The Notepad Euroblog – 9 Countries, 21 Days, Hella Trains.

Saturday, June 5 2010
Leaving the Nalgene at Home

Well, here we go. We’re now in Portland after a (relatively) short drive in the old minivan. I’m excited, and admittedly a little bit nervous. Everyone’s freaking out, but that’s par for this family! I trust the planning we’ve done will carry us through like we’re both literally and metaphorically on rails. This will be the farthest I’ve ever been from home and I’m sincerely looking forward to eating a fairly dank baguette or two.

With me are a suitcase of tightly-rolled clothes and a backpack of technology. And a few books. I figure all the hours of traveling will outlast my batteries, thereby providing a good excuse to make a dent in my ever-growing pile of literature.

After some hard decision making I’ve decided not to bring the DSLR and instead picked up a cute little Canon point-and-shoot camera. Now that my bag is packed it’s apparent that the full size camera wouldn’t fit in there anyway. Hopefully there won’t be many shots I miss out on.

Tomorrow we wake up at 5 and walk a couple blocks to the metro, which will take us to the airport. Don’t worry TSA, all of my liquid containers are below 3 oz.

Sunday, June 6
Take Care of America for Me

I looked at my watch after getting through security and saw that it was 7:30. “It couldn’t be that early!”, I thought to myself. And then I realized it was 7:30 in the morning. OMG. Regardless, I feel awake. No shower, but it was raining pretty hard when we woke up and hoofed it to the metro. Once we managed to figure out the ticket machine the rain had gone from refreshing to soaking, but after a quick ride we arrived at PDX sufficiently un-damp.

Our first flight, a short one to Philadelphia, went by quick enough with the help of some iPod touch games and Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael. It’s funny reading such a grounded book while you’re thousands of feet up in the air. We haven’t checked any baggage, and the flight was so packed there wasn’t any room in the back of the plane to store my carry-on. So it got to ride first class.

We now sit in PHL, waiting for our connecting flight to Oslo, Norway.

I’ll try to get some sleep on the upcoming flight; in order to combat the jetlag that everybody seems to think will ruin me. We’ll see.

The away team just came back with Pizza and spaghetti from the food court, so I’ll take off. Ironically, I feel I will be eating these foods again in the near future…

Monday, June 7
Jetlag and Little Tiny Bathrooms

Due to a favorable tail wind, the long plane trip was less than 7 hours. I think Call of Duty has trained me to be impervious to sitting in one spot for that amount of time – but it still got pretty uncomfortable towards the end.

As soon as we stepped off the plane I got a feeling I’d never felt before – I was a minority. The tables had turned. Although it was strange, I felt at home. My mom’s side of the family is from Norway, so we sort of blend. Except that we don’t speak Norwegian. Luckily, most of the signage is underscored with an English translation. The culture shock is gradually seeping in between bouts of awareness.

I am awake enough, however, to notice the beautiful weather here in Norway. If Ikea designed a country, it would be Norway. And I like it. The airport’s architectural style is amazing, and it complements the surrounding green rolling hills and surprisingly large amounts of brightly colored graffiti along the train routes. We’re sitting in Central Station right now, waiting for our next Train which will take us to Voss. Without a phone, money, and in an unfamiliar setting filled with an unfamiliar language you feel a bit overwhelmed. At least there’s a Burger King! Salsa burger’s only 18 Kroners!

The last few hours have been surreal. The jetlag finally started to kick in while on the train to Voss. Sitting right next to the window, it seemed like every time I managed to open my eyes for a while there was some sort of ridiculously beautiful snow-covered vista whizzing past.

We finally arrived at Hostel Vandrarheim, located just a short, chilly walk from the Voss station. It’s totally not like the movie “Hostel”.  But we do have beds to sleep in for the first time in days, so we’re good to go.

Tuesday, June 8
Ecological Spelt Bread

Today we took it pretty easy, but I still can’t wait for bedtime. Hopefully I’ll adjust within the next few days.

