and chilly, and it took me a good ten minutes to reach the place the Fly Bus had dropped me off just hours before.  I paid my bus fare and rode for about twenty minutes until we reached the city center.  I easily located the the tourist office, where I purchased a Reykjavík Welcome Card.  My hollow stomach prompted me to search for food to my liking, which manifested in the form of a tiny sushi restaurant where I treated myself to a Rainbow Roll and surfed the net.
Rainbow Roll, 1,800kr
For all of its unique attributes, Iceland is not known for having a specific "food culture" of its own.  According to locals I met during my stay in Reykjavík, this is largely due to the fact that Icelanders spent most of their history merely surviving.  Food was a scare necessity rather than a form of cultural expression.  "Traditional" foods include: whale, dried shark, ground horse, and puffin.  Sushi happens to be in vogue now (which makes sense due to the country being an island), but the most popular Icelandic food is an Icelandic hot dog.  I didn't believe it either at first, but I found this to be very true.  
The Reykjavík forums on had several social gatherings listed alongside a few personal requests by fellow surfers to meet and explore the city together.  Before I left my hosts' apartment, I had agreed to meet Cl, a student from Barcelona who was visiting Reykjavík after volunteering in a rural part of Iceland.  She met me at the sushi restaurant and we spent the next two hours walking around the city and exchanging travel stories.  Cl had been on a walking tour of Reykjavík earlier that day, so she filled me in on the history and significance of several sights around town.
The weather in Iceland changes from hour to hour.
I parted ways with my new Catalonian friend and went in search of the hostel where a group of couchsurfers and their hosts were gathering to meet locals and travelers alike.  The best thing that came out of this meeting was meeting K, a girl my age from my very own state of Minnesota!  Minneapolis, to be exact.  K and I had both just arrived in Iceland and were equally intrigued by the locals' description of the spectacular waterfalls located a few hours away.  We exchanged information and the two of us agreed to hitchhike* together the next day.  (*Like couch-surfing, I do not necessarily endorse hitchhiking everywhere.  The locals assured us that hitchhiking is extremely common and safe in Iceland).

By the time K and her host left, I wasn't exceptionally keen on hearing the Canadian conspiracy theorist brag (yet again!) about his semi-autobiographical crime novel so I left the hostel and explored more of the city, taking ample photographs along the way and keeping an eye out for affordable souvenirs.
Old Harbor
Opera House
Sunset Self-Portrait
It was after dark when I made it back to my hosts' flat.  We had a conversation about the differences between Iceland and America, I told him about my plans for hitchhiking (which he agreed was safe) and I went to sleep.  The next morning, I was up earlier and met K in the center before we headed over to the buses.  It was out plan to get out the the highway, and hitchhike from there.  It was lightly raining when the bus dropped us off, but we were confident that we'd be picked up in no time.  Icelanders did this all the time; how hard could it really be?
Rainy Toadstools
Well.  After fifteen minutes of no cars stopping for us, K and I decided to move to a different part of the road.  By this time, the rain had picked up and we were getting rather soaked.  We spotted a bus stop and took turns waiting in the shelter before a local finally had pity on us and informed us that it's illegal for cars to stop in a bus lane.  Oh.  By this point, the two of us were exhausted and decided to get something to eat.  Unfortunately, we were now on the outskirts of town and could see no restaurants in sight.  We spotted a vague collection of buildings and decided to walk in that general direction.  Thankfully, the two of us had a healthy Minnesotan sense of humor and found our situation pretty funny, albeit wet and cold.  We finally reached what we suspected was a restaurant which turned out to be a Hard Rock Café.  Somehow, this shook up my worldview regarding Iceland just a little... I mean, if I'm all the way in Iceland I'd rather have something a little less American, but we were cold, wet, and hungry, so we'd take it.  The food turned out to be mediocre and far too expensive and the TV was playing some of the worst music videos ever made.  (No exaggeration: we're talking The Beegees' "How Deep is Your Love" and Michael Jackson's "Black or White."  It was really that bad).

