I’m back with new experiences to share!

It’s been a while since I’ve updated this blog, but as many of you know, I recently spent three weeks traveling through Europe as my college graduation celebration and had many requests to blog about the trip. If you’re Facebook friends with me, the best way to learn about my trip is to check out my photo albums, as most of the photos will have detailed captions! We traveled to France, Italy, and Greece, and had an amazing time. While this post won’t give all the details of my trip since I’m traveling more this summer and then starting a new job, I wanted to tell you what it was that made this trip an incredible experience.

Sometimes it’s about the journey. Sometimes it’s about the experiences. This time it was about the people.

I went on the trip with my friend Danielle, whom I’d met last summer at my internship, and we researched and planned for months in preparation for the trip. Since we were funding most of the trip ourselves (our parents were kind enough to pay for our flights as our graduation gifts), we knew we had to do Europe the cheap way. We bought Eurail passes to save on train trips but we knew another big expense would be our accommodations. I had done hostels and hotels during my previous Europe trips and had managed to find some pretty good deals, but Danielle wanted to go even cheaper. Much to our parents’ dismay, we decided to try out Couch Surfing, a program where people open their homes for travelers to stay with them for free. And while we were a bit wary at first, it turned out to be an amazing experience that provided us with opportunities we never would have gotten otherwise.

While of course I’ll remember the glittering Eiffel Tower against the Parisian night sky, the candy colored buildings built into the cliffs of Cinque Terre, and the shiny blue domes against the bright white town of Oia, Santorini; the fondest memories came from the simplest pleasures.  When I look back at the trip, I remember our “backwards night” in Paris where we ended up having dinner at 1 a.m. and Joe, our host in Paris, doing his best Jamaican accent impression. I remember conversations late into the night comparing our culture with our Italian hosts’ culture. I remember having a foosball tournament on the roof of an apartment overlooking Rome, and four friends in Naples cheering me on as I finished the last slice of the largest pizza I’ve ever eaten. And in Greece, I remember laughing hysterically on our scuba trip at a man who kept referring to our scuba guides as Greek gods, a 70-year-old Dutch man in a speedo who took way too many pictures of us, and a boat ride that was more like a whitewater rafting trip. It was meeting all these people, learning about their lives, and making connections that really made the trip an amazing experience.

You Have Stolen My Heart

As I stood by myself on Oxford Street the other day, christmas decorations twinkling above me, tourists and Londoners rushing in and out of shops, the snow softly falling around me, I almost started to tear up a little at the sudden approaching reality of leaving. It’s not that I’m not excited to go home…I’m so excited to be with my family again, it’s just so hard to leave a place that’s been your home for the past 3 months and not know when you’ll see it again. Part of the reason I feel like London is my home is because it is the home that I picked for myself, not one my parents picked. I realized that I am literally “in love” with London. I started to laugh when I realized how my love for London actually parallels a relationship. Let me explain the similarities.

When you meet someone new for the first time, it’s exciting. There’s so much you don’t know about them, so many things you haven’t done, and you can’t wait to see what they offer. This is how I felt about London upon arrival. Things are a bit awkward at first. You haven’t quite figured out all you need to know about them but you slowly ease into things as you get to know them better.

Then you hit the honeymoon phase. You’re having so much fun together. You don’t see any flaws because everything is perfect. After a few weeks though, this begins to fade. You start to see the other one’s quirks (the hell the Tubes are at rush hour, the slow walking obnoxious tourists, the bad British plumbing) but you accept them because you love them too much to let something little like that matter.

As time goes on, your relationship becomes stronger. You grow more and more attached as you get to know the other on a deeper level (the non touristy parts, the small side streets, the fastest way to get from point A to point B, the little known art galleries, the markets). When you go away for a week or a weekend you miss them and think about them the whole time, even when you’re in a place as awesome as Italy. You can’t wait to get back to see them and can’t help but smile every time you hear the words “Welcome Home” as the plane touches down in Heathrow/Stansted/Gatwick. You realize you are totally and utterly in love and don’t ever want to be apart. Your life just doesn’t seem right without them.

Just like in any relationship, you have a song that reminds you of them and makes your heart smile every time you hear it. For me, this song is “Firework” by Katy Perry (I know, cliche – not my normal type of music). But it is the song that was playing on my iPod when I got my first view of London from the plane. If you know the song, it has violins building up to the chorus which comes in quite strongly. While we were beginning our descent, the song was building up and as soon we burst through the clouds the song hit the chorus and I looked down to see all of London, the sun rising over the Thames, Big Ben and the London Eye. It was very climactic. So now every time I hear that song, I will always think of London and will never forget that first view. It sounds sappy but if you’ve ever had feelings for anyone, I know you know exactly how I feel.

The whole time you’ve been together, you’ve been dreading the inevitable end. You try not to think about it for the three months you have together, but it’s always in the back of your mind. Your stomach starts to knot when you think about it, and your heart hurts. How do you just leave someone you’ve been so happy with for the past 3 months? It just doesn’t seem right. You know that what you move on to next will never be good enough. You’ll try to replace London by going to lots of other cities but you know they’ll just remind you of it and make you even more sad. You know you won’t be totally satisfied until your together again.

Don’t get me wrong, I am excited to go home. I’ve missed my family so much and can’t wait to spend a wonderful Christmas together. Home isn’t bad, it’s just not London. It’s hard to go from having the world at your fingertips to a small town in NC. I wish I could live in London WITH my family. Then my life would be complete. And just perfect.

“By seeing London I have seen as much of life as the world can show.” – Samuel Johnson

Ireland, Winter Wonderland, Thanksgiving, and Spain

So normally I would blog about these things separately but I’m really behind and running out of time so I’m combining them into one post. I’m just giving you brief overviews and shortened versions because I will be home in 5 days (not looking forward to leaving) and you can just ask me about them in person at that point.

