Friday, March 30, 2012

Thoughts from Places: A Pilgrimage to Stratford

I'm taking a Shakespeare class here at the ICLC, and there are two other theatre classes offered here, Drama in the London Theatre and Interrelationships. These classes are fantastic for us because we get to go see all kinds of different performances (obviously mostly Shakespeare, for me) and what's not to love about live theatre? But of course, a theatre class (especially a Shakespeare class) in England would not be complete without taking a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of the Bard.

Our trip last weekend started at actually a fairly decent hour of the morning. We walked over to school and hopped on the coaches (which is what long-distance buses seem to be called here) and headed off to the first stop on our trip, Warwick.

Although Matt and Lisa and I headed into the town itself in search of some lunch a bit later on, the main reason we were in Warwick was to look around Warwick Castle. William the Conqueror ordered a castle built in Warwick in 1068; I'm not entirely sure when the castle was finished, but even so, it was very cool to be clambering around in a building that old. I'm also not sure if it's been restored at any point, because it is quite intact; it was also one of the coolest castles we've been to, as it's set up as half a historical site and half a Renaissance Faire. They have people in costume giving demonstrations at different points around the castle - we had someone tell us about longbows (and rude English hand gestures), and we saw them fire their trebuchet, and inside the castle itself we saw a falconry demonstration. There is also one hallway in the castle that has wax figures (which are almost alarmingly realistic) and props all set up to look like the castle would have done in the 12th century. Tory also bought a wooden sword (which is now hanging above our mantle, of course), and I must admit I did enjoy gesturing dramatically with it as we went from one part of the castle to another.

After exploring the castle and having lunch in a very nice little fish and chip shop that proclaimed itself to be a diner (Lisa and I, as we are both from New Jersey, Land of the Diners, begged to differ, but it was a nice lunch all the same), we got back onto the bus and headed off towards Stratford.

(I ought to clarify slightly; Stratford-upon-Avon is Shakespeare's birthplace; Stratford is a part of London that apparently isn't very nice, although there's an Olympic stadium there now, so that might be better. In the interests of time, however, when I say Stratford, I mean the one that is upon the Avon.)

When we arrived in Stratford, we checked into our bed-and-breakfast (I suppose because we were only there for one night, and because I don't think there is a hostel in the town, we got to pretend to be fancy for the day), which was a really charming place with amazingly comfortable beds that Lisa and Tory quite quickly made use of. While they catnapped, I borrowed Lisa's internet and talked to my dad a bit about the trip we're trying to plan to Florence after my term here finishes (something I'm quite excited about, of course!!). When they woke up, we wandered around the town for a little bit, and I ogled the long rows of half-timbered houses up and down every street (I love Tudor houses), and we discussed how Stratford is really the definition of "quaint," before grabbing a bite to eat at a pub and then heading over to the Royal Shakespeare Company to see a production of Twelfth Night.

Twelfth Night, I think, is my favorite Shakespeare play; at the very least, it's my favorite of his comedies, as I'm also quite fond of Macbeth. I love the mistaken identities and general chaos of Twelfth Night; I like that it's funny, but it has much more to it than sheer comedy; and of course I love that everything works out all right in the end. A lot of people on the trip don't seem to have enjoyed the production that we saw, but I absolutely adored it. I loved the set, the costumes, the lighting, Feste's songs. I thought all but one of the actors, and certainly the main four, were amazing - Viola and Olivia especially impressed me. And I thought the ending, when everything has been sorted out and mistaken identities revealed and each person has wound up with their true love, was just so sweet and heartwarming and perfect. I must admit I got a bit choked up, and it put me in an excellent mood for the rest of the night. We've been seeing quite a lot of dark and dreary stuff, and it was nice to see something that, while certainly not frivolous, was more on the lighthearted side, and was less about how much people can destroy one another and much more about how wonderful love can be.

