City of Cities is now live

My new blog about the New York City area is live, feel free to check it out!

10 June 2011 · Comments

Check-in 1/7: Madison

The last day in Rome, we were tourists. We decided to show Jessica the major sights, so after a quick cappuccino by the Vatican we took the bus to Piazza Venezia. We climbed the stairs to the top of the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II:

And gazed down the busy Via del Corso. Then we ducked around back to the Capitoline Hill, where we stopped at Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio before climbing down a bit for a look over the Imperial forums. I found myself alternating between stories of the history of the place and my own personal memories—like Rome itself, the two had become intertwined.

Next we took the tram to Trastevere, where we just walked. Even after a semester I could still get lost in the tiny streets.

We found more Invaders:

And came across La Renella, a little hole-in-the-wall bakery that was packed with Italians ordering pizza, paninis and baked goods. Even with just one meal there, it went down as one of the best eateries I visited during my time in Rome.

We sat on the steps in Piazza Trilussa:

And watched people mill about in the square. Rested, we crossed the Ponte Sisto and took the back roads to Campo de’ Fiori and then Piazza Navona. We bought the traditional tartufo and sat by the Fountain of the Four Rivers as the Christmas market raged around us. Then we hit the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps and Piazza del Popolo. Sunset was nearing so we rushed up the steps on the side of the piazza to Villa Borghese, where we were just in time to see the entire city set on fire by fading golden light.

At our backs we heard a rattling, and we turned just as a pedal cart screamed past us. Kai laughed and recounted a story about watching one tip over when we were younger. He stopped suddenly and we turned to each other:

"We should rent one."

Two false starts due to broken pedals later (“Vai a chiesa.” “Go to church,” the cart vendor advised.), we were on our way. We tore down walkways, crept around the pond and broke numerous traffic laws while competing with cars and buses at roundabouts. An hour later we returned the cart exhausted, exhilarated, content.

We went back to Trastevere for dinner and then Kai and I were off to the airport. We had a 6 a.m. flight so we camped out in one of the terminals in a strange city of homeless travelers. Fourteen hours later I was home in Minnesota, watching wind eat at the several feet of snow drifted against my window and four big bucks munch at trees in the distance.

Now, I’m back in Madison. It’s the second day of work on the big registration issue at The Badger Herald and, though a few things have changed, it’s like I’ve never been away. I walked to a friend’s house near the Capitol yesterday and found myself falling into that now-familiar pattern of exploring a city at random, but no matter how many alleys and corners I ducked down, I was never lost. There were always buildings and intersections layered with memories from semesters past, and the huge dome of the Capitol was never far from view. I’ve only been in Madison two years—not that much longer than I was in Rome in the grand scheme of things—but that unmistakable sense of comfort and belonging is built into every person and place I have reconnected with in the last few days. To be away from that for a semester was transforming, even necessary, but it’s good to be back—for now. I have a feeling Rome has more in store for me.

A final note: Thanks to everyone who read, commented on and randomly stumbled upon this blog this semester as it really meant a lot to me. And to all those studying abroad during the spring semester, I expect great things. Ciao!

7 January 2011 · Comments

Check-in 1/2: Barcelona

So New Year´s Day we did not do much on account of a lack of sleep, but Jessica, Taryn, Alisa and I made it out by nightfall to see the Magic Fountain, which sits at the top of the enormous Avinguda de la Reina Maria Cristina and at the base of the city´s hill, Montjuic. The entire avenue was lined with fountains of cascading water, but the Magic Fountain itself was impressive even from afar. The crowd made up just a tiny silhouette at its base, overwhelmed by columns, arcs and clouds of water shooting in every direction that changed color and style in time with the music.

After the fountain show we moved on to an Irish pub where I had heard the Rose Bowl would be playing. To my relief there was a huge projection screen and an already-gathered crowd of Badgers. Perfect. My three Gophers and I found a table on a balcony with a junior and fifth year senior from Middleton and did our best to recreate a little bit of Wisconsin deep in the heart of Barcelona. The Badgers may not have won, but I´d say we at least accomplished that goal.

