A Travellerspoint blog

July 2018

A Last Hurrah

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It’s time to go back! Back to the future! Yeah, so little secret: I’m not actually writing this right after traveling. Full disclosure, I’m actually writing this two weeks after taking my trip. Between various shows on Netflix and working out (and school too, I suppose) I kind of put this on the backburner. However, I’m making up for the delay by getting this done now once and for all.

It’s actually the weekend before finals here. I have my Stats final on Monday and my Thermo final on Tuesday morning, which is when I’m supposed to be heading out. It’ll be tight fitting in that test Tuesday morning, but hopefully it’ll all work out (and if it doesn’t, I shall be royally screwed). If all goes according to plan, by 8:30pm on Tuesday, I will be standing firmly on American soil once again. The past two weeks I’ve been swamped with a test every week and numerous homework assignments. By now, I’m in the mode where it’s normal to have a test every week, which is quite scary to deal with it. However, I think I’ve been able to slay these tests better than Buffy with a vampire. In fact, I scored high enough on my last MSE test that I was able to skip out on the final! On the last day of class, our teacher gave us our scores and said: “Any of you who have an A, you can go.” Who’d a thunk! The class I thought would be my downfall turned out to be the one I could skip out on in the end. Now, only two more stand in my way…

School aside, let’s hop in the time-travelling phone booth with Bill and Ted to revisit my most excellent adventure to Belgium. I took this trip with several new people I’d met in the program. There were five of us overall: a perfect size for a travel group. I would argue that four is the lower limit for a good group and seven the upper. Our late-evening MSE class was cancelled, so we left at noon on Friday with the intention of coming back Monday afternoon (no I wasn’t skipping, there were no classes Monday). Our Airbnb was located in Brussels, which would be our forward operating base for the weekend. Brussels is centrally located in Belgium, so it would be a short ride to the various cities we planned on seeing. All in all, it was gearing up to be a fun trip.

I had to take my Thermo quiz immediately before we headed out, which left my insides churning in a mix of adrenaline and pure fear as we saddled up with our bags and got on the bus to the train station. I got acquainted with the rest of my travel companions on the bus ride there: some new and some already familiar to me. Our train left at 1pm and would take us about four hours to get to Brussels. During this time, I continued reading a book I’d picked up about the survivors of Hiroshima, as well as finishing up the last few episodes of “Stranger Things”. With it being the middle of the day, I wasn’t scared to watch it. In the midst of our ride, we happened upon another girl from GTL, who was making her way to Amsterdam. She was very friendly and helped us pass the time by finding someone new to talk to. Before we knew it, our train was pulling into the main station and we were parting ways.

We had been told that our Airbnb was a fifteen-minute walk from the train station, which doesn’t sound that bad on paper. However, this was a fifteen-minute walk *uphill*. (Yes, I did have to walk uphill both ways in the snow and the rain). This hill wasn’t that small either: it was the largest hill in Brussels! We so happened to be inhabiting its highest peak. Weighed down with our bags and weary from the travel thus far, the satisfaction was so sweet when we piled into our temporary abode and tossed our bags in a heap on the ground. Before she headed out, our host was excited to offer any assistance we might need in finding suitable dinner places or places that served beverages of a certain alcoholic persuasion. We turned down her suggestions on the bars, but did eventually make our way to the city center. She said it would contain the most options for us.

Without our bags, the walk felt much lighter and enjoyable. The big Brazil versus Belgium football match was tonight. Having never won the World Cup, Belgium was the underdog that no one had expected to come this far. If they won tonight, they would be moving on to the semi-finals. Our apartment was situated in a heavily Brazilian neighborhood, as evidenced by the multiplicity of flags hanging from every conceivable nook and cranny. In the hours leading up to the game, everyone was out doing their own version of tail-gating: some had coolers, others chairs set up outside of bars with televisions, and almost everyone with a beer in hand. We passed by several groups of kids playing pickup games out on the sidewalk. Between 6 and 8pm, the entire city would be watching in nervous anticipation for their respective teams.

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When we got to the city center, the entire scene was one hot mess of people. There were people walking around in medieval costumes, while others sported soccer jerseys. We heard music and found a town square with bleachers set up around the perimeter. In the center were various groups performing traditional Belgian dances. I desperately wanted to run out there and show off my moves, but I was talked out of it by my friends. After investigating the square, we went window-shopping in the neighborhood for a suitable dinner place. We eventually settled on what Belgium is most known for: its Italian pizza. Although we had wanted to find something more traditional, this place fit all our criteria (it was cheap) and was right next to us.

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Following dinner, we took a more circuitous route to get back to our Airbnb. We headed up the other big hill that Brussels is built on and got a great view of the sunset. Then we passed through a park smothered in a purple haze, which would have made Jimi Hendrix happy. I was able to get my first Belgian waffle! It was a tasty fried treat that held up its reputation. Continuing with our meandering, we found a statue of a little cherub peeing. I’m not sure why it’s such a famous fountain, but there were numerous chocolate shops around us that sold recreations of this effigy in an edible form.

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Brussels is a traditional European city, with everything one would expect to find. It didn’t have many major attractions like, say, Paris, but it did have spirit. We witnessed a bit of this spirit towards the end of the soccer match. With ten minutes left, every television screen in the city had mobs of people standing around it. The closest we could get to one was within thirty feet. However, we all knew the outcome of the match when a loud roar ripped through the city and the blowhorns started. Cars around us let loose with their horns and the Belgian flag was waved out of windows. You think people take American football seriously, these wackos take it to a whole new level here in Europe. By now it was 8:30pm and it would take us about forty-five minutes to get back to our apartment. We worked our way through the masses and saw some pretty ludicrous things. Drivers on mopeds were standing on their seats as they rode, large groups of people were dancing in the dark in the middle of the street, and several everyday minivans were converted into party buses, with way more than the legal amount of people hanging out of them and blasting tunes. Understandably, this was a big deal for Belgium.