K and I eventually worked up the strength to revisit the pouring rain and parted ways at the bus stop.  I returned to central Reykjavík and spent more time exploring the city before meeting with the guy who had agreed to host me for the remainder of my stay.  (I felt better about staying with a stranger if we met first).
Reykjavík Cathedral and Leif Eriksson statue

Café Loki
Icelandic culture draws heavily from Norse mythology (not from Marvel comics, as some might assume...)  In fact, both of my male hosts had the middle name of Þór (anglicized to "Thor"). 
can hardly
be so terrible.
one will survive
C (my new host) and I met in a café and spent the next several hours chatting and getting to know each other.  C was born and raised in northern England but has spent a significant amount of time in Iceland because his mother is Icelandic.  He recently moved to Reykjavík with a level of permanence to attend art school and was the sole occupant of a flat right in the center of town.  Encouraged by his genuine, non-threatening approach, I decided to take him up on his offer and would bring my things to his flat the next morning.

I left my first hosts with a thank you note (which also explained that their cat had vomited on the sheet they'd covered my temporary bed with which is why I put it with the other soiled laundry) and rode the bus into the city.  With all of my luggage in tow, the *mostly* uphill trek to the Cathedral left me winded but I made it.  In addition to moving my stuff into C's flat, I would also be meeting with A, a local in his early thirties who had (via couchsurfing) offered to show me around and buy me a cup of tea after I'd requested his couch but found it unavailable.  I spotted him near the Leif Eriksson monument, we shook hands, and he helped me find the address C had given me.  At the flat, I unpacked my things (I even had my own room!) and C gave me a spare key so I could come and go as I wished.  A and I went out to tea and browsed a couple of book shops.  He has a PhD in nutrition (a fact I only realized much later, due to his very humble manner) but spends his free time writing and photographing various natural phenomenon.  His most recent photographic venture had been in Hungary, which gave us something in common.

It was incredibly windy by the time we left the tea house, so A drove me to the National Museum (admission was free with my Reykjavík Welcome Pass).  Because I would have to walk back to C's flat and because the rainclouds were so heavy, A gave me his waterproof jacket to use for as long as I would need it.
I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Gunnar's Daughter, a historical novel set in medieval Iceland and Norway.
The museum fascinated me; I was especially struck by the Viking age exhibit.  I got through as much as I could before it closed and decided to return within the next few days if time allowed it.

I mentioned this before, but the weather in Iceland really does change from hour to hour.  My welcome pass included a ferry ride to Viðey (a small island across the bay) but I didn't want to be stuck out in the open in the pouring rain.  Thankfully, when I went to the island (the day after "moving in" to C's flat) the wind and rain subsided during my two-hour jaunt around the island, so I successfully basked in its majestic beauty.
Viðey in the distance
Island Horses

I'd been hearing snippets all week about a free, open-air concert for the band Of Monsters and Men, which would be happening Saturday evening (the day I visited Viðey).  Unfortunately, my post-Viðey wandering had brought me back to C's flat too late to make plans with C, K, or A, all of whom had mentioned going to the concert.  Apparently, it would be held in a field outside of Garðabaer, a suburb of Reykjavík and while I knew shuttles would be available, I didn't know where to find those shuttles.  I decided to order a cappuccino in Café Loki (to avoid looking like a freeloading foreigner... I really just wanted wifi) and I asked the clerk if she knew anything about the shuttles to the concert.  Overhearing my question, a girl about my age spoke up "Are you going to that concert too?!, proceeding to introduce herself as Cy, an American student from San Francisco.  She was on the way back to the States after completing an internship in Germany and had no one to attend the concert with her.  I was only too happy to volunteer.

