Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Barcelona --- 5 Months Later

It's back to the blogging world thanks to reminders from my grandmother that I have yet to post about Barcelona (my last trip overseas) and because you can't help but miss this thing!

Travel back about 5 months...

I decided to stay a few more days in Europe after my program ended to visit some friends of the family in Barcelona.  Funny story how we know them.  About 5 years ago, my mom hired an intern at the State Fair that was hosting a foreign exchange student, Jordi, from Spain that also wanted to work for the summer.  So, he too became an intern and worked with me in Little Hands on the Farm.  I didn't understand a word he said, but he was such a happy guy and loved being there, even though the conditions were hot, tiring, and miserable. 

This is Jordi, his fiance, and his sister... 
We have kept in touch with him over the years and every year we get an invitation to his parent's flat in Barcelona.  I finally took advantage of this amazing flat with beautiful views, five bedrooms, a huge balcony, and private elevator.  His parents are both well respected doctors in Spain and some of the most kind people you will ever meet.  They refused to let me pay for a thing, loved practicing their English with me, and fed me more food than I could handle.  Every day, they planned an itinerary for Jordi and I to walk around Spain and see the sights.  I think I went into every museum in Barcelona.  My favorite was Antonio Gaudi's house.  They also took me on this air tram ride over the city, on a road trip to a tiny little beach town where all the "kids" go, and out to a very fancy dinner with 5 courses.  Seriously, the amount of food they fed me was outrageous!  The last night they threw a party for me on their balcony with American food (chips) and Hawaiian lays and gave me a chocolate bar in the shape of my name, Abigail.  Even though I had just met them, they somehow figured out my semi-ridiculous obsession with chocolate. 
Barcelona was very fun and Jordi and his family were great hosts.  But by this point in the trip, I was beyond ready to come home and think I would have enjoyed the city much more had I gone sooner.  Either way, I finally made it over there and that is all that matters! 

Unique Antonio Gaudi Architecture
Jordi's Mom and I 
View of Barcelona from Antonio Gaudi's Park 

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Home Stretch


Today was my last day of class. Tomorrow is my last day in Florence. For the past couple of days, I have been trying to figure out what I have done here to make the time fly by so fast. Yes, I traveled every weekend, but what the heck did I do during the week? I cannot even remember. All I know is that I love Firenze. I love Venice, Sorrento, Capri, Rome, Siena, Cinque Terre, Via Reggio, Paris, and I am sure I will love Barcelona too. It has been a great six weeks experience and I truly feel like I have grown as a person and learned a lot about the world. I am definitely more independent now and I know that independence will carry over to life back home. It will be hard not traveling somewhere every weekend, not being able to walk cobblestone streets at night, not having my own place, not seeing famous, historical things on a daily basis, and not living the European lifestyle. However, I am ready to be back home with my family and friends. I wish they could have been with me to experience everything I experienced because it was so amazing and hard to explain. I know that once I am home for a while I will want to hop right back on a plane and come back. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before my next trip. I mean, I did toss a coin into the Trevi Fountain and I will rub the boar’s nose tomorrow, so that guarantees a return.

As a little remembrance, I made a top ten list of things I loved about Italy and another one for things I did not love…

1. Gnocchi al Pesto
2. Planning Weekend Trips
3. The David
4. Watching Harry Potter in an Opera House
5. MTV Italia
6. Leather Boots and Bags
7. Manelli Keys and Bracelets
8. Streets of Florence at Night
9. Climbing the Duomo
10. Cappucino and Pastries in the Morning

1. Tourists
2. Pigeons
3. Everyone Smoking
4. 100 Degree Weather and No Air Conditioning
5. Catcalls From Italian Men
6. The Train Station at Night
7. Mosquitoes
8. Homework and Finals
9. The Exchange Rate
10. Screaming Children for Neighbors

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Bienvenue a Paris


(FYI: Its a Looong one)