It’s still beautiful here. Everything is so calm. We woke up early to partake in the organic breakfast. We could literally see the farm we were eating food from across the street and up the hill.

We walked into town and bought some groceries at the local Kiwi mart. I’m surprised, I thought more American brands would be present here, but I haven’t recognized anything but a few cans of Pringles. We stopped by the post office as well to pick up stamps to send our first wave of postcards to those special people we miss very much back home. It’s easy to find the post offices over here, you just look for the big Pokeball

I’m impressed with how much Wi-Fi access there has been thus far. With my iPod in hand I can keep up on Facebook while watching NCIS subtitled in Norwegian, just like I do at home!

It’s also worth noting that apparently, every single person in Norway owns at least one pair of these headphones. I think I’ll have to pick some up when I return.

Wednesday, June 9

Now that we’ve seen “Norway in a Nutshell” by cruising around the country via every mode of transportation available, I have a few observations. I admire the way they don’t all drive SUVs, how they stop for pedestrians, and how they pull over to talk on cell phones.

I’ve also had another mildly profound bit of enlightenment. In the states, most people are American, while in Europe, most people are European. But since Europe is made up of many different countries, languages, and cultures, it creates a sort of diversity that we don’t see in the US.

This morning we took a Mercedes Benz tour bus down a crazy strip of road to the mouth of a fjord, where we got on a ferry that took us down another fjord, where we got off and boarded a train that took us up the mouth of a fjord. Let me put it this way – I’ve seen more waterfalls, fjords, and tourists taking pictures today than I can count.

Our round trip was an absolute photo fest. I worry sometimes that all these people have begun focusing more on taking pictures than enjoying actually being somewhere and seeing it with their own eyes. Then again, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing good photographs as an art form, and you’ve got to have an up to date Facebook pic.

On the 3rd leg of the journey, the ascent up on the Flamban, we passed so many beautiful waterfalls I think I’ve become immune to them. I did find my favorite though, and got a picture of it. Everyone else, however, didn’t seem content unless they took at least 400 pictures of every single one we passed. I could feel the train rocking back and forth as the slew of photographers walked from one set of windows to the other every time we came up around a bend.

One waterfall, in particular though was different. The train actually stopped at this one and we were allowed to get out. Secluded, and up on a cliff in the middle of nowhere a wave of tourists poured out and stood looking at a legendary waterfall just meters from the track. And then the waterfall began to sing. Turns out it was a short performance, and someone began dancing up near the falls to re-enact a legend. Still, I would have been perfectly content getting back on the train and just believing that we had seen the little-known singing waterfalls of Norway. It’s been a little unreal.

Tonight we’ll board a midnight train which starts our marathon route to Paris. L8r Norway!

Thursday, June 10
Training Day

It’s hard to remember exactly how the day started. It seems so many trains ago… Even though our Eurail passes allow us to ride first class, it’s still difficult for me to get any real sleep in a train seat.

We waited up until midnight and then walked to the Voss train station in what was conspicuously non-darkness. The ‘Midnight Sun‘ (not the Stephanie Meyer novel). This was followed by — you know what? I don’t even remember. There were a lot of trains, a long layover in Copenhagen station, and some McDonald’s somewhere in there.

The day now comes to an end in this sleeper car. We spent a little extra in order to guarantee there would only be four of us in this ‘room’. Technically, there are six beds. There’s some hyper-close smelly backpacker proximity potential in here. But in our situation, it’s a very welcome chance to lie down. Goodnight.

Friday, June 11
Foux Da Fa Fa

During the night the ambient language that could be overheard changed from Norwegian to German. We woke up in our little compact space and maneuvered ourselves into proper danish eating position. (We had purchased some Danish danishes in Copenhagen).

Shortly after breakfast it was brought to our attention by a conductor that our train was having some sort of troubles and we would have to get off. Of course, the parents revert to freak out mode, but I’m okay with it. From where I see it, a situation like this has to be treated like an invaluable life experience, and not necessarily a vacation.

