EuroTrip 2007: Paris, On Se Revoit

And then there’s Paris – the place where every kind of bad thing that had happened to me thus far on this trip happened again x 10. Bowel trouble, creepy men, terrible hostels – I got the lot! But before I get to those, I said last time that I would explain why I had picked a slightly circuitous route on this trip. Although I was determined to go to Europe that summer regardless, one of the reasons I went precisely when I did was because my favourite band at the time, the World/Inferno Friendship Society, was going on a European tour that summer (they are based in New York, and would only circle through Cleveland every other year or so, so I’d only seen them once or twice at that point), and I thought it would be nice if my travels could coincide with some of their tour dates (I was a punk at the time, but since I like music I can sing along to, most punk music was not really my thing, not that I would have admitted it at the time. So, when I found a band that had a crooner for a singer, played polka/klezmer/swing music, and was still considered punk enough to not interfere with my (limited) street cred, I latched on to them (of course, now I’m an unashamed Fanson, but the whole not giving a shit thing comes with age)). Since I had to be in Italy at a certain time because of my mother and aunt butting in joining me on my trip, the only way I could catch World/Inferno in Paris was by circling back around, and then going down to Spain, through the south of France, and back through Italy before heading up to Belgium. So that’s what I did.

After getting off the overnight train with very little sleep, I dumped my bags at a hostel, and set out for a more in-depth tour of Paris than I had managed on my afternoon there a fortnight before. My first stop was the catacombs, which I obviously loved (though I didn’t say much about them in my journal) before heading to a bakery to pick up some pastries and a baguette in advance of meeting Pedro from the train at the Louvre (you can spot his head in the corner of my photo below). We felt what spent like hours there, but never even made it out of the Italian Renaissance galleries before I gave up and headed out in search of nourishment from Paris’s most famous falafel spot, L’as du Fallafel (which I deemed good, but not as good as Maha’s, my favourite falafel joint in Cleveland). In what seems like an incredibly busy day (clearly my feet were getting more accustomed to all the walking), I also saw Sacre Couer and Notre Dame, and got ice cream from Berthillon (fab) before catching the Metro back to my hostel.

This hostel was the grimmest one I’d encountered yet by some way – it appeared to be in the crack district of Paris, with loads of shady looking types hanging around outside, including one guy who tried to sell me hash on my way back. Though I don’t think I’d showered since Salzburg at this point, I was not about to attempt bathing here once I got a look at the shower situation (communal unisex shower room – there were curtains between the showers, but it looked like you would catch a disease just from touching the floor), so decided to save it for the next day, when I had booked a (in retrospect) suspiciously cheap hotel room for a treat. I briefly hung out and did a shot of tequila (only one, after my experience in Munich) with my hostelmates (who seemed a fairly unpleasant bunch) before attempting to sleep in what was undoubtedly a dingy and uncomfortable room, since I was seeing World/Inferno the next night, and needed some rest!

For some reason, I apparently had to check out of the hostel by 9am, which seems unusually early, but in keeping with the rest of the experience, and then stopped at a cafe for an unbelievably expensive cafe au lait and reasonably priced giant palmier that made me feel incredibly ill when I ate it on account of all the butter (I haven’t eaten another palmier to this day because of my subsequent experience, though knowing what coffee does to my stomach (which is why I normally don’t drink it) maybe the cafe au lait is what I should be blaming). After going to see the Eiffel Tower and Champs-Elysees, where I just walked around and didn’t actually go up the tower or anything, it was late enough for me to check into my hotel, so, desperate for a shower, I did just that. When I got into my room, I realised it was not en suite, which I had never encountered in a hotel at that point (though obviously I expected it in a hostel by then), so I hadn’t even thought to check when I booked it, though there was a sink in a corner of my otherwise, shall we say, minimalist room (no TV or other amenities of any kind). Undaunted, I headed off in search of the shower room. Well, I found the WC, but there was only a toilet, no shower. Cue a Mr. Bean-esque routine where I wandered from floor to floor following the sound of running water, only to find it coming from behind the door of someone else’s room every time. Did everyone have a shower but me? Was this all a joke on l’Americain? I didn’t want to ask at reception, because I’d had enough of French people laughing in my face when I attempted to speak French (as had happened at the cafe, and when I tried to ask directions in a shop), so I admitted defeat and just gave myself a sponge bath using the sink in my room before finally heading out to see World/Inferno.

The venue was far enough away that I had to take Le Metro to it, so I’m not quite sure why I hadn’t booked a hotel closer (couldn’t have been any worse than the one I was in), but when the show took a while to get going (as punk shows always do), I quickly realised that the Metro would have stopped running by the time the show was over, and World/Inferno were headlining, so I definitely didn’t want to leave early. The venue was incredibly odd, but in a good way. I suspect it was some kind of anarcho collective, and was creepily circus themed, with some carnival style games outside that children were playing, and some circus tents that I’m pretty sure people actually lived in outside. As I was awkwardly standing outside by myself, waiting for the show to start and freaking out about how I was going to get back to my hotel in the middle of the night (seriously Jessica, just take a damn taxi), I heard two Americans talking among themselves, and it soon became apparent they were World/Inferno’s roadies. In an unusually bold move, I butted into a conversation where they were bitching about how no one in Paris spoke English (yes, I know, but I was annoyed with the mean Parisians too, and I was desperate for a friend), and said, “hey, I do! I’m from Cleveland!” Incredibly, this worked, and we became fast friends. I mentioned to them that I was worried about getting back to my hotel after the show, and they said they were staying with a French girl who had offered them a room in her nearby flat, and I could probably stay there too. Thrilled to have both made friends with World/Inferno roadies (who were named Dan and Ed) and solved my problem of finding somewhere to stay that night, I ended up having a great time at the show waltzing with various Frenchmen, one of whom peed on my feet (yes, really), but later offered me hash, which I guess made up for it? I hadn’t actually drank anything at the show, but after I smoked the hash from Monsieur OuiOui I developed terrible dry mouth, so on the way out, I asked for a glass of water from the bar. The barman strongly recommended I buy a bottle of water instead, but I assumed he just didn’t want to give me free water, so I insisted on the tap water and chugged it down.

Dan and Ed were waiting for me outside, along with the French girl they were staying with, who had fierce crust-punk dreadlocks (much better than mine had been), her British boyfriend, and a Danish guy who was also staying with them. Fortunately, the French girl was super nice and told me she had an air mattress I could sleep on if I didn’t mind crashing in her living room. I did not. So I was merrily skipping along with them (probably not literally, though I was fairly high at that point, so who knows), when I felt something drop into my lower intestine, and was suddenly wracked with the most horrific stomach cramps. I still don’t know if it was the water, the palmier, the coffee, the hash, or all four, but I was in desperate need of a toilet, and I couldn’t exactly run off to one along the way without majorly embarrassing myself, as we were only about a ten minute walk from the flat. So I tried to hide the fact that I was in horrible pain, and cautiously attempted to let out a silent fart to relieve some of the pressure. Big mistake. There’s really no other way to put it – it was not a fart, it was a shart, and I had just crapped my pants on the streets of Paris on my way to spend the night with strangers who I desperately wanted to think I was cool, with no change of clothes or underwear. Since I was wearing jeans with a long tunic over the top, I wasn’t too concerned about seepage, but I was very worried about the smell that was sure to be noticeable once we were off the streets and into this girl’s flat.

Even though I obviously wanted to run straight into the toilet as soon as we got up to this flat (which was massive – this girl was clearly loaded. It later emerged that her wealthy father had paid for it, which was pretty typical of crust punks, who were basically all rich kids slumming it at punk shows), I was so worried about embarrassing myself that I thought it would be far better to plunk myself down on this girl’s sofa and wait until they had rolled up a joint of yet more hash (which I was relieved about, since at least it would hide my smell) and started passing it around before asking to use the toilet (honestly, now I would probably announce to the group exactly what had happened and laugh about it. I do not care anymore. I had an incident a few years back after drinking cider and told everyone I knew because I thought it was funny). Once I finally got in there, I did my best to clean myself up in the sink, but my underwear was a complete write-off, so I was forced to remove it, wrap it up in toilet paper, bury the horrible item deep in my purse, because I didn’t want to put it in the bin in the bathroom only to have it be discovered; and then leave my purse as far away from everyone as possible so that no one would notice the smell. The rest of the night passed fairly uneventfully, save for the Danish guy hitting on me a bit (I was laughing to myself, thinking, “if you only knew, buddy”), but he wasn’t pushy, and quickly came to terms with the fact that he would very definitely be sleeping on the sofa rather than sharing my air mattress. I was so exhausted I managed to fall asleep quickly, but we had been up so late that night it didn’t end up being very much sleep even though I overslept and needed to rush back to the hotel I had never even slept in to check out and grab my stuff before the maids got rid of it. Everyone else was still asleep, including the Danish guy who had slept on the sofa nearby, so I scribbled a quick thank you note to the French girl, including my email address (I never heard from her, though I did see Dan and Ed again on this trip), and tried to get out. Unfortunately, I couldn’t figure out how the locks worked, so I had to wake up the Danish guy just to help me open the door, and then ran off into the morning, looking (and feeling) like hell, to do what was basically a non-sex-related walk of shame with all the Parisian commuters (at least I was able to get rid of my underwear in a bin outside). I got back to the hotel just in time to give myself another sponge bath in the sink (because no shower, remember, even though I desperately, desperately needed one at this point) and change my clothes before checking out.