The next day, we met in the graveyard at Holy Trinity church for a lecture on Shakespeare's life in Stratford (a note: all professors should lecture on sunny days in graveyards beside rivers), and then we went inside the church to see Shakespeare's grave. I was of course reminded of my high school English teacher (on the very off chance you're reading this, Mrs. Young, hello! Thanks for being awesome!), who has a rubbing of his gravestone over her whiteboard. It reads: "Good Friend, for Jesus' sake forebear / To dig the dust enclosed here / Blessed be the man who spares these stones / And curst be he who moves my bones." Pretty good reason that Will remains in Stratford, rather than in the Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey, hmm?

After that, we went on a short Shakespeare walk through the town, where we saw the building where Shakespeare attended school and the foundations of the house he bought with the money he earned in London. After that, we were set free for a few hours, and we eventually made our way down to the Avon and, after avoiding the typical Avon swans, we rented a rowboat. Lisa's friend Stephen volunteered to row, and Lisa, Tory and I had a good time trying to warn him about things he shouldn't run into. It was a very enjoyable hour (although I think the sun on the water is why I got a sunburn that day), and after that, it was back on the bus to make our way to Oxford.

We only had two hours in Oxford, and I definitely want to go back. All of the buildings are so old and ornate, and it's a very pretty place. We walked through a chocolate festival (this same festival is in London this weekend... methinks we will go visit it) on our way to the Botanic Gardens. Because if you only have two hours in Oxford, you have to go and find Will and Lyra's bench. It was actually surprisingly easy to locate; luckily no one was sitting on it at the time. It's just an ordinary bench, but it has Lyra's name carved into it and a card next to it with Philip Pullman's name on it. Lisa hasn't yet read the last two books in the His Dark Materials trilogy, so we did our best to assure her that the bench was important without giving anything at all away.

After that, it was back on the bus, this time headed back to home-sweet-London. Our adventure wasn't quite over, however; that night, Lisa, Matt and I went to the British Film Institute's all-night showing of all three Lord of the Rings films, in a row, starting at midnight (thank goodness they had free tea in the intervals!). I'd never seen any of them in theatres before, so it was fantastic for me (even though I did doze off during the Shelob scene and a few other bits late in The Two Towers and early in Return of the King. It was 7am by that point!!). It wasn't in IMAX, but it was on the IMAX screen, so it was HUGE - seeing it in that format made the helicopter landscape shots that much more breathtaking, and the battle scenes that much more epic. The charge of the Rohirrim at Pelennor fields, quite possibly my favorite scene (aside from perhaps the "I am no man" bit of Eowyn awesomeness), is just astounding on the big screen, with the music in surround sound. It was so much fun, but needless to say, we got home and very quickly passed out. It was yet another most excellent - and exhausting! - weekend of adventures.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Thoughts from Places: Lots of Geeking Out

So my internet is being an entirely new brand of cranky right now; hopefully I'll be able to slap this post online tomorrow morning before I start my work for the day.

Our journey to Paris, naturally, started at an ungodly hour of the morning. We all got up, grumbling, scrambling around and blinking in the too-early, too-bright lights in our flat, getting dressed and throwing toothbrushes into already packed suitcases before heading out the door to the tube, King's Cross, and then the Eurostar. I now know, from the journey home, that the Chunnel is rather unexciting - it's simply twenty minutes of dark, rather than the flat fields of France or the rolling hills of England - but on the way there, I slept through just about everything, which was probably a good thing, as two very full days were ahead of me.

If any of you are ever planning to go to Paris, do yourself a favor - spend more than two days there. I loved it there, and it's on top of my list of places to return to when I'm rich and famous (ha) someday. (The second is Venice, during Carnival.) We did an awful lot, as you shall see, but there's certainly more that I would have liked to see, given the chance.

Once we had arrived in Paris, found the hostel, and dropped off our bags, my French Revolution professor took us back onto the Metro and we began our French Revolution walk, starting, naturally, at the Place de la Bastille. We saw, among other things, the site of La Force prison and the oldest cafe in Paris and the Conciergerie and Notre Dame and the Palais Royale. The Conciergerie and Notre Dame especially were the first of many instances in Paris where I was utterly overwhelmed with amazement at the simple fact that I was standing where I was and seeing what I was seeing. I've done so much research and written so much about the Conciergerie, and there I was, standing right in front of it. I've seen so many pictures of and read books about Notre Dame, and there I was walking through it; I even touched one of the many Gothic columns. (That's one thing I like about old architechture; it feels like walking inside a work of art, and yet you can reach out and touch it to remind ! !yourself that it's real, that someone once made the thing you are marveling at.) In simpler terms: I did an awful lot of geeking out in Paris.