Luckily, we were able to quickly jump on a train to Frankfurt Main and catch our train earlier then we would have originally. We also got some pretzels and sandwiches after withdrawing some euros. This much food seemed like a smorgasbord after having to be so economical back in Norway where a pack of ramen noodles is like 30 bucks.

We took the ICE from Frankfurt to Paris. It was one of the fancier trains we’ve been on, and we saw it clock just over 310 KM/H on some portions of the trip.

By the time we arrived in Paris the overheard language had once again changed to French – a subtle indicator that our geographic location had changed even though our physical one had not. Instead of taking the metro, the info desk told us to take a bus. We hopped on and wound up riding almost the entire line – which wound up being a pretty awesome theme-park ride through Paris, featuring crazy driving, crazy parking, and the red light district.

We eventually got out at our stop and walked a few blocks to our quaint little motel – the two star Alma Mesnil. It’s hot here in Paris and there’s no air conditioning. The sounds floating up through the open window are of car horns, motorcycles and yelling FIFA fans watching the game.

After unwinding a bit in the hotel we took a walk a few blocks around, ate at a deli and picked up some fruit for breakfast. I also saw with my own eyes the largest tub of Nutella ever. Good stuff.

Saturday, June 12
Holy Crepe!

Our days in Paris have been busy and I’ve fallen behind in my entries. I’ll try to recap now whilst on the train to Switzerland.

The first full day in Paris started with a quick breakfast followed by a stroll down to the metro. The navigation of the Paris Metropolitain is quite intuitive and colorful. I had fun getting us where we needed to go.

We popped out near Notre Dame. The line to enter the main hall was quick and I was impressed by the atmosphere and design of the inside as much as the outside. During our stroll through the cathedral a priest got up and began mass.

We then headed towards the unguided tour of the upper-levels. Before getting in line, I grabbed a hot dog from a small stand across the street. Of course, in French ‘hot dog’ basically means a baguette stuffed with two sausages and covered in melted cheese. So I scarfed down my week’s worth of calories and began waiting in line.

After a dizzying number of winding stairs we reached the top and got quite a view. It was a good chance to get up close and personal with the Chimera, see the Gargoyles, and feel like you’re in a Disney animated classic.

After getting enough holiness, we headed for the Latin Quarter. The ‘artsy’ part of Paris, or at least the part that’s full of souvenir shops that try to rip you off and cool little restaurants.

We stop by the Obelisk of Luxor, which I think looks pretty cool – albeit a bit out of place… I find it interesting that the sides have the story of it’s transportation from Egypt etched in gold, as if to say, “dude, check out how we totally moved this thing!”.

By this time our feet are hurting but we continue walking a bit in order to see Maxim’s, the most famous restaurant in Paris. We wait outside for a few minutes before it opens, walk in and promptly get kicked out. Maxim’s is “only for eating”. Who knew?

The decision is made to walk down the Champs-Élysées*, hit the Arc de Triomphe**, and then head back to the hotel***. See fine print for details.

*Big street. Clean. Classy. $$$.

**Stone arch. Meaningful. Tomb of the unknown soldier.

***Small building. Rest feet. ZZZ.

Sunday, June 13
Five for One

Our final full day of Paris contains two heavy hitters – the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Can we handle it? LET’S FIND OUT!

Our hotel is only a stroll to the tower, so we start walking directly there. As our proximity to the tower increased the number of street vendors did as well. By the time we had reached the base of the tower we literally had to navigate around the vendors peddling there die-cast mini towers and small yipping robotic puppies.

After reading a complicated sign, we determined basically how the ascension of the tower works. One of the pillars was closed, 2 provided lift access, and the final one allowed access to the stairs. Of course, it wouldn’t be worth the trip if we just took an elevator up there, so we opted for the stairs, which we still had to pay for, although the line was shorter.