I was taking a night train to Barcelona that night, for which there were no couchettes available, so I was preparing myself for an even more terrible night than the one on the train to Paris, given my current state, but still had hours to kill before then, so I dumped my bags at the station and very reluctantly headed out into the city again. I was exhausted and felt quite ill, and the day turned out to be incredibly cold and rainy, and unfortunately, I had left my jacket in my bag in the train station locker, so was forced to soldier on in insufficient clothing (don’t ask me why I didn’t just buy a cheap hoodie from H&M or something – I clearly wasn’t thinking straight). I ended up going back to Sacre Couer just because it was warmish inside and nobody cared if I sat on a pew, so I hung out in there for ages until I started falling asleep, and went outside only to be accosted by really aggressive street sellers who attempted to forcibly slap a bracelet on my arm and make me pay for it. I threw the bracelet back at them and ran away, right into a pizza place that was just opposite Sacre Couer, because it was warm and I could sit there for a while (and I hadn’t eaten properly in ages). I ate my pizza, and then basically just put my head down on the table and attempted to crash out, hoping my overly friendly waiter wouldn’t mind, since I was the only customer in the place. Well, he didn’t mind as such, but he started insisting that I should go back to his place to take a nap instead. I thanked him for the offer, but declined. He then waited for me outside the restaurant, grabbed my arm as I tried to leave, and started dragging me with him to a Metro station, insisting that I go sleep at his place, since he wouldn’t even be there during the day. Now, maybe he was just trying to be nice and wasn’t really up to anything (I mean, I did stay with strangers the night before, but it was a very different situation), but alarm bells were going off in my head at the way he was physically dragging me with him and insisting I go despite my increasingly vocal protests. As soon as he dropped my arm to go down the steps into the station, I took off running and didn’t stop until I made it safely into a souvenir shop, where I hid for over an hour, shaking (he yelled after me when I took off, but didn’t actually pursue me). I was completely done with Paris at this point. When I was positive he was gone, I hightailed it back to the train station where my bag was, and attempted to sleep in the waiting room there for the rest of the afternoon, which was severely curtailed by the annoying noise that precedes all announcements in French train stations – it enrages me every time I hear it to this day.

Well, I made it out alive and basically unharmed, but this, my friends, is why I hate Paris, and have never returned. It’s a shame, because I honestly loved it (aside from the rude Parisians) at first, and maybe I’d have a better time if I went back with Marcus, but I don’t know when that day will come. Next up, Barcelona!


EuroTrip 2007: Salzburg and Munich

Despite my stomach troubles on the train, I arrived in Salzburg with my mother feeling much better than I did in Florence, but was immediately disappointed by the place. My assessment was, “not quite as nice as Innsbruck, and everything closes even earlier.” We did manage to stumble on some sort of vegan festival and a bakery where I got myself a pretzel, but we ended up calling it an early night yet again (I don’t even know what I wanted to be out doing other than watching TV in bed, but I kept complaining about it, so it must have been something. I am still a total night owl, in that I stay up half the night, but I don’t actually want to be doing anything other than sitting on my couch). The next day was a Sunday, so if we were expecting anything to be open, we were really out of luck! After determining that all the museums were closed, we decided to book one of the many bus tours on offer just for something to do. Although my mother and I both love The Sound of Music, which was the reason we wanted to visit Salzburg in the first place (you can see me standing in Mirabell Gardens, where some of the “Do Re Mi” scenes were filmed, above), for some reason, we decided not to go on The Sound of Music bus tour, and opted for a salt mine tour instead (my journal doesn’t record why this is, but I suspect my antipathy towards sing-alongs had something to do with it. I love singing, but not in front of other people).

Our bus tour was billed as a salt mine and Eagle’s Nest tour, so naturally we assumed we were going to get to go inside the Eagle’s Nest, the famous Nazi meeting place/mountain retreat (in retrospect, this seems like a really odd combination, but it was definitely prominently billed as part of the tour). So we were quite surprised when it was merely pointed out to us from the top of another mountain as we were driving up one of those winding Alpine roads over the border into Germany. I was already terrified by how narrow the roads were, having never really been in the mountains before, so imagine my reaction when a car slammed into our bus whilst we were taking a turn! Fortunately, no one was hurt, but it did delay proceedings some in addition to (almost literally) scaring the crap out of me. Once we got going again, we were taken to some tourist trap German village that the guide was clearly in cahoots with, because he very strongly encouraged us to have lunch in a particular restaurant and buy souvenirs in a particular shop. Neither my mother nor I were particularly impressed by this, so we chose to wander around a German cemetery that turned out to have a disturbing abundance of Nazi graves until it was time to go to the salt mine (even though I wasn’t particularly keen to get back on the bus).

The salt mine was a better time, when we finally got there. They asked us to put on these rad jumpsuits with a little salt man logo on the pocket, and looking at that photo of myself makes me wish I’d been allowed to keep it. I would totally wear that thing all the time! The entrance into the salt mine was a giant slide, and once we were inside, we got to ride a train, take a boat ride on a salt lake and a funicular back up to ground level, and they gave us a tiny souvenir salt shaker, which was adorable! It was honestly so fun, though the weirdness of the German village and the bus accident prevents me from recommending the tour as a whole. Maybe you can just visit the salt mine on its own? Once we got back to Salzburg, we were pretty hungry, having not eaten in the village, and for some reason we ended up in a Mexican restaurant, which I (rather cleverly I thought) referred to as “the wurst Mexican restaurant ever.” Mexican food in Europe back then was appalling (it still is in many places – I wouldn’t say it’s disgusting here, but I’ve yet to find a Mexican restaurant I really like in London. However, the Colombian and Venezuelan food here is fantastic – the arepa place at Maltby Street Market makes the best arepas I’ve ever had. God I miss them!), and the chips and salsa consisted of nacho cheese Doritos with a salsa that appeared to be made from hot sauce mixed with a taco seasoning packet. I was too scared to try proper food there after that, so I just ate some mediocre potato wedges before we returned to the hostel.

The next morning, I was as happy as a sand boy because my mother finally left to go back home, and I was on my own again (of course, that meant I was in for more weirdness from pervy men)! I had booked a hostel in Munich for that night, so had to head there at some point, but the hostel in Salzburg had a laundry room, so I decided to do some laundry first – I probably smelled terrible, since this was when I was going through a hippyish salt deodorant phase (doesn’t work at all, by the way) and had been wearing the same clothes over and over again without washing them since I got there. I met a nice British guy in there who I got chatting to (just as friends – we subsequently sent each other a few Facebook messages and that was the end of it), so ended up taking a much later train than planned and arrived in Munich in the evening. After eating some seitan kebabs in a vegan restaurant (not what I intended to order, but the menu was all in German and my waitress didn’t speak any English. They were fine though), I headed back to the hostel, and bellied up to the bar to claim my free drink. Even though I drank more back then than I do now, I was still a total lightweight, and a guy at the bar kept hitting on me and buying me beers, so I was getting drunk quickly. Eventually, the bartender starting hitting on me as well, and brought over a whole tray full of free shots of Jagermeister (I’m worried this sounds like I think I’m hot stuff or something, which could not be further from the case, but I seemed to attract loads of male attention on this trip – given the B.O. issue I mentioned earlier, I certainly can’t explain it!). I have never had a night that ended well after drinking Jager, and this was no exception. The guy at the bar was getting a bit handsy, so I went to the toilet just to get away from him. Four hours later, I woke up on the floor of the stall, with puke that must have been mine in the toilet, but no recollection of how it got there. I definitely don’t think I was drugged or anything – this is just what happens when I drink to excess, and this is why I haven’t had more than three drinks (and even that’s pushing it these days) at a time in many years. I somehow managed to drag myself up to my room where I passed out again, only to be awakened by the very loud family I was apparently sharing the room with (this was the first time I’d seen them, as they were obviously all asleep when I came in the night before) at 7 am, who took their good old time getting ready whilst loudly chatting the whole while in some foreign language that I was too hungover to identify.

Eventually they left, but I still had to force myself out of bed much too soon to check out – even though I already had a night train booked to Paris for that evening, I very strongly debated paying for an extra night just so I could sleep off my hangover. The foreign family had left me the wonderful gift of wet hair clumped all over the bathroom floor, which made me gag, but I managed to get down to reception without a further puking incident. Happily, the hostel had a lovely indoor garden with giant beanbag chairs in it, so after I checked out, I headed straight there, where I promptly fell asleep for another few hours. When I woke up, I was still mildly hungover, but felt well enough to get up and at least try to eat something, so I headed to a supermarket to buy some bananas and Rittersport (they had all these exotic flavours of Rittersport I’d never seen before, which was exciting, though I still think I like milk chocolate cornflake and the white chocolate ones with cornflakes and crispies the best) and after eating those, finally had the strength to go and explore Munich a bit. I was really hoping to visit this pop-up museum I had found online that I think was meant to be just an assortment of weird crap collected by artists, but I could not find it for the life of me, so I think it had already closed by the time I was there (I have subsequently not been able to find any evidence of this anywhere online, which makes me wonder if it ever really existed. Was it some Hostel style trap to lure innocent tourists into a torture den, and I narrowly escaped certain death? I guess I’ll never know). I tried to get more food before boarding my train, but I ended up buying the grossest falafel I’ve ever had in my life – instead of forming the falafel mix into balls or patties and frying it, like any other falafel I’ve ever seen, this guy smeared raw falafel mix into a pita, and grilled the pita, so it remained totally raw inside. It was so so gross, and I don’t know if it was his first day on the job, or if this was standard procedure at this shop, but I still don’t understand it.

