Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Last Legs (or, the part where we get detained in a Russian prison)

Author's intro: Today is April 13th. Our Eurotrip ended over 4 months ago. I'm quite ashamed of the fact that we never wrapped up the blog, and I will tell anyone who asks that our negligence is due to a long stay in a Russian prison cell. Coincidentally, that's also where I met a pretty Russian felon  - but I won't go into that here. ;)

Without further ado...The last legs of our trip.

I don't know how many people will read this - anyone who used to check our blog regularly will probably have given up by now. It's been a very long time since our last post. Weeks and weeks ago. Our last update was from Hamburg, and now I'm on my flight home. Can you believe that? It's over already. But more about that later; I'm going to pick up where we left off last time. This is going to be a short account of all the places we went; if you want more info and stories, ask me in person. :)

Hamburg! We decided to stop in Germany again simply because we had fun there on our other visits. This meant that Germany was the country we had visited the most - three individual visits! Truthfully, one of the things we liked most about Germany a a whole was the food. As always, we had currywurst as often as we could in Hamburg. The activities weren't spectacular, but we got a day's sightseeing out of the port area, which was huuuuuuge! We watched Gladiator in German at our hostel...David had seen the movie before but I had no idea what was happening. :P

Amsterdam was a beautiful city. I had no idea it had so many canals - it almost felt like we were in Venezia again! Even more surprising was that there was more to it than the infamous red light district and "coffee shops". Don't look at me that way - what have /you/ heard about Amsterdam outside of those categories? (I was also amazed at how bold the coffee shops were. They didn't even bother to disguise the fact that they didn't sell coffee.)

We mostly stuck to walking around the city and admiring the architecture. Ideally, I wanted to rent bikes and ride around, but biking is serious in Amsterdam. They have dedicated bike paths along every street and locals whizz down them. Something told me that breaches of bicycle etiquette would be almost as serious as if you were driving a car. So we walked.

There was a specific type of fast food shop that we thought was very clever. There was a wall of little glass doors with a snack behind it. Hamburger, chicken burger, hot dog, and a few varieties that were alien to us - almost like fried breadsticks filled with meat gravy. Delicious. You just had to insert coins, open a door, and take your snack. It was an awesome concept! Much faster than waiting in line.

Amsterdam also had Oliebollen shops - small temporary stands on the side of the road that sold all sorts of confectionary goodies. My favorite was the applebollen. Very doughy bread, fried, covered in sugar, and filled with apple bits and a sweet syrup. Again...delicious!

David's aunt and uncle welcomed us into their home in Rotterdam. It was a little bit more low key, so we felt safe to go with them on tours of the city. They showed us the city center and the old town (Rotterdam was mostly destroyed during the war, and only the old town survived) and the huge tower that gave us a panoramic view. It seemed to be constantly raining, though, so we got soaked through on a few of our rides! Ah well...that's northern Europe in November for you.

Alexander and Byron, David's cousins, took us to one of their fencing classes. We were intending just to sit and watch them practice, but one of the coaches made it his personal goal for the day to introduce us to the sport. He spent the class drilling us on stances and elementary footwork. Then he gave us padding, masks, and foils [which kind was it?] and told us to go at it. So we spend a quarter hour attempting to stab each other. It was fun, and stress-relieving. :P

We moved on to Belgium, our last unique stop. The main attraction in Brussels was the Atomium, a huge replica of an iron crystal magnified billions of times. It was around 100 metres high. For a fee, you can actually take an elevator all the way to the top and look out one of the "atoms", which were represented by giant steel spheres. The connections between the atoms were lighter steel rods, and they housed the elevators and escalators. So we looked out of the top and then took a series of escalators back through the other atoms to the bottom.

We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to meet up with Meghan '12 and her family while in Brussels. Meghan is a current student at Olin, the college that we'll be attending next year, and she's been studying abroad for the semester. Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to meet another Oliner, we had lunch at a local restaurant that served steak frite, a typical Belgian meal. This was basically just steak with a mountain of fries next to it. :D

All of us went to see the "pissing boy", which was a statue that was very famous if the guidebook was to be trusted. So we were expecting something impressive.

~~ This is where I stopped writing on the plane. I'll continue with whatever I can remember. ~~

But it was just a small mannequin on a pedestal - very anticlimactic. Pics are on my Facebook page!

We tried absinthe in Brussels. Not an experience I would recommend. It tastes like fire and poison.

Hm. After Belgium, we took a series of trains back to Versailles and stayed with Helen for a few more days. This was the point at which we were like "well, we're clean out of Eurail trips and bone dry on money" so to the best of my knowledge we didn't do anything worth noting. But it was great to have French pastries again for a few days.

Because of intense pressure by me, we went back to Madrid as our last stop on the Continent. Again, nothing particularly notable since we had already been there. Did some souvenir shopping for friends and family, and got some more churros. Also, I bought tons of meat-flavored chips to bring back home. XD

On our last night before our flight to England, I had an experience that made me really happy. There was a middle-aged Spanish woman in our dorm at Cat's Hostel, and I struck up a conversation with her. She spoke no English. But we were able to communicate just fine despite that - we probably talked for an hour. She lived in Madrid, but her home was being painted. I don't remember her name, but the fact that I was able to carry an intelligent conversation with a Spaniard in Spanish brightened my day.

Early morning flight to London (they took my Nalgene at the checkpoint, and I later found that they had confiscated David's razor blades and my SOLID SOAP from my checked baggage).

In England, we saw a famous tennis match. I wasn't terribly into it, but if David ever does a wrapup post I'm sure he'll talk a lot about it. (David loves tennis.)

Went down to Eastbourne to stay with David's grandparents for a few days. We went for a long walk across the Downs. I chased sheep. The sheep were scared of me. It was a good time.

While we were there, we celebrated David's grandfather's birthday by going out to lunch. It was fantastic food, but the dessert was the notable part. I ordered the spotted dick just for the novelty - it's an English spongy cake with raisins in it and warm custard poured over the top. When it arrived, it wasn't very good. One of David's relatives poked my spotted dick and said "THAT is the SMALLEST and HARDEST spotted dick I have EVER SEEN." Then he asked the waitress to take it back for the above reasons. I almost exploded trying not to laugh. XD

It snowed an inch or so in Eastbourne, but that was enough to delay all the trains going back to London. The English aren't used to snow :P

We saw a real English football game in London, courtesy of Mr. Maiolo back home - his company had season tickets! We were in the third row, practically right on the field. It was intense.

That about sums it up. We spent another day in the city just wandering around, enjoying Europe while it lasted. Then one morning, I got into a taxi and it ended. Just like that, I was on a plane flying over the Atlantic Ocean towards JFK.


Reunions, etc, etc. I won't go into that here; suffice it to say that it was absolutely wonderful to see my family again. They even brought me root beer! :D

My Eurotrip was over. Looking back, I can safely say that it was the greatest experience of my life. I saw 11 countries with the best companion I could ask for. And I accomplished my main goal for the trip:

No regrets.

That's because when I had the chance to do something, I did it. I explored those catacombs because I knew I'd never have another chance. I stood under the sparks in Barcelona because I'd regret it if I didn't.

If you ever do a trip like this yourself, remember that one rule. When you look back on your memories, you don't want to have that one sour note. Go for it. Seize the day. No looking back. No regrets.

It's been an honor to keep this blog, and I know I'll read it over many years from now and smile. Thanks for reading, and for putting up with our lapses in posting.

But now I'm signing off for good.

The attack of the nerds has only begun!

< Derek Redfern >

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Big update. Budapest, Switzerland, Germany, Czek thingy

So I've been neglecting my blog-related duties, but never fear my adoring fans!  I have returned to give you an unbiast view of the world!

I last checked in a while back in Budapest, so I'll start from there.


So the forrint is an annoying currency, but you can get food for pretty cheap.  Pest is under so much construction that it often gets in the way.  It is, as mentioned be Derek, the more modern and boring of the the paired cities.  Consequently we spent most of our time in Buda.  Derek pretty much covered it.

We climbed a big hill that gave us a great view, then we went to the old castle.  It had a cool gondola to get to the top of the hill on which the castle was constructed.  As it cost money, we walked.

