18 September 2008

One night in Italy

Milan, Italy
3 August 2008

My hostel was hard to find. In the end, it took about three hours, a bus ticket I never found out if I actually needed, and four kind strangers who took pity on me.

The station I arrived at (Milano Centrale) is enormous. It has 24 platforms and serves about 120 million people per year. From the station, my directions said to board the 92 bus. The bus loop is out behind the station, through a park-like area, and across a street. An Italian boy (correctly assuming confusion) guided me onto the bus and off at the stop I needed. From the stop, it should have been a quick two-minute walk across the street and up the block, but I turned the wrong way and wandered for over an hour. For this I blame confusing Italian street names that sound like addresses.

Stazione Centrale di Milano

Italian summer nights are hot.

I may have been propositioned by an older gentleman from his car window, but what do I know? I don't speak Italian.

By the time I made it to my hostel, I was sweaty and digusting and tired from a very long day. I stayed at the Hotel America, home of this sign. It's actually a very nice, very clean place, and contrary to my earlier experiences, conveniently located.

In the common room, there were two lads from London, a girl from Australia, and a boy from Atlanta, Georgia (who looked and sounded just like James Dean!), who invited me to watch The Simpsons with them. We talked about our travels, about home, and about patriotism, and then we answered Rob's (from London) insane questions (he assured us that he was genuinely curious to know the answers).

I love staying in hostels because of the people you meet. In hotels, you rarely see anyone, but hostel-dwellers are a special breed of people that exude camaraderie. Hanging out with a multi-national group in a city where no one speaks the language is quite fun. It was a lovely wind-down to the day.

My balcony view in Milano

My return to the station in the morning was comical. At the bus stop, I asked if this was where the 92 bus stopped, but the English word for "92" is nothing like the Italian. A tiny elderly lady, who did not speak a word of English, tried her best to help me, but unfortunately for foreign language communication, speaking slowly and loudly in Italian is still speaking in a foreign language. She finally dragged some man off the street to assure me (also loudly) that "yes, bus 92 stop here, go to stazione."

I missed my train back to Switzerland by one minute, so I remained in Milan for two more hours, soaking up the sunshine and watching the goings-on in the home of my sister's "boyfriend," Pato, who plays for AC Milan. =)

I loved Italy.

15 September 2008

Now we're talkin'!

Comments are on! I promise I really do want to hear from y'all... Blogger wouldn't turn the comments on normally for some reason, so I did it manually. My frustration may be over.

Or maybe I'm just a loser.

14 September 2008

Castles, cobblestones and confusion

Sunday, 3 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 2:
Zurich, Switzerland to Milan, Italy

It's an exciting thing to look out of the window of a plane and know that the mountains you see sticking up through the clouds are the Alps.

I made it off the plane and through customs in good time, changed some money and collected my backpack. My first challenge was the train station. When traveling with a Eurail Pass, one must first have it validated, which I was able to do at the ticket window, where the lovely English-speaking ticket agent booked me a reservation to Bellinzona (pronounced with the Italian "tz"sound, not an English "zzz"), my first destination of the day. As I stepped away from the window, I realized I did not understand a word printed on the card, and unable to find an information booth, I decided to try my luck at the train tracks.

It took me 15 minutes to remember that "zug" means "train." It took another 5 to remember that I was already AT the "Zurich Flughafen," otherwise known as the airport.

The first person I asked for help was Russian, and she spoke about as much English as I do German, but we compared tickets and realized we needed the same train. We made it to the main Zurich station and found our connection to Bellinzona (for me) and Lugano (for her). On the train, I showed her pictures of Oregon and she played Russian music on her Mp3 player for me, and then she wrote a note for me in my journal.

I disembarked in the sunshine at Bellinzona, in the breathtakingly beautiful Ticino valley near the Italian border, which boasts three castles of its own, built to fortify the border defenses in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Bellinzona, Ticino Valley, Switzerland

In Switzerland, everything is carefully marked, so it was not hard to locate the first of the three castles. You can see them from the train station, but they look much further away than they actually are. I began at Castelgrande, a massive stone structure that sort of encompasses a hill.

Entrance to Castelgrande, Bellinzona, Switzerland

I climbed a few hundred stairs to reach the stone and grass courtyard (with my unwieldy 30k backpack, fun times) and looked around before returning to the center of town to summon my courage and strength of thigh to climb the hill opposite Castelgrande to the next castle, Castello di Montebello.

Castello di Montebello and Castello di Sasso Carbaro, Bellinzona

Castello di Montebello has two drawbridges, a wine press, and the tiniest closet toilet I've ever seen tucked inside the castle wall. You're able to walk along part of the old castle walls and look down into the valley. This castle was once a 13th century palace, expanded into a defensive structure over the following 200 years. Castles fascinate me.

Castelgrande from the windows of Castello di Montebello

After Castello di Montebello, I returned to the train station far too exhausted to continue up the hill to the third and final castle, and caught the train south toward Como, Italy. After an encounter with the Italian border police at Chiasso, I got off the train to find Lake Como (downhill and to the left from the stazione).