Having had a less than great experience in Munich (capped off by trying to order chips at the train station, since I barely ate the gross falafel, but I was pronouncing pommes in the French style (like pom, all one syllable) rather than what was apparently the German way (pom-mess, said as two syllables) and the guy pretended not to understand me, even though chips were literally all he sold. I’m pretty sure he was just being a jerk), I boarded the night train, which unfortunately didn’t have any couchettes, so I was just stuck in a normal bench style seat alone in a compartment with a German man who started asking me all these creepy questions, beginning with “did I have a boyfriend?” which disturbingly and rapidly progressed to “did I enjoy bondage?” I was shit-scared at the thought of being left alone in a compartment with this guy for the night and was trying to think of a way to make a getaway when a Mexican guy around my age poked his head in and asked if he could sit with us. I don’t think I’ve ever before been eager to have someone sit next to me! Clearly the German guy did have some sort of ill intentions, because he left pretty soon after the Mexican guy (whose name was Pedro) turned up and we didn’t see him again, so I basically thought of Pedro as my saviour. Since no one else joined us in the compartment, and I felt safe with Pedro, who was lovely, we both laid down on our respective bench seats and tried to get some much needed sleep. Unfortunately, the train had more stops in the night, and people started waiting outside our compartment for one of us to move so they could snag a seat. Sensing this was happening, I kept my eyes firmly shut and pretended to sleep, but poor Pedro moved a bit, and some guy saw that as his opportunity and asked Pedro to sit up so he could sit next to him. I managed to feign sleep until we were almost in Paris, but as the benches were quite hard, I didn’t end up actually sleeping that much either, so we both faced a sleepy day in Paris, where we had agreed to meet up later to see the Louvre. As I’ve already rambled on quite a bit, and I’ve got loads of stories from Paris (it was one of the most eventful parts of the whole trip), I’ll leave it for next time (and also explain my slightly odd circuitous route, since if you’ve been reading along with the trip, you will recall that I had already been to Paris and may be wondering why I went back!).

EuroTrip 2007: Florence and Innsbruck

It’s really hard to know how many posts to divide this trip into, since obviously I have no idea how long museums will remain shut for – I fear the museum I work for will try to open sooner rather than later unless the government explicitly forbids it (much to my chagrin, since I’m enjoying working from home on comms much more than constantly dealing with people coming in my office to complain about the public toilet at work), but my friend who works at the V&A was told that as of now, their plan is to reopen in September, so I’m thinking I probably don’t need to rush through this trip! My last post saw my aunt about to leave my mother and I alone to carry on exploring Italy and Austria, which was not ideal as we’d pretty much done nothing but fight the whole trip. We got a train from Sorrento back to Rome so my aunt could catch her plane, and then my mother and I carried on up to Florence. We shared a compartment on the train there with a hairy German man who was a bit too talkative and was wearing sandals that exposed his big hairy toes and yellow thickened toenails that were reminiscent of Fritos corn chips (I say this as someone who has fairly disgusting toenails on my little toes, which have been deformed by years of wearing shoes that don’t fit properly thanks to my wide toe bed/narrow heels issue). I don’t know if his feet actually smelled, or if I just imagined I could smell them, but I was already feeling pretty queasy by the time we exited the train.

And then I walked right into the stench that was Florence. Since I’ve never returned to the city, I still haven’t figured out if it was a result of a garbage strike, like in Naples; the effect of the heat on the river, or if it just always smells like that, but whatever it was, there was this horrific rancid onion smell in the air. We managed to find a very cheap and very grim hotel/pensione (recommended by Rick Steves, natch) that was basically just two cots in a bare room with a toilet that smelled of rotting cabbage. The combination of the smells of the day and perhaps some lingering motion sickness from the train (though I don’t usually get nauseated on trains. Cars and buses, absolutely; trains, no) completely did me in at this point, and I spent the rest of the day in the depressing cabbage toilet violently vomiting. When it became clear I wasn’t going to stop any time soon, my mother was forced to venture out alone to try to find me medicine and liquids with which to rehydrate, as well as dinner for herself, and I guess she got lost and ended up wandering for ages trying to find the hotel again. As a result, she was quite shaken and upset by the time she got back, which resulted in her screaming at me for being sick, since, as I said earlier, when she gets nervous or upset, it usually manifests itself in the form of anger. I was already miserable, and that just made everything worse.

Fortunately, by the next morning I felt much better, and was ready to head out to explore the city. Unfortunately, this was slightly impeded by the owner of said pensione who accosted us on our way out and yelled at us for trying to open the shutters in our room, as apparently someone could have broken in (we were on the second or third floor of a building), and then refused to let us go out until we had crossed our bags across our chests, as she was convinced we would be robbed otherwise. She spent about half an hour lecturing us about how we were going to either be robbed or ripped off in Florence – she was not a good advertisement for her city, to say the least. I believe it was this experience that put my mother off Rick Steves as well, since he had specifically mentioned how nice this woman was in his guidebook.

As you can see from my photos, when we were eventually permitted to leave, we did wander over to see the Duomo and all the other sites I’d heard so much about in all the Renaissance history classes I’d taken, but because they were extremely crowded, even back then, we opted not to go inside and instead went to Palazzo Pitti, which was virtually empty compared to the main tourist sites. So although we did not see David, I got to see many entertaining paintings depicting horribly martyred saints, and particularly enjoyed the images of St. Agatha calmly holding her severed breasts on a plate. Since I’d eaten virtually nothing the day before, I couldn’t wait for dinner, and I don’t know if we just picked poorly, or if the cuisine of Florence is not up to the standards of most of the rest of Italy, but even with being starving, I found the food quite gross. I described my spinach cannelloni as being “worse than Olive Garden’s,” and I was no fan of Olive Garden, even back then (except the breadsticks, of course. Everybody likes those breadsticks). Since the pensione lady had a strict curfew (of course she did), we headed back not long after dinner to spend another night on our depressing and uncomfortable cots.

We left for Innsbruck the next morning, and I was just thrilled to be getting out of Florence (I feel bad to be so hard on Florence, since one of my good friends is from there, but I really did not enjoy myself back then. I should probably give it another try, especially now that I have someone to consult about the best places to go, but obviously that’s not going to be happening anytime soon!), but before we left, we stopped at a bakery to get a bag of pastries for breakfast, which helped Florence redeem itself somewhat food-wise. In addition to a really delicious olive oil flatbread and some nutella pastries, we had these fried crispy dough things coated in sugar that tasted very much like chrusciki (you may know them as angel wings, if indeed you know them at all, and if you don’t, I’m sad for you), which were my absolute favourite dessert as a child. Arriving in Innsbruck, we found it significantly colder and cleaner than Italy, which was a relief, though much more boring, which was not. Even though we arrived on a Friday afternoon, barely anything seemed to be open, so I managed to talk my mother into getting Indian food for dinner, since the traditional Austrian restaurants that were open were not at all vegetarian friendly. I was thrilled to have a paneer curry and naan after the disappointing dinner of the night before, and because there was nothing else open, we headed back to the hotel afterwards (which was at least nice for once – I think we were treating ourselves after the place in Florence) where I watched The Simpsons in German for the rest of the night.

The following day, we headed out for our tour of Swarovski Crystal Worlds, which was the whole reason my mother wanted to go to Innsbruck in the first place. She has long been obsessed with Swarovski jewellery (which I guess is good since it’s always a safe bet for birthday presents, as she is otherwise really difficult to shop for since she never tells you what she wants, but she already has so much of it that it’s hard to avoid getting her something she already owns), and was dying to see a whole land of Swarovski. I was predictably much less thrilled about the whole thing, and described it as being “like Disney World but more boring and full of crystals,” though I did like the giant head with the waterfall that you can see in the photo above. After spending what felt like ages there (to be fair, I think you had to wait for a bus back to Innsbruck, so we couldn’t have just left any old time), we headed back into Innsbruck to collect our bags and head onward to Salzburg. Whilst waiting for the train, we got some cake at a cafe, and it clearly didn’t agree with me (I thought it might be because of the unadvertised gelatinous topping, because I hadn’t eaten gelatin for years at that point, but who knows) because it was back to a horrendous stomachache and a very bad time indeed on the train to Salzburg (if you ever have to spend the whole of a train journey in the train’s toilet, you know that is going to be a bad time), where I’ll pick up with the trip again next time (Salzburg that is, not the train’s toilet. You don’t need to hear any more about that!).

