a day and a half in venice

Venice! What a charming city and relaxing haven from more fast-paced destinations in Italy. There’s enough culture and history in Venice to spend an afternoon in search of the historic sights, namely bridges and basilicas, and taking the vaporetta or water bus to the neighboring islands of Murano and Burano feels like a mini-adventure itself. Here are my best tips for exploring Venice in a day and a half.

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how to do Florence in 36 hours

Having just returned from a whirlwind tour of Italy that included stops in Milan, Venice, Florence, and Rome, I wanted to record for you all my best travel tips for maximizing the amount of culture, sightseeing, food, and fun in some of Italy’s most iconic cities.

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exploring Iceland in two feet of snow

So, this post is just a tad delayed, but as I’m trying to get back into blogging, I figured my thoughts on Iceland were still worth sharing. Another reason I write these posts is so that I can better remember my own travel experiences, and so that I can easily look back on them – I would highly recommend doing this!

One of the many highlights of Iceland, and what propelled me to venture out there in the first place, was the Northern lights. My cousin and I first saw them faintly streaking across the sky from the Blue Lagoon one night. They weren’t as paramount as they were on our bus tour, but on a clear enough night it is definitely possible to get a glimpse of them from the Lagoon. The next evening we took a tour bus outside of Reykjavik into the middle of nowhere in hopes of getting an even better sighting of them.
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the ugly part of travel

One ugly part of travel which we all hope to avoid, but which inevitably will happen to everyone at some time or another, is all the crime that comes along with big cities.  More precisely, the scams that are geared towards tourists, who might be jet-lagged, tired, lost or to some degree out of their elements.  When I visited Budapest this in March, my mom was kind enough to research for me the “traveler’s tips” on Budapest, provided by the U.S. Embassy.  Of the plethora of scams and tourist traps of which the embassy cautions tourists against, one “classic” example on the list seemed particularly awful to me.  In this sketch, a seemingly friendly local woman approaches tourists on the street to offer a restaurant recommendation. It appears nice enough, but the woman then receives commission by the restaurant for recruiting visitors who are offered a special menu, with marked up prices.  Since the currency may not be understood by visitors who have just arrived, the unsuspecting tourists get ripped off.

It’s not just in Eastern Europe where these hoaxes occur. Even in big cities in France, England and the U.S., they still exist, presumably in higher volume in popular areas for out-of-towners.  Some of these situations should be obvious red flags anyone with an inkling of common sense to purposefully walk in the opposite direction. For example, the gypsies stationed along Champs-Elysées with their petitions, scanning the crowds for backpacks, cameras, or puzzled-faces staring at maps.  Once a marker of the tourist is spotted they go in… Do you speak English? (Always answer no) Russian? German? Spanish? I’m not sure who actually stops to talk to these people or pays money to sign their faux petitions.  

Another classic example is the Artists from Ghana. This sketch consists in men forming a barricade at the bottom of the Sacre Cœur in Montmarte (I’ve heard variations of this scam also occurs in other places). They wait for tourists to approach or descend from the hill, catch them off-guard and tie a bracelet around the wrist, as an accomplice goes in for the purse or bag of the distracted victim. It’s evident to anyone that these men aren’t any type of artist they claim to be (other than con). Additionally, it’s clear from first glance that you don’t want the cheap string they braid around one’s wrist that looks like a six-year-old’s art project.

So, is it all a scam? Should we assume that any stranger we encounter wants to misguide us or steal something from us?  A few months ago I was standing in line for the Louvre with my friend.  A woman approached the queue to give away her tickets because the rest of her party couldn’t make it to the museum.  She was talking to a group of young women behind us explaining the situation, but they wouldn’t take the free tickets.  Apparently, they thought it was some kind of a catch or they didn’t trust the woman giving them away.

“I don’t know why they wouldn’t take the tickets! They were free!” the woman sighed in frustration after my friend and I had taken two of them, “I was just going to throw them away if no one took them.”

On my last trip in France, to the south, I was walking alone in Marseilles one evening at sunset.  Near the Vieux Port, the Ferris Wheel is all lit up, glistening in front of a harbor full of ships against the pink and orange glowing sky.  Tourists and locals congregate in front of the harbor, taking in the beautiful scenery.

“You’re shirt, it goes well with this ambiance,” says a voice, referring to the teal sweatshirt I am wearing.  I glance over my shoulder and discover that the voice belongs to a man sporting a straw hat and carrying a paper shopping bag, “You don’t think so?” he says, when I don’t respond right away.