This morning was our time to check out of Gothic Point, so we packed up and just barely made it to the hostel´s free breakfast. Then we headed to the north part of the city to check out a couple of houses designed by Gaudi. They are surprisingly expensive to enter so we settled for the outside of Casa Mila:

before entering Casa Batllo. As my audio guide informed me, there are almost no straight lines in the entire house, and much of it conjures images of the sea—waves, scales, gills. The house was also filled with natural light, often filtered through stained glass or reflected around stark white stairwells. It was truly a beautifully interesting place.

After Casa Batllo we headed back to the foot of Montjuic and took a cable car ride for some panoramic views of the city. Back on the ground, we then found the Joan Miro Foundation. Inside was some interesting modern art and, of course, plenty of work by Miro himself. One of the more interesting sights? A fountain that ran mercury instead of water.

We continued our museum binge at the rather odd Ethnographic Museum, which included artifacts collected all over the world. Representing the United States was a lightbulb, telephone and a couple other objects I did not recognize. Then we attempted to find what is supposedly the best science museum in Europe, and failed, ending up instead at the mysterious Caixaforum. We wandered onto the modernist roof (commentating on its undulating brick floor in our best Gaudi voices) before exploring a bit further and discovering a few exhibitions (one of which even had a Picasso).

Museum crawl complete, we all headed back to the hostel. Jess, Kai and I grabbed our bags, said goodbye, and found our bus back to Centre Esplai for the night. Our first hour here it was still deserted, so we decided to finally do our exploring. The entire place is stucco, white paint and blonde wood, making for a pretty creepy walk when all of the lights are out and a place that can house more than 200 people is empty. The room is cozy enough though, and I´ll be glad to crawl under the covers in about an hour. Our flight is at 6 a.m., but I´m excited enough for one last day in Rome that I´m confident I´ll rally against the lack of sleep the last few days predictably brought upon us. Tuesday we follow up with another 6 a.m. flight, this time to Minnesota.

2 January 2011 · Comments

Check-in 1/1: Barcelona

Well, it’s unanimous: Barcelona has far exceeded every other city on our trip. We left a still-empty hostel Thursday morning and took a bus into the center of the city to find our new hostel, Gothic Point. Immediately after walking in the door, we found a camera in our face. A reporter from a Barcelona news channel appeared shortly after and asked us a few questions about why we had chosen the city to celebrate the new year. Our egos sufficiently inflated with newfound fame, we finally made it up to what turned out to be the most unusual hostel dorm I have ever seen. Instead of the usual short bunks, the upper level of beds towered on stilts eight feet above the ground. Individual beds are contained in boxes with curtains that can be pulled across the front, making the room feel like a little city of high rises.

We decided to start our sightseeing nearby at the Picasso Museum. The area our hostel and the museum are in is called Born, and just walking through its narrow cobblestone alleys was an adventure in itself. Along with several museums, Born hosts a ton of restaurants and shops (we soon dubbed it the hipster quarter), plus at least two big churches. The Picasso Museum was in a grand old stone building with plenty of courtyards and arched doors, but it was probably the most poorly organized museum we’ve seen yet. We walked through Picasso's childhood (surprisingly traditional art) and blue phase, and even got to admire several witty pieces inspired by Degas.

Satisfied we had finally found all the rooms, we next visited La Rambla—the huge shopping avenue that is infamous for the amount of tourists and pickpockets it attracts. We wandered into a few music shops that caught Kai’s eye and admired high walls lined with big, tattered red boxes that could be opened to reveal stacks of sheet music.

Next up was La Boqueria, which is a big market just off La Rambla. Even though it was the evening, all of the vendors’ stands were completely stocked with beautifully colorful produce, candy and anything else you could possibly want.