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When we got close to our place, we passed through the Brazilian neighborhoods once more. In stark contrast to the partying Belgians, the air was saturated with sadness. The place looked worse than a teenager after a breakup. You could sense that the people were not expecting to end up on the losing side. It was around 10pm when we finally stepped into our room and collapsed on the couch. We worked out the game plan for the next day and promptly went to bed after our exciting first day. Even though we had only been in the city since 4pm, it felt like we had done a whole day’s worth of things. By the end of it, we had walked over nine miles!

Exhausted from yesterday, I staggered out of bed as quietly as I could at 6am. Although the others wouldn’t be up for another two hours, I find it hard to lie in bed after 6:30am. Instead, I went into the living room and continued to read my book. When they did start to stir, I began to get my supplies ready for the day. Heading out at 8:30am, the day’s itinerary was to see the two cities of Ghent and Bruges. Only a half hour by train, it was a quick ride over to our first stop for the day: Ghent.

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Ghent is a famous port city of Belgium: acting as an intermediary for traders between countries like France and the Netherlands. Due its strategic significance, thankfully it missed out on the destruction that the Nazis wrought on other cities across Belgium. That morning, I had found a free walking tour service for Ghent, so we decided that it would be the best way to get acquainted with the city. Our tour guide was a woman in her early forties, with a perky personality and a strong passion for the people of Ghent. She continually talked about their adaptability and innovative approaches to making things work. For example, she led us into a Marriott hotel that had an unassuming exterior. With the original brick façade of a building from the 1500’s, we had to squeeze through the entrance to make it inside. However, upon walking in, the space expanded like entering into Diagon Alley. There was a beautiful glass ceiling that made the place look like an atrium. It was truly a marvel in architecture to have such a large interior hidden behind the tiny front door. She said that it had to keep the original exterior, because it was part of the main street of Ghent and therefore had to maintain its historical look. Back in its day, the original building was also a hotel for salty sailors looking to find a bed and a woman for the night. Its patrons are a tad more refined nowadays, but its cool that it retains its original function even after all these years.

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Aside from magically expanding hotels, she showed us a square where three lampposts sit. Every time a baby is born at a hospital in Ghent, the doctors give the mother a button to press that lights up the lamps. Our guide said that the people of Ghent wanted to celebrate new life entering the world after facing several centuries of repression and death as a city. Then, she led us down a graffiti-covered alley that is a “sanctioned graffiti zone” for anyone that wants to let out their inner delinquent. Every week, new paintings spring up over old ones. The Office of Tourism in the city even sells cans of spray paint to interested vandals! Following that, she showed us a famous beer hall with one of the largest selections in Ghent. Apparently, when people started stealing too many glasses from the hall, it became a new rule at the place that you would have to give the waiter your shoe if you wanted to order a beer. The shoe would be put on a pulley-like device and hung from the ceiling until your meal was over. That way, you wouldn’t be able to leave without giving back your glass. It was highly reminiscent of tactics my teachers used in elementary school.

Towards the end of our tour, she began to tell us about the turning point in Ghent’s history: how it transitioned to being one of the most powerful cities in Europe to being tossed aside. It was the Hundred Years’ War between France and England that started the eventual decline. As Ghent was based off of trading and still a province of France at the time, having its two major customers go to war ended up badly for the city. Then, technological advancements in the textile industry saw the city start to fall behind the technology curve. Unable to catch up to or trade with England, the city’s inhabitants started looking elsewhere for work. In the 1500’s, a new hope was born in Ghent (no, not Luke Skywalker): it was Charles V. He would go on to rule the Holy Roman Empire and unite large swathes of Europe. However, instead of elevating the city from its position of poverty, he levied huge taxes against the townspeople and, when they refused to pay, showed up with a full army and forced them to hand everything over (and then some). The people of Ghent came to hate Charles V, who many thought would be the prodigy that would save the city. Since then, Ghent hasn’t been able to bounce back from its slump and possess the power it once had. Despite this, it’s certainly worth a visit and has a series of canals that highlight its history with commerce. We ended the tour around 1pm and made our way back to the train station, where we would continue our adventure on to Bruges.

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Getting on the train, we were all starting to feel the pangs of hunger as we rode to Bruges. It was only a half hour ride, but our growling stomachs made it worse. During the ride, I looked up places on my favorite go-to site for restaurants: TripAdvisor. Although the place I found was a half hour walk from the station, there were enough great reviews that it would balance out the extra traveling time. When we got off the train, we were blinded by the hot sun that dominated a cloudless sky. There was little shade to be found in the narrow, stone streets as we walked, and the mixture of heat and hunger made us all pick up the pace. We passed through the center of the town and down to where a large statue of a humpback whale sprang out of a canal. Made out of recycled pieces, it was a sculpture advocating for the cleanup of the oceans. Next to the statue was our final destination, which, unfortunately for us, was closed today. Between Venice and Bruges, I don’t have the best record when it comes to finding restaurants that are open.

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Despite this setback, we backtracked to the city center and found a place that sold more traditional Belgian food: hamburgers! Okay, so maybe we got lazy and found a place that had cheap prices again, but I can assure you that it was still delicious. We lounged around in the air-conditioned haven for an hour or so, enjoying the temporary respite. Afterwards, we made our way back to the whale statue and followed the canals. In a way, it felt like the city was trying to copy Venice with how the boats ferried eager tourists around. However, having visited the real thing just two weeks ago, this couldn’t hold a candle to Venice. Heading back into the city center, we walked through an old bell-tower and watched some candy being made in a shop window. Then, following the canals once more, we made our way over to a Convent, where nuns had been living and working for centuries. We stood on the bridge to the Convent and watched ducks come and go in the water as we passed the time talking. Although I looked for her, I didn’t see The Penguin (or Jake and Ellwood for that matter). Finding a park to walk through, we moseyed around for a while as we began to make an indirect path back to the train station. As it was only 5pm, we were trying to figure out what we could do next. We figured that it was too early to go back to Brussels and Bruges was kinda, “been there, done that.” I made a joke that we should hop on the first train leaving and see where it goes, which made one person pipe up that we were only a fifteen-minute ride away from the beach. This proposition piqued all of our interests, and the vote was unanimously in favor of going. That’s how we ended up visiting the beach resort of Belgium, Ostende, on a mere whim.