Our last big weekend here in Europa was quite the success...well, in the end. Jessie and I decided to let the boys handle the travel plans for the entire weekend because we basically organized everything else over the six week period. Not a good idea. Come Tuesday of last week, the only thing they knew was that we were flying out of some Milan airport on Friday morning, we were staying in some Paris hotel, and we were leaving some time Sunday. Time for the girls to step in. We planned to meet for dinner to discuss every last detail of this huge trip because we were not stepping onto an airplane/train/bus without knowing how exactly we were getting to another country. The boys assured us that it was only Tuesday and we did not leave until Friday so we should not worry. Oh, really? Well, Jessie and I were extremely worried and started drilling them with questions. We first figured out that our plane would leave at 8 a.m. Friday morning from Milan. Milan is about 3-4 hours away by train and the latest train we could catch was Thursday night at 9:45. The earliest was Friday at 5:45, but we would miss our plane by a good couple of hours. So, our only option was to take the late train on Thursday night. The train would arrive in Milan at 12:05 a.m. and we would have to figure out sleeping accommodations for the remaining 5 hours. Should we book a hostel with beds and pillows or sleep on benches at the train station? Answer…the train station. No, I am not kidding. Like homeless people, we found the hardest, most uncomfortable bench in the station and parked ourselves there until our train to the airport arrived at 5 a.m. We used our luggage as pillows and dressed ourselves with every article of clothing we had and slept for about an hour. If only I had taken pictures to document this moment, but I was not entirely thrilled to be there. I’m sure you can picture it. Because we were too cold and uncomfortable to sleep, we stayed awake playing cards and “would you rather” (ex: would you rather marry a creepy gypsy or a creepy Albanian). It turned out to be a pretty fun night. We took the morning train to Bergamo, the city with our airport, and made our flight with only about 15 minutes to spare. We had some issues with Bergamo buses, so we were late. Isn’t traveling fun! We finally made it into Paris after taking an hour bus ride from our far away airport and immediately saw our first French attraction. A crepes stand. Crepes are fried tortilla-looking things filled with either Nutella, chocolate, banana, jam, or a combination of everything. Yum! I was loving France already. The Arc de Triumph was the next big thing we saw, but it was not all that exciting. We did not want to pay the money to climb to the top either, so we just took a few quick pictures and called it a day. Plus, we had to find our hotel because, of course, I was carrying the biggest bag and my shoulder was killing me! Thanks to New York native, Julian, figuring out the Metro system was a piece of cake. Metros are really fun too and I think My Man Mitch and I will have a discussion when I return about incorporating them into the downtown Indianapolis area. Knowing that the boys were the ones to book the hotel, I was a little skeptical and kept picturing a place very similar in comfort and cleanliness to the Milan train station. But, they pulled through and booked us two very nice hotel rooms with breakfast included. We put our bags down, showered, which felt amazing, and headed towards the Louvre. On Fridays, the Louvre is free for students after 6, so we were very excited. However, not as excited as when we spotted a Starbucks sign inside the pyramid. We have all been playing a game lately where we talk about the first things we are going to do when we get home…For example, Jessie wants drive-thru Wendys and a pedicure; Brice wants a Chipotle burrito; Julian wants to go gambling; Mark wants to go to his Fraternity house; and I want a Starbucks Carmel Frappucino. Basically what I am trying to say is that I sprinted from the Louvre entrance to the Starbucks line so fast that I completely forgot why I was actually there. That particular frappucino was ten times better than my very first. Now, the first thing I want when I get home is a home cooked American meal. The Louvre is gigantic and there was no possible way we could see everything in one night, so we decided to focus on the Denon Wing. The Denon Wing has the Michelangelo slaves, the Venus, the Mona Lisa, and many more less important pieces. My favorites were the slaves because I have been studying them for the past six weeks. Again, it is amazing how different sculptures are in person compared to pictures. The Mona Lisa was a major disappointment because she is so small, she sits behind a huge glass wall, and viewers have to stand so far away. I like her better in pictures. After the Louvre, we grabbed a typical French dinner of steak frites (steak and fries) and went straight back to the hotel to sleep. The next morning we all felt completely refreshed and ready to try some French continental breakfast. I chose the coca puffs, a croissant with strawberry jam, and orange juice. I have branched out so much over here. The itinerary for day two included a visit to the zoo, Notre Dame, and the Eiffel Tower. Zoos in Paris are much like farms in Indiana. Goats, pigs, rabbits, llamas, and deer are huge attractions, which is not what I paid money to see. Due to the lack of interesting French animals, we ended up spending most of our time staring at the monkeys. One of the monkeys gave me a fist pound on the opposite side of the glass and that is when I knew I had to take him home with me. But zoo people don’t like that idea and I am pretty sure airport security does not allow monkeys on planes. Dang it! We ate more crepes at the zoo before moving on toward the Notre Dame Cathedral down the street. It is so enormous and so architecturally unique that is almost seems fake. We did not go inside because the line was miles long, but I did get some great photos of gargoyles and flying buttresses. The last stop of the trip was the Eiffel Tower. French people absolutely despise the tower and that hatred was made crystal clear when we were mocked by two little French girls for taking pictures. Oh the Tour de Eiffel is tre magnifique. Oo la la. I still think it’s awesome. As we got closer to the base of the tower, we noticed and extremely large group of people facing a stage about a football field length away. We were really confused but then realized we were smack dab in the middle of the French Independence Day celebration. What independence they were celebrating…I have no idea. But, we found a spot on the grass and tuned in to the concert. All the performers were big timers here in Europe so it was a good thing I watch MTV Italia because otherwise I would have had no idea who was playing. The best part of the night was the amazing fireworks show that followed the concert. It was right behind the Eiffel Tower, which was lit up and sparkling, and the fireworks were choreographed to music. By far the best fireworks show I have ever seen. It was a perfect end to our last weekend together abroad.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Hiking Cinque Terre