All our senses satisfied, we walked the rest of La Rambla and then back to Born, stopping at an antiques market along the way.

For dinner we settled on a quiet restaurant near the hostel that promised some cheap tapas. Tapas are not truly Catalonian, but the concept of building a big plate of a bunch of different types of food is something no college student can resist. Whatever I ate was good, but at one point the host lifted up a huge pan of paella for a few Barcelonians that had wandered in to see (we later found out Thursday is paella day for the city’s restaurants). Our next good meal, I vowed, paella would be mine.

Friday we decided to skip our traditional walking tour and see the city by bicycle instead. With our fearless and endlessly cool local guide (seriously, he’d lived in at least 10 countries, spoke six languages, swims in the sea every day sans-wetsuit and used to teach scuba), we spent three hours seeing some of the most famous and varied parts of the city. We biked through the narrow, tourist-packed streets in the center of the city:

to the wide-open boardwalks along the sea, where we stopped to admire the ports and modern architecture built when the city hosted the olympics.

Then it was on to Parc De La Ciutadella, which was remarkably quiet after the heavily populated boardwalks and avenues. We biked through hedge-lined squares and by the dramatic Gaudi fountain:

and even spotted a giant mammoth statue nearby.

Then we started the real city biking portion of the tour and took a busy street up to the northeast corner of the city to visit the old bull fighting ring and Gaudi's famous Sagrada Familia.

I always hear Gaudi’s work compared to Dr. Suess, and it’s true. Sagrada Familia almost looks like it was made with that sand castle technique where you soak sand and then drop it in little drips until it forms narrow, bumpy towers. Not my favorite effect for a building on such a massive scale, but it was definitely unique and piqued my interest even more to see the rest of his work in the city.

We biked back to the center, bid our guide goodbye, and found some lunch. I had my delicious paella, plus fish (I wish I knew what kind—among the best I’ve ever had. But I was so lost reading Catalan off the menu I hadn’t even realized it was fish I’d ordered.) and a strange whipped cheese for desert. As it was New Year’s Eve, the girls and I decided it would be fitting to do a bit of shopping so we made our way up to the big plaza near the top of La Rambla. No one bought much but there was plenty of people watching to be had, and at least four Zaras within a few blocks of each other. (They were, in fact, all different inside if you were wondering.)

Sunlight long gone, we realized it was time to go back to the hostel and get ready for the evening. By nine we were back downstairs, where the common room had become one giant party. We reunited with Kai, who informed us he had tried to stop a purse snatcher who had run past him outside in the alleyway. Kai got a punch in before an accomplice tackled him, allowing the thief to get away. Who knew he had it in him? (Just kidding, Kai. Sort of.) Capitalizing on his new hero status, we found an English guy and an Aussie to play some vicious rounds of cards with us before we all migrated to the alley for some general international socializing. The purse snatchers ran past with two more purses while we were there, and just as we were formulating a red-rover inspired plan to catch them our favorite hostel staffer shouted he was about to make the 20 minute walk to the beach.

Just as we reached the edge of the water, fireworks started going off at both ends of the bay. We scarfed the grapes we’d brought (you eat 12 for good luck in every month. I only had 11, so I guess December will be rough?) and swapped enough kisses to last me for many new years into the future. The fireworks almost didn’t matter—there were crashing waves, miles of soft sand, Portuguese songs, new friends and some of my favorite people in my life all around me. Jessica and I took a moment just to marvel at it all; that you can pick up and do something new, and it feels like the most natural thing in the world.

But the night was still young, and we had places to be. We walked the boardwalk and admired the huge lines outside of the big clubs, the entire beach already pulsing with music and shouting party-goers. We caught a cab to the north part of La Rambla to City Hall, a big night club that was one of the few that narrowly made our budget. We took it easy near the bar area with our Portuguese friends from the hostel until the club really got going (it’s true no one goes until 2 a.m. at the earliest). Like the rest of the city, the club was filled with Italians, and I soon found myself speaking more Italian than I ever did in Rome. I befriended a group from Turin and not a single one of them spoke English—the perfect cure for my homesickness for Rome.

