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In Europe, it’s not “Spring Break” but “Holiday”

In Europe, it’s not “Spring Break” but “Holiday”

Every week, I talk to my parents back in Wisconsin and every week I hear the same question: “So you’ll be staying in Rome this week then?” Every week so far they have heard the same sort of answer: “Well actually this week we’re headed to…” and then take you can take your pick with which country you would like to fill in the blank. In the last weekend of February, I was still unable to tell them that I was staying in Rome. However, I could inform them that I’d be remaining in the same country at least With intentions to stop by Venice for Carnevale, a group of my friends headed up to Florence on that Friday.

Florence is the capitol city of the Italian region of Tuscany. The city lives on the River Amo and has great importance to the Middle Ages and Renaissance because of its art and architecture. For me, it was great to see more of Italy. I love the fact that every Italian city has its own distinct personality. Salerno and Sorrento were quaint and calm. Palermo in Sicily was outgoing and uninhibited. However, Florence is my favorite of the cities I have visited in Italy thus far (excluding my home of course). Florence has an old world charm. I found it to be very laid back when i gazed upon the bridges and water. However, once I entered the market in the town itself, I was met with a vibrant and challenging atmosphere. In the center of the town, there are stands set up with some of the most aggressive salesmen on the planet. Whether you want herbs for cooking or small electronics, there will be a salesman there who will continuously offer it to you. Persistent as they may be, the catch about this transaction is that you can barter almost any item down to a more desirable price. Florence being a city known for its leather, it would be impossible to pass through the marketplace without being called over by multiple men trying to sell purses, jackets, and boots of the material. On our second day in Florence, we met one particularly uninhibited salesman. The man ran over to my friend and practically forced a coat on him. Within several minutes, we were taken into the man’s shop. Before I knew it, I was wearing a green leather coat and the man was telling me how I would find no better quality anywhere else in the world. After he tried to light me on fire to prove the caliber of the material, the real bartering began. I am not the most assertive person and felt somewhat uncomfortable pushing after the first several minutes. However, my roommate was used to dealing with people like this. Puling out joking jeers such as “I could stitch that hem myself” and “my parents own a leather store!”, the price slowly inched down from inconsiderable to preferred. An hour and a half of bartering later, the price had gone down 170 euros and my friend and I walked out of the store, exhausted, dazed, and in new genuine Florence leather coats. I’m still somewhat perplexed by how the exact purchase occurred, but the green leather coat has been a favorite Euro purchase yet.

Florence would have been a failure if we had not gone to the Academia Gallery. After walking around town, we had to stop to see one of the most famous Florence attractions: the David. The museum is very nice, but what everyone comes to the place to see one main man. It is funny that the one thing everyone comes to see is the one thing in the museum that they’re not allowed to take pictures of. This didn’t stop anyone from trying. At first, we hesitantly snapped photos as inconspicuously as possible. Later, it turned into a game of how many pictures we could take of this off limit statue.

Though we never reached Venice because of the price and unavailability of tickets, I couldn’t have been happier to spend that weekend in Firenze. It was one of my favorite cities I visited that semester. With my new leather jacket acting as a pillow and my picture of the David on the camera in my pocket, I contentedly slept the whole train ride home.

The week after Florence was intensely focused on the study part of my being abroad. Having been caught up in travel for an immense part of my time here, it was hard to force myself to buckle down and do some serious cramming for midterms. The exams themselves were much harder than I had imagined they would be. This was very regrettable. The fact that this week was during what should’ve been my spring break preparation made things even more stressful. However, I got a nice break on the Thursday when I got to see the Sistine Chapel. Overwhelmed by the sheer amount of artwork that could accumulate in one area, I only hope I’ll have further opportunities to gaze at the ceiling’s beauty another time this semester.

Once my last hellish midterm was complete, it was time to rush to the airport to begin the Spring Break of most awkward flight times imaginable. Save the first flight we took, every other airplane took off at around 4:00 in the morning. This led to a lot of sleeping in various modes of public transportation (sound familiar fellow Whitnall London travelers?). The first flight left on Thursday night so we departed from our dorm after I finished my last midterm. Things luckily ran much more smoothly than the last Amsterdam airport experience and before I knew it, we were on our way to London.

I couldn’t wait to go to London. England was my first European experience during my senior year of high school. Since the moment I left, I have wanted to return. Some may shun London because it is somewhat reminiscent of large urban areas in the United States, such as Chicago or new york. However, I think that is precisely why I feel at home there. I could genuinely see myself at home for an extended period of time there where I couldn’t in other fairy tale towns such as Prague or Amsterdam. Based on my senior year memories, the city has always held a special place in my heart.