After the walk, we returned to the hostel to check in properly and put our things in our room; we were quite pleased to find that there was a lot of floorspace (more on that later) and that our beds each had curtains on them, rather like sleeper cars in a train. It felt very fancy.

Lisa and I then had a snack (mmm, Croque Monsieur), and then a group of us headed back to the Metro (the Metro, by the way, is very efficient and very easy to use, but feels a bit like people have been put onto a train, and then the train placed in a box, and then the box shaken by a very eager small child) to go to the Louvre, which is free for under-26s on Friday nights (the student discounts in Paris, by the way, are epic). We of course went right to the Mona Lisa - we were, after all, there, and could hardly pass it up - and then we spent another few hours wandering around the Greek and Roman statues and the Egyptian section before our feet decided they had had quite enough. We stopped for some dessert (mmmm, chocolate mousse), and then attempted to complete our plan for the evening, but we quickly discovered that while the Eiffel Tower LOOKS like it is quite close to the Louvre, it most definitely is NOT close, and as we were quite certain we would not make it all the w! !ay there before the last elevator at 10:30, we went back to the hostel and collapsed for the night.

The next morning, Lisa, Tory and I were joined by our friend Bonnie, and the four of us jam-packed our day. We started off with a visit to the Catacombs; after having a bit of difficulty initially finding the entrance, we descended the twenty-six meter spiral staircase (with every step, I gained a new appreciation for just how much my characters must hate me for putting them through that) and headed off into the dark tunnels. There is quite a long walk in the tunnels to get to the actual ossuary, but that was fine with me; the whole time, I was taking mental notes, glad to see that I'd gotten the approximate size and general feel of the tunnels right, telling myself that I ought to write the dampness of the air down there into my manuscript, and again thinking that Rose must hate me so very much for making her walk down there without any light. Finally, we reached the entrance to the catacombs themselves (I might have freaked out a bit upon seeing the "Arrete! C'est ici l'em! !pire de la mort" sign over the entranceway; I asked the others if it was morbid of me to think of the catacombs as one of those places where I could hardly believe I was actually there, and some other American tourists seemed to get a kick out of that. Hopefully they also heard the impromptu history lesson on the catacombs that I gave, so they know I'm not a complete weirdo... just a little bit of a weirdo). The catacombs are kind of unreal. I almost could not process what I was seeing as anything other than, say, a movie set. I could not believe that there were really six million skeletons all arranged down there, and that six million skulls were watching me as I walked past them. The bones go on forever, with the skulls sometimes arranged into hearts or crosses, with plaques on some pillars or propped up by more skulls explaining where the bones had originally been buried or presenting a quotation on the nature of death. It was extremely eerie, but absolutely fascinating.! !

After the catacombs, we stopped for lunch (because seeing six million dead bodies naturally makes you hungry, right?) and then we headed off to the next stop on our itinerary - the Opera Garnier. There, of course, I geeked out quite a bit more, although I refrained from the impromptu history lesson this time. I was thrilled by this place not because I had written about it, but of course because Phantom of the Opera is one of my favorite musicals, and there I was, in the Phantom's opera house, looking at the real chandelier and the real Box 5. The building is stunningly beautiful, with every hallway filled with chandeliers and mirrors and gilt woodwork. I could easily have spent hours there poring over every room, wishing we could have visited the cellars, and imagining Faust being performed on the stage or the staircase filled with people at the Masquerade.