Many hours later, I realized I’d managed to lose everyone else (sorry, Mom). Two of my Turin friends offered to walk me back to the hostel. Along the way we realized the stairs leading down into the metro were open, and I almost reached for my map to double check that it was really open that late at night. Then I heard birds chirping and saw the beginnings of sunlight creeping into the edges of my vision. A clock in the metro confirmed my suspicions: It was 7 a.m. We laughed all the way onto the first metro car, where we met a guy from Barcelona who quite seriously informed us he was on his way to another club. Looking around the car, it was obvious he was not the only one still celebrating the new year. What a city.

A half hour later I found Kai and Jessica safe and sound in their beds. I used my last remaining energy to drag myself up the infinite ladder to my bed, and slept. Until 8 a.m., that is, when the group of 10 from France in our dorm decided it was time to get up. I guess there’s always tonight for sleep.

So, happy 2011 everyone. My still-growing love for Barcelona will make leaving Europe in a few days even more difficult, but I can’t wait to see everyone back in the States and start to explore what 2011 holds for us all. For now, I’ve got my Bucky shirt on and I’m off to find a place to watch the Rose Bowl later.

1 January 2011 · Comments

Check-in 12/30: Barcelona

We made it to our hostel in Barcelona (actually a while ago—I had to finish writing that novel of a last post)! It’s near the airport, and only for one night before we move into the center of the city, but it’s already intriguing enough that we think we’ll spend some time exploring it tomorrow. It’s called Centre Esplai, and it seems to be in the middle of some housing/military development that was almost completely deserted during our walk from the bus stop around 1 a.m. We actually wouldn’t have even found it if not for a gang of teenagers that both accurately directed us to the hostel and heckled us (they also later hurled a rock at us—unclear if this was out of dislike or to better illustrate the direction we should walk in). An experience I’d generally like to avoid in the future. But the hostel itself is really nice and huge, and also deserted. Other than the night watchman we haven’t seen a single soul, and between the five of us we have two rooms to ourselves. From the pamphlets lying around it seems to be an environmental education center, among other things. And, somewhere, there is a pool. We’ll see what we find tomorrow.

So, good night! I have high hopes for the next few days in the already noticeably warmer Spain.

29 December 2010 · Comments

Check-in 12/29: Paris

In a few hours we will be on a plane to Barcelona, and as I look back now on the last four days it all seems like a bit of a blur. I don’t mean that in the fun-filled, action-packed sense though—Paris was a difficult city, and it feels like we spent as much time planning, waiting and traveling as we did actually seeing the sights of the city. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth it though, and I think we learned a lot as a group about how to travel. When Kasey and I traveled together during fall break, we joked that we fell into a sort of rhythm that dictated how much we did each day, plus when and how. But I think that’s true for all travelers, and the problems Paris put in front of Kai, Jess and me helped us reach that point where we know what to expect of each other. For Barcelona’s sake as the sort of grand finale to our trip, I’m glad for that.

Saturday

Or train got in at about 5 p.m., so after finding our hostel (St. Christopher’s in the northeast part of the city—highly recommended) we decided to find some dinner. We found a restaurant a short distance from the Eiffel Tower and budget splurged on a real hot meal as our Christmas gift to ourselves. Then it was on to the nearby Christmas market where we warmed ourselves with some hot drinks before making the rest of the trip to the Eiffel Tower.

Even at night its base was crowded with tourists and vendors, but that didn’t matter much as our eyes didn’t spend much time away from the underbelly of the tower stretched across the sky. I’ve been to Paris before, and even to the top of the Eiffel Tower, but I had forgotten how truly massive the structure is. Standing under it is almost like being in a vast warehouse—you know there are four sides and a ceiling, but no matter how you orient yourself it’s impossible to take everything in at once.