Cinque Terre, or Five Grounds, is one of the most raved about places in Italy. The past study abroad students at Purdue insisted we go visit, our school scheduled special trips, and most importantly, cousin Kate wrote it under my “places to visit” list. Now I know why people love it so much. Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore are the five towns that make up Cinque Terre. The colorful towns are built up on steep cliffs with hiking trails, railroads, and shuttles connecting them. They each have their own private, rocky beaches as well. Jessie and I decided that if we were going to visit Cinque Terre, we were going to wear our hiking clothes and hike the entire thing. I am proud to say that we accomplished our goal. We started by taking the train to the very last town to purchase our hiking passes for the day. They equipped us with a map and a water bottle and pointed us in the direction of the next town. We took a minute to look over the map and decided to tackle blue trail, which started hard and ended easy. The reasoning behind our choice was that we would rather be convinced early the trail was hard and be surprised later when it got easier. It was a great plan. The trail shot straight up for the first half hour and I quickly realized how out of shape I am. Hiking trails in Tennessee and Colorado used to be a cake walk! Because I am so competitive, I was irritated by my shortness of breath and shaky legs and started hiking faster with less breaks. Jessie, on the other hand, took tons of breaks. While she would rest, I would take pictures and look at the map. We reached the second city in about an hour and stopped along the cliff’s edge to look down onto the beach. The beaches have very little sand so people set their towels on huge rocks in the middle of the water. I am beaching it there before I leave. We walked around the city for a few minutes, grabbed an apple at the market, and started back up the cliff. Between the second and third city, the trail was more of the same. Hike straight up and hike straight down. The trail slowly started to move closer to the cliff’s edge and all I could think about was how mom would have been flipping out. Another hour passed before we arrived in the third city and we were starving. We found a small café off the main street and ordered focaccia caprese sandwiches to sit and eat in the shade. The temperature and the sun were starting to get to us. After sitting down for a good half hour, it was extremely difficult getting up and getting back on the trail. We only had two more towns, so we were motivated by our approaching finish. The trail started to ease up a bit and Jessie was much happier. We booked it through the last two towns because there was not much to see and I started craving gelato. Finally, we finished the 5 hour hike in Riomaggiore. We were so proud of ourselves and no one could believe we finished in one day. It was a great accomplishment and an even better workout. To reward our physical fitness, we ordered gelato. Hey, we deserved that strawberry and lemony goodness after working so hard. Jessie and I were more than ready to go home and hit the sack. We had a huge weekend, but it was the best we have had here. Partly because Jessie and I planned two amazing trips on our own, which was a first for both of us, and partly because it was our last weekend in Italy. Time is running out and I am starting to get sad about leaving my home away from home and my Italia friends. I have really bonded with Jessie and after this weekend, we decided to rendezvous in NYC for my fall break. We figured that if we could survive this weekend, traveling in American will be easy as pie. Next weekend…Paris!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Gorgeous Sorrento and Capri