Near the castle was a group of vendors, one of which sold these cool funnel cake things which tasted delicious.  There was also some cool postcard machine a couple was using.  It takes pictures of you and puts you on the postcard you want. We stood behind them and made funny faces, then ran as their pictures appeared in screen.  Has Derek mentioned how much we've matured on this trip?

Nothing else worth mentioning in Budpest.  It is a pretty dull place overall.  Nothing much to see or do.  Next on the list: München!


We arrived in one of our most anticipated countries, Germany!  I love Germany!  They may have a bloody past that gave Germans a bad name, but we have found people here to be very friendly.  This place is so far removed from the Nazi controlled Germany that once threatened the world.

Our Hostel was really nice, until the construction Derek mentioned knocked out wifi.  For those who are not aware, there are basically two things we look at when selecting a hostel: price and free wifi.  We will sacrifice cleanliness, comfort, location, and most everythig else for a cheap hostel with wifi.  If a hostel does not have wifi, it is not even considered.

Thus we were very angry at the people who ran our hostel.  Apparently they didn't realize knocking down the wall that contained all of the hostels Ethernet cables would knock out the wifi.  They also made no attempts to fix it.  The hostel employees soon discovered my annoyance.

Anyways Germany is a really cool place.  Meeting Morgan was amazing!  Who would have thought we'd see him here!  He was one of the few people we had conversed with at length in Versailles, and here we were meeting him again in München!  We weren't even supposed to be in Germany that day, but we happened to bump into him while in the middle of a completely random city!

Anyways we explored with Morgan and had a great time.  The Olympic center was pretty cool too.  There were tons of ducks, which Derek and I competed in chasing away.  Morgan filmed with his camera and got a great clip of me slipping, landing on my ass, and sliding several yards down a steep grassy slope.  My jeans were suddenly in desperate need of a wash.  I had landed in a lot of duck shit.

Derek and I spent some time in the Olympic pool.  We went off the high-dive, which was awesome!  It looks so much higher when you're actually up there, and it was pretty sobering to realize there was another platform twice as high. I taught Derek to dive.  I attribute his quick mastery of the skill to my flawless teaching skills.

At one point Derek dropped our locker key, which meant I had to dive to the bottom of a 25 foot pool to lock for it.

One last thing about Germany; delicious food!  Try currywurst if you ever come here!  They have lots of sausages and beefs that are worth trying.  Ok NEXT!


We were staying on the west coast of Lake Geneva with an old doctor of mine.  Dr. Francois Cachat and his family could not have been more welcoming.  His wife, Elizabeth, treated us to a fantastic tour of the area.

Switzerland is probably the most beautiful place I have ever seen.  Standing at the shore of Lake Geneva, you are greeted with a fantastic view of snow-capped mountains looming above, theirs bases shrouded in fog.  It is truly a view like no other I have ever seen.

One day we boarded a train to a mountain resort with Elizabeth.  There was fairly deep snow in the shaded areas, but not yet enough for skiers.  

Derek and I built snowmen on a mountain in the Alps, sort of.  Derek wanted a really tall snow-insect thing.  He threw together mounds of snow that appeared roughly spherical and stacked them 5 or 6 high.  Both his attempts proved as unstable as they were unrefined, and collapsed.

My approach to snowmen is more practical.  I put together 3 carfully crafted parts then spent a long time rounding off the edges and creating an excellent snowman.  

Derek's job was made harder when an enthusiastic dog appeared and began destroying any sizeable snowballs he created. A process emerged of throwing snowballs to distract the dog, them quickly building before the dog returned from his fruitless search.

At length the dog became distracted by a ski lift.  It was the sort that pulls you along while your ski's were still sliding on the snow.  It was basically a frisbee with a cable running from the center to a cable above.  The dog had a firm grip on the frisbee, and nothing could coerce him to let go.

We explored the beautiful mountaintop and hiked down in the afternoon.  The guy at the base told us it would take an hour to hike down.  We followed the train tracks instead of the road, which cut our treck in half.  It still took almost 2 hours.  The guy at the base needs to go back to 2nd grade and relearn his time-telling skills.

On Halloween we carved pumpkin's with Francois' daughter Isabelle.  We made a choir of singing ghosts and a wolf pack.  They came out really well.  

I also helped Isabelle with Isabelle's math project by using pascal's triangle.  I was really impressed by what she had accomplished on her own.  At 13 years old, she was doing math Amrican schools would be unlikely to introduce a student to for another 2 or 3 years.

Elizabeth took us to a town that can truly be called "Cowtown".  (For those of you don't know, Derek regularly refers to my hometown as cowtown.). I believe it was called Gryuere.  There was a cool factory that produced the self-titled regional cheese.  We visited the castle in the area and saw fields of cows below.  All the cows there were equipped with cowbells, resulting in a veritable chorus as you stand near the fields.

Gryuere also had a cool restaurant where everything was modeled acted bones.  The cieling was formed from vertebrae and rib-bones, the tables stood in bone legs, and the swivel chairs were skeletal as well.

We also took a trip down to the Nestle factory and enjoyed some delicious Swiss chocolate.  

We left Switzerland relaxed, rejuvinated, and with a hint of regret. We had a lot of fun, but it was time to move on.  Switzerland was the most beautiful place I've ever been, and I look forward to returning someday.


Praha, A.K.A. Prague for any anglicized readers, is a pretty laid back place.  I was expecting another Budapest, with not much of interest to see.  I was pleasently surprised.

We did have to deal with a new currency, but a good exchange rate meant we were staying in a decent Hostel for $6 a night.  We began exploring Praha and found it to be a rather enjoyable place.  It feels old, but with an enthusiastic atmosphere.  We climbed a tower on the Charles Bridge, which is like 700 years old.  It gave us a great view of the river.

Derek and I also climbed the hill to the castle area.  I say castle area because saying castle is a bit misleading.  We couldn't find an actual castle, so we figure the series of buildings are collectivley called the castle.  

There is a big fancy gate at the entranc with a funny story behind it.  Apperantly the Spanish architect building it didn't get paid enough, so he got angry.  He wrote the date of the gate's completion in Latin, as was costum, but he mispelled the word "year".  Sounds like a dumb prank right?  Actually it was brilliant.  He dropped one n from anno, the Latin for year, and inscribed ano on the gate.  The king was oblivious to the fact that ano in Spanish means ass, and was pleased with the results.

Anyways there is a cool gothic church in the center of the castle area.  There is also a balcony from which you get a fantastic view of Praha.

We went out in the evening and I had sex on the beach.  Now, I know what you're thinking.  Isn't the Czek Republic a land-locked country?  Why, yes it is.  Sex on the beach actually is a fruity alcoholic drink.  Haha tricked you!  Well some of you hopefully...

Anyways if you want a truly Czek drink (and to puke your guts out) try hot wine.  It is truly repulsive.  They serve a hot, cheap, and fairly rancid wine with little packs of sugar.  Adding the sugar makes it drop from barely tolerable to down right vile.  I barely had a sip of mine before announcing it was delicious and offering it Derek at half-price.  Then I had sex on the beach.  Much better.

The next day we went out for authentic Czek food.  Derek ordered duck and I ordered ribs.  Our meals were about $7 each.  We were quite surprised when Derek's plate arrived with what resembled half of a duck that had been dipped in a deep fat friar.  For the amount of ribs stacked in my plate, I think they must have given me most of the animal.  The food was delicous, and in a quantity that far surpassed what we had expected for $7.

So we didn't stay long in Praha.  We don't have long until our travel days run out, so we're trying hard to use them up quickly.  Next stop, Berlin!


Mountains, an Ancient City, a Wall, and Expenses

Hey all! We're back in Germany right now. To start off, the title refers to the four places we've been in the past week: Switzerland, Prague, Berlin, and Copenhagen, respectively. 

In Switzerland, we stayed near the shore of Lake Geneva, with one of David's old doctors, François, his wife (Elizabeth) and daughter (Isabelle). (I'm only going to use first names as a courtesy to our hosts' privacy.) Although François was on call for much of our stay, we always had a fantastic meal in the evenings and they were all very generous to let us stay with them for a few days!

Elizabeth took us on short trips every day. The first day, we saw the shoreline of Lake Geneva, which was absolutely beautiful. We were staying right near the Alps - you could see the French Alps across the lake and the Swiss Alps behind us. The scenery was great! I'll try to append pics to this post when I have access to a computer. 