Unable to stand the cold anymore, we decided to head back to the hostel. As we walked back up the hill toward the metro, we turned back just in time to see its hourly light show: The entire tower lights up with thousands of winking lights that shimmer like a crowd of flashing cameras.

Sunday

Jess and I woke early enough to meet up with another walking tour Sunday morning. We saw many of the grand buildings along the Seine, including Notre Dame:

 and theGrand Palais, walked the courtyards of the Louvre and the gardens past its gates:

explored the Christmas market along the Champs-Elysees, paced bridges that form the backdrop for scenes in dozens of movies:

and learned about the kings, wars and everything else that have brought Paris to where it is today.

After the tour we met up with Kai at the Pompidou, which houses the national museum of modern art. The building itself is understandably controversial (though I personally like it), with all sorts of tubes and scaffolding exposed on the exterior of the building.

Inside, it was clean and industrial, and held a lot of the art that is to be expected at a modern art museum (videos of people walking strangely, a lamppost with a sheet over it). But it also had a Mondrian/De Stijl exhibit—aka rooms and rooms full of paintings, drawing and rooms of overlapping rectangles.

Basically, it was a dream come true for me.

Monday

Monday, things went a bit downhill. We had two things on our agenda—visiting Jim Morrison’s grave and the Louvre—before we had a dinner date with friend’s of Jessica’s. Confident we would fit it all in, we slept later than usual and then caught the metro to the cemetery. After braving some insanely icy sidewalks we were met with closed gates though—it was closed. Kai shed a silent tear (soon to be joined by resident vegetarian Jessica, who then proceeded to accidentally eat meat) and we headed back to the city center. We’d heard you could skip the Louvre line if you entered from the metro, but no matter how hard we looked, we couldn’t seem to find the entrance. We cut our losses and headed up top to the main line, which stretched not too far out the doors of the giant glass pyramid that marks the main entryway.

Half an hour later we were at the ticket desk, and exactly then the computer decided to stop printing tickets, leading to a long process involving all levels of managers to procure us tickets to enter the museum.

By the time we got them, we had an hour until closing time. We dashed through and managed to find Venus, the Mona Lisa and, randomly, an Etruscan sarcophagus covered very extensively in my archaeology class this semester, among hundreds of other works of art.

Even after just an hour we were exhausted, and ready to head out to dinner. (For time’s sake I’m going to cut out the next piece of our day: an hour and a half trek to find the restaurant.) Our destination for the night was called Breakfast in America, and it unsurprisingly was set up like a little American ’50s diner. Only instead of being filled with Americans, fancy looking French people filled every red booth and stool in the place. I ordered a hamburger (my first in four months). I spotted pancakes, root beer floats and milkshakes on other tables. They even had Heinz ketchup and Skippy peanut butter.

Tuesday

Tuesday was somewhat better. It was laundry day, which by that point was something extremely exciting. We camped out in the Laundromat, did our best to interpret French machinery and played several epic games of Bananagrams before packing up our stuff for the move to our next hostel: Le Village in Montmarte, which is a hill that has the honor of being the highest point in the city. Immediately it seemed like an interesting place, with the Sacre-Coeur towering overhead and the fabric and garment district surrounding our hostel bringing in plenty of foot traffic. Plus, even at midday, they were playing irresistible dance-inducing music in the reception room.

After dropping our stuff off we went back to the city center to visit the Musee d’Orsay, which I remembered for its sculpture of a big white bear from my last trip to Paris, but is more known for its enormous collection of impressionist masterpieces. We waited in line forever to get in (long enough to eat lunch and play approximately 50 games of 21 questions), but it was worth it. There were Monets, Van Goghs and plenty of works by one of my new favorites—Paul Signac.

I’d been struggling with a cold for the past couple days and by the end of the museum I was ready to pass out, so we cut the day short after the museum and went back to the hostel. A nap had me feeling somewhat better, and afterward Jessica and I sat for a while with our two new arrivals, Taryn and Alisa, who are joining us for the Barcelona leg of our trip.