We had to be off to our next stop, however; we went back to the Ile-de-la-Cite, crossing the Pont Neuf and walking alongside the Conciergerie (which was sadly covered in scaffolding) to stop in at Shakespeare and Company, a really neat English-language bookstore across the street from Notre Dame. It was a really neat little shop, if a bit crowded for its size, and I had a good time poking around before we got back on the Metro for our last stop of the day - the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower involved an awful lot of standing in line - first, there was the line for the tickets, and then the line for the elevator to the second floor, and then the elevator all the way to the top, and then again for both elevators on the way down - and while the weather was sunny and gorgeous on our first day in Paris, it was cold and a bit drizzly that evening while we were standing beneath the tower and waiting. I do think however that the view from the top, the way that the rain looked like golden glitter in the lights on the tower on the way down, and the fact that I can in fact say that I've been to the top of the Eiffel Tower all made the long lines worth it.

We left Paris late enough the next morning that I was able to stay awake on the train, but early enough that we couldn't really do anything much other than visit a boulangerie. Even though every time I return to London from an adventure, it feels more and more like home, I definitely felt that I had not had quite enough time in Paris, and I will definitely be going back there someday.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Thoughts from Places: Venezia

Hello blog! I've missed you!! I'm sorry I've been absent; my internet in the flat has lately decided to hate me with a vengeance. It's a bit better at the moment (although not quite good enough that it'll let me put pictures into this post; apologies), so hopefully I will be able to tell you the last installment of my spring break saga, and then I have the adventures of the last two weekends in Paris and Stratford-upon-Avon! (I promise I will get back to the writing stuff soon as well.)

So. When I left off, we had arrived in Venice under less than ideal circumstances, but we had finally found our hotel and gone to sleep. We got up around 10 the next morning, as it had been too stressful of a night to do our usual "get up early-ish and seize the day!" thing. We decided that our plan was to explore Venice a bit and get our bearings, but to get back to our hotel before dark, because we had had quite enough of wandering around Venetian alleyways in the dark with no idea of where we were going. We found a cafe around the corner from our hotel and had the first of several days of cake for breakfast. The food in Italy, by the way, is outstanding.

We wandered around a bit after breakfast, without really having too strong of an idea of where it was we wanted to go. We finally did manage to find the Grand Canal and we sat on the edge and watched the boats go by for a little while. I hadn't thought of it beforehand, but Venice smells like the ocean, and sitting there in the sun watching the gondolas and vaporetti, and the wake of the boats splashing up against the edge of the canals, really felt like a proper vacation. Once we'd gotten there, our time in Venice was very relaxed and pleasant - I'd love to go back someday.

After watching the boats for a while, we followed the signs on the sides of various buildings towards the Rialto bridge, and then from there we made our way to the Piazza San Marco. The square is beautiful, and while it is full of pigeons we did not have any of them clambering over us this time (always nice). It also has the famous Venetian winged lions - much more fun than pigeons, even if these don't move. We went into the Basilica San Marco as well, and marveled at the mosaic work inside. Everything, from floor to ceiling, is done in intricate mosaic tiles. As I walked around staring at the gilded ceiling, probably with my mouth hanging open, all I could think, aside from general awe, was "how did they get that up there?!"

My favorite part of the Piazza San Marco, however, was the view out to the sea from the square.

I'm not quite sure exactly what it is, but there really is something about the quality of the sunlight in Italy that makes it seem different from everywhere else. While we were in Venice, the weather was gorgeous - blue skies as far as we could see, in this case stretching out over the water for what seemed forever. The buildings are all very close together in Venice and reach up about three stories, which leaves you wandering through small, dim alleyways most of the time, until you stumble out into the brilliant sunlight of a little piazza or a bridge. It's somewhat blinding, but it's beautiful; the light just seems so clear and warm, so inviting; everything in Venice seems awash in this lovely golden glow, varying in shades from the dimmest alleys to the brightest squares. Even a few weeks later, just thinking about it makes me feel much warmer than the darkness outside the window of my London flat would suggest.

After the Piazza, we wandered back to our hotel for a nap, and then, after going in search of a (very delicious, naturally) dinner, we came back to our hotel and played cards and talked until late into the night. We never went out in the evening after dinner in Venice, for fear of getting hopelessly lost in the dark again, but I don't think any of us minded in the slightest, and for me, those evenings of chatting together, all sitting curled up on the same bed, with me losing dreadfully at cards, were even some of the highlights of the trip. I've become such good friends with Lisa and Tory, and they're a lot of fun to talk to. Our late night conversations really run the gamut of frivolous to quite meaningful, with just about everything in between, and I've really come to value them.