Isabelle was kind enough to let us stay in her room, and there was a balcony off of it with a view directly to the mountains. They couldn't have been more than a mile or two away, because they loomed up over us. For those of you who know me, you know I'm obsessed with mountains, so I enjoyed just sitting out there at night and gazing up at the stars. The world is a beautiful place. 

One day, we went up into the mountains by way of a cog railroad. There was snow on the peak - one of the first times I've ever walked around in 6" of snow in October! We made snowmen...mine was more of a crudely constructed, 6-segmented snow insect, though. After I finished, it promptly fell over. :P. There was a dog running around on the peak as well that enjoyed "fetching" snowballs...but the downside was that she would also attack any snowball you were trying to roll. XD it was difficult to get anything done. We did miss the train down and decided to walk instead. We had some awesome views of the Swiss Alps!

We had a good old American barbecue one night, which was fantastic and reminded me of the states! I'm happy that all of David's contacts in Europe that we've stayed with have been excellent cooks, since it feels good to sit down to a home-cooked meal once in a while. 

The evening of 30/10, we carved pumpkins with Isabelle to celebrate Halloween, even though people don't usually recognize it in Switzerland. Again, it made Europe seem a little more like home :)

Of course, no trip to Suisse would be complete without a sampling of local chocolate! We went to a factory in the area and bought a number of bars to try. We had milk (much better than in America), honey (aerated with small bubbles but not great), with nuts (very nutty, obviously), and dessert chocolate (a soft type of chocolate...delicious!) There were a few others but I don't remember their names. 

Switzerland was expensive - 8 franks for half a sandwich! (A frank is roughly a dollar.) So it was a good thing we had someplace to stay. 

We said our goodbyes to our hosts and started towards Prague. It wasn't horribly far from Berlin and I had always wanted to see it. Like Budapest, Prague had not been on our original itinerary. 

As always, our trip had a snafu - apparently, it was some sort of vacation week in Germany and all the seats on one of our trains were booked. Instead of standing, we decided to buy food from the dining car and take a seat there. Surprisingly, a lot of other travelers ended up sitting on the floor. 

We got to Prague in the evening and went straight to our hostel - no problems finding it, luckily. I'll not bore you with the details, since it was an unremarkable hostel. 

I met the love of my life in Prague! It was amazing. Unfortunately, I let her slip through my fingers...let me explain. According to Czech lore, you will meet the love of your life on a certain bridge in Prague. I walked across it, but I didn't know which one she was. Oh well. :(

What I enjoyed most about Prague was the architecture and cuisine. We took a walk around a castle, which was cool and provided a great view of the city. Hot wine seemed to be the Czech version of hot chocolate, so I tried some of that and very much enjoyed it. (Great for cold days.)

One day for lunch I ordered the roast duck. It cost the equivalent of $10 so I wasn't expecting much. But when my plate came out of the kitchen, it had half the freaking bird on it XD. It was accompanied by bread and potato dumplings, and all of it was delicious. 

We didn't spend as much time as I would've liked in Prague, but hopefully I'll be back someday. At this point we have to keep to a schedule since our Eurail passes will run out on the 19th. Basically, wherever we are on 19/11 will be our last stop before we return to England since trains are too expensive without it. 

Up next was Berlin! We had already determined that we love German meats, so we were delighted when we found a Currywurst stand right outside our hostel. 

Short guide to German food

Currywurst: sausage sliced into pieces with curry and powder on top
Pomme-frites: French fries, which seem to be traditionally dipped in mayonnaise
Curry-buletten: same as currywurst but with hamburger
Brezel: Large doughy pretzel
Döner kebap: Called a kebob in many places and found in every single city we've visited, this dish apparently originated in Germany. It's very distinctive! It involves a huge round chunk of meat, often 2 feet high and a foot in diameter, being turned on a spit around a heat source. When someone orders, the cool shaves bits of cooked meat off the outside with a long knife or a special electric razor. The shredded meat is served in a pita with vegetables and a sauce. 

Sightseeing in Berlin pertained mostly to the wars (Cold War and WWII). We saw the Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which was basically a maze of square pillars of varying heights arranged in a grid. I don't know what the symbolism was, but I'm sure it was there. The Topography of Terror detailed the many horrors of the Holocaust, albeit in a rather dry manner. Checkpoint Charlie, an old US Army checkpoint, was interesting but rather touristy. 

But my favorite part of Berlin was seeing the old wall. They preserved a section after it fell in 1989, and it was sobering to think that people were probably trying to cross that wall up until close to the time we were born.

While we're on the subject - it seemed odd that the Germans' point of view of the war (in hindsight) was mostly the same as the American view. Maybe a little more apologetic. But mostly the same. This was odd because I expected there to be some bias to what we were taught in the US...perhaps we didn't see a difference because we were only reading placards for tourists. I don't know if that made any sense or not...but do you see what I mean?

German Parliament is topped by a giant glass egg. Very cool to look into, even more cool to look out of. We climbed the spiral stairs around the egg and got a view of the city. Look on my Facebook profile for pics [eventually]!

We went straight from Berlin to Copenhagen since Hamburg, our next stop, was very expensive that week -possibly because of the aforementioned vacation? The train ride was looking to be uneventful until the train boarded a ferry. Yeah, you read that right. /The train drove onto the train tracks on a ferry./ I was floored. I didn't know that was even possible! Legally we couldn't stay on the train so we went up to the top deck and enjoyed the cold air and refreshing wind. I can't get over how cool it was that OUR TRAIN WAS ON A BOAT! (Cue matching music video by The Lonely Island.)

The section on Copenhagen is going to be comparatively short. I don't want to be overly harsh, but it just wasn't an interesting place. 

Our hostel was very far away. We had to take a metro to the airport, then take a free bus to another terminal, then walk 20 minutes to get there. It was really just someone's house with beds for rent...not very clean or secure, but hey, it was cheap. The only cheap place we could find, actually. Anyplace else would've cost us twice what we paid there. 

To my great displeasure, the obese man on the bunk above mine was inclined to snore. Loudly. All night long. Sleeping was fun that night. 

We went into the city in the morning (after paying $20 for 5 metro trips) and had a look around. I should note that although the metros were expensive, they did have free wifi. We walked around the border of a huge fort surrounded by walls in the shape of a star and a similarly star-shaped moat. It was still an active military base, so we saw soldiers walking around as well. The tops of the walls gave us great views of the port.  

The one famous monument in Copenhagen is a statue of The Little Mermain, in honor of Hans Christian Andersan. Guess what? As a small placard told us, it's in China right now! Doesn't do me any good there, now does it? :(

There are a number of canals in the middle of the city, so we walked around those for a while until we saw a very tall tower connected to a church. It was open to the public [for a fee] so we climbed it! The stairs went right past the tower bells and some gears that probably assisted the ringing of said bells. 

The stairs on the spire switched to the outside, and we slowly wound upwards. The spire itself was gold and was quite a sight from below, but we were more concerned with the view of the city that it provided. (Have you noticed that we like climbing to the high points of every city?) Strangely the stairs never stopped - they just got narrower and narrower until you couldn't squeeze yourself around again. We saw the sunset from the tower, which was beautiful!

That was about it for sightseeing in Copenhagen. The snorer left at 5:45 the following morning and turned the lights on while packing; I walked over and turned them back off while ranting at him. (Since he didn't speak English this was probably ineffective, but I think he got the point.) Despite wanting to have some traditional Danish food, it looked like we would have to drop around 200 dkk ($40) for food at a restaurant. Sigh...Denmark is expensive. 

Hamburg had reduced in price at this point so we booked a couple of nights there. The train didn't actually go on the ferry this time; instead, we had to disembark, board the ferry, then get on another train on the other side. The ferry was still cool though. 

I'll talk about Hamburg in another post since this one is too long already. I've received a comment that my updates focused too much on what I did and not enough about what I felt, and I've been trying to fix that. What do you think? Let me know in a comment!

< Derek >

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It's A Small World

Hey all! Sorry for the gap between updates. We've been through a bunch of countries between then and now!

The last post was from Budapest, Hungary. We spent a night there - it was surprisingly cheap! The exchange rate was about 200 forints = 1 USD - you could get a hot dog for just 175 forints in some places. Our private room was the equivalent of 12 euros each a night (our average hostel is 18€ for a dorm bed). 