The second weekend in November I went to Ireland with Clinton since he had relatives in Dublin that allowed us to stay with them. The first night we got in we were greeted with the most delicious traditional Irish meal: corned beef, cabbage, soda bread and potatoes, of course. Saturday morning we were greeted with a huge traditional Irish breakfast, including pancakes, sausage, ham, eggs and Black Pudding (which I discovered the last day was pig’s blood….). That day  we explored Dublin. We saw Trinity College, the old post office, Dublin Castle, St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral and just walked around the city. That evening we toured Guinness Brewery, which was really interesting. We got free pints of Guinness on the tour, however stout grosses me out so I passed mine off to Clinton. That night Clinton’s relatives made us Irish Stew (beef, carrots, celery and potatoes) with bread and even more potatoes on the side. People aren’t kidding when they say the Irish love their potatoes.

Dublin Castle

Personally I wasn’t a fan of Dublin as a city. I can’t explain what, but it was just lacking something (I’m not the first of my friends to say this). It just didn’t have the buzz and good vibe of a fun city like London or New York so the next day I wanted to get out of Dublin and see some Irish countryside. We found out about a town a little ways outside of Dublin called Howth, which is a seaside fishing village. We had a beautiful sunny day (although it was like 20 degrees outside) and the town was gorgeous. We walked around the harbor, saw seals, walked out to the lighthouses and down on the rocks to the sea. After warming up in a coffee shop we decided to do part of the cliff walk before we ran out of daylight. The views from the tops of the cliffs were absolutely stunning. It felt more like what I was expecting from Ireland, with the grassy hills and the ocean views for miles, redeeming Ireland from the disappointment of Dublin. That night we went out to a pub with some friends and then left to go back to London the next day.

The Harbor at Howth

If you haven’t figured it out by my status updates and pictures and what not, London is obsessed with Christmas. They lit the decorations the first week of November. And to add to their Christmas obsession, they have a giant festival/market called “Winter Wonderland” in Hyde Park. I went to this with some of my friends and I have never been in a happier place. Everything is CHRISTMAS! Christmas themed rides, Christmas food, Christmas activities (decorate your own Gingerbread), Christmas souvenirs, etc. We first got food (hog roast sandwich for me with apple sauce and stuffing= delicious!) and then walked around the market. We rode the Christmas roller coaster and then headed over for our ICE SKATING session!! Winter Wonderland has the largest outdoor ice skating rink in London. Ice skating is one of my favorite activities and it was so much fun to do it in the middle of London, my favorite place in the world. We all had a blast skating around, holding hands, avoiding running into the stragglers and posing for pictures. And I didn’t fall once! Then we got hot drinks (I had mulled wine, so good) and got in line to see Father Christmas! After telling Santa what we wanted for Christmas we got crepes (Jacquie and I split an After Eight mint one) and headed home.

WINTER WONDERLAND!!! ❤

For Thanksgiving, I was a bit bummed about not having a homemade meal but then a couple weeks ago I got the most amazing news that one of my good friends Carlos (aka Michael Gaytan) was coming to London to be with his family (who lives here) for Thanksgiving and I was welcome to join them! Wednesday night we had our group Thanksgiving where our faculty advisor made the turkey and each flat made a few dishes. Then Thursday after class I hoped on a train to Carlos’s town. His house was gorgeous and his family was so welcoming. We were able to watch American football (something I haven’t seen in a while) and had a delicious, traditional, homemade Thanksgiving. I ate way too much! It was so much fun to see Carlos because I’d missed him terribly!

Carlos and I at Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving night I did not sleep since I had to catch a flight to Barcelona at 7am on Friday. After some difficulties getting to the airport, Sarah and I finally made it safely, ate a large breakfast at 5am consisting of porridge and croissants (I don’t know why we did this) and literally passed out on the airplane (I don’t even remember taking off). We landed in Barcelona around 10am and took a bus to our hostel. We had the most fun hostel, with the nicest employees (all young people) and we met some really awesome people who were staying there. We had heard that Park Guell was a must see so we decided to go to that for our first Barcelona adventure. On the way we saw some amazing buildings that Gaudi designed. The park was the coolest park I’d ever seen. There were so many different trails with awesome city views and you could see Gaudi’s influence all throughout the park. He designed two houses at the entrance to the park that look like gingerbread houses and there was beautiful tiling all throughout. After the park we decided we needed some food and a siesta. We had seafood paella and then took a nice nap before going to a club on the beach for the night with some guys from the hostel.

Gingerbread houses at Park Guell

Saturday we decided to explore the huge Park Montjuic. We saw the Olympic stadium and walked through some beautiful botanical gardens on our way to the castle. However, our map failed to inform us that the castle was basically on top of a mountain and we had to hike up to it. After a loooooong, exhausting walk we finally reached the castle and could see over Barcelona on one side and the ocean on the other side. After the park we headed back to the center of the city and walked down La Rambla, the main street in Barcelona with all the crazy street performers. We also walked through the huge market and got fresh fruit juice. Then we found a restaurant that had a “tapas tour” which consisted of 20 different types of tapas. We had to put on our eating game faces for that one. That night we went to a bar that had drinks where you would roast a marshmallow on a fire lit on the bar and then dip it in your drink to extinguish the fire. We then went to a club that was fair themed, with fun mirrors, a circus tent and carnival decorations. I was taught to Salsa dance by a random Spanish man. Typical.

Candy at the market

Sunday we headed to the beach! Unfortunately, Barcelona was having unusually cold weather so we could not go in the water but I did go ankle deep, causing my feet to go numb. The waves were huge and there were so many surfers. We beach combed for a while, walked around the wharf and ate lunch before heading to the Sagrada Familia. The Sagrada Familia is a church designed by Gaudi that has been in the building process for over 100 years. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. The architecture was stunning. The details on the front of the church were so intricate, the architectural design on the inside was amazing, and the stained glass was the most beautiful, colorful glass I’d ever seen. Of all the cathedrals I’ve seen this trip, it was definitely my favorite. That night we had Mexican food (we were kind of over Spanish food…it wasn’t our favorite thing ever) and then went to a karaoke pub with people from our hostel. It was hilarious to hear Spanish people do karaoke of American songs. Also on another note, people in Barcelona don’t speak Spanish. They speak Catalan, which was a disappointment because we wanted to be able to practice our Spanish. After the pub, we went to a Brazilian club. Barcelona people are crazy. They really like to party all night. I couldn’t keep up and ended up going home at 4am most nights, whereas most people stay out until 6. I now know why the siesta is important to the Spanish. Monday we went to the chocolate museum, went into a few souvenir shops and then headed to the airport for our flight back to London.

