Europe

EuroTrip 2007: The Aftermath

Celebrating my 22nd birthday after returning home. Don’t ask me why one of the 2 candles is backwards – I didn’t put my own candles on!

And just like that, my fabulous adventure was over, and normal life resumed. I had to go back to my awful boyfriend and my boring life, and pretend like all of this hadn’t happened. My jerk boyfriend certainly wasn’t interested in hearing about my travels, and my family were pretty sick of me as well, so we just started getting in more fights than ever. The only Master’s programme I had ended up getting into was my safe choice, the university where I had done my BA, and though I liked the history department there very much, I couldn’t bring myself to commit to spending another two years in Ohio. So, I deferred enrolment for a year whilst I tried to figure it all out, and got a job in the department store nearest my house because it felt like less of a commitment than trying to find something that might have actually used my degree; plus in those days no one would hire you for an office job with facial piercings and weird colours in your hair, and my appearance was more important to me than gainful employment (I’m happy that the world has at least evolved to the point where I don’t have to choose between them anymore!).

Unfortunately, this was probably the worst job I’ve ever had, and there’s a lot of competition for that honour. It paid $3 less per hour than the department stores in malls, but because I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t get to anywhere better paying, and they treated us like absolute crap. You weren’t allowed to sit down at any point, except during your half hour lunch (if anyone ever says “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean” to me again, I might punch them in the face), and one of the managers thought I was stupid because of the way I looked and because I wasn’t familiar with her obscure retail terminology, having never worked at a department store before, and she spoke to me in this real condescending way, like I was a moron (she was shocked when I eventually told her I was quitting to do a Master’s, since she didn’t even think I was capable of getting a Bachelor’s). And don’t get me started on the customers and the disgusting things they did to our fitting rooms! The only things that made it bearable were a few of the other employees I made friends with, and the fact that it minimised the amount of time I had to spend with my parents. This was obviously not a sustainable way of life, and things with jerk boyfriend were worse than ever. He had started working second shift, and had taken to picking me up afterwards at 11:30 at night, when I would be expected to cook him dinner. He would eat it, drink some beer, and then immediately fall asleep, and then get super angry when I tried to wake him up to take me back home – one time he threw me across the room, and he claimed he was still asleep and didn’t know what he was doing, but considering this was the same man who used to shoot me in the ass with a BB gun whilst laughing hysterically as I tried to run away (I was genuinely terrified he was going to shoot me in the face), I don’t believe that for a second. Asshole knew exactly what he was doing.

That November, World/Inferno came through town, and though I was super pumped to see them, I was definitely not on the guest list as promised, possibly because of an unfortunate incident where I took ‘shrooms again and sent a long rambling email to Jack Terricloth about how much his music meant to me, having obtained his personal email address from Dan and Ed. This is also possibly why I never heard from Dan and Ed again. No matter, I still went to the show and befriended their photographer, Konstantin, and ended up working the merch table with him during the opening acts, and I basically thought I was the coolest person ever when various acquaintances walked by and saw me sitting there. The band invited me to hang out with them after (Jack clearly didn’t realise I was the person who sent the email), so I told the person I had gotten a ride with to go ahead and leave without me, and I was on top of the world until I realised they only asked me because they wanted someone local to tell them where to score cocaine. I have never done hard drugs in my life, and though I knew of people who did, I certainly was not about to procure drugs for anyone, so I had to call my jerk boyfriend to come and pick me up from downtown Cleveland, and as you can probably imagine, he was not pleased. I did go to a couple World/Inferno shows after that, and I still like their music, but that was definitely the night when the infatuation started to end for me.

Since my entire life was even more miserable than before I had left for EuroTrip at this point (having seen that there was something better out there), I needed some form of escape, and that came in the form of Tim, the British art student I had met in Barcelona, who had left me the lovely handmade card and promised to keep in touch. We became Facebook friends, and it soon emerged that Tim had a bit of a crush on me, which led to us sending each other increasingly flirtatious messages over the following months. I took to staying up half the night just to talk to him when he got up in the morning, since it was the only time I could use the family computer without my parents hanging around. And I started saving up my crappy department store earnings, and planning on visiting him that summer. I thought since I would be in Europe anyway, I might as well go backpacking again, and started planning a trip through Eastern Europe this time (I still had some savings left after my first trip, and was basically stashing away everything I made, even though it wasn’t a lot). And I finally started to make some moves towards independence by trying to split up with horrible boyfriend (well, I thought we were broken up, but that clearly wasn’t his understanding of the situation) and reconnecting with my old friend Kim, who I had known since kindergarten, and was absolutely joined at the hip with all throughout middle school and high school until I started dating jerk boyfriend, who drove us apart early in our relationship because she tried to tell me how awful he was. I’m happy to say that we were able to rekindle our friendship, and remain close friends to this day, even though we only get to see each other a couple of times a year.

And so June rolled around, and I put that whole awful year behind me as I prepared to embark on a second EuroTrip. Tim still lived with his parents, so he had found some friends I could stay with in Romford for the week I was planning on visiting, who generously let me crash on their very comfortable couch that you can see me pictured with, above. We had a great time that week – or at least, I did. I didn’t realise that British people bought each other rounds (it’s not as common in America, plus jerk boyfriend usually just bought all my drinks), so I thought everyone was just treating me on account of being a visitor, totally oblivious to the fact that they were all probably silently seething because I never bought any of them a drink in return, but were far too polite to say so. I thought they were all really lovely people because they had never met an American before and seemed really interested in me and my life. I also didn’t realise that I was coming on a bit strong for Tim, who had become very religious over the course of the past year, and was intending to become a minister. I think my heathen ways were a bit much for him, because despite all the intense flirting, our in-person relationship basically consisted of a few make-out sessions, and in retrospect, he made it pretty clear he wanted to get rid of me after that.