Talk about the most beautiful places in the world! Sorrento is a cute little beach town situated on top of enormous cliffs with beaches, marinas, and amazing views. Our hostel/campsite was conveniently located at the very tip top of the cliff, so we opted for the bus ride instead of climbing. We were a little nervous about the condition of our accommodations because this was in fact a hostel and we had seen the movie and heard the horror stories. When we walked onto the grounds, we were pleasantly surprised and on the verge of ecstatic. It was perfect! There were trees everywhere, a pool, a market, a restaurant, great views, and a beach. High five for Jessie and me for booking such a great place. We had the option of staying in a “dormitory,” a tent, a camper, or a cabin. Guess which one we chose…the cabin. The cabin had one double bed and one single, for Brice, and some lawn chairs outside to look out onto the coast. Our shared bathroom and shower was a good two minute walk down the hill. We immediately threw down our bags, put on our swimsuits and headed for the pool because day light was fading fast. After traveling all morning, it was so nice to swim and nap in the sun. The stresses of the day completely melted away. Before the sun went down for the day, we left the campgrounds and hiked higher looking for good photo ops of the coast. However, the higher you climb, the more trees stand in your way. So back down the hill we go. I was feeling the burn already. We turned back into our campsite and found that the best views were down by the beach. The beach was located all the way down the hill and was littered with small, glazed tiles instead of sand. I took a handful as souvenirs. The sunset was so beautiful that I think we all used an entire memory card because we could not stop watching. When we finally pulled ourselves away, we hiked back to the cabin and fell into our beds. We were more than exhausted and were planning to rise early to catch the ferry to Capri.
Around 7:30, we got out of bed, walked down to the restroom, packed our things, checked out of the cabin, and hiked down to Marina Grande. It was a peaceful morning walk, but the Marina was buzzing with tourists waiting for ferries. We had heard rumors that ferry tickets were 50 Euro, so we were crossing our fingers for cheaper prices. And we found them! They were less than 20. The ferry was huge and when in motion, it rocked back and forth just enough to put me to sleep, which isn’t too surprising. I fall asleep to everything. The ferry docked and we hustled our way off and to the nearest boat tour stand. It was the greatest investment I have made here. Well, except for my leather boots. The boat took us around the entire island and weaved between hundreds of rich and famous yachts, such as Roberto Cavalli. We visited hidden grottos, passed under huge arches carved into floating boulders, marveled at cliff side neighborhoods, where Georgio Armani lives, and soaked up every ray of sun in the Italian Riviera. The only disappointment was the two hour wait for the Grotto Azzurro. This was supposed to be the highlight of Capri because you can hop off the boat and swim through the caves. Obviously, we were not the only ones excited about swimming there. The other highlight of Capri is found on land. Handmade, leather sandals. At the sandal stores, you choose a design from the wall, the strap color or colors, and then the workers begin making your sandal. I was waiting in line with my design and colors in mind, but backed out at the last minute. I know, I know. Why would I pass up handmade, Italian sandals? I am actually not sure why I decided against them, but I do know it is a very hard subject to discuss. Moving on…We stopped for a quick lunch before boarding the ferry and I ordered fried calamari. Oh how I have missed seafood. It was a satisfying meal and I left Capri one happy girl. As we were pulling away from the dock, I decided that once I make my first million, I will buy a white house in the fancy neighborhood, rent the yacht from Roberto Cavalli, and spend every summer vacationing there. Sounds like a fantastic, realistic plan to me.

American Immigrants


Why would anyone want to travel 1st or 2nd class when one can travel luggage class? That’s right…luggage class. The definition of luggage class is when three American travelers purchase a ticket without seat numbers on a train with seat numbers and are forced to sit with the luggage. Here is what happened…Jessie and I planned an entire weekend trip, by our selves, to Sorrento and Capri. We scheduled an itinerary, purchased train tickets, and booked a hostel/campsite. We were pretty impressed with our organizing abilities and went to sleep Thursday night feeling confident that the trip would run smoothly. Then the 4:00 a.m. alarm sounded Friday morning. It was not too difficult waking up and getting ready, but we forgot that Florence is still pitch black that early in the morning. In America, as everyone knows, only crazies are out and about that early so two blonde headed girls should not be. Well, the same applies in foreign countries. The walk to the train station was the scariest time in my life. A man on a moped stopped next to our sidewalk and started growling, two other men started cursing at us on the bridge, and the homeless people along the station wall were being creepy. Italians, thank goodness, will only cat call, so we were more than fine. Just a little freaked out. Our morning continues to get better when we realized that our 5:30 train was no where to be found on the board. That’s a problem. Train station workers do not arrive at the office until a little after 5:30, so we were unable to ask for help. Finally, we ask a security guard and he shows us another board that says the only other train to Napoli leaves at 8:30. How frustrating! Even though we knew our tickets did not match that particular train, we decided to go back home, relax, and head back to the station for the 8:30. We could get away with it right? Wrong…very, very wrong. As soon as we stepped on the train, we realized that people were looking for their assigned seats. Oops. This is when we found our seats with the luggage. Obviously, I thought this was the funniest thing in the world and could not stop laughing. My laughter was soon silenced by the ticket checker. He does not miss a thing and immediately charged us the difference. The train stopped in Rome and we were approached by an American that, ever so politely, reminded us that luggage racks are for luggage, not people. Needless to say, we had to move, even though we paid good money for those seats. Oh well. We went to the food car and stood for the remaining hour. When we finally arrived in Napoli, we had to find another train to take us to Sorrento. We, along with what seemed liked the entire city of Napoli, were lined up on the same platform. How we were all going to fit onto the same train, I have no idea. It was going to be an all out shoving war. We won! The train was scorching hot, sticky, and smelly with about 100 people crammed into the space between the cars. No seats were available when we boarded. The smell that started filling the room was the worst smell you have ever smelled multiplied by 100. I thought I was going to pass out. People slowly started getting off the train at various stops and I could finally move and breathe. But as people started exiting, little gypsy children playing accordions started entering. Those poor kids are the dirtiest, scariest kids I have ever seen. It’s sad that you have to grab a hold of your wallets and bags when they walk by because if you don’t, say goodbye to your things. Finally, the train stops in Sorrento and we no longer feel like American immigrants.