Inside the Sagrada Familia...showing some of the stained glass

London updates: I am now finished with class! Exams were easy of course…just like my whole semester has been. Now I have 4 days of freedom and will be on a flight back to America Monday morning 😦

Oh and it’s been snowing here for the past 2 days! Yay!

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The parentals come visit!

This update is kind of delayed but I’ve been super busy so you have to forgive me.

On Wednesday, November 3, my parents arrived in London! It was a beautiful, sunny fall morning, and after a stressful class registration thanks to this terrible internet (although I did get every single class I wanted at the time I wanted), I walked to my parents hotel (thank you Tube strike) to greet them. I knocked on the door to their room and Mom answered. After giving her a huge hug, I went to hug Dad and then ELENA POPPED OUT FROM BEHIND THE BED!!!! I was so surprised/ecstatic to see her that I screamed and jumped up and down before I could even hug her! I had no idea my parents were bringing her! It was such a great surprise because I’d missed my little sister so so so much! After relaxing at the hotel and catching up for a while, I had to leave for my art class. My class was taking a field trip to Kensington Palace to see the Enchanted Castle display, which is where they transform the palace into an enchanted world of the seven princesses who had lived in the castle. Since this was a fun exhibition, I was able to bring Elena along with me! Her first college class: age 12. After the castle we met up with my parents and went to the Warwick Castle Pub near my flat for dinner, and then a French cafe for dessert. We called it an early night since my parents were exhausted.

The next morning we met for breakfast at my favorite pancake place for Kaasballens and Dutch Pancakes. I decided to skip class (come on, I hadn’t skipped any all semester) to go with my family to the aquarium. After the aquarium, we took Elena to see Big Ben, Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square. We had some time to kill before our play that night so I suggested we go through the National Gallery since they have a lot of famous paintings (Van Gogh’s, Monet’s, Cerat’s, Da Vinci’s, Michelangelo’s)  and my parents really enjoyed that. That night we went to see Jersey Boys! In case you haven’t heard of it, Jersey Boys is a music that tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The play was so good and the music was of course amazing! We all really loved it and couldn’t get the songs out of our heads for the next few days.

Elena, Dad and I on the lions in Trafalgar

The next morning we decided to go to the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Alright, I know it’s famous and everyone wants to see it, but let me tell you, it was quite possibly the most boring thing I’ve ever watched. It’s not that exciting to watch a bunch of guards just stand there and stomp every few minutes. After about 20 minutes, none of us could handle any more of it so we left. We took the tube to St. Paul’s where we viewed the cathedral and had the most delicious burgers at Gourmet Burger Kitchen. Who would have thought I’d have to go to England to eat the best burger of my life? We briefly went into the Tate Modern so I could show my parents a display of 1o0 million hand made, hand painted, porcelain sunflower seeds in the Turbine Hall. Sarah and I attempted to steal one from the display but got yelled at  by the guard for going under the barrier. Woops. After that, we decided to go to Harrod’s since I hadn’t been yet. Oh. My. Gosh. Harrod’s = Heaven for a shopper, Hell for a bank account. Sarah, Elena and I headed to the shoe section first of course. After falling in love with every single designer shoe, and crying at the price tags, we had to move on before we made any irrational decisions. We next went to Christmas world (the 365 days a year Christmas section) and saw the most gorgeous themed Christmas trees and Christmas decorations. After browsing through housewares, designer clothes, and furniture, we stumbled upon my future home. The Fendi Casa. The Fendi Casa is a display apartment furnished by the designer, Fendi. There were the coolest circle chairs, chandeliers, bedazzled pillows, mod tables and chairs and princessy beds. We weren’t allowed to take pictures but I managed to sneak one. We spent around 20 minutes in there pretending we lived there. I will be rich and I will own everything in the Fendi Casa. After we finally managed to tear ourselves away, we headed downstairs to the food section. And by food section, I mean food section of the gods. There was the most amazing smelling food at the restaurants, fresh baked bread from the bakery, gelato in 20 flavors, amazing meats and cheeses and the most perfect looking fruits and vegetables. So Mom and Dad if you see a large Harrod’s charge on the credit card it’s because I’ve started doing my grocery shopping there…. There is also an amazing candy section with chocolate shoes, huge cakes and even £2000 gold tea. We finally made it out of Harrod’s without becoming bankrupt, my purchase being an adorable ’50’s style apron. After Harrod’s we went to back home and ordered Thai food for dinner.

Harrods!

Saturday morning we went to the world famous Portobello Market. We made some amazing Ghanian food, delicious apple cream puff pastries, quiches, and brownies. We browsed the antique vendors and bought some authentic souvenirs. After the market we went to Abbey Road since Elena loves the Beatles. Then I took my parents to Oxford Street to see the christmas lights and then go to Primark, where I got a fur vest and Elena got some clothes too.