Unfortunately, I was completely unaware of all of this at the time, and decided that because I loved London so much this time around, I should try to move there, which I could most easily do by getting a student visa. So I decided to forego most of my Eastern Europe trip, and instead spent time researching Master’s programmes and getting applications ready, and basically invited myself to stay for another week at Tim’s friends’ house. I had actually become friends with two of them by this point, and they weren’t that bothered, but the other housemates clearly were, and sort of passively aggressively tried to get me to leave, but since they wouldn’t actually kick me out, and I was real bad at reading signals, I just stayed on until I had taken care of all the school related stuff, and then left to return to Cinque Terre for a bit, and finish off the last portion of my intended holiday by visiting Budapest and Krakow (I might talk about that trip in another post since I don’t see myself wanting to hop on public transport to visit a museum any time soon, even though I know some are reopening in July, so I won’t say any more about it now).

When I got back home in July, I did not have time to mope around, because I was a woman on a mission! I applied to four different MA programmes in London, and to my amazement, got in to all of them, even though they were mostly with better schools than the ones I had been rejected by in America (it’s amazing how that hefty overseas student fee gives you a foot in the door), and started the student visa process in August. For September admission. I couldn’t decide between three of the programmes (metropolitan history at the University of London, a creative nonfiction writing course at City, and early modern history at King’s College London) until Lucy, the programme convenor at King’s, had a word with the British consulate in Chicago to get them to rush my application through, and as she had also been really lovely to me on the phone, I decided that was the programme for me. I literally didn’t know if I would be able to go or not until the middle of orientation week, when my visa finally came through, and I booked a flight for the next day, broke up with jerk boyfriend again (he had been harassing me over the phone, as he still seemed to think we were together), and packed my life into two suitcases to start again in London.

At the airport with my brother before moving to London.

This was without a doubt the scariest and most stressful thing I had ever done, but I rushed into it without giving myself time to think, and I was fine (for a while, until the adrenaline started to wear off). There hadn’t been any student housing available due to my late admission, so I booked a room in a hostel to live in until I managed to find a place. After two weeks of frantic house hunting using the Spareroom website, I settled on sharing a terraced house with a group of people my age in Elephant and Castle (chosen mostly because the room was the biggest and cheapest by far of all the ones I looked at, it was an easy bus journey to King’s, and because Toby (one of the housemates) and I shared a mutual love of Bruce Campbell). Unfortunately, I’d inadvertently burned bridges with Tim et al (he definitely thought I was moving there on account of him, which was not the case, but I can certainly see how he would have been creeped out if that’s what he thought), and I didn’t befriend anyone in my MA programme either (they’d all already bonded during the orientation week that I’d missed, and though I tried to make friends by going to the pub with them after class, I gave up after overhearing one of them telling everyone else not to tell me about the party she was planning because she didn’t want to have to invite me. It’s one thing if people don’t like me after they get to know me, because I know I’m opinionated and certainly not to everyone’s taste, but these people didn’t even know me, and I hate not being given a chance. Takes me right back to being bullied in elementary school), so it was lucky I had my housemates, one of whom was Marcus. Thanks to tequila and Futurama (it’s a long story), we got together about two months after meeting, and have been together ever since. And I’m still good friends with Toby too. In many ways, that first year here was one of the most difficult emotionally of my life (I thought once I got out of Cleveland, all my problems would magically be solved, and had a bit of a breakdown when I realised that wasn’t the case), but I made it through, and things eventually got a lot better (and awful ex finally got the message when I started dating Marcus and told him I was applying for a working visa after I finished my course. I had no plans to move back to Cleveland, at least not if I could help it). There are many more stories I could tell about that year, but I think I’ll leave it there for now with the whole EuroTrip 2007 series, on a sort-of happy ending, and talk about something a bit different next week.

EuroTrip 2007: Amsterdam

Amsterdam was the last stop on my backpacking adventure, and being well aware of what the city had to offer, I made sure to allocate myself a full five days here. This was during my relatively brief pothead phase, which basically lasted from the age of 20 until I stopped dating my jerk boyfriend, since his brother grew it and could always be counted upon to ensure I had a steady supply (said brother has since done time in prison for vehicular manslaughter whilst high on cocaine, but I wouldn’t use this as an argument that weed is a gateway drug, since his brother never actually smoked it himself, he just sold it). But I digress, let’s get back to the more cheerful subject of Amsterdam. Just a heads up that there is a LOT of soft drug use throughout this post – I’m not advocating it, just being honest about what happened at the time.

I was due to meet Dan and Ed, the World/Inferno roadies, the day after I arrived in town, so I decided to wait to begin the weed-smoking until I had some company, and instead rented a bicycle and attempted to navigate my way around town. I had never done city cycling before, and the idyll didn’t last very long, because within a matter of hours: I managed to get spectacularly lost and then got screamed at by some woman when I stopped to consult a map, as I apparently wasn’t far enough off the bike path when I stopped; got yelled at by several more people for not going fast enough (because I didn’t want to get lost again); and almost died when I got the front wheel of my bike lodged in a tram track with a tram fast approaching (I managed to get it free in time (obviously), but making tram tracks the exact thickness of a bike tyre in a city like Amsterdam seems like a recipe for disaster). After that, I rapidly decided a bike was not the form of transport for me, but as I had rented the bike for four days, I was for some reason too embarrassed to return it so soon (why did I care what the bike rental place thought of me?), so I just chained it up securely to a railing, and basically abandoned it until I had to return it.