Cy and I arrived at the concert and I took in the view: it was breathtaking.  I'd venture to say several thousand people showed up but since it was outside, nothing felt crowded.  Cy and I even managed to make it up to the front of the crowd and enjoy the music as such.  What struck me most about the aura of the situation was that it welcomed families.  From what I've seen in the US, kids and hip concerts don't mix well: Either the music is enjoyable but the crowd behavior is grossly inappropriate for children, or the program is safe and aimed at children but the music is painfully lame.  Iceland is a very different world, though.  Parents brought their children (some were just babies) and the younger members of the audience seemed to enjoy the music as much as the adults.  I was awed because I could never, ever envision something close to that concert happening where I'm from.  It was refreshing to witness.   

The music itself was wonderful.  Prior to the concert, I'd only really heard a few songs by Of Monsters and Men.  (I also hadn't a clue that they were from Iceland).  I loved what I heard that night, especially their cover of "Skeletons" by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, which happens to be one of my favorite songs. 
I have never experienced anything like the venue of environment at Garðabaer.  From the free admission to the open-air stage smack in the middle of a field, it was gorgeous.
Concert Confetti
The concert ended at a decent hour so Cy and I spent a couple hours chatting at her hostel after returning to Reykjavík.  (I think one of my favorite parts of traveling was striking up friendships so quickly; I never had time to feel lonely!)  She had a more educated appreciation of the music, but we both had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

The next day, K (my fellow Minnesotan) and I checked out the Reykjavík Flea Market and I finally tried a famous Icelandic hot dog.  They are really, really tasty.  (And this coming from someone who used to shun any and all red meat).  I think what makes them unique is the assortment of sauces and the crunchy onions sprinkled on top.  At any rate, it was a treat.  When K and I parted ways, I used my Welcome Pass to get reduced admission to the Volcano House where I watched two documentaries about volcanic eruptions and their impact on Iceland.  Fascinating stuff.
I used to hate hot dogs, but I've been converted.
Don't believe in the Icelandic pride for hot dogs?  Read this article.
The end of my week was fast approaching but my time felt well spent.  I had to make at least one trip to a thermal spa before leaving the country, though.  I told this resolution to C and his brother J (who was visiting for a few days) and they informed me that the spa down the block was as good as any.  C slept late the next morning but J was up in time to accompany me to the pool.  The hot water was an amazing change from the cold air in the outside hot tub.  While soaking up the hot water, I met D, a 19-year-old student from Bavaria.  (What's up with all the hunky young guys from Europe?  Seriously.  Also: I feel like these stories about chance encounters with strangers might come off as weird to my blog audience, but they really weren't, I promise).  Anyway, J had to leave but D and I agreed to meet by the Cathedral and walk to the National Museum together, where we joined K.  (See: safe, public places.  I know what I'm doing). 
With K at the National Museum
That evening (my last in Iceland) I went out to eat with A and a couple of his friends.  I'm thankful that I had so many conversations with locals; I don't think anything else could have enriched my understanding of Iceland in the same way.  Back at the flat, C and I planned our next morning (the inevitable goodbye) and he promised to get up early enough to send me off properly.

Bright and early, C and I left the flat to buy the delicacies he had talked up the night before.  I can't remember their Icelandic names (though I kept having C re-pronounce everything so I could hear the charming sound of the language) but the treats turned out to be some sort of orange soda and a pastry like a cinnamon roll.  C had to leave for his classes but not before a lovely goodbye which involved exchanging lists of film and book suggestions.  (Yes, I am a nerd and no, I am not ashamed of this fact).

My time at the airport was fairly nondescript as I filed through the line to have my passport stamped.   It was almost time to board the plane when I noticed that my scarf (the accessory that had accompanied me through this entire journey that had been a gift from my sister) was missing.  I tried to go back the way I came to look for it but the way was blocked off.  I spoke with the woman behind a desk and filled out a lost item slip as I quietly resigned myself to having lost the scarf.  My plane was boarding, I explained, and I was fairly certain I had left my scarf at the other side of the airport on the back of a chair in the food court.  She encouraged me to explain myself to the people at the passport station and go back for my scarf.  I knew I would be cutting it close but I ran back to the line, explained my situation, sprinted to the food court, located my scarf, sprinted back, waited to have my passport stamped before being waved forward by someone who recognized me, beelined past people on the broken escalator, and made it to the gate just in time to board.