When we arrived, we took a little bit too long getting off the train and had to hop off while it was moving. We had no plans for the city so we wandered around for a bit until we found a McDonalds. Now, usually I wouldn't spend money on fast food - but they offered free wifi and we couldn't resist. 

After stumbling around the language barrier, we booked the aforementioned hostel and set off towards it. We checked in and took it easy for the rest of the night because of our restless train ride. Our dinner was bought at a local market which was very hard to find - for some reason, various cities we've visited have appeared not to have any supermarkets. 

The next morning, we left our packs at the train station and went out to explore. Budapest is the result of two individual cities (Buda and Pest) being merged. The two sections are separated by a wide river. Pest, where we were staying, is a very modern region. It has tall grey buildings and city blocks. Buda is the old town - it's historical, with rambling streets and interesting monuments. 

We crossed the bridge into Buda and explored a park on a hill. The foliage was surprisingly beautiful...since we're from New England, I didn't expect to be particularly impressed by any of the fall colors we saw in our travels. 

We walked around for a while, saw the old palace and the Hungarian Parliament, then started walking back to the train station. It was one of the few rainy days of our trip, so we wanted to get inside. 

For dinner, we shared a pizza and had a kebab sandwich each for a total of $10. Ridiculously cheap. Then we hopped onto a sleeper train bound for Munich!

We didn't spend all that much time exploring Budapest because frankly there wasn't that much to see. It's an interesting place and very cheap - worth a night and a day on a Eurotrip like ours. I did think that the price differences were surprising...shows how much better the US economy is than that of some other countries, even in it's weakened state.

We decided to pay €20 for a bed in a sleeper car this time, since we wanted to arrive in Munich - or München, in German - well rested. The compartment was very cramped. Three beds were stacked on top of each other on both sides, with a narrow aisle in between. We had the two top bunks, and we climbed up and went to sleep. 

We weren't going through Croatia this time, so we figured we would be safe from passport checks. What we didn't figure into the equation was the possibility of inconsiderate neighbors. Somewhere around 2 in the morning, a couple came into our compartment with their two toddlers. The toddlers immediately began bawling, which woke us up. Now, even on a good day I'm known for my low tolerance of crying children. So the fact that they were keeping me up only worsened it. 

The children cried every two hours or so. I turned my music on every time this happened so that it blocked out most of it. (This had the additional bonus of alerting the parents to the fact that their kids were constantly waking me up.) I didn't end up giving the parents a piece of my mind, but it was a close thing. 

Someone came around and handed out packaged croissants and orange juice. I guess paying more has its benefits. 

We arrived in Mümchen around 7 in the morning. The hostel was close to the train station, so we walked there and checked in. We took advantage of the free wifi for an hour or so - and then some builders came in and knocked down a wall to start construction on a new elevator. That was the last we saw of the wifi. :|

The breakfast was 4€ extra but all-you-can-eat and very good. Seeing as this was our cheapest hostel yet (for 10 euro a night) I wasn't surprised we had to pay. 

Our room wouldn't be ready until 2 so we set out to explore the city. The metro system was a bit confusing at first - they crammed the many train lines, along with the tram and bus lines, onto one map. We finally figured it out, though. Turns out there are two types of train: the S-Bahn (goes out to the suburbs) and the U-Bahn (stays within the city). Or maybe vice-versa. Idk. But at any given U- or S-Bahn station, as many as 9 or 10 types of train could come through, all leading different places. Luckily they had electronic boards denoting which trains arrive when and go where. 

We went to Marienplatz, the main square of München. The bells were tolling 11 - but it was an odd tuneless melody they were playing. Apparently that bell tower is famous. 

A guy came up to us when we walked into the tourism office and said, "Hey! I didn't expect to find you guys here." I recognized his face immediately but couldn't place it until he introduced himself as Morgan. We had met him on a bus back in Buc (near Versailes) and had chatted for a bit. At that time, we hadn't even gotten his name and had never expected to see him again. Well, we were wrong! Guess it really is a small world.

After laughing a bit about how infinitesimally small the chances of such a coincidental second meeting were, we decided to see some of the sights together. 

Climbing up a nearby tower gave us some cool views of the city. München was leveled during the war, so most of it is fairly new. We walked around for a while and encountered some German primary schoolgirls twice - they were doing a project and needed foreigners or something. The first time they wanted a picture with us, and the second time they wanted us to trade something we had for something they had (like geocaching without the work). I traded a New York pen for a beautifully painted egg.

We got brezels at a nearby shop. Brezels are German baked pretzels that are bready, delicious, and large. Then we took a U-Bahn to the site of the 1980-something Summer Olympic Games. It was cool to see all of the stadiums and such - the pool had actually been converted for use by the public. 

After chasing geese around the lake - which had a car floating in it as an advertisement - we climbed a nearby hill and got another great view of the city. All in all, it was a fantastic day! (Except for the fact that I lost the egg. Morgan had been protecting it in his glasses case and I forgot to get it back. Oh well.)

The next day, we decided to go swimming. Remember that Olympic pool? Yeah, we spent most of the afternoon in it. David taught me how to dive, since strangely, I had never really learned how. And we got to jump off of the high dive! The one we went off was probably 20 feet in the air - and the highest platform was twice that. American pools would never have allowed unsupervised use of the high dive like that, so we enjoyed the freedom. It's a longer way down than it looks!

The next day, our last in München, was somewhat pointless. The city hadn't been worth 3 days, and we ended up wandering around for a bit before returning to the shop we had visited the other day. German meats are very good - they have currywurst and bratwurst and thick slices of some kind of a ham loaf and was delicious! We spent a lot of time in the Apple Store that day just to kill time until our night train. :P

When we went back to the hostel to collect our things, I realized I had left my charging cables in the room when we checked out. After some frantic searching, we decided the cleaning staff probably took them, so I left a request to take a look around with the reception. (It's been a week and I've had no response. Ugh.) David also left his Florence hat. 

The first train seemed uneventful. It left at 23:40 and was only 2 hours long, which meant that if we got a stickler of a conductor he could make us use two travel days. (Don't ask; we've been using an obscure loophole on our Eurails and this didn't quite fit.) Luckily nobody checked at all. But most of the way in, the train stopped for about a half hour. We looked out and saw nothing but snow, which was surprising. Eventually, I found a conductor (the nearest one was 7 cars away) and found out that another train was blocking our way and we were going to be very late. We had a connection to catch, though, and if we didn't make it, we'd be stranded in Austria at 2 in the morning. 

Our train rolled into Salzburg 10 minutes late, and we saw that our train was surprisingly still there. Haste was made and we boarded without a problem. We made the compartment into a bed like we did on the way to Venice (although this time we had to share it with a Chinese guy which was weird) and had a decent sleep. After another connection in Zurich, we made it to Lausanne, Switzerland!

We're in Prague now, and I'll write another post for here and Switzerland soon, since the combined post would be too long.

Thanks for reading - please keep commenting! We love to hear from our readers.

< Derek >

Monday, November 1, 2010

Why Choose a Gap Year? [Derek]

We've been admittedly lax about updating the blog lately. I'm planning to post a combined update tomorrow (as long as David writes his section) but for now, here's a post I wrote for the Olin blog about gap years in general.


This post will tackle the basics of a gap year. Mainly: Why defer?

I never chose to take a year off. It just...grew on me. Let me explain.

I grew up used to a fast pace of life in a small town in Connecticut. In New England, you know exactly what's expected of you: you try your hardest in school, perform well in sports, join extracurriculars, take up leadership positions, and basically do everything required to get you into a good school. I've heard it's the same to varying degrees in other parts of America as well. But New England is notorious for these expectations placed on students. I certainly conformed to many of them, and so taking a year off never even crossed my mind. It's just not something that's done. People either go straight to college, join the Armed Forces, or find a job.

I was accepted to one of the Candidate's Weekends at Olin but got waitlisted after that. The bad news came in: the Class of 2014 couldn't accept any students on the waitlist. At the time, it seemed like the end of the world for me. Sure, I had other options - I could attend Harvey Mudd or WPI - but I wanted to go to Olin more than any other school.