Because I had originally planned on cycling everywhere, I had booked a hostel quite far out of town, but after I put the kibosh on the whole bike idea, I decided to move somewhere a bit closer after the first night, and found a place that was still outside the centre (because the places in the middle of Amsterdam were expensive!) but was a reasonable walking distance away from all the action, and then headed out to meet up with Dan and Ed. It was a very cold and rainy day, and I soon found myself smoking weed with them in a dirty wet alley (don’t ask me why we didn’t just smoke it in one of the many, many cafes dedicated to that purpose). As our two previous meetings had been relatively short, I got a chance to know them better (doing Class B drugs together will facilitate that) and quickly discovered I preferred Dan, who was shorter and quieter, to Ed, who was sort of gawky and geeky, and was frankly a bit of an embarrassment once he was high (despite my extremely low alcohol tolerance, I had a strangely high weed tolerance, and definitely thought that I wasn’t being annoying, though I’m sure I was). Nonetheless, they came as a pair, so I went with them to eat noodle bowls, and then to a cafe where we smoked some more and I ate a space muffin. At some point, we decided to wander through the red light district (depressing), and ended up in the Erotic Museum, where I took the only pictures in my entire stay in Amsterdam, other than the one from the boat tour you can see at the start of the post, but because the photo involved me hugging a giant penis, you will not be seeing it (not so much on account of the penis, but because I look awful).

The next day, I started smoking early, before I had even met up with Dan and Ed, and after we met, I drank a strawberry space shake and smoked some hash, so I was pretty far gone and just wanted to sit down somewhere, which led to us taking a boat tour of the canals. Unfortunately, there was a German guy on the tour who was even higher than I was, and he spent the whole time screaming things in German in an annoying falsetto voice and then laughing hysterically, so I couldn’t wait to get off. I tried to take an upper to counteract all the marijuana in my system, but eventually decided it was a losing battle, and retired to my hostel room with a load of snacks procured from a nearby health food store (including really delicious seitan broodjes), with plans to meet up with Dan and Ed again that evening. But when I went back into town to our arranged meeting place, feeling much better after a nap, they never turned up (and in the age of no mobiles and no internet unless you had access to a computer, the only thing I could do was go to their hostel and leave a message at the front desk telling them I’d be at the same meeting place the next morning, if they fancied meeting then), so I thought, “screw it, I’ll just do some ‘shrooms instead,” and bought myself a big old box.

Despite my proficiency with weed, I had never done ‘shrooms before, and didn’t really know what to expect. In a total rookie move, I ate half the box, didn’t feel anything, so I ate the rest of the box and ended up the highest I’d ever been as a result. I couldn’t sleep at all that night because I was busy exploring the inner dimensions of my mind, and what the inner dimensions of my mind mainly contained was Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, after spending the past five weeks reading the books nonstop, so I found myself wandering through Discworld. God knows what the other people in my room thought of me, but I was having a great time, at least until I went to the bathroom and looked in a mirror and my face freaked me out so much I had to just hold in my pee for the rest of the night, rather than risk seeing myself again (as a side note, throughout the entire trip I had worn flipflops every single time I used a hostel toilet, including in the shower, because I lived in fear of getting a wart from someone else’s dirty feet. This night was the one time I went without flipflops, because I was too high to consider them, and I ended up developing a big painful plantar wart on the bottom of my foot shortly after returning home. Took me months to get rid of it – I tried everything, and the only thing that worked was sticking a piece of duct tape to the bottom of my foot for a couple of months until the whole wart, including the surprisingly deep core, just peeled off with the tape. So satisfying! As a bonus, my stinky foot marinating away in the duct tape produced one of the most disgusting smells I’ve ever smelled, and I used to chase my brother around the house with the used pieces of tape, because I am a jerk).

After a completely sleepless night, it was time to meet up with the guys, per the message I had left at their hostel the night before, so I dragged myself out of bed in case they turned up this time. They were there, and it turns out the reason they hadn’t appeared the night before was because they had also decided to do ‘shrooms, and were too high to leave their room. So we were all in a bad state, and tried to compensate by taking more uppers and some “herbal XTC” they had acquired, which basically just upset my stomach and made me really emotional, which was unfortunate as we were headed for the Van Gogh Museum, and Van Gogh makes me sad at the best of times. I basically spent most of the time crying at how much beauty Van Gogh saw in the world, despite his difficult life. I felt pretty ill by that point, so went back to my hostel to have a nap and a shower (and let’s be honest, to have access to a toilet for my diarrhea, because those pills destroyed my stomach and I didn’t want a repeat of Paris), and came back out that evening to go get a pizza with Dan (Ed kept insisting he didn’t want to eat in a restaurant, and I was equally adamant that the pizza from street food vendors in Amsterdam tasted like potatoes, and I wanted a proper Italian pizza, so just Dan and I went) and then met back up with Ed to say goodbye to both of them, as they were headed to London the next day to rejoin World/Inferno. We promised to stay in touch, but I never saw or heard from them again.