Of course, the two London experiences were destined to be different. A large part of this dealt with my place of dwelling during my time there. Since a semester abroad has a tendency to leave you slightly strapped for cash, my friends tried to find ways to save money during the break. Money goes fast when you’re staying at hostels every weekend. We decided that in London and Paris, we would explore a new and slightly uncomfortable option called Couch Surfing. The couch surfing community is on an online website tracking people from all around the globe. Essentially, these strangers will put up travelers for free in whatever city they’re staying in. The desire to let unknown visitors come in your house for no reparation  does not make sense to me. However, plenty of people love to do it; the website offers numerous individuals in every city with purely the wish to meet new people. One of these people is Bob and he has a small flat on the outskirts of London. It was hard to not like Bob after the very first impression he gave us. When we called him from the airport, he said (in his British/Lebanese mixed accent), “Tired girls come all the way from America! I make you chicken!” It was at this moment that we had to decide if we were going to hold up the rouse while staying in this man’s house. Figuring we should probably tell him the truth, we traveled to the flat and were met with a bit of surprise. First of all, Bob isn’t really into electricity. The house was lit by the fireplace in the living room. This meant limited light and limited heat. Second, the bathroom looked like it came from the 1700s. With its wooden floors and ancient bathtub, we resigned ourselves to disgustingly taking as few ‘showers’ as possible out of fear we may  feel less clean once emerging from the tub. Third, Bob has birds. These birds are let free to fly around his living room. With these first few views, we were slightly worried about this new place that we’d stumbled into.

Along with those minor details to get used to, it’s hard to just enter a stranger’s home and feel totally at ease. Before we received our 4am chicken, we all flinched a bit when Bob took out a long pointed spear-like item. However, this was used to move the food around in the fire. We soon learned that Bob prepared all of his own food over fire. He even bakes bread himself in that way. Our first home cooked meal in 2 months tasted glorious. After preparing our dinner, Bob told us a bit about himself. He used to live on a boat but moved off of it for the love of his life, Kasia (who we heard quite a bit about throughout the weekend). He used to work as a hairdresser in London and volunteered to give us all free haircuts, which we politely but skeptically refused. Now, he asserts that his career is traveling the globe and providing a place to stay for people like himself. Bob lives to help people and it is impossible for me not to like a person like that. We went to bed that night with open minds and full stomachs.

And then came my  first  wasted day in London. Having gotten an amount of hours of sleep that I could have counted on my fingers during midterm week, I couldn’t force myself to wake the next morning regardless of the fabulous city that surrounded the flat. My roommate and I enjoyed our 24 hour coma at Bob’s house, waking only for him to offer us homemade bread for lunch.

In the new travel novel that has become my life, there are a couple distinct characters that make a big impression. Bob is obviously one of them from London. However, there are a couple other big players. We weren’t the only couch surfers staying with Bob. During the day of our 24 hour catnap, we awoke one more time to meet ‘the Bulgarians’: a mother and  a “half-conscious, semi-sedated son”. I tried to stay away from this guy as much as possible after he told us that he had been in a mental institution earlier that day. He and Bob had a odd jam session with guitar and bongos in which I forgot all of Bob’s quirks and stood amazed at the oddity of this new man before me. The mother was very nice, though I was not happy when she accidentally got us locked out of the flat. Seeing this lanky foreign woman sprint up the hill to the house to hand us the keys made up for it a bit in my memory though.

The day after my vegetative state, I arose feeling fully rested though a little regretful. However, I justified my lame behavior as indication that I really did need to take care of myself and finally get some sleep.  Just the same, I was ecstatic to actually get up and explore this familiar city.

It was just as bustling and thrilling as I remembered. Hearing the British accent made me smile and riding the double-decker bus gave me a feeling of excitement. It was an intoxicating rush of dejavu to see such familiar sites as Piccadilly Circus and Tower Bridge. And past fellow London travelers, I saw the horrible Harrods though I dared not go in having learned my lesson the first time and not wishing to lose my friends or the day.

We had a number of touristy items to get off our checklist: changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, Hyde Park, St. Paul’s Cathedral and many more. However, we had a separate less traditional mission to complete. When my friends went to Munich, they heard from a separate traveler about a London must-visit. It took us a few hours, but we trekked through Soho (basically the Belmont off London) to make our pilgrimage to Chipotle. After months of pasta, pizza, and paninis, a Mexican fix from home was just what we needed.

I have one regret of the spectacular city. It appears the only thing harder to find than Chipotle would have to be Abbey Road. We asked everyone we could find and no one knew how to give us directions. For goodness sakes, why do British people hate the Beatles?! Guess I’ll hit that up when I make my permanent residence in this city.