About 400 steps later we hit the first level of the tower. You’d think it would just be some viewing areas and scaffolding right? But there’s like, a garden and restaurants and a post office up there. That’s cool. You can take a lift again up from this point or another set of stairs. Stairs. At this point you can start feeling your calves hurting a little bit, but the 2nd floor greets you with a good height and great view of Paris on all sides. Looking up, however, you realize that you’re not even close to the top. No stairs at this point, we have to buy a single last lift ticket. The line here was long but didn’t take too long. The last elevator to the top was small but had clear sides and is an impressive ride. You pop out at the top, where things can get extremely crowded. The upper level features some serious vertigo inducing photo ops and a wine bar. Cheers!

Next stop, the Louvre. It’s got its own underground metro station, so we came in through the back door and picked up tickets at a shop below. It took longer than we thought to do the whole tower thing, so at this point we’ve only got about 3 hours to view fine art. For me, that’s more than enough – the problem is that in-between the interesting stuff in the museum, the Louvre features miles of stuff I don’t really care about. We prioritized the Mona Lisa, headed there straight away and then spent the rest of our time speeding through hallways, taking a few pictures, and getting lost. All in all, very cool. I would have liked to have more time to see more key pieces, however.

Big cities don’t much appeal to me, but for those who like it, I can see why Paris attracts so much attention. The Paris I saw was bigger and dirtier and faster than I had imagined it in my mind. Still, this city has an undeniable romance about it.

Monday, June 14
On The Rail Again

We packed up and power-walked to the metro station, where we took the now familiar subway system to the mainline train station. As we left France and entered Switzerland the mountains began to get taller and taller and taller. I’ve been so inundated with majestic scenery on this trip though that I spent most of the time reading…

At this point the family has been through a total of six countries and I’ve only got one stamp on my passport. Nobody over here seems to check it or anything. Maybe I need to start looking more like a terrorist to get my stampage.

Upon arriving in Brig, Switzerland it became apparent that we were once again in a less touristy place. Fewer people speak English as well. At this point, this is actually a nice break from Paris where I frequently found myself surrounded by visitors like us. Brig is nestled in awe-inspiring alps. It has a heavy, stoic feel about it. And yet at the same time the downtown looks almost identical to Disneyland.

We rolled our luggage down the streets and checked in at a very large and refined hostel, the Good Night Inn. It has a few hot receptionists, space-age bathrooms and good tap water.

Switzerland doesn’t use the standard power outlet, so we rented one. My camera battery is now charging through no less than 3 adapters rigged together and sticking a half foot out of the wall. But nothing has exploded yet, so we’re in business.

I’m also beginning to notice the first signs of Xbox withdrawal.

Tuesday, June 15
Goats, Poop and Beer

We’re regretting only staying two nights in Brig. We originally only chose this spot due to it’s convenient location, but it turns out to be a sort of off-season wonderland. Obviously built to complement the winter sport resorts of the area, it retains a nice ambience even when there’s no snow. Today Dad and I decided to hike some Alps. It turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. We meandered down the bus station and took a nice ride up to the town of Blatten. We then hopped on a cable car and rode to the small resort town of Belalp.

The views at this point are beautiful, walking along a service road against a steep hillside full of cows and ski lifts. The Alps, which are viewable throughout this whole area, now seem much closer. There is no sound except the wind and a Zen-like ringing of these enormous cow bells.

We continue on about a half hour to a vista from which we can see the Grosser Aletsch glacier. It’s quite impressive. As beautiful as this trail was, it was right in the middle of grazing territory for the local cows and goats, and certain points were completely saturated with poop. From here we realize that our original destination, the “Oberaletsch” cabin would be more than a quick walk to reach, and we were unsure about the weather. So we walked about half way, ate some bread for our John Muir Moment, and headed back. From a distance we spotted a trail of black and white moving quickly towards us down the trail we were heading towards. Sure enough, after the next bend we were greeted by an entire herd of these crazy monochrome goats. They were all along a steep section of the trail we had to walk up, so we politely passed them, after taking a few pictures.

We eventually got back to the cable car station and had a beer while waiting for the next ride down. A solid day, now all I need is another pizza and to sterilize my shoes.