On my last full day in Amsterdam, I was really upset about my trip ending, and was ready for a physical transformation so everyone could see how I felt I had changed inside as a result of the trip, so I headed to a hair stylist I had encountered on the street soliciting business a few days before, which would typically not be a good sign, but this guy was crazy in the best possible way and gave me exactly what I wanted at the time – short and spiky black and purple hair. After buying some last minute souvenirs, I got another space shake and smoked two bowls of weed, and then ate way too many candy bars and gave myself a stomachache again. I also had to retrieve my bike from where I had left it so I could return it and get my deposit back, and miraculously, it was still there! (It was very obviously a rental bike, with the logo of the rental company welded to the frame, so I don’t think anyone wanted it, frankly.) And then it was time to spend my last night in a hostel before heading back home.

Because this post is already ridiculously long, and I feel like I can’t just end the journey here (and most museums aren’t going to be opening any time soon, so I have plenty of time to keep waffling), I’ll explain what happened after I got home and how I ultimately ended up moving to London in next week’s post.

Me and my new hairstyle shortly after I returned home. I had poison ivy on my face at the time, which is what the weird rash is.

 

EuroTrip 2007: Liege and Bruges

Arriving in Liege after a long and complicated train journey, I was immediately struck by how cold and rainy it was for June, especially as I’d become accustomed to the heat of Southern Europe. I was also slightly taken aback by the ugliness of their train station, which was still under construction. I managed to catch a bus to my hostel, despite the driver not understanding me when I asked if the bus went where I needed to go, and spent as much time as I could be bothered wandering the town and eating waffles and chocolate, though I was thoroughly unimpressed with Liege (this trip was the beginning of my hatred of Wallonia, and my love affair with Flanders). But you may be wondering why I was there in the first place, especially since I took such an awkward journey to get there. The answer is of course World/Inferno, who you may recall were my favourite band at that time, and were playing a show there that night.

While hanging out at the hostel prior to the show, I started talking to a couple of Aussie guys who expressed an interest in coming to the show with me (maybe they had designs on me, I don’t know, but certainly nothing ever came of it), and I was happy enough to not have to find my way back late at night alone, so we all set off together, picking up some frites on the way. The venue was called CPCR, which apparently stands for the Centre PolyCulturel Résistances, which I’m guessing is some kind of anarcho collective not dissimilar to the venue in Paris, though this one was less weird, containing a bar, a kitchen, and a small show space in the back. When we arrived, the band were all sitting around a table eating soup, and I went full fangirl on Jack Terricloth, the singer, who was quite a bit older than me and not an attractive man by any stretch of the imagination (he was balding and had black teeth), but I loved his voice so much that I was super excited to talk to him and give him some British change I had knocking around, since they were heading to England next, and he promised to put me on the guest list the next time they came to Cleveland, which I was thrilled about (never happened, but I’ll explain more about that in a future post). And I got to meet up again with Dan and Ed, the roadies I had befriended in Paris. I loved this show even more than the one in Paris, probably because Jack specifically mentioned me on stage a handful of times (it was a fairly small crowd, so it wasn’t really as impressive as I thought it was), and I waltzed with Dan, who, unlike the Frenchman in Paris, did not urinate on my feet, so that was a definite improvement! Dan and Ed had a week off before heading to Britain with the band, and since we were all getting along so well, we agreed to all meet in Amsterdam in a few days’ time.

After an uneventful remainder of the night in Liege, I gratefully left the city and set my sights on Bruges, which had similarly crappy weather, but it was so pretty, especially after Liege, that I didn’t really care. I was pretty unimpressed with my hostel when I saw it, particularly the shower facilities, but I was kind of used to being smelly at this point in the trip, so I wasn’t too bothered about going a couple of days without showering, and instead headed out to explore the town. I had more frites (sans mayo, which is the devil), and discovered my favourite soda of all time, Fanta Pomelo, which unfortunately turned out to be a limited edition flavour that only hung around for a couple of years (I have found on subsequent visits that Schweppes sells an Agrumes soda in Belgium that is similar but not quite as good – my kingdom for a delicious pink grapefruit soda!), and ate more waffles and chocolate (when in Belgium). I ended up at Dumon, which is apparently recommended by Rick Steves, but for once the man got it right, because I LOVE their chocolate. I’ve gotten at least a kilo box of it every time I’ve been back to Bruges, and excitingly, Marcus found a place in Chiswick that sells it and got me a box for Valentine’s Day (though they’re not even doing mail order since lockdown started, so I’m shit out of luck for now), and on this occasion, I picked up a box for myself and one for my grandpa, which I stashed in my locker back at the hostel, and endured a sleepless night thanks to the guy snoring like a chainsaw in the bunk below mine.

The next day, I wearily headed out into the cold again to check out the produce and flower market in the Markt, which was very quaint, though I would have liked it even better if it had been the day for the weird antiques market that I discovered on a return visit. I also went to St. Jan’s Hospital Museum, because I had read in my guidebook that it was formerly a plague hospital, and how could I pass that up? Nowadays, it is mainly an art museum, but I was given an English audioguide that talked about its plague-ridden past, and there was a death cart that they used for the bodies inside the museum, so I was still pretty happy with my visit. I then went to the Halve Maan brewery for the tour, since it’s an obligatory Bruges kind of thing (you can read about the tour I took a few years ago here) and ate yet more frites and some ice cream (which I suspect might have been from Da Vinci Gelateria, which still has my favourite ice cream in the city). All in all, it was quite a pleasant day…and then I returned to the hostel.