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One thing I’ve loved about this summer is having the freedom to travel wherever I wish. We wanted to go to the beach, so we went to the beach! The train network makes it very convenient to get around without a car, although you do have to put up with the various strikes and missing trains by mere seconds. When we got off at Ostende, we followed the salty breeze and sound of lapping waves to the water’s edge. Even here, in the middle of Belgium, Disney made an appearance. There was a walled off area of the beach with special Disney sculptures that you could pay to see. Although I didn’t care to go, two people in our group (die-hard Disney fans) went inside. The rest of us walked to the edge of a large pier and found some rocks to sit on while we relaxed. There we sat, soaking up the sun and enjoying a break from walking. I whipped out my phone and started surfing through TripAdvisor for the second time that day in the hopes of redemption. Just as I found a suitable place, the other members of our party walked up to us. We all agreed that we were ready for dinner, so we made our way towards a place that had had good reviews for its chicken.

Apparently, the reviews raved about chicken so much because that was the only thing they served! The two options on the menu were half-chicken, or half-chicken with salad. Our waitress gave us a confused look when we asked for a menu, as if we didn’t already know that there was really only one thing to order. The fresh chicken that came out was complemented by a basket of slices of white bread that was put on our table. If I were to look for Jake and Ellwood, this would’ve been the place to find them. Even with the limited menu, my compatriots were pretty happy with the dinner. I had redeemed myself!

When dinner was over, it was starting to near 8:15pm. With an hour’s ride back to Brussels, we decided that it might be a good idea to catch the 8:40 train. We got on board with two minutes to spare and crammed into some seats alongside other families and groups that had come to the beach on this beautiful day. Little kids ran up and down the aisles as beleaguered parents chased after them. An hour later, we were beginning the mile hike up to our resting place. When we finally arrived, our legs were sore from a full day’s adventure. All in all, we had gone over 14 miles!

What I find incredible is that we were able to see three different cities in one day: the power of being able to hop on any train and travel wherever we fancied. We got a good taste of each city (and some chicken) and were able to move on whenever we wanted to. I’ve cherished having this freedom, because I know that in one short week all my freedoms will be sucked away and replaced with a very strict set of guidelines. The thought of Field Training looms over me with every approaching day, but I have to focus on finals and getting home first before I can even begin to get scared about it. I’ll finish up Part 2 another time, but for now, I have Stats to get back to.

‘Til next time, до свидания!

Posted by oklempay 07:38 Archived in Belgium Tagged canals ghent beach waffle disney brussels bruges ostende cherub stranger_things Comments (0)

I'm Not Verdun Yet!

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Phew, okay, so I may or may not have spent the past weekend holed up inside my room watching the entirety of “Stranger Things” (Told you I was burnt out from Italy). Let me tell you that it as an incredible show with an awesome soundtrack to boot. Plus, it happens to fit three of my criteria for good shows: sci-fi, 80’s, and action. Shows aside, I made sure to spend some time out in the sun by walking to the park and going on workout runs. This week was pretty exciting, because we had a field trip to Verdun on Tuesday, the 4th of July was Wednesday, and I had my second MSE test that evening as well! I think the test went well, but we’ll have to wait and see from the scores, which should come out any day now. I’ll admit, the 4th of July here was a bit of a letdown: and not just because I had a test on the same day. We were supposed to have a barbecue in the evening, but they had “safety concerns” with the grill, so they ended up ordering McDonalds for everyone instead (*groan*). After I grabbed some free, albeit gross, food from the lounge, my friends and I went over to the local pizza place and ordered a large pizza to wash away the taste from our mouths. In addition to the barbecue fiasco, it seemed like no one here even noticed that it was the Fourth! I felt like I was the only one walking around in red, white, and blue. The entire day, the only music I listened to was country music (which is what we did last year in Lithuania)! This Fourth of July doesn’t rank highly in the twenty I have experienced so far. In short, school continues to go well and I have a thermo quiz to get ready for on Friday. I love my classes (except for Stats) and I’m prepared for it to get harder from here on out.

As I mentioned, we had a school field trip to Verdun on Tuesday! I was excited, because it was a trip that I wouldn’t have to do any planning for and could actually go on without needing to worry about checking in, making trains, or finding things to do. There were a good number of people upset by the “mandatory” nature of the trip. As it is with kids, when you tell them that they have to do something (even if it’s visiting one of the most historic sites of WWI!), they’ll get upset and want to do the opposite. On that Tuesday, there was a huge spike in the number of “sick kids” and many others who outright refused to go so that they could do their own thing. There was a good number of people who used the excuse, “I have more important things to do.” Unfortunately, the faculty that planned the trip assumed that almost everyone would be attending, so the large amount of absences created some complications (and some surprising benefits as you’ll see).

We were organized into four groups, each with its own bus. I had signed up for the special group that would be able to tour what was known as the “Citadelle”, a large underground network of tunnels that the French Army used during both World Wars. While we were doing that, everyone else would have some extra time to spend in the city. Leaving around 8:00am, it took us about an hour to get out to Verdun. Many people used this time to go back to sleep, but I did a bit of reading and studying for my MSE test. When we reached the city, we met our tour guide: a delightful Welsh man in his sixties by the name of Giles. He gave a cheerful introduction and wasted no time in jumping into the history and significance of the city as the bus made its way to our first stop. Along the way, he pointed out several groves of trees to us. These, he said, used to be villages of farmers living on the outskirts of the city. The torrential artillery bombardment reduced almost all of them to ashes and rubble. Now, the only sign that they were ever there are crosses that sit nestled back in the woods and mark where the village centers were. Although there was a layer of grass covering the ground, the lumps of craters were still quite noticeable: reminiscent of some strange moon-scape.