Wednesday June 16, 2010
The Boot

I need my sleep, so after waking up in the morning I had to speedily pack and scarf down a nice hostel breakfast before heading off to catch our train. I wanted to get a can of Marijuana Tea out of the vending machine at the station, but it wouldn’t take my money. Regardless, that might have been a good thing since the Italian police just came through the cars with a drug-sniffing dog. The train we’re taking to the station in Milan is the most modern we’ve been on thus far. It’s got TV screens that play advertisements, GPS and Google Earth flybys.

There’s supposed to be Wi-Fi available on the train, but I’m having no luck connecting.

The time difference here makes it difficult to successfully set up a Skype date with those back home. The only forms of communication that have been working so far have been email, instant messaging, and SMS through web apps like TextFree on the iPod when there’s Wi-Fi available.

From Milan we headed towards a transfer in Italy which we missed by a good 45 minutes. We got the feeling Trenitalia isn’t as punctual as its northern neighbors. After some hustling we wound up on a different train with a nice Italian couple we smiled and nodded at a lot. Mom’s Spanish-assisted Italian was good enough to have some interesting conversation as we entered what is considered one of the coolest areas in Italy – Cinque Terre. We arrived late for a second time and after jumping onto the wrong train found ourselves very close to our intended destination. We quickly jumped on a train for a few minutes and were there – Vernazza.

This city is undoubtedly one of the coolest places I have ever been in.

As our train arrived the innkeepers came out and began offering rooms. We had already made a reservation, and somehow the owner managed to find us as we walked down the street and guide us to our room. The town is incredibly small, but complex to navigate once you get off of the single main street. Our room is very nice, and has a great view of the large wall between us and the Mediterranean.

This place makes me want to eat and drink by the sea long into the night… But I think I’ll just go to sleep right now.

Thursday, June 17 2010
Olive Garden Redux

A look around Vernazza (or any of the Cinque Terre for that matter) will blow you away by how ridiculously charming these cities are. You can understand how a place like this would develop as a hidden gem and then be discovered and flooded with tourists.

We’ve finally been able to do some laundry, but it’s so expensive we’re air drying the load. Clothing is hanging from every object in our room.

After picking up some Focaccia from a shop down the street we headed up through the stairs of the city and emerged on the hillside. This was the start of the stretch of the Cinque Terre National Park Trail that connects Vernazza and Corneglia. A small “danger” sign at the foot of the trail said the path was closed, but we went anyway. This particular stretch took us about 90 minutes. It was hot and muggy enough to convince us to take the train backwards to Monterosso. We stumbled upon the very nice beach that seems to be it’s main attraction and hung out for a while. Having been in three of the five cities, we headed home. The Eurail passes are coming in really handy here.

After getting back to good ol’ Vernazza we waited until dinner time to fulfill our reservation at Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre. This restaurant, which is hidden at the upper end of the small city, has been made by it’s pair of eccentric owners. We sat down and let them do the rest, all the while feeling like we were in good hands. The atmosphere is friendly and although they don’t have a view like some of the lower restaurants, they make up for it by providing superb service and great food. I’m no expert, but it’s safe to say that what we had was a masterfully prepared meal. Just don’t ask the owners to cook you eggs and bacon.

This authentic dinner was the perfect way to end our time in Cinque Terre. It’s impressive how such a place can be so saturated with Americans like us, yet retain it’s natural tiny-town feel. I hope for the sake of those who want to experience the area in the future that it stays that way.

Friday June 18, 2010
Focaccia Fueled Obelisk Thievery

We’re semi-professional train riders now, so the trip to Italy is a piece of cake. I’m able to pry myself away from the iPod and manage to get a marathon book reading session in, only occasionally glancing at the changing scenery.

We arrive in Roma Termini, one of the largest stations we’ve been to. Smoking is still obviously in style here and at this point I’ve probably smoked a carton second hand. The station also contains some enormously distracting Dulci and Gabana XX advertisements featuring Megan Fox.

We’ve decided to buy the ‘Roma Pass’ which lets you skip lines, get into the Coliseum and stuff, and ride public transportation for free. We picked up the passes in the station for 25 euro each. The kit it’s contained within is well put together, it contains a little map and some tourist information. However, in hindsight we’ve determined it wasn’t worth the cost in our case – mainly since the metro here is cheap, only 1 euro a ticket.