If you were hoping the scatalogical stories were over with, I’m going to have to disappoint you here, but I think this was the last incident of the trip. That night, I was having a beer in the hostel bar, when an Australian guy I recognised as the human chainsaw in the bunk beneath me approached me and tried to hit on me. I rebuffed him, and asked if he could try very hard not to snore so much tonight, as I wasn’t able to get much sleep the night before. Well, he was clearly already completely pissed and instead wrapped me up in a big smelly bear hug I had to fight my way out of, and offered to buy me a drink in apology. I again rebuffed him and made another angry comment before heading upstairs to try to get some sleep before his drunk ass rolled into bed.

At some point in the middle of the night, Snores McGee came in and passed out and started snoring like a chainsaw again. I was already ready to kill him at this point, when the unthinkable happened. He jumped up, and started puking up spaghetti in the middle of the room. It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen. The strands of pasta were stuck in his throat, and he was standing there gagging and pulling them out and dropping them on the floor. He left the mess there, and returned to bed, starting to snore again almost immediately. Whilst this was happening, I reached down from my top bunk and pulled my bag, which was sitting on the floor, onto my bunk with me, so it remained clean, but some of the other people in the room who somehow managed to sleep through this were not so lucky, and their luggage was covered in vomit. I just sat there for an hour in total disbelief, not really knowing what to do as I would have to walk through his puke to find someone to clean it up, and I really did not want to do that.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, he then woke up again, and puked twice more, again, all over the floor, with no attempt to even leave the room. This time, it woke up an American guy who had a top bunk across the room from mine, and we just sat there staring at each other in horror whilst this was taking place. The room was equipped with six or eight sets of bunk beds, with an extra single bed on the floor, which a Mexican guy had to sleep on because there was no room in the bunks. While we looked on aghast, the puker started violently farting, and all of sudden, abruptly pulled down his pants and took a shit right on the Mexican guy’s duvet while the poor guy was sleeping under it (and how he managed to sleep through it, I will never know). At that point, the shitter ran out of the room and fortunately, the door locked behind him (I later found out that he had also smeared shit down the walls of the corridor and on the outside of our door). Somehow, the American guy and I were still the only ones awake who had seen the whole thing, and we had to wake up the poor Mexican guy who was still innocently slumbering away with a giant turd on his duvet, so the American guy, who was closer, shook him a bit with his foot and told him to get up because there was shit on his bed. He was still half asleep, but it obviously sunk in when he saw the turd, because he freaked out and threw the duvet across the room, as would anyone in that situation. In the meantime, the shitter had returned from his fecal depredations of the hostel and started pounding on the door to be let back in. Well, that woke up some more people, but I kept telling everyone to not let him in under any circumstances, as he had desecrated the room. After an hour of straight pounding on the door and yelling, one guy couldn’t take it any more and let the shitter in, where he immediately collapsed back into his bunk and started snoring again. I have never been so angry and disgusted in my life, and I couldn’t even complain without getting puke on my feet!

The next morning, the puke was still on the floor, so I had to just suck it up and step down on the least vomity part in my flipflops to head down for breakfast, not that I had much of an appetite. There, I encountered the guy whose duvet had been shit on, and we discussed the awful night before. He said, “I thought it was a bad dream, but I woke up, and the shit, it was real!” which is one of my favourite quotes ever. The shitting chainsaw got kicked out of the hostel, but as it was my last night there anyway, it didn’t do me much good, and the owner also made him clean the room, all the luggage he had puked on, and forced him to take the duvet to the laundromat, though I was personally disgusted that they would even try to reuse it at this point. If it wasn’t already obvious from the awful showers, that was a clue that the hygiene standards of this establishment were not the highest, as was the fact that when I went to pack up the chocolate I’d put in my locker, I found out it had been gnawed by rats, and I had to go buy more before I left. I would tell you not to stay there, but I can’t remember the name of it, and I would sincerely hope it no longer is in business anyway! (Lest you think all establishments in Bruges are like that, every place I’ve stayed since I’ve been back has been very nice, so maybe just stick to hotels and avoid the hostels!) Surprisingly, this experience did not put me off Bruges, since as you may have gathered from my asides, I have returned a few times (and have been to Belgium probably more than any other European country – I really love Flanders) – the chocolate, waffles, and prettiness of the town overrode the awfulness of that night – though it did very much put me off hostels! The next post will cover Amsterdam, which is now all a bit of a blur, for reasons which will not surprise you.

 

EuroTrip 2007: Cinque Terre (or More Accurately, Una Terra)

Having heard good things about Cinque Terre, and feeling that I needed more Italian food in my life (despite having stuffed myself stupid on the first go-round), I found myself a hostel in Riomaggiore (one of the five villages that make up this area on Italy’s Ligurian coast) and got the shuttle from my hostel in Nice to board the train that I had of course booked in advance, being an old hat at this Interrailing thing by now. In the shuttle to the station, I encountered a pair of American twins who I immediately began referring to in my head as the Bob Sagets (Bob Saget in his nerdily wholesome Danny Tanner from Full House incarnation, not the actual Bob Saget, who is a fairly raunchy albeit still kind of lame comedian). They had not booked a train, and were also hoping to go to Cinque Terre, so I advised them they needed to book a ticket right away, and went up to the ticket window to show them how to do so; essentially, they would have missed the train without me, but the jerks didn’t even thank me. Fortunately, they had seats in another compartment, as I was dreading having to sit with them and listen to them fangirling over Rick Steves (they had money belts, zip-off trousers, and even walking sticks, even though they were only in their 20s!), but as it turned out, I might have preferred the Bob Sagets over my experience.