“Oh yes, It’s gorgeous outside,” I say, “The sky and the port make for a lovely atmosphere” He agrees with me and keeps going on about l’ambiance magnifique.  As I keep walking to one side of port, skimming the menus outside of restaurants, another stranger approaches me.

“Vous cherchez un restaurant?” He says, quickly adding, “Parlez-vous français?”

“Oui,” I say in response to both questions, hesitatingly. I guess It’s not revealing too much to admit that I want to find a restaurant.

“Go to the other side of the port, to Chez Paul,” he says, “That’s the restaurant where I work. You can get a bowl of the bouillabaisse soup for fifteen euros. C’est moins cher.”

“Restaurant Chez Paul,” I repeat.

“Here, I’ll write it for you,” he says, as he scrawls the name of the restaurant and the dish down on a page in my notebook.

****

The reason the tourist trap of the lady guiding tourists to a restaurant with a “special” menu seems so awful to me is that these things make us doubt peoples’ good intentions.  After witnessing and hearing about enough of these scams, one begins to think that there is always an ulterior motive from the person who appears to want to help.  And it’s a shame, because we want to believe that the good people are still out there.  On the other hand, when we do encounter some honest, helpful folk when we’re in culture shock, far away from home, it’s a meaningful reminder of how important these qualities are. 

 

international girls

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Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not. 

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

Camille was one of those international girls.  She acted as if anywhere she could carry her backpack to may as well have been her home, and convincing she was, others believed so as well.  She was not a tourist, but a traveler.  

The international girl always packs light.  She doesn’t like to depend on anyone to hoist a clunky suitcase up a flight of stairs, although making foreign friends is always encouraged.  Another reason for this is that she does not enjoy being weighed down by too much baggage.  Perhaps the most important quality of the international girl is her exorbitant curiosity and endless capacity for friendly conversation with a stranger.

“I need to find a pair of shoes to give my friend for her birthday,” says Camille, “But I’ve only met her once. I’m not sure what her style is.”

Hunting around the sale section, she settled on a brown leather ankle boot, on sale for forty percent off.  Classic and plain enough that nearly anyone would look good in them. 

“I really like Camille,” said Lillie, “She always asks about you.  Always includes you in the conversation.  You never feel left out around her.” Lillie had said after she first met Camille.  

Collecting friends everywhere she went, Camille was nonjudgmental in her ways, conversing with anyone with whom she crossed paths.  The reason Camille was so like-able was due to the fact that she was the rare person who listened to what people had to say.  She had the charming effect of making you feel that whatever you were going on about was the most captivating thing she had heard all year. One would never catch her staring over your shoulder while she was with you; she was always firmly rooted in the present, as if nothing could be more significant.

“Do you speak any other languages?” says Patricia.

“Well, French and English, of course. I speak fluent Spanish. My family is Spanish, and a little bit of Italian too.” says Camille. 

Patricia, a German teacher, was a bit unconventional, both in her appearance and in her personality. She had reddish, frizzy hair and wore artsy clothes reminiscent of hippies. Camille referred to her style as eclectic.

Another one of Camille’s delightful habits was how she would offhandedly throw compliments to you. These would go something like: “Wow, you speak really good English, how did you learn?,”  or “Your jewelry is absolutely adorable, where did you get it?.”  She was gifted in weaving these intimate tokens so seamlessly into speech and one barely had a chance to say “thank you” to her.  This manner of speaking always made her look sincere, as if her behavior was effortless and she was a naturally amiable person with plenty of pleasant prose to throw around.

Camille never acted desperate though, like she was in dire need of friends.  This was part of her charm too.  She did not care what people thought of her. Unlike many people who appeared to or pretended to possess this trait, it was not an act for her.  She really didn’t care.  One night, they had met some young men at a pub. The next day at breakfast, one could picture any given group of girls analyzing and dissecting the pauses between each word exchanged, but the conversation between Camille and her comrades went like this:

“Did you hear from that guy?” says Patricia

“No, actually.  He didn’t ask for my number,” says Camille. Nonchalant.

“Maybe you could try to find him on the internet,” says Patricia.  This immediately seemed like a horrible, stalker-ish suggestion.

“Nah. He can find me if he wants.”  In fact, Camille abhorred the modern ways of stalking people on the internet and abstained from such practices.

There were other international girls like Camille, girls who lived abroad and worked in hostels, or studied on the “erasmus” exchange programs.  Some were not genuinely adventurous and clinging to the back of a leather-clad European guy on his motorcycle was a representative example of her cultural experience.  It was easy to confuse courageous individuals with the small-minded and fearful who still somehow managed outside of their elements.  The latter usually survived in foreign settings by grasping onto the hood of the person with the most blatant display of confidence.  Perhaps it wasn’t easy to tell a real international girl from a phony one at first or second or even third glance. 