Wednesday

With a flight so late in the evening, we had most of the day to see a few last sights in Paris. We chose the Paris museum of modern art as our first destination and, on the advice of a traveler we had met at an earlier hostel, entered through the restaurant to avoid the blocks-long line that had formed at the front entrance. After enthusiastically busting through into what we assumed was the main entrance, we realized we actually had just entered through the exit into the permanent collections room. Oops. (I’ll hold off on the security jokes because five paintings were stolen from the museum in May.)

Their permanent collection grabbed me immediately, and by the time we found ourselves alone in an enormous room that was empty except for the two big Matisses splayed across the walls, I was in love. Up next was another enormous room that felt like the inside of a rainbow—I’ve never been so happy with my color intake.

Then it was on to the exhibition of works by Basquiat, who started out as a New York graffiti artist before moving on to neo-expressionistic painting. It was something entirely different from everything we had seen up until that point. Many of Basquiat’s works are frantic scribbles and words scrawled across huge pieces of paper and others look downright childlike, but many were among the most expressive I’d seen anywhere in the museum. There were paintings and drawings on canvases, doors, refrigerators and all other kinds of materials, and all of it seemed completely unique to Basquiat. (Also surprising: some collaborative pieces done with Andy Warhol.) I left feeling like I’d seen something completely new, something I will always remember.

We saw the few remaining exhibitions and then went back to Montmarte to find the Espace Dali, which was a small but fittingly surreal museum honoring the master surrealist. Bronze clocks melted over branches, Alice in Wonderland played out in pastel colors on paper and eery music urged us onward as we walked through the dark galleries. The final hallway was filled with images of the artist himself twisting his mustache into whimsical shapes.

Back outside, we took one final look at Sacre-Coeur:

and then headed back to the hostel for a final pack-up and a couple of hours to catch our breath and eat dinner. If you’re ever grocery store eating in Paris, go for the baguette and brie—I don’t know in what other country it’s possible to consider that budget eating.

29 December 2010 · Comments

Check-in 12/25: On the train to Paris

Thursday morning we switched hostels, moving a few streets over to Durty Nelly’s.

The hostel felt traditional in the sense that we were in a big dormitory, but it was much quieter than Flying Pig. There was no common room but it was located above a cozy Irish pub that seemed like it would do well enough.

After dropping our bags we took the tram to the south part of town to start on a few more museums. We started at the Rijksmuseum, which, though housed in an enormous castle-like building, was surprisingly condensed. The highlights were probably a crash course in Dutch history and a lot of works by Rembrandt, including The Night Watch.

Next up was the Van Gogh Museum. I had never realized Van Gogh was an artist for such a short period of his life, so it was interesting to follow the museum’s tour through his active years and see paintings that were, well, not that great. It was the perfect way to get to know an artist though—not as someone who all of a sudden sprouted a genre-transforming talent, but as someone who started from almost nothing and then gathered ideas and practiced until something came of it.

After Van Gogh we somewhat blindly wandered through canals and streets on the way to our next destination. Along our route we visited a long canal lined with the city’s flower vendors. Within their tents was every type of tulip conceivable, packaged in big bags or in dark, earthy, loose bulbs. Finally, though, we found our way to the Rembrandt House Museum. The famous painter and printmaker lived there from 1639 to 1658, using it both as a dwelling and studio. Walking through, you could see where Rembrandt slept (new life goal: sleep in a box bed), cooked, painted, produced prints, sold paintings and generally lived. In one room you could see the shelves of props he and his assistants and pupils used in their works.

Interestingly, the museum was also exhibiting what it called “The Last Caravaggio.” What is suspected to be one of Caravaggio's last paintings—“St. John the Baptist Reclining”—was on display to the public for the first time in 400 years. The giant canvas seemed cramped in the tiny little room at the top of the house, but I suppose anything seems roomy after being hidden away that long.