Also, our last two evenings in Venice involved such conversation, delicious Italian pastries, and some wine (not that much, I promise), so that was also fun. ;)

The next day, we got on a vaporetto and took the ten-minute trip over to Murano, the island near Venice famous for its blown glass. We found a glass-blowing demonstration almost immediately after landing on the island, which was really cool. I also had a good time trying to work out what the man explaining the glass-blowing trade to us was saying to us in Italian before he translated it into English (I got some of it). We made our way to the glass museum then, which was really beautiful - they had samples of glass from Roman times to modern day, which was incredibly impressive; it was amazing to see such an extensive and old collection of such fragile things. We then spent quite a lot of time wandering into the zillions of glassware shops in Murano - some of them quite touristy, some of them, like the blown-glass chandelier shop we found on one street, almost like art museums in their own right. My reaction to a lot of the glass was similar to my reaction to the mosaic ceiling in the basilica - I wanted to know how someone could make such a thing. Some of the stuff was a bit kitschy, of course, but a lot of it was rather impossibly lovely - it seemed so strange to think that someone could really create such delicate sculptures or beautiful jewelry.

Our last day was spent in wandering yet again, going in search of postcards and gifts for friends and family, and of course more gelato and other delicious food. (I miss Italian gelato already.) My Italian professor suggested that we find a pasticceria called Tonnolo, and if any of you are planning on going to Venice, I highly recommend finding it! The pastries there were absolutely delicious. We actually wound up going twice that day, once for breakfast and again in the evening, to get provisions for our evening of pastries and card games and fun conversation. On the way back, we finally encountered that all-too-true Italian stereotype: we passed a gelateria with two men standing behind the counter, and from both of them we received a two-syllable "ciao" - basically the Italian equivalent of the American two-syllable "damn." We were all pretty amused by it; even now Tory says we missed a prime opportunity for free gelato.

And of course, on our last day there, we took a ride in a gondola. It was a short ride, but still quite expensive - even so, I think the fact that I can now say that I've ridden in a gondola down the Grand Canal, with the gondolier singing to us as he pushed the boat along and the setting sun glittering on the water, was absolutely worth it.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Thoughts from Places: How Not to Travel in Europe

A European adventure, it seems, simply would not be complete without some mishaps. Our mishaps were, naturally, all combined into one day - really, it was kind, as it got all of the stress out of the way and allowed us to enjoy the rest of our vacation without any trouble! So, allow me to tell you a little about how not to travel in Europe.

On Tuesday morning, we got up at an ungodly hour, got dressed, and shuffled out of our hostel and towards the airport. The day, in spite of the hour, started well enough; we'd purchased our metro and bus tickets the day before, so we got to the airport without any trouble. The bus, however, told us that all departing flights to countries outside of *muffled sound* should leave from terminal 1. That sounded like Italy to us, so we got off at the terminal 1 stop, found the departures section, and got in the security line.

... we thought.

Lisa was ahead of Tory and I, and she showed her passport and her ticket and got stamped through to the other side. Tory, however, was stopped by the guard she spoke to, and was told that we were in the wrong terminal. But Lisa was already on the other side. We waved to her to come back, but of course she couldn't; you aren't allowed to go *back* through security. I then talked to the guard, asked if he was sure that we were in the wrong place, and then told him that our friend had mistakenly been let through, and could he please help us get her back? He left his box to go get her, but as soon as he turned around, Lisa had vanished. I told her what she looked like (or really, what her coat looked like, as it's pretty distinctive) but he couldn't see her anywhere, so I told Tory to wait and NOT MOVE, and the security guard took me through to the other side to look for Lisa. We couldn't find her anywhere. All the while, I was trying to text Lisa and find out where she'd gone, but texting takes half a million years on my dinky little British phone in the best of circumstances, and it seems to take that much longer when your friend is lost on the wrong side of customs. Eventually, I did reach her; she'd managed to get let through to the other side. The guard escorted me back and took Lisa's passport; there were a few panicked minutes when we all thought we'd be held there for hours and interrogated and miss our flight, but in the end the guard just brought back her correctly stamped passport and told us where we needed to go, and off we went. Lisa told us how she'd gotten back into the country: she found a janitor who spoke almost no English, but managed to convey her situation to him through sheer desperation, and he was nice enough to take her to the other side of customs and get her stamped back into the country (which she'd technically never left). We got through the right part of security and found a place to sit down, and Lisa had carrot cake for breakfast. She needed it.