Sunday morning, I had to do an independent art walk for my art class, but I didn’t want to do it alone since it was through East London, so I brought my Dad along. We were given ipods and headphones and had to follow the artists instructions on this walk down Jack the Ripper alleyways, past markets and even into a church. It was a bit creepy, especially because it was hard to tell what sounds were real and which were coming from the audio. We’d had a bit of a problem with the tubes earlier because some were closed for repairs (they’re trying to get everything ready for the Olympics) and there was a signal failure on another line, causing severe delays, so we got a later start then planned. We had to meet Mom and Elena for our river cruise/London Eye Flight at 2:45 and we didn’t finish the walk until 2, and we were in a totally different part of town. We didn’t want to risk the tubes again and the bus would take too long, so we hailed a cab and instructed him to get us to the London Eye as quick as he could. We had quite the nice cabby who made sure he went as fast as he safely could. He dropped us off right in front of the Eye at 2:40 and we sprinted into the ticket office only to find out the 2:45 cruise was cancelled because of high tide so we had to wait until 3:45 anyway. It actually worked out better anyway, since we were on the cruise at sunset (yes, the sun sets at like 4:30 now). The cruise went all the way down the Thames, from the Houses of Parliament to Southwark. We then went on our London Eye flight. The London Eye is the giant ferris wheel that offers incredible 360 degree views of the city. It was night time, which made the view all the more gorgeous with the twinkling lights of the city spread out below us. That night we went to a Mediterranean restaurant for my belated birthday dinner.

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament at sunset (if you look closely you can see Westminster behind Big Ben)

For our last day, we went to Eastbourne to see the chalk cliffs at Beachy Head. I had been wanting to see the cliffs for a while since I’d heard they were gorgeous. The highest cliff in England is at Beachy Head. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a very good day weather wise. It was freezing cold, windy and rainy. Mom wasn’t sure she wanted to go up to the cliffs once we got there, but after much convincing we finally got a cab to drive us there. We got out at the cliffs, which had stunning views but unfortunately we couldn’t go very close to the edge because it was too windy. I’ve never felt wind so strong. I was walking with my umbrella when suddenly my umbrella flipped inside out, breaking half the stokes and then the wind spun me around so fast, I couldn’t even walk in a straight line. If we had gotten any closer to the edge, we wouldn’t have been strong enough to resist the wind and probably would have been blown off. It was definitely worth it to see though. We went back into town where we had the most delicious lunch at a pub. Mom and I split a honey roasted pumpkin sandwich with goat cheese and red onion marmalade, and a broccoli/cauliflower/potato casserole in a white wine sauce. So yummy. We walked around the town for a little while and then returned to London. That night we went out for Chinese food and then had frozen yogurt at a place called Frog, that was a bit like Pinkberry. I then had to say goodbye to my parents 😦 But I get to see them in less than 3 weeks and I’m so glad they were able to come!

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We stayed with pirates in Venice.

And the saga continues…

Sarah and I arrived by train in Venice around 3pm to a beautiful sunny day. As soon as we walked out the door of the train station I was greeted by the sparkling blue Grand Canal lined with brightly colored pink, orange and yellow buildings.

First view of Venice

For the first two nights of our stay in Venice, we had to stay at a hotel off the island (in a town called Marghera) since the only good hostel we could find was booked for those nights, so we had to take a bus from the main island to where we were staying. Once we checked into our hotel, we decided to explore Marghera a little while waiting for the next bus (they only came once an hour). We discovered that Marghera has 1 restaurant, 1 grocery store and 1 gelateria. Quite the thrilling town.  The bus finally came and once we got back onto the island we decided to go to the Piazza San Marco. On the way we crossed the Rialto, one of the famous bridges that crosses the Grand Canal. We saw the Basilica of San Marco and walked around the Piazza where we went insome shops and saw amazing Murano glass chandeliers. Begin obsession with these chandeliers. I would probably give up my first born child for one of them. Kidding, but that’s how much I want one. After walking around for a while, we decided to get dinner. We found this cute little restaurant with the most friendly waiters and had amazing quattro formaggio pasta. We were pretty tired after dinner so we just went back to the hotel and watched James Bond in Italian (and understood probably 10 words).

View from the Rialto of the Grand Canal at night

The next morning we woke up bright and early to catch the bus into Venice. We had read in a guidebook that if you take the Vaporetto Route 1 then you get a tour of the Grand Canal. Vaporettos are essentially large water taxis. They are Venice’s form of public transportation. Best public transportation ever. We decided to take this from the Piazzelle Rome to Piazza San Marco. We saw numerous gondolas, churches and historical landmarks on our boat ride. We were really able to marvel at the architecture. What I think is so cool is that in most places the water literally goes up to the door. There is no land between the buildings and the canal. It’s such a crazy/cool thing to see. We then went in the Basilica of San Marco which was absolutely gorgeous. Inside, the whole ceiling is made of gold mosaic. The outside of the church is covered with intricate carvings and exquisite paintings.

San Marco Basilica

We next decided to go to the Accademia Gallery which had some cool Renaissance and religious art but felt a little repetitive after a while. Then going for a completely different type of art we went to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection. We lucked out because it just happened to be “pay what you like” day and we had arrived in the 2 hour window for it. So we paid 2 euros to get in instead of the regular 12. I liked this museum better than the Accademia because I prefer modern art. After getting our fair share of Picasso, Ernst and Kandinsky, we finished the museum right in time for dinner. We decided to go back to our hotel, freshen up, get dressed up and go out for dinner and then to one of the famous bars after. Well, this plan failed. We get back to our hotel without a problem, however when we went to catch the bus back, it left us! We had been at the stop and the bus pulled up, stopped, opened the doors and then slammed them right as we were halfway in. At which point we banged on the doors but accomplished nothing, as the bus driver drove off, almost with us hanging out the doors. We realized that if we waited for the next bus we wouldn’t have enough time in the city to make it back for the last bus of the night. After standing in shock at the bust stop for a good 5 minutes we decided (well, we had no choice) to go the 1 restaurant in the town of Marghera. We walked in and saw some Americans that we’d briefly talked to the previous night in our hotel. Begin friendship. Two of the boys decide to come sit with us and explain that they’re from Pennsylvania but are studying abroad in Croatia and visiting Italy on a weekend trip. As the night went on, more and more people on their trip began to join us. We all split a bottle of wine and were at the restaurant for a good 3 hours just hanging out and having fun. We also befriended the one waiter who spoke English and used him as our translator. After we finally got the hint the restaurant was closing, we went back to the hotel and hung out on the balcony off our room. Before calling it a night, we exchanged contact info and some of them are even coming to visit us this weekend in London!