My only remaining option was to defer. It was a terribly hard decision for me, since I could only see the negatives. (I'm not usually this pessimistic.) I'd be the only person from my town taking a year off. I would be a year behind my friends in school, and I wouldn't get to go to college until the following year. I had some idea of what I would do during that year, but what if it fell through? Would I be working 9-5 at a retail store for the whole year? There were too many questions and not enough answers.

Eventually, I decided to take a chance and choose deferral. Sometimes, the hardest - and least popular - option is the best one, as I've been finding out. I already know that I absolutely made the right choice. As I progress into my gap year, I've been seeing more of the positives and much, much less of the negatives.

Here are some benefits of taking a gap year:

- High school drains you with the stressful workload and aforementioned fast pace of life. A break between high school and college can do you wonders.

- Did you know that in England, it's more uncommon for a student to not take a gap year? Parents encourage their kids to take time off and see a bit of the world before they go to "Uni".

- Sure, your friends will be a year ahead of you in school (I've been hearing from mine about their lives at college) but so what? You'll get there eventually. And you'll be having adventures of your own.

- Depending on how you choose to spend your year, you'll likely arrive at college with significantly more real-world experience than your peers. Who else can say they've attended a party deep within the catacombs under Paris? (I have.)

- You'll be able to do things you'd never have a chance to do otherwise. Travel Europe. Hike from Georgia up to Maine on the Appalachian Trail. Learn to speak fluent Hungarian. Everyone has a dream - take a year to follow yours.

- A gap year is a chance to see the world. You can broaden your horizons immensely, which is a particularly useful trait for an engineer. One of the more practical aspects is that you'll be able to see what people have a need for in other parts of the globe.

- It's just plain fun. While this may not be useful in convincing one's parents, I've been having a blast so far.

At some point, prospective students may stumble upon this post. If you're one of them, I have some advice for you:

I recommend a gap year to anyone willing to make that leap of faith, even though the concept is not popular in America. Deferring takes a lot of planning and firm intentions (which will be covered in subsequent posts) but most of all, you have to be willing to go against the grain. The choice is yours - but I assure you that the opportunity is a worthwhile one.
Feel free to comment with any questions!

I'll end this post with a favorite quote of mine. Just something to think about.

< Derek >

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
 ~ Robert Frost

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Missing Post

I wrote this one back in Spain and forgot to post it. Oh well.

It's been a few days since I last posted, and we've had a great time since then.

Granada was less than it could've been but still fun. Tickets to La Alhambra apparently sell out way in advance, so we couldn't get into the Moorish palaces. It was a good walk up though - it was on top of a large hill, as fortresses usually are - and we were able to see Charles V's palace and the alcazaba, a fortified section of the wall.

The night train we wanted to take to Barcelona was sold out, so we found a place to crash that night and booked tickets for a train in the morning. The hostel, called the Makuto Guesthouse, was a nice place. It had a wonderful inner courtyard and they gave us a free drink and crepe each.

Our train ride was uneventful. Barcelona is all the way up the coast from Granada and it took almost 12 hours to get there. The scenery was fantastic, as we passed through both mountainous areas and plains (where the rain mainly falls in Spain). At one point, we thought we saw a field of pot plants, but we couldn't be sure as neither of us have seen them before.

Barcelona has been excellent. The metro system is easy and efficient, and makes travel less of a pain than it was in other places. Our hostel is a while away from the city center (15 minutes by metro) but it's worth it since we're only 5 minutes from the beach. Plus, we get free breakfast and it's just a generally nice hostel.

Yesterday we went for a swim in the Mediterranean. The waves were huge so we stayed pretty close to shore but it was a good time. One thing worth noting is that we observed, on more than one occasion, that groups of teens would spin around in circles for a few minutes before dashing into the water. We couldn't figure out what they were doing.

Also, we met some Americans at the beach who are studying abroad at a school in Toledo. The same school that we met people from in Madrid. What are the chances of that?! XD

The festival of La Merce is in full swing right now in Barcelona. It's a celebration of their patron saint, I believe. They have concerts and dancing and parades of huge paper mache people called gegants.

Gaudi's work is very evident in Barcelona. We've seen a few of his buildings already and today we hope to see his great unfinished work: la Sagrada Familia.

Next time I post, we'll be in France. Spain is coming to an end. D:

< Derek >

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Leaving Roma - City on the Water - Impromptu Sidetrip

Leaving Roma


We're leaving Italy already. It was never supposed to be a huge section of our trip but still...the time we spent here went by so fast. Let me get you up to speed:

I think our last update was from Roma - the night before we left. The following morning, we woke up early since we had a date with the Colosseum. They opened up the dungeons and third tier to the general public that morning...for the first time in 40 years! We had reservations for a guided tour, so we wanted to make sure we got there on time.

After checking out, we dropped our packs at the train station and headed off to the Colosseum. This was the place where gladiators had fought against each other and animals in ages past! Although the walls have started to crumble, much of the impressive structure still stands.

We bypassed the long line, laughing at the tourists waiting for tickets ^_^ and picked up our reservations. The tour guide arrived shortly and showed us around the second tier. You could see all the way down into the underground levels (now visible because of the decay of the floor) - if you could see around the tourists.

Then the fun began. Our guide led us though a locked gate to another set of stairs, and we climbed up to the third tier. Our small tour group was the only one up there, so we had no problems seeing down. It was truly an awesome view from the top. Behind us, we could see the Roman Forum. The tour guide rambled on, but I didn't listen. (We generally look down on guided tours - the only reason we paid for one was to get access to the top tier and dungeons.)

We descended until we were at the level of the arena, and went through another set of locked doors. The dungeons awaited us! We saw tunnels and vaulted caverns where animals and gladiators used to wait their turn. Admittedly it was nothing like what we expected - we only saw a small portion of the dungeons - but it was well worth it. I'm sure David will go into more detail about the Colosseum and the surrounding area.

We saw the Roman Forum and then headed off to catch a train. One thing worth mentioning: we had to wait for a few hours at the train station since our train was pretty late. The later it got, the more homeless people showed up - and many of them were pretty crazy. We were glad when our train got there because it got very sketchy at the station.

Our train ride was made in comfort and style since we managed to snag a private compartment for 6 and take it over. We soon discovered that if all the seats were slid back, they met in the middle and created a comfortable double bed.

There was a slight snafu in the morning - our train stopped just short of Venezia and started going in the opposite direction after a short delay. We got off at the next stop (an hour later) and caught a train back, but our car had ended up in some random town called Latisana. We spoke with someone else later who had been on the same train and he had reached Venezia just fine. The only explanation I can come up with is that our car got switched onto another train - which is very odd. But we did get there eventually.

City on the Water


Venice! The city on the water - the place of canals, vaporettos, gondolas, and masks. I had been especially looking forward to seeing it on our trip, and let me tell you, it did not disappoint. We made the trek across the island to our hotel in about a half hour, then went back out to explore.

Starting off with the obvious: there are no roads in Venezia. Only canals. So instead of cars, there are boats. Personally I liked the absence of noise brought by cars, but the downside was that transportation is expensive. It would've cost us €6.50 to get to our hostel by waterbus. Taxis and gondolas can be even more expensive, often charging up to €100/hour. So we walked everywhere, which wasn't a problem since Venezia isn't a huge place.

The city is just as you would picture it from a movie or whatever. It's very beautiful and, I suppose, romantic if you're there with the right person.

During our first full day in Venezia, we took a trip over to Murano, a neighboring island. The trip only cost us 2 euros each way, luckily. Murano is famous for its glassblowing artists and I wanted to see the works firsthand. Now, normally I'm not an art fan - but when you see a guy effortlessly shaping a small elephant using tongs and a blowtorch, you can't help but be impressed. I enjoyed watching him work.

One thing you have to remember about Venezia is that it's right on the ocean, so the tides cause problems. At high tide, spots in the city tend to flood with up to 3-4 inches of water. We found that out the hard way when our route was blocked by a veritable lake - we had to backtrack around it since neither of us had adequate footwear. (My boots are only somewhat water-resistant.) In St. Mark's Square - a very popular tourist attraction - they set up temporary raised paths every day so that people can still get from A to B.

Our hotel had advertised free wifi, but I ended up paying $5/night for it. I spoke with the manager though and I may get a refund. In fact, the hotel overall was underwhelming - but it was a place to sleep. Oh well.