We then headed directly to the metro located underneath the station, and managed to get stuck right in the middle of a huge rush of commuters. I think right around here we begin to have our mid-trip crisis, and everybody gets in a sullen mood. This late in the trip is a time when no one wants to hurry, but we have to. After exiting the metro we re-surface and begin the search for our B&B. Here’s a travel tip – make sure your rolling suitcase has a wheelbase as wide as the case itself. All these cobblestone roads are a balance-maintaining nightmare.

It was difficult to find the ‘Happy Holiday’ bed and breakfast, since the only information we had was that it’s “in the square”. We located it eventually, in this old tall apartment building with an elevator I would not jump up and down in. The room is big and fairly comfortable. We can recharge and get Wi-Fi for the first time in a while. It’s hot, so the windows are open. The cross breeze is nice, but it also lets the traffic noises in. The amount of Honking in Italy makes Paris honking sound like the inside of a museum. We have another cool obelisk outside of our bathroom window though, although this one was stolen so I get the idea it’s emanating bad vibes. Anyhow, got to put on some Pink Floyd and go to sleep. The next two days we do Rome.

Saturday June 19, 2010
Sicut In Caelo, Et In Terra

We walked across Rome today, and basically hit up all the stuff you can do except for the stuff we’re going to do tomorrow, you dig?

Smoking is obviously still in style here, so I figure I’ve smoked about a carton or two at this point in the trip. The first thing that strikes me about Rome is how dirty it is. Like, literally. We pass the Coliseum, which we will visit tomorrow, and take some pictures, eventually arriving at the Vatican.

I thought the Vatican was a building, but it’s a state. Ok, that’s cool. What’s not cool is that I’m burning up wearing long pants on this blazing hot day because I thought I had to in order to enter the churches, but there are dudes walking all around in shorts. Oh well.

Turns out that what we thought was the Sistine Chapel was in fact the Basilica. D’Oh! So we walk in there real quick – the chairs are all set up for the Pope’s mass tomorrow, which is cool. We then hoof it a KM further and get to the MVSEI VATICANI. The guy who etched the sign must have made a typo.

The Sistine Chapel is sort of the carrot on a stick of the Vatican museum, where you walk around following the signs and arrows through hallways of scantily clad works of art until you get there. The chapel itself is very impressive and full of guys yelling “No Photo” and “SHHHH”.

After our fill of looking upward we started walking home on a course to see both the Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. The first thing I thought after I saw the fountain was “Hey it’s that one in the Lizzie McGuire movie!” Yeah, w/e. It really is an amazing fountain though, and reminds me of that scene in TLOTR where the elf chick makes the river turn into a stampede and scare the NazGul xx away. We threw some coins in but the place was so densely packed we quickly took our leave.

Begging seems to be a viable profession here, especially in the busy tourism areas.

Our final stop was the Spanish Steps. The street leading up to the steps were lined with big names – Prada, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and stuff. We dutifully sat on the steps for a bit before going back to our room. My feet hurt, but it was a solid day.

Sunday June 20, 2010

Rome is big, so I’m sure we missed some cool stuff. But as far as we were concerned, after checking off the big ruins in the middle of the city we’d be ready to move on. So today we used our Roma pass to enter the Coliseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. The Coliseum was first and seemed to be the most popular, so skipping the line here saved us at least an hour of waiting. It was also sporadically pouring rain outside, so our street-vendor purchase of umbrellas minutes earlier turned out to be a good idea.

All of these areas can be accessed on one ticket and all utilize an audio-guide system. The tour for the Coliseum was short but I liked it because it involved weapons and violence. Yay! It also makes you want to watch Russell Crowe killing things mercilessly.

For this entire trip, it’s been an interestingly difficult task to acquire drinking water. The smaller cities we’ve been in have had drinkable tap water, but in France and Italy the stuff is nasty. Our Imsdal water bottles have lasted us all the way from Norway. Hopefully the re-used plastic isn’t leaking too many deadly ions into our drink and giving us cancer!