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Our first destination was the Ossuary and cemetery of Verdun, which is the largest French cemetery of World War I. In it lie over sixteen-thousand graves. Many of the soldiers buried there were not identifiable, so bear a common name on their grave marking. We took a quick jaunt down among the grave markers before heading up into the main attraction: the Ossuary. Essentially, a giant storehouse of bones, it is a one-of-a-kind building. Its creator, the Bishop of Verdun, wanted to create a place where families of the fallen could go and grieve for their loved ones. It houses the bones of both German and French soldiers who went missing. There are the remains of over 300,000 soldiers inside. Close to ground level, there are glass windows that allow visitors to peer into chambers that contain heaps of bones. It was quite a gruesome site to see. Giles led us inside the Ossuary and gave us more information about how the Bishop travelled across Europe and the United States, raising money for his project. The outside of the building bears the crest of each city that donated money, from Philadelphia to Caen. The main hall of the Ossuary had an ethereal orange glow to it, which made the inside seem like it was on fire. We went up several flights of stairs to the bell tower, where you can look down on the valley that Verdun sits in. From so high up, we had a new perspective on how many graves rest in the cemetery. Arranged in blocks of several hundreds, the rows of graves resembled soldiers marching into battle (which is fitting, considering who lies in the graves).

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After an hour and a half of poking around the Ossuary, we were rounded up like sheep and herded onto the bus. Unfortunately for us, some people who were looking out for their friends filled in the names of their absent pals on the attendance sheet (so that they wouldn’t face any repercussions for skipping). The attendance sheet was the only way to get accountability, so with extra names on there, it was impossible to know who was actually there and who wasn’t. We wasted almost forty-five minutes trying to figure it out, before some people fessed up and we were able to get a more accurate number.

We took a quick, twenty-minute bus ride to our next destination, the Douaumont Fort. Sitting up on a hill, this was the main bastion of the French Army. It was immensely fortified and would have been highly formidable had the French not abandoned it before the Battle for Verdun began. The higher ups were worried that German artillery would surely be able to penetrate and destroy it, so days before the battle began, ordered for the evacuation of the place. The only people left inside were older reservist troops who, presumably, were better left on the back lines. What happened next was a hilarious stroke of luck for the Germans: one squad of German soldiers was sent to get close to the Fort and survey its defenses in preparation for a larger assault. What they found instead was a deserted fort lacking all of its armaments (for those had been taken too). One man, Pioneer Sgt. Kunze, volunteered to go inside and check things out. Armed with but a rifle, he made his way through a hole in the wall and found the place to be empty. The sole inhabitants of the Fort were members of an artillery team, whom Kunze promptly locked in a room. That, boys and girls, is how a German soldier single-handedly captured one of France's mightiest forts. The oddest things can arise from war.

Giles led us to the top of the Fort, which is built inside a giant hill. Then, he took us down into the tunnels. Damp and musty, the temperature dropped almost twenty degrees when we walked inside, which sent shivers down my spine. Water dripped from the ceiling and formed dirty puddles on the ground as we walked through the halls. Metal buckets were set up on the ground, which made creepy, “plink, plink”, noises as we moved through the darkness (not a great place to be after watching "Stranger Things"). We were able to see the soldiers’ barracks (forty to a room) and made our way through the maze to a large cannon that sat under a giant, metal shield. In its heyday, the cannon could be raised and lowered in mere seconds, which allowed the French to take potshots with it and move it back into cover before the Germans could fire back. Later on in the battle, when the French eventually reclaimed the Fort (taking significant casualties in doing so), the cannon was a key tool for the French Army. We spent about an hour venturing through the Fort’s creepy interior before making our way to the buses once more. At this point, it was getting close to one of my three favorite times of the day: lunchtime!

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The bus made its way back to the city and deposited us at the base of a large hill. We said goodbye to Giles and trekked up to the courtyard of a large, regal, manor. Remember how I said there was a good side to those kids who skipped out on us? It seems like the staff that planned the trip ordered enough food for everyone to eat two or three meals. With so many people missing, they were shoveling out sandwiches and bags of cookies as fast as we could take them. One kid walked out of there with eight baguette-sandwiches in his arms! I should consider myself lucky, too, because I was able to snag ten cookies and ration them out over the following week. All in all, lunch was “free” and the food wasn’t half-bad! I’d call that a win-win type of deal.

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Following our surprise buffet, our special group was led down to the “Citadelle”. I was excited to see more tunnels, and having signed up for the special group, I had high expectations for this part of the trip. Unfortunately, it couldn’t have been a bigger let down. Although we did in fact get to see the tunnels, we did so on a Disney-like ride cart that brought us through an incredibly cheesy “living museum”, where screens played out scenes of actors pretending to live in the tunnels. The dialogue of the pretend-story was cringier than a freshman boy asking out a senior girl to prom. On top of that, the tunnels in the Citadelle were far colder than those we went through earlier in the day. It must have been forty degrees in there! By the end of the half-hour ride, I was shaking from the cold (man, I really am a Southerner). I was happy to get outside and into the hot sun, where I met up with some of my friends.

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When we were all together again, we walked into the main city center and began our inspection of the various candy stores that lay scattered throughout. We had heard of one in particular where you could get a tour of its production rooms and some free samples, but it was just a smidge too far away to get to in time. Consoling ourselves with some of the cookies from earlier, we camped out in a park and passed the time shooting the breeze and talking. When an hour had elapsed, we made our way back to the safety of the busses. On the ride back, the staff tossed more satchels of food to anyone that didn’t already have their arms bundled with food. The journey home went by quickly, which I used to study for MSE again. Once I got to my dorm, I continued to study my butt off and prepare for the coming storm.