We boarded a plane for Milan - this plane ride was actually the easiest on me, in terms of ear-popping misery, perhaps because it was the shortest. On the plane, we got tickets to the train station in Milan, where we intended to drop off our bags while we explored for the day before getting on the train to Venice.

When we got off the plane in Milan, however, we were once again confused. We followed the exit signs, like in all other airports, but unlike other airports, this one led directly to... the exit. No customs. No passport stamp. Nothing. Just doors to the outside. We were very confused. We wandered around for a bit before I asked a man at a bus ticket booth about it (he was pretty much the only one to ask) and either because my Italian was terrible or because I was gesturing to my American passport, he explained nicely in English that we'd get stamped on the way OUT. Well, all right then. We boarded the bus to the train station, beginning to worry a bit about whether they'd let us out of the country a few days later.

The train station in Milan is said to be one of the most beautiful in Europe, and I can totally see why. I did not take any pictures of it, however, for reasons which will become apparent. We spent a while trying to find a place to leave our bags (I still don't know the Italian word for "locker," sadly), but once we did, we headed down to the Metro (I got to wow my friends for the first time by asking for three metro tickets in a tabaccheria. Sooooo very impressive. :P )and we hopped on the train towards the Duomo.

The steps out of the Metro stop lead right up to the square in front of the Duomo, which looks like this:

The church is absolutely breathtaking, both inside and out, which is both a good thing and a bad thing. Unfortunately, because it is so striking, it is very easy to spot tourists coming out of the Metro station; the awestruck attitude is hard to miss. So we were immediately accosted by three African guys asking for donations. They shoved some corn into our hands and had us feed the pigeons (for rather more than tuppence a bag).

Lisa utterly despises pigeons.

We finally got free of them, and we went off in search of lunch. This part of the day was, in fact, quite enjoyable. We had some delicious pizza and the first of many amazing gelatos (Italian gelato is, in fact, the most delicious thing ever), and we visited a castle and the museum inside it and we saw the inside of the Duomo and walked through the world's prettiest "mall" and saw the outside of La Scala.

Castles are awesome.

At around 5:30, we returned to the train station, retrieved our bags, and found a cafe for dinner. Lisa and Tory had some more pizza, and I had a panino (yes, panino. If I had a panini, that'd be more than one sandwich), and I pulled my map of Venice out of my bag so that we could find the street our hostel was on for that night.

Now, Venice is a very small place, but it's very dense, with lots of very small, crooked streets that don't all connect to each other. Tory and I were looking at this map for a very long time, thinking we just couldn't find the street. But then I glanced at Tory's iPod screen, where she'd written the full address of our hostel. And I saw that the hostel was, in fact, in Lido.

And Lido is not in Venice.

Well. This is a problem.

Never fear! Tory's Kindle has 3G on it! We can get on the internet and fix the problem! Only... Tory's overpacked her bag... and her Kindle screen is now broken... She can get wifi on her iPod! Only... there is no wifi in all of Milan... I speak Italian! We'll just go to the information desk right here and beg for help! Only... the information desk closes at 5, because apparently no one ever needs information in a train station after business hours.

Well then.

Lisa finally called her parents, and they booked us a new hostel, IN VENICE, from America (Lisa's parents: you are awesome). At last, we got on the train and napped for two and a half hours, trying to forget the misadventures of the day. But the misadventures were not yet over.