EuroTrip 2007: Rome and Sorrento

I made it safely to Rome and braced myself to meet up with my mom and aunt. It’s hard for me to describe this experience without sounding like a total jerk, but if my relationship with my mother wasn’t the best under normal circumstances, it was only logical that it was going to be even worse in a stressful circumstance like foreign travel. My mother is not a good traveller – I think it makes her nervous, and being nervous makes her irritable, and even though I’d only been travelling myself for about a week at that point, I felt like quite a seasoned traveller compared to her, so my know-it-all attitude was bound to cause some friction. On top of this, I didn’t actually want to meet up with them at all – they booked a trip despite my objections and insisted I meet them, so I was angry at being told what to do on what was meant to be my backpacking holiday of a lifetime, and I didn’t make it any easier for myself by acting like a brat.

Needless to say, it wasn’t surprising that we got into an argument on our first evening in Rome. We’d just had dinner, which I had to pay for because they hadn’t yet figured out how to change over money, had a gelato (of course), and visited the Trevi Fountain, where some Italian guy started stroking my leg and going, “bella, bella,” in a really creepy manner, and were discussing the best way back to the hotel. Despite my general lack of directional skills, I was positive I knew how to get there in this case, but my mother kept telling me I was wrong, and insisted we go another way that was entirely uphill and took three times as long as the right way would have. When we finally got back and I unwisely (and let’s face it, probably gloatingly) pointed this out, she completely flipped out at me. I was not a happy camper.

The next day, we got up bright and early to head to the Vatican, where you can see me standing in front of a fountain with my aunt in the very crooked picture above. Having read about the dress code in great detail in my guidebook, I told my mother and aunt to make sure their shoulders and knees were covered, and did the same myself, even though I was sweltering in that half-cardigan. My aunt listened, my mother did not, and kept insisting that her mid-thigh length skirt was fine because she was wearing pantyhose underneath, and got angry at me when I tried to tell her it wasn’t. Well, guess what happened when we got up to the entrance of St. Peter’s, after waiting in a queue for about an hour? I got in, my aunt got in, and my mother…did not. Undaunted, she made repeated attempts to sneak past the Swiss Guard that I probably would have found hilarious if I’d been in a better mood, but eventually had to admit defeat and wait for us to come out. Did I ever get credit for being right? No, of course I did not. And since we’re clearly both stubborn people, you can probably see why we have difficulties!

Apart from this constant conflict, I actually quite enjoyed Rome. The food was fabulous, even eating in many Rick Steves-recommended places, and I liked all the ancient bits, which have proved much less exciting to me on subsequent visits. I should say that this trip was also the beginning of a terrible relationship between me and Rick Steves. My mother insisted on bringing one of his guidebooks and only staying in Rick Steves-recommended establishments, most of which were terrible and full of die-hard Rick Steves acolytes, or Steve-ites, as I began to call them, the sort of people with zip-off trousers and money belts, as recommended by Rick Steves. Fortunately, my mother, aunt, and I could all eventually agree on this matter after too many run-ins with horrible accommodation listed in his guidebooks, and at least we could bond over mocking the Steve-ites.

After this, we headed down to Sorrento via Naples, which was not a great journey. Naples was boiling hot and in the middle of a garbage strike, and the smell was horrific. We took a baking bus from the train station down to the docks to wait for a ferry, which couldn’t come fast enough. Whilst waiting, I had my first (and only) experience with Chinotto, which I selected because it was a flavour of Fanta I’d never had before. I don’t know if you’ve ever had the misfortune of trying this stuff, but if they made a soda out of Jagermeister and cough syrup and added more bitterness to it, Chinotto is what it would taste like. I don’t know how citrus can go so wrong, but I never want to taste it again! On arriving in Sorrento, we tried to stay in another Rick Steves special, but it was booked up, so we ended up in the most delightful B&B instead. Most importantly to me, it had a loft with an extra bed in it so I could have my own private sleeping area for once (since I was either staying in hostel dormitories or sharing a hotel room with my mom and aunt for the rest of the trip). The picture above of me in my loft is probably the happiest you’ll see me looking on this portion of the trip.

The next day, we headed to Pompeii on the Circumvesuviana (which I have been calling the Circumvenesuvia in my head for all these years until I Googled it for this post, since that’s how we were all referring to it), which was an experience in itself. I’ve never seen so many different beggars on one train. I was really excited about Pompeii on account of thinking I was going to get to see all these preserved bodies, but the experience definitely didn’t match the hype. It was one of the hottest places I’ve ever been in my life, and on looking back at the pictures, I don’t know how the hell I was able to wear jeans without melting. There’s no way you’d catch me dead in jeans these days in anything above 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and even that’s pushing it!

Anyway, I was excited for bodies, but then I found out that they only have about three of them, all in glass cases in one area. The rest of Pompeii is basically just miles of buildings and roads that all look the same, with maybe an erotic mural every tenth house to break things up a bit, but mainly it was hot and horrible and boring, and quickly started to feel like a death march.

After seeing the above mural, which was the highlight, I couldn’t wait to leave, and we headed back to Sorrento where we had to move back to the Rick Steves special we’d tried to book the night before, since the nice B&B with the loft only had the room available for one night. It was better than a lot of other Rick Steves places, but nowhere near as nice as the first place, though it did overlook an orangery, and my aunt and mother wasted no time in making me stand on a chair to steal oranges off the tree overhanging our patio. I did at least find a crackin’ gelateria in town where I discovered the magic of wild strawberry gelato. Those tiny strawberries are just so damn delicious!

The next day was my aunt’s birthday, and even though she gets seasick, she wanted to go to Capri, which is of course an island only accessible by boat, so that’s what we did. Because of the seasickness thing, we weren’t allowed to visit the Blue Grotto, so we just spent the day climbing the giant hill that makes up the island and going in and out of churches. We did get to take a chairlift and a funicular at least (it was all of our first experience with a funicular, and we totally thought the name was Italian for something else, since we didn’t know what the thing was actually called. It is just a funicular though, and I have enjoyed them many times since!), and I got a lemon granita with fresh orange juice in it, which was pretty much the best thing ever in million degree temperatures.

The next day was my aunt’s last one in Italy before she flew back home and we spent it mainly in Sorrento. I was thrilled to get some time to myself in the morning when they went on a bus tour of the Amalfi Coast, so I wandered the town helping myself to free samples of limoncello (pretending I’d never had it before at each place) and buying an extra large gelato, and retreated back to the hotel to watch TV in peace. Since my aunt was leaving soon, I was on my best behaviour, and we all enjoyed a delicious dinner of zucchini and provolone pasta, which was apparently so good I specifically mentioned it in my journal (I was eating a lot of zucchini and eggplant, which is out of character for me, since I’m not a veg person, but Italians can cook both things well!), and more gelato. And then my aunt left in the morning, leaving just me and my mother together. As my aunt managed to act as a buffer between us, things were about to get even more fraught.

EuroTrip 2007: Venice

I caught the Eurostar to Paris with no problems, and after stashing my bag in a locker (I had bought a massive black backpack for the trip from the Army/Navy store in Twinsburg, Ohio, and it was almost as big as I was when extended to its full length!), headed out to enjoy a day in Paris as I had nothing more to do until my night train to Venice…or so I thought… Regular readers will know that I actively dislike Paris, but I didn’t have anything against the city at this point – in fact, I had a lovely day of wandering around and stuffing myself full of pain au chocolat, and I headed back to the train station with what I thought was over an hour to spare. This was to be my first experience with Interrailing and I had a lot to learn! I had my Eurail pass, so I assumed all I had to do was turn up and board the train. I didn’t realise that you had to reserve a spot on most services, particularly overnight ones, and an hour before the train departed was too late to do so. To add to this complication, I also didn’t realise I was at the wrong damn station until I noticed my train was nowhere to be found on the boards, so went to the ticket window to enquire, which took ages because everyone kept pushing in front of me until my mounting panic meant I started pushing and shoving right back, only to discover that I was at Gare du Nord and I needed to be at Gare de Lyon, all the way on the other side of Paris, as the ticket desk woman pointed out with a little too much obvious relish.

So I had to fight my way through rush hour traffic on the unnecessarily confusing Metro, and somehow made it there just in time to catch the train, though I still didn’t have a seat! In retrospect, I’m sure I could have just sat in a normal seat for a long uncomfortable night that would have at least gotten me where I wanted to go, but at the time, I thought I couldn’t board at all without a place in a couchette and since I didn’t have a room booked for the night anywhere, I was having visions of myself stuck on the streets of Paris all night (again, I’m quite sure I could have found a hostel room somewhere, but I was not at all a seasoned traveller at this point!). So I ran up to a guard and basically begged him in broken French to let me on the train – I think I was almost in tears. Fortunately, he took pity on me, and with the help of what I’m convinced was a 25 euro bribe (since I wasn’t issued with a ticket or receipt of any kind, he just pocketed the cash), he let me have an empty bunk in a couchette with what turned out to be a nice group of French teenagers who shared their champagne with me, which was very welcome as I needed a drink after that ordeal!

Having survived the first real trial of the trip (other than jet lag), I made it to Venice in one piece. However, I hadn’t booked a hostel, and Venice’s labyrinthine streets got the better of me as I spent a whopping three hours wandering with the aforementioned massive backpack in search of a room for the night. At the point of collapse, Domus Civica, one of the hostels recommended in my guidebook, appeared before me, which felt almost miraculous. This is perhaps a fitting description, because the place was a former convent that rented out rooms to travellers who didn’t mind the curfew and religious decor – I sort of did, but at least it was a clean and safe, albeit spartan place to spend the night, and I was not about to carry that backpack for a second longer. With that accomplished, it was time for gelato! I scoffed at paying 13 euros for a boat pass, so I found myself wandering again to the other side of the city for the famous gianduiotto de passeggio from La Gelati Nico – a block of ultra dense chocolate hazelnut gelato dropped into a cup of whipped cream. That was worth the walk!