The original, authentic international girl, like Camille, wasn’t afraid to go places alone.  This, in fact, was normal.  To her, it was requisite to talk to the locals about their politics or their culture. She spoke French to locals who waited on her at coffee shops and restaurants, wandered through the maze of Parisian boulevards in drizzle or smog, always somehow finding her way back to where she had begun. However independent Camille and these wanderers of the world were, they did sometimes travel in packs, like an unofficial sorority which was miraculously devoid of jealousy and drama.  These girls wouldn’t yell at each other for stealing one anothers’ boyfriends or call each other “slut” or “bitch” in that half-endearing, half-serious tone of voice.  They were too busy exploring and their semantics were much more sophisticated.

Camille, being a popular girl in high demand, seemed to always be accompanied by at least one fellow backpacking barbie, who also collected stamps in her passport like it was a rewards card for a coffee shop.  They would talk about what city they planned to visit next, unknown hole-in-the-wall type restaurants they had discovered, favorite museum exhibitions, and interesting acquaintances and lovers encountered.  They never seemed to tire of these good-natured travel anecdotes, as one could never really see everything or visit everywhere.

Julie admired the international girls. She was drawn to them because they sat at the opposite end of the spectrum in relation to the girls to whom she was accustomed.  Such girls could be considered “boring” because they wanted to settle down, play house and entertain, probably sooner rather than later. Rather than viewing the world as something continually learned and discovered, they wanted things to be “figured out.” The international girl did not think very often or in great depth of such prescribed rituals of “settling down”. Possibly she did late at night in that state between sleep and wakefulness, but consciously she eschewed these goals.

Julie had first met Camille in a pub on a group tour of Brussels. Over Belgian hot chocolates, Julie had overheard Camille say that she lived in France and taught. Julie had smiled and made eye contact with her, establishing herself as a fellow friendly traveler, while waiting for a pause to insert into the conversation.

“Oh I’m actually in that program too,” she said shyly, trying to gauge some sort of read on the girl, “Where do you work?”

“I work in Hirson. It’s a very small town in the North West.” Camille said.

“My village is really tiny too. Does it ever get depressing?”

“I teach école maternelle. The kids think I’m Mary Poppins, so it’s difficult to get too lonely,” she laughed.

It was these kinds of encounters which made one believe that the world is small, and when one became friends with such a passing acquaintance, it seemed to shrink even more.

The thing about international girls, and boys was the issue of what happened to all of their contacts collected during their jet-setting and eurrail-ing sprees.  It was unlikely that one would remain good friends with each acquaintance they had encountered. Despite the wide array of destinations frequented by these travelers, perhaps they ended up with few friends and a surplus of acquaintances.

Julie sat on the crowded Paris metro next to Camille and Lillie. They were all clutching shopping bags from the February sales which had been soaked from a freak downpour. As they spoke in French, their thick American accents brightly shown through, attracting looks from fellow commuters. Maybe the looks were just in their heads, as there were far more bizarre scenes unfolding on the metro. Homeless people, tourists who were carrying a month’s worth of luggage, overly affectionate and touchy couples, people who looked and smelled like they should shower; one soon became immune to the weirdness.

The cheery voice of the automated announcer at each stop chirped to “mind the gap” in French, English then in German.  It was easy to forget one was in the capital city of France in such instances.  Rather, they were at the juncture of cultures instead of a society of its own.  The melange of languages hummed and droned together into some incomprehensible tongue.

As Lillie and Julie parted ways with Camille to return to their village, it began raining again.  They stood on sidewalk outside of Gare de Lyon as pellets of rain plunked down on the sidewalk and their heads.

“Here, take my umbrella. We’re catching the train, and you’ll need it now,” said Lillie.

“Are you sure?” said Camille, “I can’t keep it.”

“You can give it back to me soon. I’ll be in Paris again next weekend.”

“Thank you.  That’s so nice.”

Would they stay in touch with any of their contacts, Julie wondered, or would these travel companions become dinner party anecdotes? Tales to be reminisced upon as part of the good ‘ole days but which were no longer relevant to the present. But the delicious moments of the past and friends encountered would always come back to anyone who believed that they would and who made the effort. The world was not as grand as it often seemed.