I was going home.
On board my flight home.  The napkin says:
"In the year 1000 Leifur Eiríksson the Lucky sailed from Iceland to America.  He named it Vineland.
On his journey, coffee, tea and soda were not complimentary."

Thursday, November 14, 2013

On Blog Negligence and Travel Days

I've been home in Minnesota for over two months now and have no worthy excuse for leaving this blog hanging.  Life snuck up on me, I guess.  At any rate, I have started a sporadic home blog for my, admittedly, less exciting musings about day-to-day living.  Check it out, if you're so inclined!

On the morning of August 27, H drove me to the Brnik International airport which is less than 10 minutes away from Kranj and has a whopping total of two terminals.  I boarded the flight immediately and found myself in Zürich, Switzerland less than two hours later.  (Note: I had booked this Adria Airways flight five months in advance for $37 as the first component of my route to Iceland).  I now had eight hours to kill before I boarded my flight to Berlin, so I bought some free internet and downloaded as many episodes of Breaking Bad as would load to my laptop before my paid-for wifi hour expired. 
Airlines that give me chocolate?  Yes, please!
I used my ample time at the airport to change my clothes in the restroom and enjoy a pretzel from the airport cafe before my laptop informed me it was on "reserve power mode" and would shut off in a few minutes if not connected to a power source.  I wasn't about to abandon the exploits of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, so I searched high and low for an outlet.  I finally found one... in the smoker's lounge.  But desperate time calls for desperate measures, so I parked myself and my luggage in the corner and decided that smelling like a Swiss ashtray was a small price to pay for top-notch (albeit bootlegged...shh!) entertainment.

After more time than I care to admit inhaling second-hand smoke, I opted to go through security find my terminal (Air Berlin this time) in order to check my luggage.  I checked my backpack but kept my smaller suitcase, as I'd sent a package home from Romania to ensure the bag's status as a carry-on, thus saving me $$$.  I explored the airport and bought an illustrated book for myself and some Swiss chocolate for my Couchsurfing hosts in Iceland.  (More on that coming soon).  Before long, I found myself landing in the Tegel International Airport.

Unlike Zürich, where I had been content to loaf in the airport, I decided to travel into Berlin during my six-hour layover.  All things considered (and I had done my research, mind you), I decided to give myself about three hours in the city itself.  I stowed my suitcase at the checked luggage station, found myself a map of the city, changed my remaining Romanian lei and American dollars into euro, and bought a shuttle ticket to Alexanderplatz.
The Fernsehturm
It was a thrill to experience a taste of Berlin, however short a time.  My last year in school ignited my interest in Berlin when I took a seminar on the Holocaust and supplemented that experience the following semester by auditing a class on Europe's history from 1945 to the present.  I didn't see nearly as much as I would have liked (alas, the zoo simply wasn't feasible in the time available to me) but I did manage to acquire a few souvenirs and photographs.  I definitely want to go back. 
At the Soviet War Memorial.  A Woman in Berlin, the diary of a German woman during the Soviet siege of Berlin at the end of WWII, is one of my favorite books and I recommend it to anyone interested in that part of history.
Liberation Reenactors.  (If you read the book I mentioned in the caption above, you'll understand why I felt vaguely uncomfortable seeing teenage girls pose for pictures by hugging or kissing the soldiers).    
Street Mercantile
Brandenburg Gate
I returned to Tegel Airport in time to pick up my suitcase and buy an illustrated children's book of Berlin.  Meanwhile, I connected via internet with my host in Iceland who had provided me with information about the Fly Bus into Reyjavík and the surrounding area and other details, including his phone number.  The flight was delayed about an hour, so I wouldn't be in Iceland until after midnight.  (Keep in mind, I was still on Central European Time which made midnight about 3am for me).