We had real Italian pizza one more time before we left Venezia. I'll never like American pizza quite as much now. Our last meal in Italy was pasta - it was very good but not as different from American dishes as the pizza.

I'll never forget what Venice looks like at night. The moon reflects off of the Grand Canal and makes the scene look like something out of a movie. The sight escapes description by words - my only advice to you is to go to Venezia and walk the streets by night yourself. The silence envelops you and you can look out across the water for ages.

Eventually we had to leave Venezia - and Italy. We took a night train out after saying farewell to the city on the water. I'll say this, though - Venice is one of the places that I know for sure I'll be back to. Arrivederchi for now, Venezia!

Impromptu Sidetrip


Our train was heading to Budapest, Hungary on part of a side trip we created. Hungary was never on our original itinerary, but we had a few days to kill while we were waiting for a package from home to arrive at our next waypoint. The ride there was certainly an interesting experience, if not a restful one.

We were in a 6-person compartment again, but with assigned seats this time. We were sharing it with two friendly Poles, a Hungarian with two dogs, and a Russian. The Poles spoke a little bit of a lot of languages - mostly English and Polish though. The Russian guy shook his head when asked if he spoke English. The Hungarian dude rambled at us in Hungarian with an English word thrown in every few sentences.

We struck up a conversation with the Poles - the guy with the dogs wanted to join in as well and talked at all of us in Hungarian throughout the train ride. The Russian guy was silent.

We had to pass through Slovenia and Croatia to get to Hungary. Slovenia implements the Schengen Agreement so we had no trouble with customs. However, the dogs started barking if anyone knocked on the compartment door. They barked for an hour straight at one point, which caused the Russian guy to tell us to "Shoot the dogs, please.". (Evidently he did speak English and just wasn't in a friendly mood XD).

One of the Poles saw my class ring and thought I was engaged. I was amused XD but had to admit that it was only a high school ring.

The Hungarian guy also thought I was German - which was one of 5 individual instances on this trip where someone has mistaken me for a German. One time someone even told me that I speak Spanish with a German accent, which completely mystified me.

Anyways, the Poles and the Russian guy got off about 4 hours into the trip. We had 10 hours left to go with the other guy talking amiably in Hungarian XD. We got some sleep, but unfortunately Croatia is not a Schengen country. We were woken up about every hour and a half by armed border guards who wanted to check our passports. There was one time 4 guys lined up outside our compartment, and each of them wanted to see our passports...

We got here safely, though. I think this blog post is fairly long as it is, so I'll tell you about what happened when we got to Budapest in another post!

< Derek >

Roads to Rome, Rails Away!


Following in Derek's lead I shall forthwith endeavor to utilize only the true names for the cities we visit. Anglicizing names has caused us to occassionally not recognize the names of cities on maps. We should all call cities and countries the names they were originally given!!

Visiting the coliseum was great, but would have been WAY BETTER without the annoying tour group. Since we signed up for the two levels of the Coliseum that only opened that day, the dungeons and the third level, we were obligated to travel in the tow of a guide who spoke heavily accented English.

As the guide pointed out, what you see today at the coliseum is basically a skeleton of what it once was. All of it's valuables have long since been looted and much of the marble and limestone used in its construction has been repurposed. In my opinion they should do less maintenance and more restoration. You have to rely on your imagination, but it isn't hard to visualize the seats and cheering spectators cheering the battles bellow as you climb the upper levels.

The tour was very informative but utterly intolerable. She spent to much time talking I tended to zone out and just wander the area until she was done. I couldn't go far since the areas we visited were locked and closed off to everyone else. The dungeons were cool, but not as much as we'd hoped. Apperantly the armories and chambers we had hoped to see were destroyed to make way for the metro. FAIL. We did get to see how the coliseum worked, and how lions and tigers used to be elevated through the wooden floor above to pounce on unsuspecting gladiators.

Overall walking in the footsteps of gladiators is a great experience, but if this was going to be the highlight of your trip I'm afraid you may be disappointed. This may be a good point to mention that I am totally in favor of bringing back the Coliseum.

We lounged out by the Coliseum, and Derek actually fell asleep XD. I tied his shoelaces together. He's been warned not to fall asleep while I'm bored so it's not my fault. It was pleasant to nap in such a cultural spot, and even more amusing to watch all the illegal African and Indian salesman sprinting away as a police car entered the area. These guys are in every country we have been in yet.

After that we checked out the forum. Honestly I can't remember if this was all the same day or not, but the forum was cool. Roma must have been truly enormous back in the early AD's.

At some point we rented segways in an uncrowded area. They were cheap and we managed to turn turtle off on both of them! Tag is fun on speeding segways!

We've gotten into the habit of abusing the free breakfasts. Technically we're only supposed to take on croissant each for the free breakfast, but we took enough to last us through dinner. We're cutting costs any way we can.

Overall I agree with Derek that Roma did not live up to its hype. It was certainly enjoyable and worth visiting, but it was a bit romantacized... and dirty.

Getting to Venizia

So we boarded a night train to Venizia to save time and money. It was free (using Eurail) and we had a compartment of 6 chairs to ourselves. The chairs slid out and met in the center, so we pulled them all out and formed a sort of giant couch. It was actually pretty comfortable to sleep on. We snacks and listened to music and got a good night's sleep.

We woke up at 5 A.M., knowing we would arrive in half an hour. At 5:10 we arrived at a stop called Mestre. We were getting a little anxious since the train was stopped there for half an hour. When we left Mestre it was 5:40, already late for our arrival time. The name of our stop was Santa Lucia, and we kept careful watch for it. At some point we realized that our train was now travelling the opposite direction as earlier. We stayed on the train for three more stops until we had had enough and I managed to communicate with a conductor well enough to understand that we were on the wrong train.

We got off at the next stop with absolutely no idea where we were. We were no longer even certain that the train we had been on had ever been destined for Venizia. It seemed unlikely that we had missed our stop. Sleeper trains can't arrive early right? We eventually discovered we were only a few stops down from Santa Lucia, but that the train we had been on was heading away from Venizia.

After waiting 20 minutes at the station, we boarded a student train that was destined for Santa Lucia. We got there still uncertain what exactly had happened. We had checked online, at the statoin, and on the platform. The train we were originally on was supposed to end in Santa Lucia. But it didn't.

We found our Hostel with too much trouble despite the 45 minute hike. It did not live up to it's reputation from the start, since the advertised "free wifi" was actually very expensive. The room was alright I guess... It was mainly the wifi that pissed me off. On top of that I was sick. Being sick while travelling sucks, let me tell you. But I wasn't about to put Venizia on hold for that.

We met someone at the Hostel who had been on the same train as us from Roma. He says he arrived at Santa Lucia at 5:26, right on time. He was one the same train as us, there is no doubt of that, but we were still at Mestre (which turned out to be the stop just before Santa Lucia) at 5:26. So how is this possible?

There is one possible explanation. We were seated towards the back of the train, while he was seated in a car closer to the front. Derek and I believe our car was disconnected from the rest during our extended stay at Mestre, at which point it was reattached to a different train and led in a different direction! I don't understand why they would do this without imforming anybody, but it totally screwed us over.


Anyway Venizia is beautiful. There are no cars at all, only pedestrian paths and boats. The place is warm and inviting, and not too hard to navigate. During our time in Venizia we spent hours wandering paths around the canals. At one point we found a very large statue of a naked boy holding a frog. There was a security guard packing heat watching over it. He looked intense. Great dinner conversation though right? "So what do you do for a living?" "I stand guard over a giant naked child."

There were lots of the typical Venizian canal boats, and men paddling them along with their striped shirts and red saché on their hats. We took a small trip to Murano, an Island nearby that is world famous for its glass blowing. We watched a man making a tiny glass elephant. It was truly incredible to watch molten glass take form.

There is nothing worth seeing on Murano besides the multitude of shops selling glass sculptures of all descriptions, sizes, and prices. Unforunately they are very strict about their "No Picture" policy. It was definately worth the trip though. We had small backpacks on, so the "you break it you pay" signs everywhere caused us to be very careful.

All the churches look pretty much the same here. I counted at least 7 with the identical dome and spire on top. Why are there so many churches? There are way too many churches.