 

In most towns in France, it’s inevitable that one will stumble upon at least one very old church.  These impressive structures are often found in the center of a village or town, and if you don’t know where you are going, they can also be a useful landmark for finding civilization in a small village.  Despite the fact that they are frigid on the inside due to the stone walls, these constructions are a welcome and comforting reminder of the old; the things we try to preserve as original rather than continuously change.  Their presence demonstrates that there were still certain things that we aren’t constantly trying to update within the era where we are seemingly attached to our laptops and smartphones.

Within the mélange of retailers, restaurants, convenience stores and pharmacies, Julie’s family stumbled upon one of these churches.

“Let’s take a quick peak inside,” said Julie’s mom.  Julie had been into at least ten similar buildings since beginning the trip with her family, but to tourists especially they are alluring masterpieces in their antique beauty.  They meander down the aisle through the church admiring the trademark features of stained glass, pillars and intricate architecture and pause at a rack of postcards next to the door that is advertising photographs of the building before exiting.  Before they realize someone is standing beside them, an old woman approaches Julie’s mom and starts speaking to her in French which is met with a confused look.

“English?” the woman answers her expression of non-comprehension, “Where are you from?”  They have no choice but to answer her so they say they are from the U.S. and are visiting for the holidays.

“Come, come,” she says without regard for anything may be going on to do that afternoon.  Everyone is too confused at what’s happening to protest so they follow her across the street where she pauses and plants herself facing the church.  She’s standing between the four of them and the building and she points to a statue situated at the top right corner beneath the roof. 

“It is Mary,” says the woman, “She is placed at the top right corner to protect the house.”  They all gaze up at the Mary holding her child.  It is an unassuming statue that does not have the imposing quality characterizing the inside of the church with its high ceilings and splendid stained glass.  Unless the statue was pointed out to you it didn’t really catch the eye, but now it seemed to be an important facet of the church.

“Do you see how she is holding the child in front of her?  She never looks at the child.  In any Christian painting or statue she is never facing him; he is always looking forward.”

“I didn’t realize that,” said Julie.

“You didn’t know?  That is because the child is not for her; he is for the world,”  She says  with conviction.  They all take a moment to appreciate this and then the woman speaks again breaking their silence.

“You are from where in the U.S.?”  She asks them, now seeming more curious about the group of tourists she’s been lecturing for the past thirty minutes.  They say they are from the east coast near D.C. and then sensing a lull in her lecture, they take the opportunity to exit, thanking her for the interesting talk.

 

Julie was writing a story later that afternoon to try to relax and calm herself down with the gentle rhythm of words on a page and the soft clacking of the keys on the laptop.  She was trying to write a romance but there was a old rule that said you should write about what you knew and she realized she didn’t know enough about the topic.  It was always possible to go out and conduct research, but that could be difficult and messy and perhaps even impossible for such a topic.

And she didn’t know who she was writing for anymore.  In the past there had always been a reason to write; a goal to accomplish or a reward to gain.  Either to write an essay to earn a grade in a class, to defend one’s research for a thesis later on, or to apply for a job: all of these circumstances were inextricably tied to a goal, but perhaps telling a story for it’s own sake was a more difficult task.

 

Later, when dining at restaurant after placing their orders, they received their plates with a surprise of herring on their salads.

“Oops, didn’t know what hareng was,” said Julie.  Now that it was established that hareng was actually herring in English it seemed like an obvious translation that should have been simple to figure out.

“We’re not going to learn all the words on the menus in one week,” said Julie’s father, “Surprises are fine with me,” he said, heartily digging into the herring salad, “You’re going to have some great writing material from this trip.”  They start recounting their adventures of the day, including the old woman who is a seemingly noteworthy character. 

“I was just skeptical about her intentions,” said Julie’s mother, “I thought she was trying to sell us a tour.”  You couldn’t say she was a crazy lady; she had too many hard facts to be labeled as such, but she wanted to impart some piece of knowledge onto any passerby’s willing to stop and listen.

“Maybe she didn’t have an agenda,” she continued, “She could be a retired college professor who doesn’t have a class or students to lecture to anymore.  I feel sorry for her.” 

But there was a subtle goal: she wanted tourists to leave France with more than a few souvenir postcards and pictures of the Eiffel tower.  This agenda wasn’t tied to money, nor could it be measured in any precise or accurate way, but what one gained from a story was the experience of going to a different time and place.  Amidst the mess of reading maps, struggling with your foreign credit cards and figuring out transportation systems, you can temporarily lose sight of the reason for the journey.  However, once you found it again in an unforeseen encounter, the effort usually seemed worth it.