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Weekend In Rome


Day two included the Vatican and St. Peter’s. This was Sistine Chapel and Pietà day and I was so excited because we have talked about these works since the first day of class. They are beautiful in books, but I could only image their impact in person. We found the Vatican line at 8:30 in the morning and started placing bets as to how long the line would take. My guess was 2 hours and 15 minutes. I was way off. We stood for 3 hours and 9 minutes. I was a tad bit irritable and kept saying that it had better be worth it. The Vatican beyond impressed me. My favorite room leading to the Sistine Chapel was the map room. It is this extremely long room filled with maps of Italy. The ceiling was painted beautifully and the windows opened up to scenic views of Vatican City. Other rooms included picture galleries, state rooms, and collections of ancient art. Finally, we wind our way into the Sistine Chapel and immediately it takes my breath away. It is not just a series of paintings painted by some artist. It is more than a masterpiece, more than artistic skill, more than Biblical knowledge. The Sistine Chapel is overwhelmingly out of this world, literally. It seems not humanly possible to create something so extraordinary. It is almost like some divine being was present to help Michelangelo. There is no other way to describe it. We spent about a half an hour tilting backwards and staring at scenes from the flood, the creation of Adam and Eve, the creation of heaven, and the creation of the world. The prophets and sibyls were amazing too. I have never been so emotional looking at artwork and I was unsuccessful with keeping the goose bumps down, but I managed to keep away the tears.
We finally pulled ourselves away from the ceiling and walked to St. Peter’s Basilica. At first, I was not enamored with the actual church so much as the Pietà. She is beautiful. She sits on more of an angle than pictures show and she is much smaller than I imaged. Christ is unbelievably lifelike sitting on her lap. His ribs, muscles, and veins look defined by skin rather than carved marble. Mary looks very young and serene for having just lost a child. Her proportions are somewhat off, also. She is much larger on the bottom than the top, but Michelangelo had to compensate for Christ’s size somehow. She made me get emotional too and I had the hardest time leaving. When I finally did leave the Pietà, I walked around St. Peter’s and marveled at the detail of the place. Italian artists were extremely patient. I dipped my hand in the holy water and did a little Father, Son, and Holy Ghost prayer, even though I am not Catholic, because I felt it was fitting. Dad would have really loved St. Peter’s. We walked outside onto the square and located the Pope’s window where he pokes his head out every now and then. We also stood directly in the center of the square and watched the columns magically line up. Very cool. We left Rome around 4:30 and when we arrived back in Florence, I really felt like I was home. Rome was an amazing place to visit and I was happy to experience such great history, but I am glad I chose not to study there. I love Florence and am starting to get extremely attached.

Tonight, our Italian roommate Nika is cooking an Italian dinner for us. We are having two courses. The first being some kind of pasta and the second being scallops. She is leaving next weekend to go home for the rest of the summer, so she wanted to do something nice for us. She said she is a “cucina brava.” I am pumped! We also found out today we are getting yet another roommate. They are never ending! Jessie and I were hoping for an American roommate so we could actually communicate with her, so we waited by the door this morning wondering when she would come. We heard our outside doorbell ring so we unlocked the door and ran to the stairs to spy on her. Turns out it was someone that lived on the first floor. They must have forgotten their key and pressed a random button. Roommate #2 finally showed up and we don’t think she is American. She was with our landlord and another lady that were speaking Italian, so we can’t tell right now. She has not been back to the apartment since the first encounter. We are crossing our fingers.