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

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