I’ve really struggled with how to write about this incident without sounding like an awful person, and debated leaving it out altogether, but it did happen, and I’m all about honesty, so here we are. I was sharing a compartment with a French woman and her severely mentally disabled daughter, who was probably in her 20s or 30s, which is of course not a problem in and of itself – I’m not that terrible of a person – but unfortunately the daughter kept flailing her arms around and hitting me with them. To make matters worse, she very obviously soiled herself early on in the journey, and though it was a hot day on an un-air-conditioned train, which meant the smell got progressively worse, her mother didn’t go help her clean up or anything, just left her sitting in it (and believe me, after my experience in Paris, I’m certainly not going to judge someone for losing control of their bowels, but I know it’s not nice to be left in your own filth). All this was perfectly forgivable (even though I felt bad for the daughter, who was visibly distressed), because of course this woman was entitled to travel with her daughter, and I’m sure her life must have been difficult, but what I couldn’t forgive was this woman having the nerve to yell at me when my fruit salad leaked a bit on the floor. I had bought a fruit salad for lunch which was just in a plastic container with a bit of plastic vacuum sealed over the top, and the seal must have sprung a leak, because some of the juice started dripping out on the floor. It was already sitting in a plastic bag, so I picked it up and wrapped it completely in the bag, and did my best to wipe up the juice with a napkin, but obviously the floor under the seat was still a little sticky. This wasn’t good enough for the mother, who started screaming in my face in French for making a mess, which, given the circumstances, was just a bridge too far. Fortunately, we weren’t too far from my stop at this point, so I pretended like I was leaving to get supplies to clean up the mess, and just hid in the corridor until my stop, when I rushed back, grabbed my bags, and ran off the train, where I ran right into the Bob Sagets, who were also changing at Genoa to get to Cinque Terre. For some inexplicable reason, they wanted to show me the lunch they had bought – initially I had thought it was because they were going to offer me something in thanks for getting them on the damn train, but of course they didn’t offer me anything, not even a bottle of water (of which they had extra), even though I specifically mentioned how thirsty I was. As predicted, they did proceed to tell me about the merits of Rick Steves on the next train – fortunately, Rick Steves recommended staying in Monterosso, the first of the five villages by train, so that’s of course what they did, and I happily found myself free of them.

Arriving in Riomaggiore, I crossed under the tunnel from the station into one of the most charming towns I’d ever seen, and checked into my hostel, which was just an apartment on a back street crammed entirely full of beds. Not plush at all (it was actually kind of grody, as a couple would loudly have sex during the day even with other people sitting in the room trying desperately to ignore them), but I was so enchanted with the town that I didn’t care. Since Liguria is the home of pesto and focaccia, which are two of my favourite foods, I immediately ventured up the hill to one of three focaccerias for a giant piece of pesto focaccia, which remains to date probably the best thing I have ever eaten in my life.

After an uneventful night, the next day I got to know some of my hostelmates a bit better (I already knew the randy couple far too well), and immediately hit it off with a guy from Canada named Mike. Mike and I would be best buds for the remainder of our time in Cinque Terre, mainly because we were both hella lazy and loved to eat. Now, the reason most people go to Cinque Terre, especially back then, is to do this coastal hike that leads between all five towns, and is meant to be gorgeous. Everyone else in our hostel was doing the hike, and they couldn’t believe that neither Mike nor myself had any interest in it whatsoever. Rather, we hung around on the terrace reading books all day, and saying “ciao” to everyone who passed by, including the Bob Sagets! (I think I was in the process of telling Mike about them when they suddenly appeared out of nowhere, which made it even funnier!) We found that only the Italians were polite enough to say “ciao” back; the tourists just ignored us, so we took to swearing at them in Italian instead. Since I had limited space in my backpack, I was making ample use of the book exchange shelves that were set up at most hostels, and I kept encountering Discworld books (a series I already knew and loved), so spent most of the trip exchanging one Discworld book for another (which would lead to an interesting experience when I got to Amsterdam). I had focaccia again for lunch, but I was more ambitious for dinner. Mike and I had spent the day eyeing up the giant pesto pizza advertised at a pizzeria up the hill as a pizza that could easily feed five people, and we took that as a personal challenge. We managed to polish off one between the two of us, much to the amazement of our hostelmates (I was pretty slim back then, and Mike was a bit smaller than I was, so it looked impressive). It remains one of my proudest accomplishments (which maybe doesn’t say much about my life, but whatever), and I even got gelato after!

The next day, though we were both still firmly opposed to doing the hike (we’d come to relax, not to bloody exert ourselves!), we decided we should probably do something other than sit around the hostel all day, so we went to the beach. This consisted of a small strip of pebbles surrounded by boulders, with aggressive looking waves (those waves are no joke – a tourist got sucked off the cliffs whilst posing for a picture a few months after we were there, and died as a result), and though it looked pretty, it was definitely not ideal for swimming, not that I would have done so anyway, so we basically just watched leathery nude old people sunbathe for a bit before deciding to head up to La Spezia, the nearest city, to see if there was anything worth doing there. There really, really wasn’t. We walked around for an hour, and it was really dirty and industrial, so we decided to come right on back to Riomaggiore and continue sitting around guilt-free, since at least we’d made an attempt to explore. That night, we opted for spinach cannelloni instead, which was much more delicious than the stuff in Florence, and had more gelato, including a special Cinque Terre flavour that had too much dried fruit in it for my tastes, but I ate it anyway because it was still ice cream.