That night we mostly hung out in our hostel room with some of the other guests. One was Australian, two Canadian and the last English, making it a somewhat strange summit of the world’s English speakers. Conversation passed from Amsterdam to music (how many Australian bands can you name?) to American sports teams. Somewhat late, we all took the tram to the South part of town to the nightlife district. We found a quiet pub with some live Jazz and settled in for a bit before heading back to the hostel.

Friday we first had a late breakfast at a nearby bakery that offered a weird mix of traditional Dutch and Italian fare. We carefully selected two items off my food tourism list—Belgian waffles smothered in chocolate and Dutch pancakes—and dug in.

We left in a satisfied sugar coma and quickly realized one of our main goals for the day—to rent a bicycle—was going to have to be abandoned because of the cold. So opting for the tram instead, we headed East to another museum district that, excitingly, was near the zoo! After gazing at camels through the front gates for a bit we tore ourselves away and found our destination—the Dutch Resistance Museum. The exhibits chronicled the country’s effort’s against the German occupation during World War II which, though weak on the military front, included a strong underground network of information dissemination, protection of the country’s threatened people and some creative banking to fund the resistance. The tolerance of Amsterdam was again apparent.

After the museum we were determined enough to see a real Dutch windmill that we walked for 20 minutes in some of the worst wind and cold we had encountered so far in Amsterdam. But as soon as we came around the last corner, there was the De Gooiyer windmill, towering over the surrounding canals, cars, buildings, everything. It was shingled brown with big, wooden sails…that weren’t turning. Oh well. 

At the foot of the windmill sits the IJ Brewery which, if you are ever in Amsterdam, I highly recommend a visit to. It was Christmas Eve so the tour was canceled, but the beer was cheap and strong and definitely worth a taste (you should also try the cheese with the seasoning they put out on the tables).

We quickly fell into a fierce game of cards and befriended the American and Israeli pair sitting nearby. They taught us a Russian card game, and it very soon became apparent we were terrible at it. The consequence? A performance of the hokey pokey for the whole room to see.

That night we completed the food tourism list, filling our stomachs with fries with mayonnaise and Wok to Walk, our quest bringing us on a somewhat surreal route through the red light district and canals filled with huge white swans.

Anyway, now we’re on the train to Paris. The jarring sound of Dutch (Damstraat I’m going to miss butchering street names like Nieuwezijds Voorburgwal) is finally shifting into the somewhat familiar French and, for now, we’re safe from the snow and cold inside a high-speed train. We opened a few gifts that had been packed away in our bags (thanks Mom!), providing us with ample ways to entertain the little Dutch boy sitting in the seat next to Jess. It sounds like plenty of stuff will be open on Christmas there, so I’m hoping to do some terrible ice skating before having a nice dinner. Happy Holidays to all!

25 December 2010 · Comments

Check-in 12/22: Amsterdam

Where am I?

That’s what I’ve been asking myself these past 36 hours. Amsterdam is everything Rome is not, and it’s been a fun shock to pull myself out of the habit of Italian life and into something completely new.

The first shock, of course, has been the language. As soon as Kai and I stepped off the plane yesterday morning everything had transformed into Dutch, making even buying our train ticket into the city a difficult process. I definitely have new empathy for everyone who arrived in Rome not knowing a word of Italian.

But we did find our train and soon found ourselves at the central train station.

There was snow and slush everywhere, not to mention a bitter cold I had forgotten the feel of. We dodged trams and bicycles and made our way to Flying Pig Downtown, our hostel, where we dropped our stuff and headed back out. Jess had been delayed a day because of a missed connection due to Minnesota snow, so we opted to hold off on the major sights and just see where our feet would take us. We paced along canals, admired the rows of narrow buildings (many of which are tilted because they are sinking or because—I later found out—good used to be hauled up to the top of them from a hook that juts out from the top of the building, and if the building was straight up and down this process tended to break a lot of windows) and randomly walked into a beautiful church filled with brilliantly painted columns.