Thus fortified, I did a bit of touristy stuff, then wandered into a mask shop, because as cheesy as it was, I really wanted a plague doctor mask for myself. And thus I unwittingly walked into my first experience with a creepy man on this trip (certainly not overall – I’ve already mentioned my former pervert boss). The mask maker took a keen interest in me as soon as I walked in, what with me being the only customer (and I guess young and therefore easy prey), and though I spoke no Italian and he very little English, we managed to communicate via our joint limited knowledge of French and a lot of pervy hand gestures on his part. Though my thigh tattoo was covered by a skirt, he somehow managed to catch a glimpse of the edge of it, and asked to see it. I obligingly (and foolishly) lifted up my skirt a bit, and he whipped out a camera and took a picture of my thigh, telling me he would make a mask of my tattoo! Then the following exchange happened:

Mask maker, making twisting gestures around his nipples, “Percé, percé, oui?”

Me, horrified, “Non!”

Him, “You come ma chambre dans moi, [gestures towards the plague mask I liked] for free, oui?”

Me, even more creeped out and edging desperately towards the door, “Non! Je n’aime pas ta chambre!”

Whilst this was happening, an old lady came in and started piling euro coin after euro coin on the counter, until it was overflowing. He looked at me and said, “for protection,” implying that he was in the Mafia. I was basically panicking at this point, but I grabbed a smaller, cheaper version of the plague doctor mask, and offered to pay for it in the hopes he would let me leave. Fortunately, some other customers came in just then, so I completed my transaction (and the mask was heavily discounted, presumably because I flashed him my thigh and let him photograph it. I shudder to think what he did with that photo), and I got the hell out of there immediately after and didn’t walk that way again for the rest of my stay. I’m still not sure why I actually bought something from him instead of just running out of the shop, but that mask still lives in my old room at my parents’ house as a memory of the unsettling experience I haven’t shared with many people until now.

After that, I was more than ready to hide myself away for the night, so I grabbed a couple of slices of pizza from an excellent by the slice place I found on my way back to the convent, and called it an early night. The next morning, I headed to the train station bright and early to catch a train to Rome, where I was reluctantly meeting my mother and aunt (I had learned my lesson from Paris, and reserved myself a seat immediately after arriving in Venice the day before). As I was sitting on the steps of the station eating a Nutella croissant (probably with chocolate smeared all over my face), an older man in his 60s or 70s approached me and said hi. He seemed harmless enough (in the eyes of young, guileless Midwestern Jessica who didn’t like being rude to strangers), so I returned his greeting. He was Canadian, and apparently living in Venice. However, a friendly chat soon turned into him asking me to stay with him for a while. “You and me could have some fun, girly,” he kept saying (even if he wasn’t old and gross, the “girly” would have been enough of a turn-off). Fortunately, I at least had the valid excuse this time of a train to catch, so I declined his offers of both a cappuccino and a sex romp, and went to wait on the platform instead. Having escaped the clutches of numerous horny old men in Venice, I boarded the train, where I was at least lucky enough to share a compartment with some nice Canadian girls my own age (no connection to the train station lech) who played cards with me and helped take my mind off the week ahead of me. Next time: exploring Italy with my mother and aunt. Was it as bad as I thought it would be?


EuroTrip 2007: London and Brighton

We left 21 year old Jessica sobbing in a horrible hostel toilet because she couldn’t hack being away from home on her own for the first time. Fortunately, life was about to improve as she (I) discovered the joys of Brighton (sorry, I’m slipping into a weird kind of third person Jimmy from Seinfeld thing). First thing in the morning of day two, I marched myself down to Victoria Station and invested in a round-trip ticket to Brighton (34 year old me is aghast at the thought of buying train tickets on the day at the actual ticket window. They must have cost a fortune!), with which I instantly fell in love. Finally feeling flush in my independence, I got my lip pierced, which I had been dying to do for ages but hadn’t because I knew my parents wouldn’t be happy, to say the least (and yes, I was an adult, but living with them meant I was still very much under their control. I had a curfew until the day I moved out, aged 23). But now that wouldn’t be my problem for a while (I did also have several tattoos already at this point, but I was good at keeping them hidden, so no one knew). I had a wander around town, visited Infinity Foods (which I still really like) for some vegan sweets (I was just coming off of a year long flirtation with veganism, and was still eating mostly vegan. That lasted until I rediscovered the joys of cheese), visited Brighton Museum, and tried on vegan combat boots at Veg Shoes. I suppose I must have made it down to the pier, but I didn’t even mention it in my journal!

I returned to London that afternoon feeling much happier with the world, and even popped over to Buckingham Palace to have a look at the outside, and went inside Westminster Cathedral, which I’m almost certain I had confused with Westminster Abbey at that point. The weird thing is that I don’t think I’ve ever been back to Westminster Cathedral since, even to walk past (which is frankly all I would be doing anyway, since I’m not religious), so I’m not sure how I managed to find it in the first place! I still do love Brighton – I don’t think I could live there, but I like to make the trip at least once or twice every summer to grab a cone from Boho Gelato, which didn’t exist at the time of my first visit, and walk along the pier, though not at the same time. I learned that lesson the hard way after a jerk seagull snatched my cone out of my hand and ate it in front of me with all his jerk seagull friends.

In London, I had moved from my original hostel (which was near Victoria) to one in Bloomsbury, just across from the British Museum, so of course I felt compelled to spend a day there, and found it memorable mainly for the Ancient Egyptian collection (nowhere near as crowded in those days) and the incredible pain my feet were in by the end of it. This was also the day I discovered ICCo, aka Goodge Street Pizza, which is still one of my standbys if I need a cheap quick meal in the area. I liked it so much I went back the next day and accidentally made a date with a guy who worked there (he didn’t speak much English so I was just smiling and nodding and didn’t realise what I’d agreed to until it was too late) and subsequently stood him up, since I still technically had a (awful) boyfriend, so that put an abrupt end to ICCo, at least until a year later when I actually moved here and renewed my acquaintance with the place, which became my Friday evening treat to myself after class. The guy who asked me out was definitely still working there as of a couple of years ago, but I’m pretty positive he doesn’t remember the incident by now!

I also visited the Tower of London (for the one and only time. I got angry about how basic the Beefeater tour was. I was bitching in my journal because it cost £13, which to me seemed unbelievably expensive. I looked up how much it costs now and guess what it is?! £26! Of course, because the pound has gotten so weak over the years, it probably works out to a similar amount in dollars) and attempted to visit Whitechapel on account of my fascination at the time with Jack the Ripper. I’m not sure what I was hoping to see (Victorian London, alive and well?), but it certainly wasn’t what I got. All my journal says on the matter is “Whitechapel sucks.” I also made it to the Tate Modern and remarked on taking the Tube back, so I’m a little confused how I got to Tower Hill and Whitechapel in the first place. Surely I didn’t walk?! I definitely would not have taken a bus, so I’m a bit perplexed.

Day five was my last in London, and I spent it exploring Camden, which I loved in all my innocence of youth. I bought a horrible cheap black and white striped dress that I thought looked amazing, and a pink and black striped hoodie, both of which you’ll see pop up in pictures later on. I recall that I ended up in Camden because I was trying to walk to the British Library navigating solely by those arrow signs, and the signs crapped out at one point, so I just kept going until I hit Camden (I probably would have been disappointed with the BL back then anyway. It’s not much to look at from the street, and King’s Cross was pretty grim in those days). I also popped back to Westminster for some photos (I seem to have gotten Westminster Abbey and Cathedral straight by then) and prepared for my trip on the Eurostar the next morning, which I believe still departed from Waterloo at that point. My journal records that I bought a white chocolate Magnum for dinner because I couldn’t find an Indian restaurant or chippy to eat at. Must not have been trying very hard!

Sorry if this post was a bit uneventful, but after my first day, I did basically just have a nice time in London, so there’s not much to be said about it, other than the wry observations of a hardened Londoner looking back at my youthful naïveté. I also wasn’t interacting much with my fellow backpackers at that stage, so I don’t even have any stories to tell about other travellers.  I think it’ll get more interesting as things go wrong, so hopefully my next post, which will include my journey to Venice via Paris, and Venice itself, will be more exciting! Thanks for bearing with my reminiscences!


EuroTrip 2007: London Part 1

So, as promised, I am going to take you through my first trip to Europe, aided by a journal I kept at the time. I do have some photos, which I’ll be including where relevant, but not many. I don’t particularly like taking photos even now, though I’ve gotten better at it as phone technology has improved and made taking photos less obtrusive. But back then, with a bulky digital camera that just screamed “tourist!”, I absolutely hated it. I only have 59 photos from my entire six weeks in Europe, so this is going to be quite a wordy re-telling, for which I apologise in advance.