I had to sadly leave the next day for a very long trek up to Liege, but stopped by my favourite focacceria before I went to stock up on a few more slices of pesto heaven. It was good I did, because I had originally planned on spending the afternoon in Milan, from which I was taking a night train to Cologne, and gave myself hours between trains as a result. Unfortunately, when I got to Milan, I realised there was not a single locker or anywhere to leave my bag in the station, and since my bag had gotten progressively heavier throughout the trip, there was absolutely no way I was going to be exploring Milan to any significant extent with that thing on my back. So I was limited to basically the half mile or so around the station, which is typically the shadiest part of town. I did manage to find a subpar gelateria before just giving up and resigning myself to sitting in the station for hours, though I at least had my beloved pesto focaccia for comfort. I also got some emergency Happy Hippos and red orange Fanta for the train, but this experience soured me on Milan, even though I never actually saw the city. What kind of a station doesn’t have lockers?! Fortunately, for once I had managed to book a train with a couchette, and even better, they were single sex couchettes, so I didn’t have to worry about creepy pervert men! I ended up sharing a four person couchette with only one German woman around my age, so I actually managed to get some sleep on a train, which was a miracle in itself, before disembarking in Cologne extremely early in the morning to catch a train to Aachen, and then from Aachen to Liege, which was memorable mainly because I tried to use the toilet at one point and was strongly dissuaded from it by the German man who emerged, who somehow managed to convey with hand gestures that he had absolutely destroyed that toilet, and I should under no circumstances go in until it had aired out, which I found absolutely hilarious (and kind of thoughtful in a way).

So once again, except for the train journey to Riomaggiore, and the afternoon in Milan, I had an absolutely lovely time. In fact, Cinque Terre was my favourite place that I visited on this trip (or more accurately, Riomaggiore, since that was the only one of the five villages I ended up seeing, hence the title of this post), and I came back again the next year, and had a similarly nice time, that time making friends with an Australian guy. I actually kept in touch with Mike for ages via Facebook, and we’re still Facebook friends, though I’ve not spoken to him in years. He was the perfect companion to enjoy doing absolutely nothing but eating with for a few days, and I’ll always remember that time fondly. However, I did try to go back to Riomaggiore for my 30th birthday five years ago, and that place has been destroyed. It is insanely busy and crowded, and most disappointingly of all, the perfect focacceria is no longer there, having been replaced by a fish’n’chips in a cone establishment, which seemed to be all anyone was eating when we were there. It was such a disappointment to see it completely wrecked by the tourism that had in small numbers allowed it to flourish, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone now.

I loved this sign on the door of my hostel reception in Riomaggiore, though I would have been seriously annoyed if I had actually been waiting to check in when I saw this sign, with no indication of when anyone would be back. For the record, Mike and I spotted this when we were sitting in the street eating pasta, and no one came back for at least an hour. We saw multiple groups of travellers getting increasingly frustrated!

EuroTrip 2007: Barcelona and Nice

This will come as no surprise to anyone who read my last post, but “the train ride [to Barcelona] was miserable, as I anticipated” (direct quote from my journal, and I sure seemed to use the word miserable a lot for a trip I enjoyed on the whole). I was stuck sitting upright in a normal train seat all night and my foot quickly fell asleep (unlike the rest of me) but because I was trapped in a window seat and couldn’t get up without disturbing the person next to me, it just kept getting increasingly numb until my ankle started to throb and I started panicking that a blood clot was forming that would travel to my heart and kill me (this, coupled with my frequent need to pee, is why I always insist on choosing an aisle seat on long flights, even if I have to pay a bit extra to do so). Needless to say, I didn’t get any sleep, so when I got to my hostel in Barcelona, I finally took that long-awaited and desperately needed shower and crashed out for hours in my bed. This was probably my favourite hostel of the trip thanks to its unusual configuration – though the rooms were mixed gender, the beds were all built on these little wooden platforms with plywood walls between each and a shower curtain at the end of each little cubicle, so even though you were sharing a room with like eleven other people, you actually had some privacy, which was lovely! When I finally woke up that afternoon/evening, I encountered a group of six British art students I was apparently sharing the room with who invited me to go clubbing with them that night. Even though clubbing was not ever my scene, they were all a bit younger than me and seemed very sweet, so I agreed for the sake of having some companions I didn’t have to worry about going all rapey on me (after my experiences in Paris and elsewhere), and even though we ended up at some strange place with beds instead of tables, which could have easily gone wrong in creepier company, we just sat there and talked and then headed back to the hostel again, so it was a very welcome chill night.