The next morning we checked out of our hotel and moved into our hostel on the actual island of Venice, which was much more convenient. Now here’s where the real experience begins. We followed directions to our hostel, which had a private bridge straight to the door of it. We buzzed in and while waiting for a reply, a guy suddenly sticks his head out the window above us and says “Ello! Do you have a reservation?” After the dumbfounded looks on our face finally left we said yes and he buzzed us in. We go upstairs to be greeted by the same guy, who introduces himself as James and we immediately realize looks just like Orlando Bloom from Pirates of the Caribbean. And, to add to his pirate looks, he talks to us and we realize he speaks just like a pirate too. He looks to be about our age and explains to us that him and four other guys own the hostel. After exchanging “what have we gotten ourselves into” looks, me and Sarah pay the rest of our deposit and move in with the pirates. We meet them all, realize they are all college age guys, and they explain to us they are from Australia.

This is what James looked like

After dropping our luggage in a 10 bed room, Sarah and I hopped on a vaporetto to Murano, the glass blowing island. We walked around the island, visited the Museum of Glass Blowing, had a guy show us how to make glass hearts and butterflies and did lots of shopping! I bought some of the most beautiful glass souvenirs there. Oh and let’s not forget how I lusted over the hundreds of glass chandeliers. That night we decided to go out with the guys who owned the hostel. They took us to Frulala, a smoothie and fruity drink hut/outdoor bar, which was really cool.

Glass Star on Murano

We reserved our last day in Venice as a shopping day. We also rode a gondola across the canal because we couldn’t afford to pay 80 euros for a fancy one. We went to a few little outdoor markets and shops all over Venice where I bought even more souvenirs for my family. That night we just stayed in and hung out with people in the hostel since we had an early flight back to London the next morning.

So there you have it…the three part account of my fall break! I wish I could write about everything but I tried to condense it! I loved Italy. It’s such a beautiful country with such an amazing culture full of love and food (and love of food). I hope to one day go back and explore even more of it!

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We got a great workout in Florence.

We left Rome Monday morning to take a train to Florence. We were staying with Amanda’s friend Lexi who studies abroad there so she met us at the train station to take us back to her flat. After settling in, Sarah and I decided to explore the city a little. Our first stop was the Ponte Vecchio, where we browsed the jewelry shops on it and pretended like we could afford any of it. We went into some more shops around the bridge area, got gelato, then walked around basically the whole city, passing the Duomo, Piazza Signoria, and some famous churches.

The Ponte Vecchio

That night Lexi wanted to take us to a family style restaurant since she knew a lot of the waiters there. Let me tell you, I have never had so much food in one meal in my life. They first brought out the most addictive bread, then for our antipasti they brought tomato bruschetta, eggplant bruschetta, buffalo mozzerella with cherry tomatoes and balsamic. Then they brought a meat platter with prosciutto, turkey, salami and some other meat, then roasted eggplant, zucchini and peppers. And then for the pasta there was penne with red sauce, penne with a spicier red sauce and tortellini in a truffle cream sauce with mushrooms, and then lemoncellos for dessert. It was all so amazing! And it was only 15 euros each (there were 9 of us who went), which also included 4 bottles of wine and 2 large bottles of water. After dinner, we went over to the bar part of the restaurant and hung out for a little while before going out. Fabio, the owner of the restaurant, and one of the waiters, Berat, decided to come to the club with us. We went to YAB which was a suave club with some awesome dance music. We had a lot of fun; a great first night to kick off our stay in Florence.

The next day since we had warm, beautiful weather, we decided to tour the Duomo and climb the dome. The Duomo is a gorgeous building from the outside. It is made out of pink, white and green marble with intricate carvings. It’s so extravagant looking. However, the inside was less than impressive. It was pretty plain, except for a giant fresco in the dome. We got a closer look at this fresco while we climbed the dome, where we discovered that it actually had some pretty disturbing things in the hell part of the painting. 463 stairs later, we reached the top, completely out of breath. We burst out of the dim interior of stone spiral staircases into the bright sun light on the balcony atop the dome. We had a clear day so we could see the whole city of Florence for miles in all directions. It was breathtaking.

The Duomo

After a not as exhausting climb down, we went to the outdoor market where I bought some Italian souvenirs for my family. While we were leaving the market, there was something going on and the police had to be called. We never figured out what happened, but I did fall in love with one of the police officers. And by fall in love, I mean I dragged Sarah with me to sneakily follow him around on his whole investigation so I could stare at him for as long as possible. I can’t help their police uniforms are adorable and I have a weakness for Italian men anyway. After my love left, we walked around a little more, saw the church of San Lorenzo, a fort, and even more churches. For dinner, we went to a restaurant where I had the best pizza I’ve ever had in my whole life. That night we went to an English pub (a little taste of home, aka London) and an Irish pub to see the Elon shirt on the ceiling. We also ran into the waiters from the night before and decided to go to Twice, another club, with them. We weren’t a fan of this club though because all the guys there were very creepy, so we left fairly early.

For our last day in Florence we went to the Galleria dell’Accademia to see the Statue of David. It was amazing. It was much bigger in person than I expected it to be. Everything about the statue is so detailed, from the curls in his hair to the veins in his hand. After the gallery, we decided to go to the Piazza Michelangelo because we’d heard the views of the city from it were amazing. We followed signs to it but the way you would normally go was closed for some reason so we had to hike up some extremely steep streets until we reached the top, which was quite exhausting. We first found a church at the top which also had excellent views of the city. After taking a lot of pictures there, we moved on to the Piazza Michelangelo. The views of the city were panoramic from up there. And it was sunset which made it all the more gorgeous.

View of the city from the church atop the hill

That evening we went to a Spanish restaurant with some friends Sarah knew. After dinner, we went to a club called Fullup for our last night in Florence. One of the waiters from the previous nights worked as a bartender there too so he was able to get us into the VIP section which was a lot of fun. The next morning we left for Venice.