At high tide lots of the footpaths are underwater. The locals wear boots, but the tourists often have to find alternate routes. There was some big famous church we went to. I don't bother to find the names of all the churches since its all voodoo magic to me, but it was very beautiful. The entire square was underwater. There were wooden walkways erected for the tourists queueing to get into the church. There were also restuarants in the square whose tables were sitting in 3 inches of water. That can't be good for sales...

We spent 2 nights in Venizia, which is more than enough. It's a pretty small island and we had seen pretty much anything anyway. We were planning on heading to Switzerland, but in a last minute change of plans we decided to take a night train to Budapest (pronounced Budapesht by the locals). We needed to kill a few days since Derek's packages wouldn't arrive at our destination in Switzerland until after us at our current rate. We also had extra travel days we wanted to use so... well here we are in Hungary!

Getting to Hungary

This night train was a little more... eventful than the last. We once again had a compartment of six seats, but this time it was full. Seated with us were a Caronlyna and Bartek (I think that was his name, I couldn't pronounce it) from Poland, a Russian guy with massive fists who at first claimed to not speak English, and a man from Hungary with his two small dogs.

The Hungarian guy was extremely talkative, despite the fact that nobody but the Polish pair spoke any Hungarian, and even they only knew a few dozen words. I'm pretty sure the Hungraian guy was homeless, but either way he was very friendly. He also seemed to travel alot, since he kept his passport in a small travellers bag around his neck and enthusiastically flipped through my travel book, describing which places were nice and which were not. He would make disgusted sound and face, like he'd just tasted something foul if he didn't like a place, repeating the name of wherever it was. It was quite amusing.

At some point one of his dogs started barking and wouldn't stop. At this point the Russian revealed that he could indeed speak English, directing a few choice words at the dog in question. It was late and noboby wanted to deal with a barking dog.

On the bright side the Russian now dropped his charade of not being able to speak English and joined the conversation. He was actually quite funny. I think his name was something like Raspun... whatever it was it sounded very much like Russian. We had tried earlier to pronounce some of the Russian words in the key phrases section of my travel book, but even pronounciation guides could not help us with those words.

Raspun and the Polish pair got off at Vienna, leaving us with the Hungarian and his two dogs (one of which appeared to be menstrating on the floor. We managed to get some sleep, but it turns out Croatia isn't as easy to pass through as other parts of Europe. Every 2 hours we were woken up to have our passports checked. At one point a line of 5 or 6 guys walked past the room, each one checking our passports within a few seconds of the last. We must have had our identities check a dozen times by the end of the night.

The Hungarian got off a few hours before us, so we had the compartment to ourselves for a short time. When we got to Budapest we gathered our bags and prepared to disembark. We discovered they don't give you much time to do this, so by the time I got to the door I actually had to hop off of a moving train.

We weren't originally planning to stay the night; there was a night train to Munich were going to take. We decided to see if there were rooms anyway. Unfortunately everything appears to closed in Hungary on Saturdays: the banks, ATM's, internet Cafés, all closed. We walked out with not real idea what we were going to do. I spotted a Mcdonald's and voted for a break there while we determined our next move. It was lunchtime anyway, so we settled for a taste of America.

Thankfully Mcdonald's had wifi and we were able to find accomodation at a very cheap Hostel. For 12 euros each we have a private room with a very comfy bed and a TV (though all channels are Hungarian of course). The Hostel also has cooking facilities and nice bathrooms, free wifi, and a computer. The directions are a bit stupid, since at the entrance it says the hostel is on the first floor when it is actually on the third, but it is the best value for price we've had yet.

So here we are. It is our first night in Budapest. Tomorrow we explore! For now I sleep.

Bye everybody!

David out

Monday, October 18, 2010

All Roads Lead to Rome

So we're in Italy at last! It's the home of pizza, pasta, and loud angry people. :P

Firenze was our first stop in Italy. (That's the actual name of the city - we've just anglicized the name into Florence. I'm going to try to call cities by their proper names from now on.

We stayed in a decent hostel near the river that runs through the center of town. It turns out that there's not a ton to see in Firenze unless you're an art lover, but we made do.

We decide to take a side trip to Pisa our first day. The train trip was only a few Euros, but we had an expensive day anyways. The main attraction of Pisa was, of course, the famous Leaning Tower. There wasn't much else interesting about the town; in fact, the tower itself would be pretty unremarkable if not for the fact that it /looks like it's about to fall over/.

We took the obligatory touristy pictures of us holding the tower up, then bought tickets to climb up to the top. They cost 15€ each. What a tipoff! But we had to do it just to say we did.

Climbing the tower was an experience in itself. You couldn't see outside while climbing, so the only way to tell how slanted you were was how hard climbing felt. On two sides of the tower, the stairs were normal. On one side, it felt more like walking across flat ground. On the last side, my legs burned as if on a steep slope. But the stairs looked the same to us on every side. Very bizarre. (Yes, I know the tower is cylindrical and therefore has no sides; I'm simply referring to each of four quadrants as sides for ease of language.)

You could get out and walk around on the 4th, 6th, and 7th levels of the tower. The 6th was the one with the bells, and the 7th was the top floor. Awesome view across Pisa, by the way.

We had real Italian pizza that afternoon. After looking at some of the weird choices on the menu (one of them being raw ham), we decided to just get a regular ham pizza. It was fantastic. The tomato sauce we use at home is way too sweet, in retrospect.

I had a frazzling encounter with a loud, angry Italian that night. He shouted at me in Italian for moving his laundry out of the dryer.

We had only booked two nights for Firenze and so we had to check out the following morning. But we left our packs at the hostel and explored Firenze for most of that day. The two biggest sights in Firenze are the Statue of David (which we skipped, since we refuse to pay to see art for the most part) and the Duomo, a huge cathedral.

This next part will take a bit of explaining. I had a need to see the Duomo because of a specific dome on top of it. My summer reading book for Freshman year history was called Brunelleschi's Dome, and it was horrid. It was 200 pages explaining in a very dry manner the challenges that this guy Filippo Brunelleschi faced in constructing this dome. Great, the dude transported his materials by river, I had thought. When will I ever need to know that?

Long story short, it was almost painful for me to finish reading the book. Everyone I knew agreed it was the worst book they had ever read. And so when I remembered that Brunelleschi's Dome was in a city I was visiting on my Eurotrip, I decided I had to see what the big fuss was about this dome.

We did see the Cupola di Brunelleschi. Although not mind-blowing, it was a truly impressive work of architecture, and having read the book, I could appreciate the difficulties involved in building it. I guess sometimes, things pay off in unexpected ways!

I went inside the Duomo itself. David stayed behind since he was wearing shorts. It was a very impressive building, and the fresco on the underside of the dome was beautiful. I lit a lumini for my family back home in the middle of the cathedral.

That was it for Firenze, really. We explored a bit more and had some delicious fresh waffles with gelato on top, but after that we headed off to the train station.

They say all roads lead to Rome. Ours did, at least! After a frazzling encounter with a loud, angry Italian (deja vu), we hopped on a metro and headed out to our hostel. It was the cheapest we could find, and more importantly the only one that had space, so it was far from the center. This meant that we had a particularly stressful time finding the place, even for our standards. But we found it and settled in to a reasonably sketchy hostel.

Breakfast was minimal - cereal and prepackaged croissants. We only paid 12€ each per night though so I'm surprised we got free breakfast at all. This is undoubtably the cheapest hostel we've stayed in.
We went into Rome in the morning to see some of the sights. Or to do as the Romans do. Whatever. We spent a good half hour looking for a nonexistent cyber cafe before we gave up and saw the Trevi Fountain instead - which was very impressive, by the way. After that, we decided to try to do something we had both wanted to for the whole trip: rent segways.

Segways are those cool auto-balancing two-wheeled contraptions you see tour groups on. We didn't want to take a tour, though - both of us have developed somewhat of a dislike for tour groups since they clog up the attractions and give tourists a bad name.

We finally found a cheap place in Roma that would rent us segways and took off. Narrowly dodging passersby, we made our way to the Parthenon. Riding a Segway was very odd. You control it by leaning - leaning to one side makes it spin in a circle, or turn if you're moving. Leaning forward makes you accelerate. And leaning backward brakes. The weird part is that the Segway is computer-balanced. So when you lean forwards, it accelerates, but also tilts your feet backwards to compensate. It feels like you're going to fall off when in reality you're perfectly balanced.