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Verdun is a small city, but it’s rich in history. Statues and monuments lay scattered all around us: marking off some major firefight or other event that happened over a hundred years ago. As Giles told us, the people of the area are proud of their history, but also want to move on and present Verdun as something more than a city that got beat up like a punching bag a century ago. Nowadays, they have a variety of festivals and events throughout the year that celebrate other aspects of the city’s history. If we hadn’t taken a school field trip to Verdun, I would likely have gone on my own accord. From the Imperial War Museum in London, to the beaches of Normandy, to the death fields of Auschwitz, and now to the cratered city of Verdun, I’m slowly making my way back through history and to a time where the world stood on the brink of collapse. I’m glad that I get to see sites like these, because they remind me of the horrors of war and everything we stand to lose if there’s no one who stands up to the fight against the tyrants and dictators that live among us. Nowadays, it seems like there are many things people take for granted. We have to memorize a quote by Father Denis Edward O. Brien, who puts it pretty bluntly: “It is the soldier, not the reporter, who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protestor to burn the flag.”

Posted by oklempay 10:37 Archived in France Tagged cemetery battle war field_trip verdun ossuary citadelle world_war_i mse Comments (0)

A Tale of 3 Cities Pt. 3

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Finally, several weeks too late, the finale has arrived! This is the conclusion of our epic, Italian, adventure as we make our way from Florence to Venice, and then back to our summer home of Metz, France.

I still hadn’t found my cousin, Mario, but I was keeping my eyes peeled wider than oranges in search of him. I knew he could hop out of a green tube any second. The entire train ride from Florence to Venice I spent looking for him out the window. When I wasn’t looking out the window, I was watching bits and pieces of a new show that wracks me with guilt to say that I *somewhat* enjoy. Let me preface this by saying that Marvel will always be better than D.C. and that Spider-Man is the best of all superheroes. However, in my Netflix-limited state, Green Arrow isn’t the worst show that’s ever existed. In fact, I kinda like it…. (Dad, please don’t disown me).

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We knew we were close to Venice when we saw the land slowly give way to more and more blue. Eventually, we were crossing the water on the narrow strait of land that connects Venice to the mainland. As it came into view, we saw ships running back and forth from its many ports, ferries bustling with tourists, and swarms of birds hovering over rooftops. When we walked off our train, we were hit by a strong, salty, breeze that conjured up a feeling of being on the beach. The most amazing part of the picture was where the sidewalk ended: bright, blue waves lapped at the sidewalk’s edge and a canal sat in place of a road. Boats of all colors, shapes, and sizes passed by us as we took it all in. Our first priority was making it to our Airbnb, which was on the North side of Venice in what we later found out was the Jewish ghetto neighborhood. Although only two miles away, getting there was tricky with the maze of streets and alleyways ending abruptly in water. As the guide for the group, I was responsible for getting us from place to place, which certainly took its toll on me at times. However, this trip, I got us there correctly on the first try!

Our Airbnb was nothing special: just a couple rooms in someone’s apartment. I’m a fan of Airbnb’s over hotels, because it lets you meet a local and get a better taste of what it would be like to live somewhere for a long time (it usually means no air-conditioning). We dropped off our bags and set our sights on visiting St. Mark’s Square, one of the most famous places in all of Venice. It was only 4pm by now, so we would try and find dinner places along the way. Heading out, we followed one of Venice’s main thoroughfares. If St. Mark’s Square represents the heart of Venice, there are several veins leading back and many, many, many more capillaries branching off. Along the way, we stopped for free chocolate samples in several stores that were pushy with their giveaways. Every time you popped a piece in your mouth, they would push another tray of morsels to try in front of you (hey, I’m not complaining). We could have easily eaten our entire dinner going back and forth between the stores with free samples! Rosalind pulled us into a bath and body works store called “Lush”, which had some pretty interesting products for those that want to kick their normal baths up a notch. Signs helped guide us towards St. Mark’s, which features several famous sites of Venice. There is the Doge’s Palace, the church, the Tower of Venice, and several statues showcasing the might and power that used to make Venice one of the most important cities in the world. Of all the areas, this is usually the first to flood, because it is the lowest point in the city. Luckily for us, that only happens once in a while during the winter months. When it does flood, you have to wear galoshes to go out into the square.

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Now that we were at the Southern edge of the island, we decided to spend some time getting lost among the jungle of streets that lay scattered before us. With no aim in mind, we went wherever the wind took us. After an hour of this aimless wandering, we set our sights on a store that Lorenzo had heard about from his friends: a famous bookstore in the center of the island. There, they keep all of their books in bathtubs and gondolas in the event of a flood. They have so many old books that they even have a book-staircase that you can climb up in the back! Many of the tomes they had sitting on their shelves were from all periods of history and in a variety of languages. This place made even Barnes and Noble look pathetic.

Once we were done venturing through the stacks of books, we were all starting to feel pretty hungry. By now it was almost 7pm. We had just gotten word from Maggie and Glenn that their train was delayed, which meant that they wouldn’t be getting into Venice until much later. We decided to go get dinner and meet them tomorrow instead. Heading back towards our ghetto neighborhood, we found a bar that had piqued our interest earlier in the day. The food was all in our price range, they had lots of brews on tap, and most importantly, they had the World Cup playing on tv. The place was relatively empty when we arrived, and it maintained its half-vacancy the two hours that we stayed. The carbonara was something new for me, but I can’t say I was a huge fan of it. I guess I just don’t appreciate bacon like I used to after working in a meat-packing plant. Just as I started to nod off around 10pm, the soccer game finished and we headed back to our room. The dark streets would have been impossible to navigate had it not been for Google Maps. The streets of Venice are just one giant maze of similar-looking back alleys and narrow corridors: I can’t imagine how anyone could find their way to places before Maps was around. On several of the bridges, the full moon cast a pale reflection on the still water, which gave an eerie feel. Although Venice seems like a city of young people, the streets were almost completely deserted by 10:30pm. Upon arrival at the apartment, we fumbled around with the door for a solid 15 minutes (we were having issues fitting the key in the lock, ala King Louis XVI) and then went straight to bed after our exhausting day.

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The next day, I woke up early enough to go out walking around the city for an hour or so with Rosalind. Leaving around 7:30am, we got lost in the streets and saw the city come to life in the same way that Florence did. The water in the canals was glassy and there was an energizing chill in the air that was a relief from the humidity of the past couple days. We stopped at one of my favorite places for breakfast: a grocery store! After picking up some snacks for the day, we began to make our way back to the apartment.