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There is no entrance to the Roman Forum.

Italy: 10 days. 3 cities. 1198 pictures. 20 meals of pizza and pasta. 7 different flavors of gelato. 100s of creeper comments by Italian men. 17 souvenirs. 1 unforgettable fall break.

Since there is just so much to write about each city I visited, I’m doing individual posts for each place. I’ll be starting with Rome, where I spent three and a half days.

Our flight left for Rome at 6:50am on Friday morning which meant we had to leave for the airport at 4am. Not fun, especially when you only get 2 hours of sleep. Similar to our Germany trip, I had booked a taxi for us since the Tube doesn’t open til 5:30am and it’s cheaper than the Heathrow Express if you have 3 people splitting the price. So we get to the airport in plenty of time and Amanda had read online that our flight was out of Terminal 3. Well, Sarah failed to inform us that the boarding passes said Terminal 4 until after our taxi drove away. We ran inside and found out that the only way to Terminal 4 was via train, which didn’t open til 5:30 and we probably wouldn’t make our flight in time. Panicking, we ran outside and asked a couple bus drivers if there were any buses going to Terminal 4. Obviously there were not. There also were not any regular taxis outside, because really, who needs a taxi at 4:30 am? After asking and being rejected by 2 prebooked taxis that had just dropped people off, we were about to cry. Finally we saw one more taxi driver who Amanda ran up to and goes PLEASE I’ll give you 20 pounds to drive us to Terminal 4. First childhood rule broken: don’t talk to strangers. After the look of confusion left his face he agreed to do so and we hopped in his car. Second childhood rule broken: don’t get in the car with strangers. The man drove like a maniac to get us to the Terminal in time (which was 10 minutes away). He also offered us lemon candy which we willingly ate to calm ourselves. Third childhood rule broken: don’t take candy from strangers. After rejecting everything our parents taught us, we finally arrived safely at our terminal, flew through bag check and security (after being randomly selected to have my bag scanned…this always happens to me. Do I really look like a sketchy person?) and made it to our gate right on time. As soon as we got on the flight we all immediately fell asleep. I’m sure we looked like quite the attractive trio: Amanda curled up in a ball on the seat, Sarah with her head back and mouth wide open, and me passed out face down on the tray table. I came out of my sleepy haze just in time to see us flying over the Swiss alps, which was absolutely breathtaking. We flew into Rome Fiumicino, which is right next to the beach, so it made for a pretty landing. We had to take a bus shuttle from the airport to the city center and then find our hostel from there. Luckily we didn’t have any trouble and our hostel was a nice little place right near the train station (convenient). All the staff there were such nice Italian men who gave us maps and highlighted routes for us to take to each major sightseeing destination.

After settling in and getting lunch (we learned when you order what you think is a slice of pizza, you just get a whole pizza), we decided to go to the Colosseum! Now, I’ve studied Ancient Roman history about 3 times and it falls right behind Ancient Greece as my favorite thing to study. The whole walk to there I tried to contain my excitement but I couldn’t hold it in anymore when I got the first glimpse of the Colosseum through the streets. I squealed and smacked Sarah with my map several times out of excitement. It took everything in me not to run down the street. After having a photoshoot on a bridge in front of the Colosseum, we decided to go in.

So excited.

Tickets were 12 euros and granted us access to both the Colosseum and the Roman Forum ruins. Walking into the Colosseum was a surreal experience. The first thing that you notice is how big it is. Seeing pictures of it doesn’t give you a correct sense of just how massive it is. There are multiple levels and you don’t realize how high up they go until you actually climb them. Second thing that hits you is the history this place holds. It was so crazy to remember everything I studied and be standing in this place that I’d heard about for so long but felt that I’d never see. It was also a bit eerie to think about what went on in there; the gladiator fights, how many people were killed, animal fights, etc. We walked around each level and got some amazing views of the city and the ruins around the area.

View of Rome from the Colosseum

We also were there around 4pm which made for the most perfect lighting (yes I am a photography nerd) so I have some beautiful pictures. After the Colosseum we followed signs to the entrance of the Roman Forum which was supposedly 200 meters away. Begin confusion. Suddenly the signs stop and we arrive at a gate which seems a bit too small to be the entrance. The gate is also closed. We stare at it for a little while then decide that can’t possibly be it, so we continue walking. After determining that we had walked more than 200 meters, we decided to turn around and go back to the main area around the Colosseum. We walk up a path next to the Forum that still does not lead to an entrance. We stop and ask a woman at the exit of the forum where the entrance is. She tells us to go back the way we came. We ask her if the entrance has a gate. She laughs at us and says no. We walk back the first way, even further then we walked before. We even walk all the way around the forum and still find no entrance, just stone walls. We finally give up since the Forum closes in 30 minutes and apparently no entrance exists anyway. We walked around Rome for a while, saw some big historical buildings, had dinner and went to bed early since we were exhausted.

The second day we went to the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica. After waiting in line for about an hour we finally got into the Vatican. We walked around through the museum and large halls of statues that, while interesting, were not enough to overcome my excitement to see the Sistine Chapel. All the ceilings in the Vatican buildings were gorgeously decorated; gold ornate decorations, paintings that actually looked like sculptures, and paintings depicting different scenes. However nothing compares to the Sistine Chapel. When you first walk in, it takes your breath away. It’s almost overwhelming there’s so much to look at. I automatically found the Creation of Adam painting and went from there. Seeing it in real life was so surreal. It’s so obvious just how talented Michelangelo was. Much to my disappointment, we were not allowed to take pictures inside of it. After the Vatican Museum we headed over to St. Peter’s Basilica. It was huge and the inside was so exquisite.

St. Peter's Basilica

We also got to see the Pieta, the sculpture of Mary holding Jesus, which is actually Michelangelo’s only sculpture that bears his name. I also couldn’t believe I was seeing that in real life. Growing up, my Mom and Dad had a small replica of the Pieta on their nightstand and I would always look at it. I never knew what it was until I was older and then seeing the real thing was once again, a totally surreal experience.