But first, I think I need to provide a little background to explain why this trip was such a big deal for me (and sorry, it’s going to get kind of depressing for a bit).  In 2007, my life was not great – in fact, that’s an understatement. I was completely miserable. I’d finished my BA the year before, and was basically just drifting at that point. I’d worked as a manager of an ice cream shop through some of high school and all of university, and I just kept my job after I graduated because I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with myself. Also, I had never learned how to drive (it’s a long story), and public transport where I lived was basically non-existent, so I wasn’t really sure what else I could do. However, the ice cream shop ended up going out of business in late 2006, due to the owner going bankrupt. He was a disgusting pervert who sexually harassed all of his employees (mostly teenage girls), so it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving person, but I did genuinely love that job. Pervert boss lived over an hour away, so I only had to see him once or twice a month, and the rest of the time was fabulous. I loved making ice cream and decorating cakes (what I lacked in skill, I made up for in enthusiasm), so I was quite upset when I found myself out of a job.

I was still living at home (in the suburbs between Cleveland and Akron, Ohio) and still dating my horrible boyfriend who I’d been with since high school. My relationship with my parents was extremely strained at the time, especially after I lost my job and failed to immediately look for a new one. Instead, I attempted to get my parents off my back by applying to some Master’s programmes for the following year, but my heart wasn’t really in it. I desperately wanted to move out, but I couldn’t afford to do so unless I moved in with horrible boyfriend, and though I wasn’t yet smart enough to break up with him at this point, I was smart enough to know that if I did move in with him, I’d never get out of the relationship. I was also desperate to move away from Ohio, but just didn’t know how to make it happen. I’d go for long walks at night, and just dream about walking forever into the moonlight.

Once I had submitted all my Master’s applications, I needed something else to do with my time (because it was that or work somewhere within a couple of miles from my house, which basically meant fast food establishments or retail), and I hit upon the perfect idea – why not plan a trip to Europe? I’d always wanted to go to Europe, but at that point in my life, my only experiences with foreign travel had been Niagara Falls and Tijuana, which don’t really count. However, when people would ask me why I hadn’t learned to drive, I’d always reply, “I don’t have to, I’m going to move to Europe.” I was fascinated with the continent without really knowing very much about it, other than what I’d gleaned from obsessively watching every episode of Samantha Brown’s Passport to Europe. But I had $30,000 burning a hole in my bank account, saved from five years of working nearly full time (I only had classes three days a week, so I’d work the other four just to get out of the house) with basically no expenses other than school books, clothes, and going to punk shows (even though I didn’t have the best relationship with my parents, at least they did let me live at home for free, otherwise there’s no way I would have been able to save so much. I only made $8 an hour), so I could definitely afford to do it, and being unemployed, I had nothing but time on my hands. The next step was to try to persuade someone to go with me, but since jerk boyfriend didn’t like me having my own friends (presumably because they might tell me what a dick he was), my options were basically him or one of our few mutual friends, and when everyone ended up flaking out, I thought, “screw it, I’ll go alone.” So I did (except for an interlude where my mother and aunt insisted on meeting up with me in Italy, which I’ll get to in a later post).

After months of planning (much harder in those days because whilst we did have internet, it certainly wasn’t to the extent we do now, and I was sharing a computer with my entire family. I still relied heavily on my trusty copy of Let’s Go Europe 2007 to find hostels and things to do. Seeing that cover brings back so many memories!), making frantic calls to the State Department to try to get my passport in time (I’d ordered it with months to spare, but this was around the time when Canada announced Americans would soon need a passport to cross the border, so they were processing way more applications than normal, and had a major backlog), and arguing with my family and boyfriend, none of whom were happy about me going, I finally left in late May, shiny new passport in hand. Unfortunately, at the time I got my passport picture taken, I was in the middle of an ill-advised experiment with blonde dreadlocks, and even though I had given up and picked them all out before leaving for Europe, my passport would bear the evidence of this disastrous look until 2017! (See photo below to get an idea of how much this look did not work for me.) First stop, London, the plan being that I could ease myself in slowly in an English-speaking country. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way.

Having never really experienced jet lag (other than a bit after a trip to California, but everyone knows going west to east is the worst part, and then I was just heading back home, so it was fine), I was totally unprepared for what hit me upon arriving in London after a sleepless night on a plane. To quote my journal entry my first day there, “I am miserable! If I could go back home, I would. Got to London surprisingly quickly, but it took me an hour to find the hostel. I thought I would die. I got here at 10 but they wouldn’t let me into a room until 2, so I wandered around looking for food. I went to a Sainsbury’s – the highlight of my day was the candy. Hula Hoops and Toffee Poppets are also rather good [yep, that was my first time eating Hula Hoops. God knows how many thousands of Hoops I’ve eaten since then (only boring red packet though, I don’t like the other flavours), and I wouldn’t even say they’re one of my favourite crisps]. I then came back and slept in the lobby briefly, then spent an increasingly frustrating hour looking for a phone, which ended with me locking myself in the bathroom and sobbing. I took a three hour nap and am now awake, bored, and miserable. Everyone has a friend but me.” Yes kids, I did not have a mobile back then. Honestly, I was fairly behind the times, as most people did by 2007, but this was still primarily a flip phone era, and certainly not one where WiFi was free and plentiful. I was a bit of a Luddite, and was opposed to having a phone for some odd reason, so I was still relying on good old payphones and internet cafes for this trip, and as I was soon to discover, those famous red telephone boxes were basically toilets for rough sleepers and a place for prostitutes to advertise their services, so were best avoided at all costs.

Given that I very much consider London my home now, and it is one of my favourite cities in the world, I think it’s kind of funny how much I hated it when I first saw it. I left this out of my journal entry, but I remember that I also almost got hit by a cab when crossing the road (presumably because I was looking in the wrong direction) and the cabbie stopped and screamed at me and it made me cry. I did a lot of crying that first day. Would things get better? Well, I’ve done an awful lot of rambling on in this post already, so come back next week to find out! And thanks for sticking with me if you made it through this block of text!

London: The Cartoon Museum Redux

This is my last museum post for the foreseeable future, based on a visit I made a month ago before everything started to close down, but I would like to continue my weekly posts – I’m not going to kid myself into thinking they’re boosting anyone’s morale (other than maybe my own), since I’m quite a negative individual at the best of times, but I think it’s good to stay in the habit and keep myself occupied. And I have settled on a topic – if you’re a regular reader, you may have seen me reference my summer of backpacking around Europe back in 2007, and though it was definitely a mixed bag, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that trip ultimately changed the course of my life. Well, now that I’ve got nothing better to post about, you’ll get to relive it all with me, starting next week (assuming you come back then)! And I do hope everyone is managing to stay well out there!


I first visited the Cartoon Museum (not to be confused with the Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum in Columbus, which I have been to loads!) very early on in my blogging career, almost exactly seven years ago (Diverting Journeys turned seven in March), and I hadn’t actually been back there since, though I’d seen on various Museums Association newsletters that they were temporarily closed whilst moving to a new location, and then had re-opened in said new location (with a new curator who seriously looks about twelve. I mean, I’m probably just getting old and she’s actually well into her twenties, but I don’t understand how people that young get curatorial jobs. Really grinds my gears after the struggle I’ve had getting any kind of museum job) only a few months ago. Having seen most of the temporary exhibitions that I wanted to see at the time (wish I’d seen them all now!), I thought I might as well go check out their new set-up.


Normally, when a museum moves location, I would hope it was because it was an upgrade, but this was definitely a downgrade. They moved from their lovely ground floor location in Bloomsbury to a dingy basement just off Oxford Street (I guess it’s technically Fitzrovia, but that is far too posh a name to describe the museum’s locale. Also Oxford Street is hell and best avoided at all times, not just when social distancing). This place seriously felt like a concrete bunker, and there was what I assume was an uncovered sewage pipe just above our heads so that we got to listen to the atmospheric sound of running water (which really made me need a wee) for the duration of our visit. I can’t actually find a reason given anywhere why they moved, but now that I’ve seen it, I assume it was to save money, because there’s no way the rent on this place could be as high as the old location. The £8.50 admission price, a full three pounds higher than when I visited seven years ago, also seems to confirm that view, and I guess instead of being harsh on them, I should just be glad they still exist in some form. Art Pass members do get in for free, so I can’t really complain about the admission fee since I didn’t have to pay it.


I was keen to see the Cartoon Museum in March because of their temporary exhibition “Hail to the Chief: Brief Lives of America’s Best and Worst Presidents,” which ended in early April (I guess? I don’t really know what’s happening now). I can look at presidential caricatures all day long, particularly of the current Satsuma-in-Chief, and Martin Rowson’s drawings, which come from Andrew Gimson’s new book on the presidents (which I couldn’t resist buying from the gift shop, though I found upon reading it that it was absolutely riddled with factual errors (for example, it claimed Lincoln was assassinated by a “Robert Booth.” Don’t editors exist anymore?)), were pretty great, even though only a few of them were featured in the exhibition (they were all scrolling on a TV screen in the gallery, but I lost interest in standing there and watching them all because it was taking too long).


The other temporary exhibition at the time of my visit was “Dear Mr. Poole,” which was meant to run until 28th June (again, I don’t know what the plan is now). This was a collection of cartoons and sketches given to Phillip Poole, who sold pen nibs at his shop in Drury Lane (shown above), and befriended many artists and cartoonists over the years, who sent him personalised drawings and letters as a display of gratitude. There were too many famous names here to list them all, but this exhibition took up a substantial area of the museum, and was a treat to look at.