Stairs in Como

The lake is every bit as beautiful as they say.

Lago di Como, Italia

This particular evening, it was so hot and sunny that there was a haze over the lake. So many boats were out on the water. There was a small boy in an AC Milan jersey playing football (soccer) on the bumper boat dock. The steep, narrow streets are chock-full of sidewalk cafes. Multitudes of people were strolling around the lake, most eating gelato, window shopping and enjoying the lazy, humid Sunday afternoon. The atmosphere was one of indulgence.

Como, Italy

I wrapped up my day's journey in Milano, where after wandering around the city for nearly an hour, I was relieved to finally find my hostel. In Italy, what sounds like an address (Corso 22 Marzo) is actually an entire street. I wandered the wrong way up said street. Fortunately, Italian boys who learned to speak English (for, I am convinced, lost American tourists such as myself) were able to turn me around and help me find my way back. Grazie!

07 September 2008

A whole new world

Before I officially begin the story of my trip, let me first say thank you to all of my European friends (and Euro-dwelling American friends) who made me feel so welcome. Thank you for showing me your world. A big thank you also to all Europeans in general... I wasn't sure what sort of reception to expect, but every single person I met treated me with so much warmth and hospitality, and I appreciated that more than I can say. I enjoyed you and your countries very much.

Let the games begin.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

European Adventure Travel Day 1:
Portland, Oregon to Zurich, Switzerland

The day starts innocuously enough. Wake up. Drink coffee. Stumble into the shower. Get dressed. Drink more coffee. Realize that today is the day you leave the country.

Eyes pop open. You're awake now.

Head to the airport. Check in baggage and pray silently for an aisle seat at the ticket counter. Proceed to security checkpoint and clench your ticket and passport between your teeth as you perform the quasi-striptease/elaborate game of Simon Says with TSA employees. Drink more overpriced coffee purchased from sullen employee at tiny shop. Board plane. Sit. Wait.


Living on the West Coast is only convenient if you're flying to, say, Australia (unless you have to fly to Boston to join the people you're going to the Antipodes with, but that's another box of disgruntlement entirely). My first flight was from Portland to Philadelphia at the ugly hour of 0845. I was sitting between halves of a military family ( I offered to trade seats, but they quoted some previously unknown airline rule about number of kids allowed in a row. I don't know. Maybe US Airways made it up), but their two children were the quietest children I have even seen on a plane in ten years of flying. There was an unattended minor sitting next to the window in the row in front of me. At some point during the flight, said unattended minor pressed her face between the seats and said to me, very seriously:

"Excuse me ma'am, but are we in Philadelphia?"

We were somewhere over Lake Michigan at the time.

The rest of the first flight and making my connection in Philly were relatively uneventful. My gate was located at the end of one of those silly terminals with several gates and a big open area full of seats that is reached by a ridiculously long hallway, so long, in fact, that no one can be bothered to leave once they have reached the gate, resulting in a hot, sweaty, smelly, crowded area. Fun.

[airport]------------------------------------------------------( )
Depiction of hallway to terminal

Got on the plane. Am seated next to two cute Swiss German boys, apparently fresh from a trip to Vegas. They speak German to each, French to me, and very limited English: "blackjack," "hit" (pronounced "heet" with a high giggle at the end), and "thank you very much." Before take-off, I attempt to learn German via text message from my roommate, but she only managed to teach me one word: sali, which is Swiss-German for hi.

Shortly, I discover that I am the one tiny pocket of American-ness in this giant pressurized tin can full of homeward-bound Swiss vacationers, all of whom are speaking German. Naturally.

The flight is delayed twice, due to weather in Zurich, as if nine hours on a plane isn't already enough. I entertain myself by watching the two boys play card games, all of which were hilarious to both players and baffling to me. I contemplate buying headphones until I find out the in-flight movie is The Golden Compass. Pass. People, do not forget headphones on international flights. It is very unwise.

We took off at sunset. Sleep was intermittent, at best, and after only a few hours we were chasing the sunrise over the Atlantic. Flying east on a red-eye is the weirdest feeling. I have no idea how long the flight was, but I think "forever" is a safe guess.

06 September 2008

Parlez-vous Anglais?

Profuse apologies for my slacker-ish-ness. I have been editing my bazillion pictures and watching World Cup Qualifiers (congratulations to the US and well-played to the Aussies, even though you beat my Oranje (I love the Dutch even more after visiting Holland!)).

For your patience:

Five Lessons I Learned In Europe
  • Always say 'thank you' in the language of the person helping you. People love that.
  • Travel wipes are your new best friend. . .
  • . . .second only to water.
  • Through a language barrier, miming is always more effective than shouting.
  • Even if you learn nothing else before you go, learn basic manners (please, thank you, excuse me, sorry, and help!) and travel vocabulary in the local vernacular and you will end up getting what you want. Usually.