We walked along the river back to our hostel and saw some more historical sites, including the Castel St. Angelo and the Piazza del Popolo. That night we hung out at our hostel with some Spanish people we met who were also staying there. It was fun because I got to put my two years of Spanish to work, seeing as they only spoke about 2 English words.

Our last full day in Rome, a guy who worked at our hostel mapped out a walking tour for us that would take us past the major tourist sites. We started our journey at the Trevi Fountain, where we all threw coins in, guaranteeing our return to Rome.

Throwing a coin in the Trevi Fountain

We next saw the Pantheon, the giant dome with the hole in the ceiling. Then we went to Piazza Navona where we sat on the fountain there and people watched for a while. Moving on, we next reached the Spanish Steps. I was a bit disappointed because there were no flowers on the steps like you always see in the pictures. I wonder if this has to do with the season. But we still joined the hoards of people on the steps and sat and people watched again. We then headed up to the Medici Villa where we got so amazing panoramic views of the city. Sarah left Rome that evening to visit a friend in Florence a day early, so Amanda and I decided to treat ourselves to a nice last dinner in Rome. We searched Trip Advisor to find a good restaurant around our hostel and came up with one called Babbo’s. It was rated the 6th best restaurant out of the 2032 in Rome, so we knew we had to go. The restaurant had a quiet, cozy atmosphere, and would have been the perfect setting for a romantic Italian date. We started our meal with an amazing antipasti of Buffalo Mozzarella and tomatos, and then had main meals of pasta (perfectly aldente) with broccoli, olive oil sauce and pecorino cheese for me and shrimp risotto for Amanda. We finished our meal with an apple torte in cream sauce and then got complimentary biscotti dipped in Sherry. It was seriously the best food I’ve ever had. It’s worth going back to Rome just for that.

The next morning we got up to go to St. Peter’s Basilica again to climb the dome since we missed out on that the other day, but unfortunately there was about a 2 hour wait and we would have missed our train. We asked a guard (who looked like an Italian version of Bradley Cooper) if there was any way we could skip the line since we didn’t need to go back into the Basilica, but sadly there was no way around it. So instead we had a relaxing Italian breakfast and then hopped on our train to Florence!

I had to condense my pictures into the slideshow for this post so please look at those and if you are friend with me on facebook, there are about 120 pictures of Rome on there!

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Finding Beauty Within

Raise your hand if the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word “beautiful” is a big city. I’m guessing your hand isn’t raised. Not many people consider a big bustling city to be beautiful. However, there are things that make each city beautiful; you just have to find them. The beauty lies within.

Let’s first talk about the literal side of things. What inspired this blog post is Queen Mary’s Gardens in Regent’s Park. Regent’s Park is a huge park in the middle of the big city of London (it’s where I went paddle boating on my birthday). I’ve always thought it was beautiful but Sunday I went to Queen Mary’s Gardens, which makes up the inner circle of the garden. It was the most perfect day outside, 65 degrees and sunny (not a cloud in the sky), which is very uncharacteristic of London at this time. The gardens have every type of rose imaginable, all with the most unique names, from Razzle Dazzle to Remember Me; Sexy Rexy to Lovely Lady.

 

Lost in the roses

 

In the center section, there is a large grassy area surrounding by the roses where families, couples and friends laid out enjoying the sunshine. As we walked around the outer part of it, there were paths that branched off to other areas. One area reminded me of Alice in Wonderland because it had large maze like hedges, spiral trees and crazy types of plants. Another area was a labyrinth of more roses! There was also a pond with weeping willows and a water fall leading into it. It was so gorgeous and everyone seemed so happy. Seeing all this beauty and happiness made me feel like my life was perfect and I didn’t have a care in the world. It’s nice to just pause and admire life sometimes. Some people talk about experiencing bliss and I finally feel like I’ve found it on this trip. It’s not something you can go looking for, it just happens. You’re just walking around and then suddenly you just get this swelling feeling and you feel as though you just want to scream with joy because you’re overflowing with happiness. This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this feeling since I’ve been here and I’m sure it won’t be the last. As a matter of fact, it happened again a few days later.

 

The Pond in Queen Mary's Garden. Pictures just don't do it justice...

 

Example two: crossing the Jubilee Bridge. Sounds like an odd place to suddenly be filled with bliss but let me set up the scene for you. The Jubilee Bridge crosses over the Thames River. It’s 7pm (which means its dark) on a chilly fall night. Notes of a jazz song float down the bridge to greet me, courtesy of a sax player  playing romantic songs for the couples on the bridge. As I walk across the bridge, I look to my left and see the skyline of modern London. The twinkling lights reflected on the Thames while the breeze blew in the scent of the ocean. I then look to my right to see Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. It was such a beautiful contrast to have this city that’s so modern on one side of me and then a gorgeous historical part of it on my other side. I closed my eyes and breathed in the cool air and the scent of the ocean, absorbed the sounds of the jazz music, opened my eyes and felt totally at peace with the world. It was that same feeling of bliss, but in addition to screaming with happiness, I wanted to cry at how beautiful life can be sometimes.

Unfortunately I didn’t have a camera with me to capture that moment, but I plan on going back to do so.

On another note, I am leaving at 4am (in 6 hours) to fly to Rome! I am spending my fall break traveling through Italy for 10 days. I’ll be starting in Rome and then going to Florence and Venice. I’ve wanted to go to Italy for basically my whole life and am so excited I’m finally going! I’m sure I’ll have many more bliss moments (and lots of pictures) to share with you! Ciao!

This is long overdue….

Since Ruth yelled at me for not updating in a while (but then kept me from doing so with an hour long skype conversation- but it’s ok because I’m so glad I got to talk to you!) I figured I should probably stop being lazy and fill you all in. (This whole never having homework thing is bad for my motivation.)