Our train arrived in Venice at 10:40 pm. Some advice to you all: Never arrive in Venice for the first time in the dark. Ever. It's not that it's dangerous; I didn't feel threatened, or like I'd fall into a canal by accident. We were just so. Hideously. Lost. Venetian streets make little to no sense in the dark. We'd finally figure out where we were, start going in what seems like the right direction... and then be totally lost again after just one turn. We asked for directions, and then almost immediately got lost again. At last, we found the address we were looking for... only to be told that it was not, in fact, the right address, and that we needed to "go down the street to the other one." Eep. Finally, the man at the hotel's front desk called us and came and found us - we were literally around the corner from where we needed to be, and had been for the last hour or so. Uy.

At last, we were shown up to our room, and we got to sit down and put down our bags and shut the door on all the madness of the day. It was only then that it hit me how completely insane the whole experience had been. The whole time, I'd been the one saying "it's okay, we'll make it work, we'll ask for help, we'll find a new place to stay, we'll ask for directions, I speak Italian, we can figure this out guys, it'll be okay" (I guess I am kind of the mom of the flat). But when I sat down on that bed, everything just slammed into me. Being that lost, without a place to stay, in a foreign country is kind of terrifying. The whole time I've been abroad, I've been loving it, to the extent that if I didn't have a degree to finish and people I'd really, really miss, I would try my best to never go home, but Tuesday night, I wanted to go home so very badly. I wanted to curl up in my house with my parents and my sister and my cat and a lot of tea. I wanted nothing more than to forget about the crazy scary thing that had just happened to me.

The thing is, though (which I realized as I slowly uncurled from my tiny little ball), I did it. I was right - we did figure it out. We did find a new place to stay, I did ask for directions in Italian, we did make it in spite of being lost and confused. That was quite possibly the scariest thing I've ever done, but I did it, and a year ago, I would have been a complete wreck. I wouldn't have known how to begin handling a situation like that. But I did it. Looking back on it, even just a week later, I feel so accomplished, and I'm so glad we managed to vanquish that situation.

And besides, it makes one heck of a story. :P

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Thoughts from Places: Prague

For once, this travel story does not start with "I woke up at a ridiculous hour of the morning to go somewhere." Instead, it begins in a leisurely fashion, waking up at a normal hour last Saturday, packing, exchanging money, and hopping on the Tube, thus beginning our spring break adventures and our survey of European public transportation (after this one-week trip we had traveled on the underground of three different cities, two trains, three (!!!) airplanes, four buses, one tram, one vaporetto (water taxi) and one gondola. The gondola was, of course, the most fun).

I don't know if I've mentioned this, but I am really, really not a fan of flying. I think my irrational, historically-minded self simply refuses to believe that it is safe or possible for me to be several thousand feet in the air without plummeting to my death. The more rational side of me, of course, severely dislikes it because it really affects my ears quite badly; for hours after a flight, I still feel like I'm underwater, and when it's really bad, I get all dizzy and miserable. Sigh. But the flight to Prague was uneventful, and we stumbled into the city by bus and then by metro. My first experience of Prague was in the dark, in that unpleasant underwater-can't-hear-anything bubble, but I could already tell that our stay there was going to be lovely.

We found our hostel and had a nice chat with the girl at the front desk - who, like pretty much everyone in Prague, thank heavens, spoke very good English - and we signed up for breakfast in the morning and a walking tour the next day before going up the stairs to our room.

Guys. This was the most glorious hostel room I have ever been in. I have stayed in HOTELS that were not as nice as this place. The breakfast was also amazingly delicious; they had a buffet of fruit and bread and cereal and they'd also make you whatever you wanted in terms of eggs or crepes or pancakes. Oh so very tasty.

After breakfast, we napped for about half an hour (what? It was morning and we're college students) and then we trooped down to the lobby in order to meet our walking tour group at 10. Except... there was no one else in the lobby. Well, okay, fine, there are other hostels on this walking tour, perhaps they're just late picking up another batch of people. At about 10:15, we asked the receptionist, and she looked all worried and called the tour people and started speaking rapid-fire Czech (Czech, by the way, is an impossible language. There was a list of helpful phrases on the map from the hostel and none of us could manage any of them). She then told us that somehow, they'd forgotten to stop by Miss Sophie's (our hostel) and that someone would be coming to get us if we could wait another five minutes. Hooray!