The permanent exhibition space was the rest of the (basement bunker) gallery, with framed cartoons from the 18th century right through to the present day crammed into every available space. As I’d come straight from work, I didn’t have the energy to read them all, but it could easily fill hours of your time if you did! I did at least skim every one though, and took the time to read the funniest looking ones. And I can finally show you the parody of Gillray and Rowlandson’s work that I loved so much on my first visit!


Unlike the old Cartoon Museum, there weren’t any comic strips here, though as I’m not a huge fan of British comics (I don’t understand the appeal of The Beano), to me it wasn’t a major loss. Also unlike the old museum, we were allowed to take pictures of the individual cartoons – at least, there was no sign prohibiting it, and Marcus specifically asked the admissions desk guy if it was alright, and he said yes. I do seem to recall there being more of a narrative to the old Cartoon Museum, but these were all just mashed on the walls in roughly chronological order, but without much commentary (maybe that’s what happens when you hire a twelve year old curator. OK, now I’m just being mean).


Although there were still a lot of lovely cartoons here (honestly, probably more that specifically interested me than in the old museum, given the focus is now more on political cartoons), I can’t help but think that in most other ways, the museum has taken a major step down. Like I said at the start, if it was a choice between a downgrade and closing altogether, I am glad they found a way to still exist (and hope they can carry on existing when this is all over), but I think they could have found a way to do more with the space. Even something relatively cheap, like better signage and nicer flooring (at least clean up the stains!), could have gone a long way to improving that bunker feel. I don’t think it’s worth £8.50, but if you have Art Pass, there’s no reason not to come and check it out when/if we’re all allowed out again. 3/5.

London: Aubrey Beardsley @ Tate Britain

Another week, another disclaimer. I visited this exhibition a few weeks ago, right after it opened  – obviously museums and most other things are shut now, but even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t be venturing into Central London or anywhere else for that matter, other than the supermarket when we run out of staples (which are almost impossible to find now anyway thanks to asshole hoarders). I hope by blogging about this that I’m giving you the opportunity to view something you would otherwise have missed, rather than upsetting you by showing you something you probably can’t see now, though I realise Aubrey Beardsley’s life and work isn’t exactly a boost of positivity unless your sense of humour is as dark as mine.


Aubrey Beardsley might not be an artist you know by name, but it’s more than likely you’ve seen an example of his work. As soon as I saw the image they were using to advertise this exhibition (the one of the woman holding a severed head, above left), it lit a spark of recognition in me and I thought, “Aubrey Beardsley, of course I need to see that!” but in retrospect, that may be more because of how Beardsley’s work obviously influenced Edward Gorey (of whom I am definitely a fan) rather than because of much prior knowledge of Beardsley himself. (The two pieces below are the only ones not by Beardsley in this post, but they are drawings of Beardsley, and I included them so you could get an idea of how others viewed him in his lifetime.)


The Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at the Tate was originally only on until 25th May (no idea what’s going to happen now), and at the time it opened, I could see which way the tide was turning (though I didn’t expect it to turn quite so quickly), so I went to see it immediately to make sure I got the chance. And clearly I wasn’t the only one being eager (or maybe blasé, in retrospect), because the gallery was pretty full, mostly with older people, since it was the middle of the day on a weekday. I’m positive this was the same gallery where we saw the Van Gogh exhibition, but they changed the orientation of the space so the entrance was now the exit. No matter, it’s still a large gallery, and it wasn’t anywhere near as packed as Van Gogh was (which could only have been a good thing, considering).
Admission was £16, but we got in for £8 with National Art Pass. I booked online shortly before we arrived just to save myself the faff of standing at the ticket desk (I will avoid human interaction whenever possible, which turns out to be serving me well in these times). The exhibition was divided up into fifteen sections, though some rooms held three different sections, so it wasn’t actually fifteen rooms, but it still took us a fair while to walk through them all. The advantage of having such a large space was that even though certain displays had quite a few visitors in front of them at once, the opposite wall would usually be empty, so I could just go look at something else until they cleared out, a boon for anyone who hates waiting as much as I do (and seriously, look at it, take a photo if you need, and move on. You don’t need to stand there studying a picture for twenty minutes when other people are clearly trying to look around you).
I suppose I should actually tell you a bit about Aubrey Beardsley at some point, so here goes: he was born in 1872, and contracted tuberculosis at the age of 7. Being that there was really no effective treatment at the time (unless you count the mountain cure, the prairie cure, or whatever other supposedly healthier air the owners of various sanatoriums were peddling), Beardsley always knew he would die young, so was determined to pack as much as possible into his short life. He was very close to his mother and sister, who supported his talent for drawing, which was evident from an early age. He mainly created images for publication, so not many people viewed his original sketches during his lifetime, and because he favoured the lewd and grotesque, many of his drawings were censored prior to publication, so this exhibition was an excellent chance to see the originals.
Beardsley, although probably not actually gay himself (he seemed more asexual than anything) fell in with a crowd of decadents that included Oscar Wilde, which would have profound consequences for Beardsley’s career after Wilde’s trial for gross indecency, as publishers didn’t want to do business with anyone who was associated with Wilde. Still, for someone who was effectively only working for seven years (he died at the age of only 25), Beardsley still managed to have an incredibly impressive output consisting of thousands of drawings, including the illustrations for an addition of Le Morte D’Arthur, Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and various magazines, including a stint as art editor of The Yellow Book.
And as I’ve already mentioned, and you’ve probably already seen from the photos, Beardsley had a fascination with the grotesque, and you can clearly see the influence his work must have had on Edward Gorey and other modern illustrators. He had a fetus motif running through many of his pieces (no one knows why), and did some excellent caricatures of both friends and enemies. The ones of Oscar Wilde (especially the one of him a couple of paragraphs down where he’s struggling to translate his work into French, a language Beardsley was fluent in) and Whistler, above left, (and Whistler’s wife, above right) made me laugh out loud. (He seems to have particularly had it in for Whistler, who he once admired, but Whistler snubbed him, which triggered the caricatures. An excellent revenge, I think.)
He also, though expressing no obvious sexuality himself, liked to do vaguely pornographic drawings, and these were kept in their own special “adults only” room of the exhibition (though I didn’t see any children in the exhibition anyway). They were primarily illustrations for a privately printed edition of Lysistrata, a Greek play by Aristophanes where women attempt to put an end to the Peloponnesian War by denying their husbands sex (I had to read it for a class I took on Eros and Love, and it wasn’t the worst thing we read in that class by a long shot. That honour goes to Wuthering Heights. Blech), and there was, to my great delight, an illustration depicting a fart cloud, and a whole lot of giant erections. He also tried to sneak sexy bits into illustrations intended for more mainstream publications, like a tiny erection he stuck on a drawing on John Bull for The Yellow Book, which was sadly discovered and removed prior to publication.
Obviously I loved Beardsley’s work, and I think we could have definitely been friends (we have the same big nose, and I can relate to the pain of that caricature at the start!). His work was popular in his lifetime, but then forgotten about until the 1960s, when the Tate held an exhibition of his work that prompted a revival of interest (though they claimed exactly the same thing in the Van Gogh exhibition, so maybe it should be taken with a grain of salt. I really don’t think the Tate is solely responsible for people liking Van Gogh), and there were some examples of ’60s art at the end of the exhibition so you could see the way his monochromatic style influenced a lot of artists, including the artist who did the cover of the Beatles’ Revolver (but I’m just including more of Beardsley’s work, because I love it so much. The guy wearing the crown of vine leaves in the picture below right is meant to be Oscar Wilde. So many great caricatures).
Sadly, the shop didn’t have postcards or prints of his more erotic work (no fart cloud print for me) or his caricatures, which were basically my favourite things, but we did get a few postcards of other pieces. £16 is a lot of money, so even though it was a big exhibition with great content (and just the right amount of text), it’s hard for an exhibition to live up to that, but I definitely think I got £8 of enjoyment out of it, if not a bit more, and considering it was one of the last exhibitions I got to see for who knows how long, I certainly have no regrets. 4/5.

London: The Postal Museum

By way of introduction, I should say that I visited the Postal Museum before Covid-19 had started to spread in London, and I certainly wouldn’t advise going into a museum and trying on communal dressing-up clothing at this point in time, if in fact there were any museums still open. As of yesterday, every museum in London that I follow on social media is closed, including the one I work at (though since my job is mostly office based, I will be working from home and still getting paid, at least for the time being. I’m not sure what the situation is like for FoH staff (at other museums, there’s none where I work), but I do sincerely hope they are still getting paid as well, especially the ones employed by large institutions that can afford it!). I have two more posts after this from places I visited before the pandemic was in full swing, but after that, I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do. I will probably try to post something every week just so I don’t fall out of the habit, but I’m not yet sure what the subject of those posts will be. Suggestions welcomed!