I think I last left you with the Natural History Museum. Since then I have been to Buckingham Palace, the London Zoo, the Tate Modern, East End gallery openings, seen Hamlet at the National Theatre, and celebrated my birthday!

Buckingham Palace was stunning of course. The inside was fit for a queen (haha get it, my attempt at a pun), with elaborate decorated ceilings and walls, ornate furniture and gorgeous paintings. We weren’t allowed to take pictures inside so unfortunately you’ll just have to believe me when I assure you it was amazing. After the tour I had profiteroles at the cafe on the terrace behind the palace and then walked through the scenic gardens. It was so crazy to see this huge garden with a lake just in the middle of bustling London.

 

In front of Buckingham!

 

Since I love animals, we couldn’t pass up going to the London Zoo. It’s a huge zoo with such a large variety of animals. They even had an aquarium within the zoo. In addition to the main animals, they also had a petting area where I frolicked with sheep and took silly pictures with a llama. If you know me well, you know that I love otters and much to my delight the zoo had about 10 adorable otters. They were all burrowing together and rolling around and being silly. And what do I love just as much as otters? Meerkats, which the zoo had plenty of, and much to my delight there were 3 fuzzy little baby meerkats! I’ve never seen babies before so of course I spent a good 15 minutes squealing and trying to convince myself not to jump in the exhibit and steal one.

 

Is this not the cutest thing you've ever seen?

 

As part of my art class, we visit museums so we went to the Tate Modern Wednesday. The museum is right on the river and we had the first beautiful day in a while for it. The weather has been perfect this weekend: sunny and 65 degrees. The museum was pretty awesome. We saw paintings by Monet, Warhol, Picasso, and Dali, in addition to some crazy modern art (kitchen appliances, huge woven carpet pieces, a giant 3 way plug). While I enjoyed the museum, I kept finding myself staring out the window wishing I could be outside running around in the sunshine (little did I know this wish would be taken literally when I had to run down the river path to get to Hamlet in time…) After grabbing dinner at Tortilla, an amazing burrito place only in Mexico, Cali and London, (it’s the new Moe’s), we wandered into a boutique where I found the most amazing dress. I didn’t want to try it on because I knew I would have to buy it but of course I fell prey to temptation. After realizing it was my birthday in 2 days and I didn’t have anything suitable as a birthday dress, I knew I had to buy it. Love at first try on.

At this point we realized we only had 20 minutes to book it down the Thames path to the National Theatre. Sarah thought we would be fine walking at a normal pace, but oh no, after checking our progress on a map, we had practically gone nowhere after a 10 minute walk. And there were 7 minutes til curtain. Cool. We were those Americans running along the Thames screaming “3 minutes! 2 minutes! 1 MINUTE!” (Our theatre teacher had strictly warned us not to be late because in England they shut you out if you’re late to a play). We flew through the front doors and asked the first employee we could find where our theatre was (there are multiple ones in the National Theatre). After a sassy response “You know they’re starting now” (Nooo, we are just sweaty and out of breath for funsies), we managed to slide into our seats right as the lights went down. Our teacher had failed to inform us that this version of Hamlet was a modern one, so I was a bit confused when the guards in the first scene came out with machine guns. At first I didn’t like the modernization of it. It was weird to see men in business suits speaking Shakespearean English, but as the play went on, it grew on me. It was done really well and even though it was 3 and half hours long, I never lost interest. The one thing I didn’t like was the look of the actor portraying Hamlet. He looked too old and had a bald spot and receding hairline. Not what I think of when I picture Hamlet, the young prince of Denmark. He was a good actor though, so I’ll give him that.

Thursday after class, Sarah and I did some shopping on Oxford Circus (shoes, shoes, and more shoes) before we had to meet our art teacher for our event that evening. As part of class, our teacher wanted to take us to some galleries in the East end of London. The East End was quite an experience. It was very artsy and definitely a different feel than the posh area we’re in. The first thursday of every month, there is an event on Vyner Street where the galleries all open and tons of people come to drink and look at art. One of the galleries had free wine while most others had 1 pound beer. And this was part of class, baha. Most of the galleries were very strange modern art and some made me very uncomfortable (ex: Ninja Turtle Sex Museum) but there were a couple that were neat. It was definitely an interesting experience. After the galleries, we headed home to go to O’Neills, the pub with live music that we go to every Thursday. When it turned midnight, my roommate Amanda screamed to everyone in the bar that it was my birthday, resulting in me being thrown up in the air by a Spanish man and his friend, Alejandro (who told Sarah he inspired the Lady Gaga song….)

Friday, since it was my birthday, we went paddle boating on the lake in Regent’s Park because we had another perfect day! It was so pretty because the lake is lined with willow trees and filled with swans and we also saw the cutest couple row boating. The man was in a suit rowing the while the girl read the newspaper. Want to be them.

 

On the lake! Isn't Regent's Park beautiful?

 

That night I wore my new dress and went to Fabric, the biggest club in London. It was so much fun! There were 3 different dance halls and it was all crazy Euro techno music. At one point, I was pulled up on stage by a pack of shirtless boys to dance, which was hilarious. I danced til I could no longer stand in my treacherous heels. Totally satisfying birthday weekend.

 

Sarah and I (wearing my perfect birthday dress)

 

 

And the back of the dress...my favorite part!

 

Another random one…

It gets dark at like 7pm here. And apparently continues to get earlier as the winter goes on…

Despite the early darkness and overcast days, for whatever reason my freckles have been explosive here. You’d think I’d spent a week at the beach or something.

There are so. many. stairs. in this town. They really like spiral staircases here too. I’m going to have the best legs and buns of steel after this trip.

Couples here are way more affectionate than Americans. They obviously don’t have problems with PDA here…And I’m not talking about in clubs or bars, I’m talking about just every day anywhere in the city.

Mom and Dad, you’re going to need to buy me all new shoes when I get home. City walking and cobblestones and whatnot have destroyed all of my shoes.

London actually does Mexican food well.

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