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By the time we got back, the others were just beginning to get up and get ready for our walking tour, which started promptly at 10am. Similar to the one I went to in Munich, tour guides were university students working for tips. Our meeting point was on the Southern edge of the island, down in the quarter where the gondola-maintainers lived. When our tour guide gave her introduction to us, she said the fatal words that had me running up to her after: she knew Russian! We talked for a bit in my second favorite language and she turned out to be very nice. Although my friends make fun of me every time I do it, I always love speaking Russian any chance I can get. Just like riding a bike, I need to keep up with my speaking or I’ll lose it altogether. Around two and half hours long, our guide showed us the inside of a beautiful church, brought us to the tip of the Grand Canal, showed us a haunted house purchased by Johnny Depp for a short while (he sold it when he heard it was haunted), and showed us the yards where they worked on the gondolas. Some fun facts: there can only be ~400 licensed gondoliers in Venice at any one time and each gondola costs around $40,000 USD to build. Additionally, you can only become a gondolier if someone in your family was one, and the training takes several years to complete. On the tour, I happened to meet another interesting person to add to my collection. An older gentleman who just went into retirement, Frank was an American Airlines pilot for 34 years! Once we got to talking about planes, we couldn’t be separated for the rest of the tour.

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After our tour was over, we broke up into small groups and went to different places for lunch. Taking the advice given by the tour guide, my group made our way to the main shopping center of Venice: a large four-story mall. She recommended going there because the views from the top were some of the best in Venice (and free!). After some difficulty getting to the top, we came out onto the hot roof and saw the Grand Canal stretch out in front of us. On all sides, red-tiled roofs went on for miles in the classic Venetian style. It was an incredible view, which gave us a chance for a quick photo-op. We spent some time up there taking it all in, before we went down to meet up with the other groups. From here, we all went back to St. Mark’s Square to see the inside of the giant church that takes up one entire side of the square. Gold covered every square inch of the building on the inside. There was a magnificent altar that stole the spotlight. Unfortunately, like many of the more famous churches, I was not able to take pictures in here (I understand their reason for it, too). After thirty minutes of ogling at more gold than any of us have seen in our lives, we regrouped outside and began to look for a special gondola service called a Traghetto. The next stop was thanks to another tip by our tour guide: gondola rides can be very expensive, but taking a special type of gondola (called a traghetto), will take you from one side of the Grand Canal to the other for only 2 euros. That way you can brag about riding on the Grand Canal in a gondola without anyone knowing that it wasn’t a true gondola! Shoot, well I guess I gave away my secret… However, take a moment to check out these sweet pictures of the Grand Canal from the water.

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Following the water-excursion, it was starting to get near dinner time. Naturally, we went and got gelato at the premiere gelato place in Venice. With our stomachs temporarily satisfied, we spent some time looking around the glass-blowing district and marveled at the amazing creations that came in all shapes and colors. Although I wanted to go see the Eastern portion of the island where the gardens were, we didn’t have enough time to get over there. When we couldn’t ignore our stomachs any more, we camped out in St. Mark’s Square while I scoured the interwebs for nearby places. Using my secret weapon, TripAdvisor, I found a place not far away that matched everyone’s criteria (cheap). Getting there right as it opened, we waited fifteen minutes for the closed sign to flip to open. Unfortunately, the owner of this hole in the wall was nowhere in sight. The longer we waited, the hangrier (hungry and angry) everyone got. Hitting up the interwebs once more, I found another place that looked interesting and still fit the bill. Although it was a twenty-minute walk away, the group was okay with it so long as it was open. For my sake, I prayed that it was too.

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The walk seemed to stretch on and on, exaggerated by the hunger we felt. When we did get there, all the tables were taken and the waitress informed me that it would be about a forty-minute wait. Although we were ready to eat now, they eased the wait by letting us sit at some chairs inside the small place and get some drinks. Consisting of nothing more than a kitchen and a couple chairs strewn around, there wasn’t much room to fit us all in. There was a “buffet” at one counter, but that consisted of nothing more than small, crusty, cucumber and tuna sandwiches that are the bane of dinner parties. It seemed to take forever for the people at our designated table to finally leave, and when they did, we even helped clear the table so we could get served faster. The restaurant was more of a tapas place: which meant they served a variety of cheap, small, dishes that gave you a taste of many different things. As the night went on and food came out, people began to unwind and become less irate. Our waitress, who was very sassy and had a good sense of humor, made the night more fun. Comfortable and full in our chairs, we stayed there for over three hours enjoying the break from walking. At the end of it, our waitress sat down with us and brought us a present: seven shot glasses and a bottle of…. Let’s call it grape juice. However, we made her go back inside and grab an eighth shot glass so she could drink some grape juice with us. By 10:15pm, it was starting to get late enough that we were ready to leave. Saying goodbye to our new friend, we began the half hour trek back to our apartment, with me leading the way. Even in my tired state, I only led us down two wrong alleys!

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The following day, we had to be out by 7am (which meant getting up at 6am) to begin the long journey back. Long story short, we took a train to get on a bus to get on a plane to get on another bus to get on a train that deposited us at the Metz station at 6pm. Although I could go into details about the traveling back home, it wasn’t much more than watching some Green Arrow and getting some shuteye whenever I could. Twelve hours of traveling took its toll on me, so I collapsed into my bed as soon as I got back and was asleep by 9pm. Luckily for us, we got back early enough that we didn’t have any issues with strikes. Many other groups attempting to get back around 11pm ending up getting stuck in various locations and having to travel the following morning (which was a school day).

Overall, Venice lived up to and exceeded my expectations. Every street brought with it a new adventure. The bridges we crossed over presented picturesque moments that I was able to capture on my phone. Although I didn’t like the cramped feel of Florence, for whatever reason I didn’t get that same sense in Venice. Everything from the architecture to the maze-like nature of the place made for a memorable experience. If you do go to Italy, I highly recommend visiting Venice. It’s a city well-worth seeing and it won’t disappoint. One word of warning, however, be ready to do a lot of walking.