In Rome, however, they have a good number of large, ornate fountains constantly spouting (what we assumed was) drinking water. Other people were drinking it, and when in Rome… So we could fill up our bottles here, and it wasn’t half bad.

Continuing on to the larger ancient grounds, we purchased a second audio guide and ran around our treasure hunt of numbers to see such sights as Caesars burial place, the enormous amphitheater, and some other cool structures of eroded-grandeur.

The audio tours here were a bit wordy, and it was sometimes hard to follow the path since there was a bit of construction/restoration going on. But it was a good day to spend a day and feel more intelligent afterwards.

We get back to the room and quickly realize that the rains this morning have awoken the mosquitos. Me and sis got eaten alive. But it wasn’t too bad, after this long on the road you get used to extreme levels of discomfort, and that’s what makes it fun!

Monday June 21, 2010
Sinking Glass and Venetian Masks

We take another high-speed train to Venitzia, or ‘Venice’ as it’s known by people who are from Oregon. This train is the most like an Airplane we’ve traveled on so far. We got little packages of cookies and a refreshing hand toilette. After reading for a few hours the view outside the window quickly changes from land to sea, and we cross over to the island’s station xx. After stepping out of the station we are greeted by a busy street an… wait a second… THAT’S NOT A STREET! THAT’S A @#$%ING CANAL! And those aren’t cars, those are boats. That’s cool. There’s also a giant advertisement for that cat food that seems to be everywhere.

We decide to establish home base and set out for our hotel. After pulling out our map of Venice you realize a couple of things. Navigation here will be like doing a maze in one of those puzzle books, and there are churches everywhere.

We eventually arrive at our hotel, the humble little one star Aldebergo Alex xx. It’s run by nice people but smells kinda funny. Then again, most of Venice smells kinda funny.

We decide to walk around town and head toward the center, Piazza San Marco. Since it’s later in the day, however, the center plaza and church is flooded. The water has just seeped up out of the ground below and people are frolicking around in bare feet and plastic bags. We’ll come back later.

As we wind our way back to the hotel map in hand, you realize what a cool atmosphere the streets have at dusk, before the mosquitos come out. There are no cars, no bikes even. Just the locals walking their dogs and the sound of shops closing up for the night.

Tuesday June 22, 2010
Blown Candy

The main streets of Venice are completely lined with storefronts. 15% restaurants, 25% mask shops, and 80% glass shops. I know that’s over 100%, that’s just how many shops there are.

Like all of the European tourist spots we’ve been too, every area has there staple souvenirs that are present at practically every corner. France had it’s miniature Eiffel Towers, Rome had t-shirts and rosaries, and Venice has blown glass and Venetian masks. The thing about here is that it’s not all junk, there are some very fine shops with elaborate masks and costumes, as well as those full of hand-crafted ‘Murano’ glass. At the same time, there are still knock-offs around every corner. Perhaps this leads to the “no photo please” paranoia that seems to be posted in every shop window.

Today consisted mostly of walking down the streets and shopping for souvenirs. We eventually arrived again at the San Marco church, (this time less flooded), and walked around it a little before paying 8 euro to take a lift up the bell tower. It’s sort of like a wanna-be Eiffel tower. From the top you can see the surprising monotony of the Venice skyline – but unfortunately can’t see the canals crisscrossing through it all. It is at least a nice way to get oriented and recognize how isolated the city is.

We have a night train to catch, so after walking for most of the day we head back to the hotel. We were originally going to spend two nights here in Venice, but due to Trenitalia being a mess and some unsure train connections we cut it short. Even though we are checked out the owners have kindly allowed us to store our bags and hang out in the lobby. We talked to the women minding the lobby and she explained how things had changed since she had grown up in Venice. The hotel itself had flooded multiple times in the past year. I haven’t looked into the specifics, but I’m glad I got this opportunity to see the place before it sinks. After unwinding in the lobby we head off to the station and sit outside on the steps in the dusk while waiting for our train. It’s another sleeper car, so we all crowd in and maneuver our suitcases like Tetris pieces. We’ll sleep through the Austrian Alps tonight, and wake up in Munich.