It made me sad to say goodbye to London. Both times I’d been there I’d had such lovely experiences. But as I bid farewell to one amazing city, I said hello…or rather Bonjour! to a new one.

Paris surpassed all expectations I had had. I wasn’t really sure I’d like it before I went. I’d heard from past travelers that the food was bad and the people were rude. While I experienced certain instances of both of these being true, I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the city that I didn’t expect. Not to an Amsterdam extent obviously, but a great part of the city is on water. During a boat tour , we passed beautiful architecture and amazing historical sites (the one most evident in my mind being Notre Dame). Spending the days roming the streets of the ever fashionable Champs Elysees and spending the evening climbing the Napoleonic Arc de Triomphe, I more than loved everything we did in the city. My two favorite things we experienced were the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. We first saw the Eiffel Tower at night. Seeing the massive structure lit up and against the Parisian night sky was gorgeous. The following day, we were able to ride to the top and see all of the city laid out before us. We added to the experience with lunch at the Eiffel tower and continued to gaze at the magnificent view of the city. I also adored the visit to the Louvre. The amazing art museum demands days worth of attention so it broke my heart that we only had a few mere hours to spend there. When we walked through the massive museum and a cello player serenaded us at the entrance, I felt like I was in a movie. Though every room of the museum has many items that would demand your attention, the big draw is to see the Mona Lisa. It is much smaller than I would’ve imagined, but still a cool sight to see. The city had so much beauty and history to offer and I was amazed by how much I loved it all.

Since there are absolutely no rules of the road in Rome, it was interesting to spend Spring Break in places where people actually abide by crazy ideas like lanes and parking spots. Though London was crazy with driving on the wrong side of the road, the civilized roads of the city now seemed foreign to me. Paris also exhibited normal driving behavior…except when we went to see the Arc de Triomphe. I thought I might die darting through traffic to see this amazing monument. Thankfully I more than made it through to get to the final city; Barcelona.

The unconscious, semi-sedated Bulgarian may as well have come from this new city. I’ve never been in a place where people are so thoroughly insane. Being in this town is like being in a crazy dream where no one makes sense. For this reason (among many others) I couldn’t help but be in love with this place.

Barcelona is one big party city. As you walk down Las Ramblas, the main street of the city which was conveniently located right outside the hostel in which we stayed, you are met by numerous crazy characters. I mean characters in a literal and metaphorical sense. The literal translation would refer to a great number of people who paint their bodies or dress in crazy costumes and stand on podiums. For a couple coins, you can take a picture with a man dressed as a golden statue, a monkey, or even a drag princess. In the midst of these costumed characters was a Spanish break dancing troop. They all jumped to the ground when the police drove by and gave the crowd a hard time for not giving them enough euros; they were fantastic and hilarious. But you can’t take a few steps beyond these people without being bombarded by another type of person. Since Barcelona is a party city like I referred, the going out culture is huge. Because of this, all promoters will do anything they can to draw you into their bar or club. You get assaulted by offers of free shots and drinks without taking 5 steps outside your door.

We certainly saw people who took advantage of these offers. By now, I’ve grown accustomed to the overly friendly European ‘gentleman’. However, in Barcelona, the cat calls are just taken to a whole new level. I preferred a different person who clearly accepted the promoters offer. As we were leaving our hostel on the final night, a man was running down the street, arms posed in front of him like a dinosaur chanting “They won’t get me!” It was probably the most hilarious way in which we could’ve ended Spring Break.

But of course we came to Barcelona to see more than just…crazy people. I couldn’t imagine a better place in which to end Spring Break. Our final day we walked along the beautiful water with the Spanish sun beating down on our faces. I loved seeing the Colombus Monument in the middle of town (bringing a bit of American pride to the setting). The Gothic Church of Santa Maria del Pi was also stunning. Barcelona never ceased to shock me with its breathtaking beauty. Even the food was gorgeous! We started every morning with a stroll through the open market in town. I’ve never seen such vibrant fruit in my life. Everything looked dazzling and tasted fresh. While we’re on the subject of food, I would say I experienced some of the finest cuisine of my life in this city. From paella to tapas to Sangria, I enjoyed every piece of food I placed in my mouth. With all of my 6 sense well satisfied, it broke my heart to leave the craziest place I’d ever been in my life.Thank goodness I have such a wonderful home to come back to. Having had the best Spring Break of my life, I returned to Roma.

Now that the majority of my traveling is done for the semester, I can finally give my home the attention that it deserves. These last few days were spent sightseeing with visits to the Spanish Steps, Jewish Ghetto of Rome, Castel de San Angelo, and the Trevi Fountain. Tossing the coin into the water of the fountain, I didn’t only wish to come back to Rome – I wished to never leave.

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