I swear I don’t have a vendetta against every museum in London (if I stopped going to every museum that rejected my job applications, this blog wouldn’t have lasted very long), but lately, it probably sounds like I do. And actually, my issue with the Postal Museum is the reverse of the one I have with most other museums – they were willing to hire me, but I turned them down because one of the women who interviewed me would be my direct manager, and she seemed really mean in the interview so I didn’t want to work under her, and even if she had been nicer, the job just sounded so terrible. As they described it to me, it sounded like I would mostly be telling overweight people that they were too big to ride Mail Rail and dealing with overflowing toilets. I guess I should at least give them points for being honest, because my current job involves dealing with the public toilet, which I didn’t know until after I started (officially it is not part of my role, but because my office is next to the toilet and my desk is the one that people can see from the door, guess who gets asked about it constantly?), but nevertheless, I was angry, I suppose because they expected people to take an awful job for awful pay. At any rate, I had been offered another marginally less awful-sounding job at around the same time (not my current job – I only lasted three months at the not quite as awful but still pretty horrible job), which is why I had the option of turning this one down. They opened in 2017, but because of whatever odd grudge I was holding, I didn’t visit until a few weeks ago, and then only because I was looking for something to do with a friend who I know is a bit of a train nerd.

As I knew from my interview, the Postal Museum is divided between two sites, one a short distance down the street (and on the other side of the road) from the other, which I suppose is not ideal for a museum that seems to be aimed primarily at children. I don’t know if it particularly matters which site you start on – as you are given a timed slot for Mail Rail, it might be easier to start with that, but you can buy tickets at either site. Admission is a whopping £17, and there doesn’t seem to be a reduced ticket if you only want to visit the museum; however, if you are an Art Pass holder, then the museum is free, with an optional £6 supplement if you want to ride Mail Rail (Mail Rail being the miniature train that was originally used to carry mail through tunnels under the streets of London to various Royal Mail depots for sorting. Think miniature as in those kiddie train rides at a funfair, not miniature as in model railway sized). Since it was Marcus’s and my first visit, and we were with our friend who had to buy the normal ticket as he doesn’t have Art Pass, we decided we might as well give it a go, and it’s probably good we did because it is the most fun part of the whole experience.


Except for the queuing, that was not fun. When you get inside, you will likely be met with a massive queue, even with the reserved time slot, and because there are only two trains, each of which holds maybe thirty people, and each ride takes fifteen minutes, you will likely be waiting upwards of half an hour at busy times. Because you are riding in a train that was originally built to carry mail, the dimensions are not terribly large, which was why it was implied at the interview that we would have to turn quite a few people away. However, they are bigger than you think – my friend is a fairly big lad, and he got inside, and Marcus, who is 6’2″, did as well, though he basically had to hold his head at an awkward angle the whole time so it didn’t bang against the ceiling, and his legs were so far into my side of the seat that my hip was hiked up in the air in a really uncomfortable manner. If you’re riding with a tall person, I suggest not trying to share a seat with them! Still it was only fifteen minutes, and once the train started moving I forgot about most of my discomfort and just enjoyed the ride, which included a few short video presentations and a train “graveyard.” You don’t get to ride the entirety of the tunnels, which stretch to Liverpool Street (the museum is in what I think is Mount Pleasant – basically a weird area of central London that isn’t particularly near any stations. It’s a 15-20 minute walk to Farringdon, King’s Cross, and Russell Square), but you head out, loop around, and come back.


There is a small museum when you exit Mail Rail with more information about the railway and a few interactive elements – my friend and I enjoyed racing trains (I won), and there was a life-size mock-up of a mail room on a train (different from Mail Rail, this would have been on an actual full-sized train), where postal workers would have to sort letters whilst the train was moving, and the floor even moved so you could experience this for yourself, which was great fun, except I felt a bit ill for about ten minutes afterwards. By the way, we were the only people here without children, and the people who had children were making no effort to control them, so they were just running around screaming the whole time. It wasn’t so bad in here, as it was a less crowded floor area, but it was pretty awful in the main part of the museum, which we headed to next.


The actual Postal Museum bit was also really fun and interactive, and even with all the children running around, there were enough things to play with that we still got to have a go on most of them. However, I didn’t get to read all of the text because some woman with a huge pram kept parking it right in front of one display after another, making it impossible to look at them (this was most annoying in the section about historic ships carrying mail that still managed to make it to their destinations despite various calamities, which I was obviously keen to read. She noticed us struggling to read around her pram, she just didn’t care).


I initially enjoyed the story of the lioness who escaped from the circus and attacked a mail coach (which were used to carry mail around the country before the advent of trains, but also carried a few passengers. It was a faster ride than stagecoaches, but there were no scheduled meal breaks or toilet stops, only stops to pick up mail, so it would definitely not have been for me!), but after researching this for this post, it seems that the museum took a lot of artistic licence with the account. The impression I got from the museum was that the lioness was subdued by a Newfoundland, reclaimed by her owner, and things ended well for all participants (you can read the account above and see if you agree with me). Nope. In reality, the lioness attacked the horses, attacked and killed the Newfoundland, and was ultimately found hiding under a granary by her owner, the passengers having all fled and hid in a nearby inn whilst the lioness was occupied with the dog. I get that it’s a child-orientated museum, but if you can’t be truthful about what happened, don’t even include it. You could relive the inaccurate version of this story in a little choose your own adventure style game, where I chose to leave behind the man who left the coach for an unscheduled toilet break (it was the right choice, as I delivered the mail on time as a result, even after the encounter with the lioness).


I do love a dressing-up opportunity, and there were lots in this museum! I didn’t manage to fit into the lady postal carrier jacket (it was either child-sized, or I have unusually wide shoulders), but most of the other ones worked, especially the hats (I genuinely think I might have to get the one on the left. It matched my outfit)! Interestingly, postmen were not provided with trousers as part of their uniform until the 1850s (they presumably provided their own before that, rather than just going naked underneath, funny though that is to picture). Postwomen didn’t have a full uniform until WWI, when they joined Royal Mail in greater numbers to replace the men off fighting (a few women worked as letter carriers in the 19th century, but they didn’t have an official uniform), and those outfits included a skirt. They weren’t given the option to wear trousers until the 1940s, and then only because a woman named Jean Cameron had led the way by campaigning to do so because trousers were much more practical than skirts, particularly in very wet (all of Britain?) and cold areas of the country.


There were some artefacts here too, but they were rather few and far between with the interactive elements taking pride of place. My friend was complaining that there weren’t even any penny blacks, but I had managed to spot some, so I directed him around the corner to where I had found an entire damn sheet of them hiding in a nook. They were also some splendid posters from the mid 20th century, some of which were for sale as prints in the shop.

There was a temporary exhibition on the Great Train Robbery at the time of our visit, and though this was the one part of the museum that was clearly directed at adults, it was actually my least favourite bit. I’d heard of the Great Train Robbery (mainly because I was really into the Sex Pistols as a teenager), but I didn’t know much about it, and this exhibit seemed to assume a level of knowledge I didn’t possess, with only eyewitness accounts to explain what happened before we were presented with random lists of names of suspects, and I left still not fully understanding the sequence of events. I’m also not sure why the robbers were treated like folk heroes, since one of the postal workers later died from his injuries after being smashed over the head during the robbery. But I did learn that I am slightly shorter than the stack of paperwork Royal Mail has on the case, which I guess is something.

The part Marcus was most looking forward to, the Post Office cats, was actually just outside the exit of the museum (so I think you could probably view it if you just visited the cafe). Some post offices used to have official cats that were paid 1s 6d a week to keep the post offices rodent free (which was not bad going in the 1860s when the tradition started, since housemaids were only paid £7-£11 per year back then. Obviously the cats weren’t really paid as such, that was simply the amount that was allocated to them for their food and other expenses (tiny hats?)), and the Postal Museum decided to revive the tradition by having a competition in 2017 to find a different ceremonial Postal Museum cat each month. The winners were photographed in an adorable tiny hat, as you can see here.


I’ve heard the woman who runs the shop here speak at a couple of different training courses, and it’s a perfectly fine shop, but not as amazing as I was expecting given the awards it has apparently won. The only things I would have bought were the prints of old Royal Mail posters, and I’ve already got more prints than I know what to do with. There was a machine where you could buy exclusive Postal Museum stamps though (which you can actually use to post things), so Marcus got a couple of those, and I just designed my own stamp inside the museum (which you cannot use to send things, though they do email you a copy). You can see Marcus’s end result, which was better than mine, above.

Overall, considering I only paid £6, I did enjoy the museum, but if I had paid £17, I think I’d be significantly more annoyed. It is really fun and family friendly, which unfortunately has the side effect of attracting lots of children, and I am not a fan. I think I prefer a museum where the children’s area is self-contained, rather than spread throughout, as it seems to encourage misbehaviour in the entirety of the museum (though the parents certainly could have done a much better job of stopping it). As a result of this, although the museum isn’t yet three years old, it is already looking a bit worn and grubby in places. I also didn’t appreciate the historical inaccuracies – this isn’t really the kind of museum for history snobs like myself; in fact, I’d say it’s more of an attraction than a museum. 3/5 for the £6 I spent (I’d say the Mail Rail side gets 4/5, but the actual museum only 2/5), but I’d downgrade it for value for money if I’d spent the full admission fee – maybe I’d have better luck visiting at a less busy time than a Saturday, but it was the only time my friend could make it. And I’m still glad I didn’t take the job – I’m pretty sure all those screaming children would have sent me ’round the bend in a matter of weeks.