Wednesday June 23, 2010

We woke up early in Deutshceland, where the Geshchmack ist King and the beer is served by the litre. We have an entire day to burn so we loitered in Burger King for as long as possible after breakfast. I’m used to new languages popping up every couple of days so German is no surprise. I’m not sure if this part of Germany is less foreign than the other places we’ve been to or if I’m just getting used to not being in America.

I’m impressed with Munich, the Germans seem nice and there’s lots of meat everywhere. It’s as clean as the smaller cities we’ve visited but as big as the larger ones. Well played Germany. Well played. None of us got a good nights sleep so we meander around and eventually stumble upon the Hofbräuhaus, which just so happens to be the de-facto beer garden of the universe. Unfortunately, we sat at a table served by some guy in a suit, not a hot fraulein. Still, there was cool polka music and good wieners and you can see why this would be a very cool place to hang out and imbibe some steins, if you get my drift.

We go back to the station in order to wait the last couple of hours. From our vantage point on the second floor benches you can people-watch quite effectively. While watching the hurried luggage-pullers and yelling FIFA fans I daydreamed and wrote an Oscar-winning screenplay that will probably never be put on paper. Maybe later.

We’re on our third and final sleeper train now. It’s still hard to arrange ourselves in the tiny compartment but we’re getting the knack of it. Not that it matters, I doubt I’ll ever be on this many trains again in my life. This trip marks the start of the long haul back home. By now I think everyone is ready for this journey to be over. We’re all a little homesick, but our morale is as high as ever and soon we will again be among Taco Bells.

Thursday June 24, 2010
Retracing Steps

The last time we took this series of trains and went through Copenhagen was more or less a jetlagged, un-showered, culture shocked nightmare. This time the trip is significantly more pleasant. We took inventory of our many currencies and are trying to spend as much as we can before they become useless. We bought bread with our remaining Danish Kroners and bought some junk from 7-11 in Norway with our Norwegian Kroners.

We’ll spend the night here in Oslo, at the ‘Oslo Budget Hotel’, which is ironic since it’s the single most expensive room we’ll stay in on the trip. Last time through Oslo we simply stayed in the station, and now that we’ve walked about (admittedly limited to just a few blocks) it’s not very… impressive. Then again, I can’t pretend to know any of the countries we’ve visited only select cities in sufficiently enough to judge them. At least there’s a 7-11 down the block and fast Wi-Fi!

This break also gives us time to reflect upon the trip and note how nice it was to alternate between large cities and smaller ones.

All the bags are freshly re-packed, fluids zip-locked, and souvenirs stowed away for the return journey back to the motherland.

Friday, June 25 2010

It seems like forever ago that we first arrived in Oslo, and yet we’re leaving already. we took our final European train to the airport courtesy of our Eurail passes, went through security (they don’t make you take your shoes off over there), and cruised at high altitude for 8 hours or so. Some Buddhist wisdom and a couple of movies made the trip go by pretty fast. Since I don’t have a dual-plug headset adapter I had to listen to everything out of my left ear bud only.

We landed in Philly and ate some Chinese food. It’s almost as foreign to once again be able to understand the conversations going on around me as it was to be surrounded by undecipherable gibberish while we were traveling.

It’s past our bedtime in Europe, but midday here. And hot. Adjusting to the time difference after heading west is much easier, so I’ve heard, and I’m not worried about it.

The final plane ride seemed like the longest, and consisted of my entire Red Hot Chili Peppers discography in reverse chronological order without breaks whilst in a sleepy haze. I envy the people who can sleep in these seats.

Tonight we’ll spend the night in Portland once again before driving home. The huge box of candy Dad unveiled at the beginning of the trip has been successfully rationed up to this point, so we’ll break open the last Starburst on the drive and munch the juicy goodness while looking through the Dodge Caravan windows at our home, America, in a whole new light.

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