My Segway was even better when I discovered that there was a button on the control that looked like a turtle. It was active, so I pressed it to see what would happen if I deactivated "turtle mode". My Segway's top speed immediately went from 14. XD it was awesome. David's Segway refused to deactivate turtle so I rode in circles around him.

We saw the Spanish Steps later that day. Unfortunately, we don't know exactly what they look like, since there were multiple flights of steps in the general area. But we know we saw them at one point or another.

Dinner was from an extremely cheap grocery store we found. We got a big dinner and some things for the next day for around €7.20.

There was a surprise waiting for us back at our hostel - we found that someone had stolen our rechargeable batteries and the charger. It's a huge inconvenience for us because of the SPOT, but they weren't worth very much.

Today we intended to go into Rome and see the Vatican. I'm not Catholic and David's an atheist, so neither of us was interested in the religious significance of the city. We just wanted to see the famous sites, like the Sistine Chapel. After learning that we would have to wait in a two-hour line and pay 20€ to get in, though, we decided to just see the outside of the Basilica and move on.

We saw a castle today as well, but didn't do all that much else interesting. Our tickets for the Colosseum are reserved for tomorrow though - we'll be some of the first people to see the dungeons in decades. Tomorrow is the opening day. We'll also be heading out on a train to Venezia in the evening.

Overall, Rome hasn't lived up to expectations. The transport system is not too great and it's a fairly dirty city. I'm certainly looking forward to the Colosseum tomorrow though :D

< Derek >

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Florence, Rome, and the Misadventures inbetween


We found our hostel in Florence without too much trouble; Derek managed to find it despite my constant pestering. Our hostel was decent. We had wifi (though with another annoying log in system) and no bed bugs, unlike in Nice. Yes people bed bugs are real, and we have dozens of bite marks to prove it. Our room in Florence had twenty-two beds in it, giving it the feel of a military bunker.

Our first day in Florence actually consisted of a day-trip out of Florence. We travelled to Pisa to find the legendary leaning tower. Unfortunately the train station is on the complete opposite side of Pisa as the tower, so it took us a while to get there. We were accompanied by our Vietnamese roommate, Bing. Bing likes taking pictures. The tower is next to a few other historic buildings I didn't bother to get the names of.

The Leaning Towemof Pisa really does look like it's about to fall over. The top edge is 5 meters offcenter, which is pretty significant for a 56 meter tall building. It cost 15 euro to go up, which was a bit pricey but well worth it. Climbing up a slanted building is truly an interesting experience. You follow a staircase around the tower that varies from being angled slightly uphill to slightly downhill. The view from the top is excellent, revealing then enitirety of Pisa. Bing had made it very clear he would not be climbing the tower (I suspect a fear of hieghts) so Derek and I tried unseccesfully to get his attention fron the top, though I believe we succesfully pissed off the security guards who were working up there.

For the first time in my life I paid to use the bathroom. 30 cents down the drain... Well at least they were clean...

In Pisa we also had some fantastic and cheap pizza, though to be honest I prefer Bertucci's. In Italy we have yet traverse a block without seeing at least one pizzeria.

The next day we explored Florence a bit. We saw Brunellecshi's Dome, which really stood out when we found it. Derek went in to take pictures, but as I was wearing shorts I was apperantly indecent and not allowed in. We explored Florence a bit longer and took a train out later that day.

Getting to Rome

Despite being an hour early for the train, we somehow only managed to board within 10 seconds of the doors closing. We seemed to be taking an extra long time at one stop, which I suspect had something to do with the strong smell of smoke we detected at this time. The train ended up arriving over an hour late. When it arrived, the few other passangers in sight took off quickly. Derek and I grabbed our bags and tried to leave the train. The doors wouln't open.

We tried multiple doors and pushed every button. They wouldn't open. There didn't seem to be anybody else on the train. For all we knew we'd be stuck there till morning, as our stop was last on the line. We spotted someone else moving towards the front of the train, and were soon let out by a conductor on the platform. As we headed out I noticed somebody sleeping in one of the trains compartments. I knocked on the glass to wake him up as Derek and I got off the train. I said "termini" to the drowsy guy, trying to communicate that this was the last stop. He grumbled and went back to sleep.

As we got off the conductor spotted the sleeping guy and went inside the train to get him out. Derek and I were assembling our bags on the platform when the guy I'd woken up starts asking if I was the one who woke him up. He was speaking itilian so I only got the gist of what he said.

When he understood that it was me that woke him up, he started freaking out and yelling. He was going on and on, saying something like I can take care of myself and he'll take care of himself blah blah blah. All I did was wake him up so he didn't get stuck on the train. I guess he was a bum who wanted to be stuck on the train, but me waking him up hardly had an affect on the conductor finding him and kicking him out.

Since Derek and I were the only people on the platform besides the clearly unstable bum, I decided to be nonconfrontational. I did the smile and nod thing, ready to smash his nose with the heel of my hand if he came to close. After a while he stomped off. Derek and I shouldered our packs.

Thus began the most annoying hostel search ever concieved. We had directions to the hostel courtesy of the costumer service email we'd recieved. We boarded the correct metro then the correct bus. That's when the trouble began.

The directions told us to get off at a stop called Basilino or something. We discovered there were 7 stops called Basilino. The directions said to look out for a restaurant called Le Papere. We did not see it, but since I hadn't realized there were 7 Basilino stops we got off at stop number 2. We realized it was the wrong one, and since we hadn't seen the restaurant we got back on the next bus that passed and searched diligently for the landmark. (we found the restaurant in question the next day, and it is nearly impossible to identify it before you have passed it, and even then it is only possible only if you are looking backwards.)

When we reached the last Basilino stop the driver called us to the front. It was the last stop and we were the only ones left on the bus. He asked where we were trying to go. I told him and he laughed. He knew where it was alright. When I asked he pointed the way we had come. His was the last bust for the night. We got out and walked two miles all the way back to the very first stop.

Well in the end we found the place. It was dirt cheap for a reason. It's not very nice. Cheap beds, flat out scary neighborhood, way out of the way. Oh well. It's good enough for us, but I wouldn't reccomend it to others.


I like Rome. Today we saw this truly enormous fountain, which was pretty cool. We wandered around Rome until we found what we had been searching for: Segway rentals!!

Segway are awesome!!!!! Leaning forward and back to move is confusing at first but we quickly got the hang of it. The segways plowed along at a decent 8 miles an hour, when you could avoid the crowds that is. Derek was able to disable "turtle mode" on his and his max speed doubled. "turtle mode" would not turn off on mine :(

Despite getting completely lost we found ourselves at the Pantheon. We locked the segways and had a quick look around. It was pretty cool to look around inside and imagine the real history that happened there.

We hghtailed it back to return the segways so we didn't get charged for another half hour, then made our way to plaza de spagna. We saw the Spanish Steppes I think... Honestly I'm not sure if those were them or not but the area was cool anyway.

The steps or whatever it was tha we saw led up to an area that towered over the city. You could literally step from the steps onto the rooftops of the buildings below. I guess that's why they like to film action movies in Italy; you can't get those rooftop chases back home.

The ancient Egyptians were well known for building giant stone obelisks covered in hieroglyphs. It seems the Italians have become famous for stealing them. In the few hours we spent wondering around Rome, Derek and I saw 5 of them.

I have a brief warning for those planning to use the metro in Rome. Our roommate put it this way; it's nice to see that when the government can't afford to paint their trains, the community steps in to do it for them. If that sarcasm was too subtle for you, it means the trains were completely and utterly covered in graffiti. Also there only two lines; A and B. Sounds simple right? Well it is. Too simple. It means that stations are very far apart, and that every train is crammed to bursting. Not a metro I enjoyed.

When we got back to our Hostel we discovered the battery charger we left during the day was missing. It seems to have been stolen, which is extremely annoying and odd. The adapter was left behind, which would make the charger useless here anyway. It's just annoying that we'll need to buy a new one. Well it's the only thing that has been taken so far, so it could be worse.

We found out that the dungeons of the coliseum are opening for the first time in over forty years the day after tomorrow! We're going to try to get tickets!!

Ok I've got to go!
David out!