‘Till next time, arrivederci!
(This concludes the epic, 3-part adventure of my time in Italy)

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Secret Marvel Ending! - This trip took a lot out of me. Being the one who did the majority of the planning, I always had to be on top of times, locations, and accountability. More than that, it was five days of constant motion, with our only major breaks being the time we spent sleeping overnight. After this, I'm going to take some time off from traveling for a while, because I need time to recuperate from the awesomeness that this was and enjoy the awesomeness that is sitting around with no obligations (as sad as that sounds). As my time in Europe starts to wrap up, I'm certainly grateful for all of the experiences that I've had, but I'm getting ready to come home. In the meanwhile, someone out there, please, please eat some good bbq for me.

Posted by oklempay 04:06 Archived in Italy Tagged venice boat gondola bookstore grand_canal st_marks green_arrow spider_man Comments (0)

A Tale of 3 Cities Pt. 2

sunny

Hope you haven’t been waiting on the edge of your seats too much! Here’s the continuation of the thriller in this 3-part adventure…

Getting on the train to Florence was somewhat of a struggle, as there was no room to stand at all! It was just a jumbled mess of bodies packed into the carriage. There was room enough to stand and swivel, but that was it. We stood there like sardines in a can for an hour, before the doors thankfully opened up and we spilled out of them faster than I can rattle off a half a dozen corny jokes. Making our way through the mob, we regrouped in the center of the station and began to set up a plan of action. Rosalind had bought us tickets for the Ufizzi Art Gallery (only the “premiere” Renaissance Art Gallery), so we needed to be there in the next half hour to make our time slot. When we burst out of the station, we were blinded by the brilliance of the sun that shone down on that cloudless day. Making our way through the crowded, narrow, streets, we struggled to make it in time as we beat back the swarms of people that stood in between us and Caravaggio’s masterpieces. When we did get there, the line seemed to stretch down through street after street. It would be at least forty-five minutes before we would even get inside, so several of us split off in search of food. I found a delicious pizza place that served heaven on a breaded triangle slathered in juicy tomato sauce. By the time we were done eating, the line was almost at the entrance. Hopping back into the queue, we began to make our way through the Uffizi.

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As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not much of an art aficionado, so I may not have appreciated the frames that hung on those walls as much as I should have. What I found interesting was the history and the backstory behind each painting: what inspired the artist behind their work. Alas, I had no tour guide leading me, so I hopped from group to group and heard a bit about a painting before moving on to find a new group. Bits and pieces of AP Euro from 10th grade would come back to me at times. We spent a good bit of the class learning about art from different periods, so it was fascinating seeing some of the famous pieces in person. The museum itself was massive and every inch of it was decked out with artwork, sculptures, showrooms: you name it. Even the ceiling was a fresco of a glass-covered roof! My favorite exhibit was that on Leonardo da Vinci. It had some of his original pencil sketches on display.

While I zoomed through the entire gallery in an hour and a half (I look at art quickly, what can I say?), the others progressed more slowly and filtered out one by one around the two-hour mark. Lorenzo got so caught up in the artwork that he spent an extra half-hour enjoying it all. Once we were all back together, we made a new plan of action: head back to the hotel, unload our hefty bags, and head back out on the town. We would split up from Maggie and Glen, who were staying close by to us. Before we departed, we grabbed some dessert and I chowed down on a real canoli. Now, I’ve been eating canolis for a long, long, time, and - sad to say - this didn’t live up to my expectations. The crust was a bit too crunchy and the entire thing was short and compressed. The entrance to our hotel took some serious detective work in finding, but once there, it felt incredible to remove the sweat-soaked bags from off of our weary backs. After a half hour in this state of relaxation, we geared up and got ready for the next trek. Getting some advice from the check-in desk, our new mission would have us stopping by several Florentine landmarks on the way to our end goal: the Piazza Michelangelo. From here, he assured us, would be the best view of the city (and he didn’t lie!).

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Meeting up with Glen and Maggie outside of a 500-year-old church, the first stop on our list had us walking through an open-air forum. Within fifty feet of it, the smell of leather was so overwhelming that it could almost knock you back. Its vendors sold everything and anything in leather. The most common products were wallets, jackets, purses, belts, and shoes. We perused the shelves, but there wasn’t much you could buy unless you didn’t mind selling a kidney. A five-minute walk from here, our next site was the star attraction of Florence: the Duomo. You could see the Duomo from almost anywhere in the city. It had an intimidating presence the closer you got, as the sheer magnitude of its massive dome seemed to block out the sky. Making our way through the crowds of people milling around its exterior, we stopped for pictures and a chance to take it all in. As one of Florence’s iconic sites, its well worth a visit. After fueling up with gelato, we began to make our way to the next site on our laundry list: the Golden Gate Bridge. Ok, no, that’s a lie. However, the bridge that we went to is still a magnificent feat of engineering. The Ponte Vecchio is a 3-story masterpiece that houses high-end shopkeepers fifty feet above a river. I guess retail space is so precious in Florence that, even on this narrow strip of land, they had to find a way to sell you more things.

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On the other side, our adventure continued on. Now, we were within a twenty-minute walk of the Piazza and it was starting to get towards 6pm. We had heard that there would be fireworks at 10pm, so we wanted to be up on the Piazza around 9pm to get a good view. We headed over to the Palazzo Vecchio, a giant castle, and played around on its sloping concrete rampway. There was an adjoining park to it, but they were closing just as we walked up. Even with my smooth moves that I laid on ‘em, they still wouldn’t let me through (Maybe if I’d told them a pun, things would have gone differently…). Despite the setback, we decided that we were hungry enough to find somewhere to eat. Walking towards the Piazza Michelangelo, we found a smattering of restaurants nestled at the base of the hill that the Piazza is perched on top of. I had been looking forward to eating some true Italian pizza (and not just a single piece like earlier), so there was no doubt in our minds as we walked into a cozy place with the word “Pizza” scrawled across its entrance. We each got our own personal pizza and had a great time sharing among the different flavors before us. Our host was warm and funny, offering great suggestions on pizzas. When it came to dessert, I caved and ordered a dessert that was a delicious combination of a chocolate-filled funnel cake. As a struggling choco-holic, I feel an urge to eat chocolate whenever I can.