As we walked, however, it began to sink in how different of a place this is. At one point we walked past a boat filled with cats waiting for adoption. At another I had to look twice to confirm that that woman behind a window was not actually a scantily clad mannequin. Shops sold waffles, cookies, bagels, french fries, herring, everything imaginable. The skunky-sweet smell of pot wafted out from coffeeshops with windows too foggy to allow a peek inside. After passing under a sign declaring an area “Winterland,” we watched kids skate on a tiny ice rink as people nearby sipped hot chocolate and munched donuts. Here was a place of indulgence, color, tolerance, music, and it was almost too much to take in in one stroll through the streets.

I went to bed early that night, and when I woke up this morning Jess was here! We grabbed breakfast at the hostel and then met up with a New Amsterdam Tour group in Dam Square. The language is preventing me from remembering the names of many of the sights, but our tour took us past elegant churches (only a few of which were Catholic), quiet courtyards lined with more brick buildings, endless canals and plenty of streets bustling with shop-goers. At one of the more entertaining parts of the trip we found ourselves at a corner from which you could see parts of the red light district, a church, a kindergarten, a bar and a coffeeshop. This, our tour guide explained, was representative of the true tolerance of Amsterdam’s people and the laws governing it that made it famous and, at one time, a world power.

After the tour Jess and I walked to the Anne Frank House. The entire building has been expanded into a museum, but you can still walk through the original annex where Anne and her family hid themselves away. We ducked through the copy of the bookcase that used to cover the entrance and up steep, narrow stairs to the rooms and kitchens where they spent their days. Cards and posters still lined the walls of Anne’s room. From a window you could see the steeple of the church she wrote about hearing the bells from. Back downstairs, we viewed the original volumes she wrote in—long lines of cursive peppered with lists and pasted pictures.

So, that’s what I have for now. There are a lot of things I’m looking forward to in Amsterdam (most of them admitedly being food—french fries, falafel, waffles, automat stores) and I’ll do my best to check in. Otherwise, the next stop is Paris by train on Christmas.

22 December 2010 · Comments

Check-in 12/20: Rome

We leave for Amsterdam early tomorrow morning. I still have one day left in Rome at the very tail end of our trip, but it’s been strange saying what I know are my last goodbyes to places and, especially, friends. Nearly everyone flew out early Saturday morning, after which Thaise and I closed up shop at the apartment in Monteverde and headed over to Old Moon Bar for one final cafe latte (with my newly arrived brother, Kai, in tow). Saturday night was one final goodbye to my favorite nightlife spot, Trastevere, where we combined the familiar cobblestone alleys and cozy bars with new friends (another Minnesotan, some Italian actors and a whole lot of Australians. And who knew there is a tea house in Trastevere?). Sunday was one final trip to the markets and one final karaoke song at Scholars. Then today was one final round of sightseeing—the Protestant Cemetery:

 Santa Maria degli Angeli:

 Villa Borghese:

 and Piazza Navona's Christmas market:

 Tonight we had one final dinner back in Trastevere, where Kai, Rena, Amy and I ate a huge four course meal that brought together some of the best ingredients from my time here (bringing on one final food coma).

It’s funny to say it to myself but it truly feels like I’m getting closure with Rome. This part of my life—this eye-opening, exhilirating and humbling 3.5 months in this city—is over, but I’m OK with that. I’m moving on to two weeks elsewhere in Europe, another semester at the Herald, life in Madison and wherever else the next months bring me, but I’ll have this with me constantly. It’s something unrepeatable and untouchable in my mind, and that’s both the saddest and most beautiful thing it could be.

So, on to Amsterdam. And cross your fingers with me that weather doesn’t delay Jess from reaching us there tomorrow!

20 December 2010 · Comments

It’s snowing!

That is all.

17 December 2010 · Comments

Welcome / Benvenuto

The American Badger takes on Rome

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