When the plane finally touched down in–unexpectedly dark–Iceland (what happened to "land of the midnight sun?"), it was even later than I had expected, and it was well after 1am when the Fly Bus finally left the airport and brought me to my stop on the outskirts of Reykjavík.

As the bus pulled away, leaving me on an eerily empty stretch of sidewalk, I was immediately struck with how clean and fresh everything smelled.  I was also struck with how chilly the air was here.  It was even drizzling, a little.  According to my body, it was 5am and I needed to get to my host's couch, stat.  Furthermore, I didn't want to keep the people who had agreed to host me free of charge and at the last minute waiting, so I set off following the vague directions my host had sent me online.  Unfortunately and unbeknownst to my jet-lagged, adrenaline-surging brain, I misunderstood the directions and started walking–all of my luggage in tow–in the wrong direction.

After a long, long, time of rolling my suitcase on the side of the highway, a car, one of the few I had seen that night, stopped and the driver asked me in English if I needed help.  (Note: Aside from brief encounters at the airport, this was the first time my ears were graced with hearing an Icelandic accent, and it was lovely.  It's a hard accent to explain.  It doesn't resemble Swedish at all; it has a lilt that's a little Irish sounding, but it's less thick and much easier to understand).  I asked him to use his phone and he obliged; I called my host and tried to explain where I was, and he seemed to think I was almost there.  I returned the phone to the nice stranger and continued on my way... Again, I walked in the wrong direction.  (At this point I was vocally motivating myself: "You can do this, Rosa, keep walking, S-I-W!")  It was another long stretch of time before I came across a girl on a bike who apologized that she was "a bit drunk" but proceeded to let me use her phone.  This time, she talked to my host in Icelandic and assured me that he would be on his way within minutes.  I thanked her, she rode away, and I took off my heavy backpack while I waited for my host to pick me up.  He was there very soon and I found my way to the couch immediately upon arrival, thankful that I'd had the foresight to "borrow" the blanket from my flight.  (I wasn't sure about Air Berlin's policy for blankets, and I didn't ask... Whoops).

At any rate, I later looked up the distance I had walked from where the bus dropped me off.  I had walked two. miles.  In the wrong direction.  Ugh.  On the brightside, I made it to my destination and thoroughly enjoyed my week there.  But I'll save the details on that and why I resorted to Couchsuring next for my next post.  Until then, here's a teaser picture of Iceland:
Esjan Mountain Range

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Slovenia, Revisited

I left Rijeka on an early bus to Ljubljana and arrived a few hours later to the city I'd fallen in love with a just a few months earlier.  At the bus station, I was greeted by three members of my extended family I had not yet met: my cousin H and her teenage daughters, J and A, with whom I would spend the next several days.  They all speak excellent English, which allowed us a conversation over coffee (which grew to include Masa and Sebastian) that wasn't stunted by my lukewarm foreign language skills.
H, her husband J, and their daughters live north of Ljubljana in Kranj.  At the house, the girls showed me to my temporary room (A slept on the couch so I could have her bed; people here are so generous) I took a lengthy nap.  I was awoken some time later by A, who informed me that some people wanted to meet me...  To my delighted surprise, Vesna, Darko, Tadej, Sandra, and Baby L (who was still cooking in June) had all come over for dinner!  It's hard for me to describe the happiness I exuded over this reunion but, in a word, it was joyful.  (And the dinner was delicious). 
Tadej, me, Sandra, and baby L
A and me
I would have liked to spend at least a week with family, but I spent more time in Romania than I had originally factored into my trip, so I only had a few days in Slovenia.  We made the most of that time, though; I bonded with my new-found family over food, sightseeing, and (in typical ex-Yugoslav fashion) loud and lengthy conversation.  Time went by too fast.  The morning of Tuesday, August 27, I left Slovenia for the last leg of my trip, which I will relate in the next post.  Until then, enjoy the pictures!
Veliki Otok
Predjama Castle