The next day, I was keen to see some Gaudi architecture, which was the main reason I’d wanted to go to Barcelona in the first place, so I headed out into million degree heat to see the sights. I actually paid to take a tour of La Sagrada Familia (since typically I cheaped out and just walked around the outside of things that had an admission fee) and then headed to Parc Guell, but it had about ninety thousand steps involved, and with the extreme heat, I crapped out pretty quickly and retreated back down the hill to enjoy a strawberry white chocolate Magnum, which is still my favourite flavour of Magnum by far (of course they don’t sell it in the UK, and I’m not overly keen on any of the varieties we do have). I was not impressed with the meatiness of most Spanish food, so I happily discovered the joys of Maoz Falafel instead (which barely exists anymore – they used to have one in London and now I think they only have them in a couple of cities, if at all. They used to be my travel standby in countries with meaty cuisines). I also discovered a bakery on the corner near my hostel that sold the most amazing chocolate truffles, so I’d buy a couple every morning and eat them quickly before they could melt in the heat! And of course there was the market in Las Ramblas that was an excellent source of pre-cut fresh fruit and smoothies, which provided some much needed vitamins at this point in the trip.

After falafeling, I stumbled on some weird religious parade (pictured at the start of the post), then went back to the hostel to try to persuade someone to go get churros from Cafe de L’Opera with me, because I was intimidated to eat in a restaurant by myself. Kerri, one of the Brits, happily agreed, and we met up with the rest of her student chums afterwards for more clubbing. Having realised the night before that I was probably underdressed for the clubbing scene, I busted out my Camden Market dress this time, which was the only vaguely club-appropriate item of clothing I had with me (and in retrospect, I still looked out of place, but who cares? It’s not my scene anyway).

This time, we ended up in some place with awful electronica music, but since we were the only patrons, we persuaded them to play The Cure instead and all got up and danced. I knew the students were leaving in the morning, so when I woke up the next day to someone shaking my leg, I thought maybe one of them was trying to wake me up to say goodbye. It was actually a Spanish guy who worked there, who kept going, “Chee-it, understand?” I most definitely did not, especially when I was still half asleep, so I shook my head at him and hoped he’d go away, since I was a bit freaked out. After watching him clean the room for a bit, it suddenly dawned on me that he was asking if I had to check out that day, and was trying to save me from oversleeping if I did. So he was actually just being nice, which was a pleasant surprise at this point on the trip! Another pleasant surprise came when I finally got up and found a lovely little card that Tim, one of the Brits, had made for me to say goodbye and promise to keep in touch via Facebook. I didn’t have anyone to hang out with now, but I had a lot of errands to run that day and I was used to doing things alone, so I didn’t really mind. I did manage to squeeze in a visit to Casa Battlo (though I was again too cheap to actually go inside, so I just photographed the exterior), more Maoz, and of course more truffles. I had left about a week open on the trip before I had to get up to Belgium to see World/Inferno again, so based on the recommendation of travellers I had encountered at some point on the trip, I decided to head for what was meant to be a really nice hostel in Nice.

Since I had an early morning train there (rather than a night one for once), I set my alarm for 6:45 am, which of course never went off, so I didn’t wake up until an hour later when someone else’s did and had to completely haul ass to the station, where I was at least able to catch a train to Montpellier, from which I was able to transfer onto a train for Nice. It transpired that the hostel I had picked was not actually in Nice proper, but was in an isolated spot outside the city with no public transportation so I was dependent on the hostel shuttle to take me in and out again. This was really not ideal for someone like me who wants the freedom to do my own thing and eat when and where I want (mostly really early, at like 5 o’clock, because I don’t really eat lunch and I’m starving by then!). Fortunately, the hostel at least had a dedicated pizza oven where you could assemble your own pie every night. I just like margherita, so that’s what I had, even though everyone else made fun of me (as people still do, like at our awful work Christmas do last year which was at a Pizza Express where we had to buy our own overpriced meals. What’s wrong with not liking toppings? Margherita is a classic for a reason!), and that’s what I ate both nights, being too finicky to eat the French food on offer (though I did have some tart au citron).

I made friends with one of the women in my room, who invited me to tag along with her and her friends the next day to what ended up being a topless beach. I hate the sun, so this was not ideal, but apart from the increased sun exposure, I wasn’t all that bothered about the topless element (when in Nice, after all), so I got my baps out with everyone else, even though there were a couple of guys with us I didn’t really know. Having never been in an actual sea before, I did attempt to go in (while still wearing a bikini top), but it was a rocky beach with a tonne of waves, and when my flip flops got ripped off my feet when I just sat down by the edge, I quickly realised I would actually die if I tried to go in the water, since I can’t really swim, so I resigned myself to just doing the hated sunbathing (after first slapping on loads of sunscreen). On the plus side, we’d bought a whole box of cherries before heading for the beach, and they remain to date the best cherries I’ve ever eaten in my life! We also got ice cream for lunch – we found a place that had flavours like tomato basil and olive, but me being me, I just opted for the traditional honey pine nut, nougat, caramel, and stracciatella (I always get the four scoop cone when on holiday) – bliss. And despite the unexpected topless portion of the day, no one tried anything lechy, so things had clearly taken a turn for the better!

Since the only part of Nice I really saw was the beach, I didn’t take any photos (for obvious reasons), so here’s more Barcelona.

I had only booked the hostel for two nights, which was probably for the best as I was finding being so far out of town kind of boring, and based on the recommendation of the people I’d gone to the beach with, I decided to head for Cinque Terre next, which I’ll talk about in my next post. So this part of the trip may not have been as exciting as Paris, but at least nothing bad happened, aside from the issue with my ankle on the train from Paris, which was probably because bad Paris vibes were still attached to me!

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 [edited to add that I have recently found out that apparently at least one of the members of Hanson is a big ol’ alt-right racist, so now I am ashamed to be associated with them])). 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?