We finally met up with the tour group, and we talked a bit with two other American girls from Chicago and an Australian guy, as well as Aoife, our lovely Irish tour guide (yes I asked her how to pronounce her name). We spent four hours walking around the city, listening to Aoife as she told us what seemed like everything: this monastery was built in such-and-such a year by these people, and this castle was refurbished by this woman, and this is one of the three locations of the defenestrations of Prague.

The location of the third and (so far) final Defenestration of Prague, in 1948. They sure do like to defenestrate people in Prague.

Other than being a place where people are thrown out of windows and speak a language where the letters don't make any sense, Prague is just an amazingly beautiful city. What I've told everyone about it is that it feels like walking through a fairytale, and it really does. Everywhere the streets are a little bit narrow and all paved with cobblestones and every street, especially in Old Town and the Castle District, is just filled with beautiful old buildings. It's a city so lovely that neither Hitler nor the Communists wanted to destroy it, so from a historical standpoint it's probably the most intact of all Eastern European cities.

This is an average street in the Castle District:

And this is the view from near the monastery (complete with our lovely faces, of course):

And this is a bit of St. Vitus' Cathedral, which is inside Prague Castle:

On Sunday afternoon, after the walking tour let out, we walked over to the National Theatre and, even though we simply walked into the box office three hours before the performance, we got tickets to see that evening's production of Benjamin Britten's Gloriana. We meandered our way back to the hostel then and got a bit fancier (it was the opera, after all), and then headed back towards the theatre. We ate dinner across the street and then went up to discover that our seats, even though they came to about twelve dollars, were fantastic, and that the theatre looked like this:

Gosh I love old theatres.

Gloriana, which is about Elizabeth I and was written for Elizabeth II's coronation, will probably never be my favorite opera - there's too much recitative and not enough aria for my liking. It was, however, incredibly fun to go to this production. The singers were all excellent, and the music is very pretty, if not particularly catchy. It was also quite visually stunning, with period costumes and stark, modern sets, with lots of excellent visual symbolism and the oddest ballet I've ever seen before. I was really happy that we got to go and do that - it isn't everywhere that you can walk into a theatre that late in the day and get such good seats, and I've never really been to an opera on that scale before, so it was a lot of fun to see that.

Monday was spent doing a lot of wandering. Our plans for the morning were thwarted, as we discovered that the National Gallery is closed for five years for renovations. So instead, we spent our time meandering through the streets, stopping in stores or touristy shops or street markets now and again, and finally finding a museum to visit - an exhibition on Alphonse Mucha's art nouveau posters and sketches (very cool!) and an exhibition of Salvador Dali (very weird). We also went back to visit Charles Bridge, one of the places we'd been on our tour and one of the most iconic of Prague's landmarks, at night, which is quite lovely, with lots of dimmer-than-you'd-think streetlamps and shadowy statues hovering over you in the dark.

After that, continuing in our newfound tradition of eating in places where famous people have eaten, we had dinner at the Cafe Louvre, where Einstein and Kafka apparently ate (presumably not together :P), and then, even though Tory wanted to go on a pub crawl, we headed back to the hostel and packed our things and went to bed because the next morning, we had to, of course, get up at a ridiculous hour to start the next leg of our wonderful European journey.

I hope everyone in the blogosphere had a good week last week! I'll be posting again tomorrow as well, as the tales of spring break will take up three posts, I think. Talk to you soon, blog!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Venetian Holiday

Not quite Roman Holiday, I know, especially since it also involves Prague and a brief stay in Milan. I did get my hair cut today, though!

So yes. Tomorrow at four-thirty I will be getting on a plane to Prague with my two lovely flatmates Tory and Lisa, and I will be returning to London from Venice a week from tomorrow. I AM SO EXCITED. I mean, even though I'll be visiting a country where I do not speak the language at all and a country where I sort of speak the language, which is a little terrifying, I am really really excited to go see new places and explore some new cities and I GET TO EAT GELATO, GUYS. It's going to be fantastic!!

I will not, however, be bringing my computer with me, so next week I won't be posting new things on the blog. I promise I will have lots of adventure stories for you when I get back!!

Enjoy your week, citizens of the blogosphere. Arrivederci!