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After this much-needed respite, we were ready to move on once again. Trudging up the hill, we were at the summit in ten minutes. As we made our way over to the Piazza, the crowds of people became thicker and standing room decreased dramatically. Unfortunately for us, the Piazza was closed for the fireworks! Standing at the edges of the police barriers were crowds of people waiting like us: they knew that this would be the best spot to watch from. However, with an hour and a half to go until 10pm, we got antsy and decided to try our luck somewhere away from the crowds. We saw it come into view as we backtracked away from the Piazza: a giant mansion with a clear view of the city, but guarded by thick, wrought-iron gates. We saw people up there, so we knew that there had to be a way to get in. Rosalind, Lorenzo, and I split off and took a circuitous route around the side of the mansion and through some woods. The trail took us past a WWI statue and the sounds of a concert drifted up to us through the trees. Within a couple minutes, we reached winding switchbacks lined with cars that led to the entrance of our mystery mansion. Going through its arched entrance, we found the Florentine skyline open up in front of us. There was a large, sandy square, with steps leading down to a cemetery and the same iron gate from before. The area was relatively uncrowded, so we knew we had a good find. We grabbed some seats on the steps and spent the next half hour watching the sun go down. Tonight, it gave us a brilliant display of orange, violet, and red that was eventually swallowed up by the clouds. I love watching sunsets because it signifies the end of another day of living: another day where anything is possible. Seeing it go down is a reminder of the preciousness of time and how important it is to be thankful for everything you have. It definitely helps keep me grounded.

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Shortly after 10pm, the fireworks display began to beat back the darkness and light up the night sky. It was a long show (about 30 minutes) with many cool pyrotechnic tricks. Bright bursts of red, green, and white were intermittent reminders of Italy’s colors. The finale was a slow buildup in intensity and frequency of fireworks, until there were so many that it looked like permanent splotches of color were fixed to the night sky. When the show ended, it took some time for our eyes to adjust back to the darkness after the explosion of light. Following the crowds, we trekked back down the switchbacks and began the tiresome half-hour walk to our hotel. Before we got back, we couldn’t resist getting gelato at least once more for the day. Melon seemed to be the popular flavor among our group, although Jake was trying Tiramisu gelato at every stand to find the best one. By 11:30pm, we were finally back in our room for the night. I was so exhausted that I fell asleep in the middle of the next day’s planning. Apparently, I continued to be part of the conversation and decision-making, but I have no recollection of it.

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When I did wake up at 6:30am (see, sleeping in again!), I took a quick jaunt around our neighborhood in search of breakfast and anything that might be of interest. During my walk, I came across a little church tucked away in a square. Its exterior was unassuming, but upon stepping inside, it opened up to beautiful frescoes and intricate architecture. It was the last thing I expected to see. When I entered, several nuns shot me dirty looks for wearing shorts, so I slid into a pew as fast as I could to blend in and remove their wrath from me. Just as I was getting ready to go and leave this holy place, my phone picked the worst time to inform me that I had received a text message. I guess I had forgotten to turn off my ringer (whoops). Now, those wrathful gazes swiveled back onto me like Sauron’s eye and I beat it out of there as fast as I could.

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Returning to the hotel, I met up with Lorenzo and Rosalind for a continuation of the morning adventure. We spent an hour and a half walking around the narrow streets of the Northeast corner of Florence and seeing the city slowly come to life. Circling back to the Duomo, we arrived around 9:15am to stand in the line to get inside. Although it didn’t open until 10am, there were already thirty people in front of us. As one of the most famous churches in the world, the line can stretch so far that you might end up spending two hours or more waiting. Not far from us was a large open-air market, so Lorenzo was nice enough to hold our place in line while Rosalind and I went to check it out. Leather vendors were everywhere again, and inside the main building, tiny stalls sold all varieties of fresh produce. There were meats, spices, local vegetables, and our favorite, the dried fruit. Although we couldn’t stay long, we promised that we would return here to show Lorenzo. We arrived back at the Duomo right at 10am and hopped back in line, which began to steadily progress forwards. When we did get inside, I’ll admit that I was a bit underwhelmed. Most of the area was cordoned off and you couldn’t really see the church. The ceilings stretched to the Heavens, but even the cool factor from that wore off after a bit. Downstairs was an exhibit featuring the construction of the Duomo, but it required tickets in advance (of which we did not have). In short, the Duomo is somewhere you can go to say that you’ve been, but for a college student it may not be as spectacular as you think.

Leaving the Duomo, we still had two hours to kill before we needed to make our 1:15pm train. Like we promised Lorenzo, we headed back to the open-air market to check it out again. We spent some time haggling with vendors, tasting free samples, and getting lost in the stalls. He loved the place just as much as us. Then, as if the market wasn’t enough for us, we decided to break our banks at the worst possible place: a 1-euro store. Akin to a dollar general, we picked up lunch and souvenirs at dirt-cheap prices. We found a bench on a small side street and dove into our snacks while mopeds and carts trundled past in front of us. When we finished, we still had an hour to kill, so we made our way North of the station to a small park that was home to a fountain. It blew a refreshing mist onto us that quickly evaporated in the hot sun. This was one of those rare moments that I wished I could hit the fast forward button and skip ahead an hour. Normally, I feel like there aren’t enough hours in a day to get everything done. Now, however, it seemed that there was an abundance of free time, which is something strange and foreign to me after these past 2 years at Georgia Tech. I should appreciate the fact that there were no obligations, deadlines, or places to be for that hour, but mostly I was just bored.

At long last, the time arrived and we met up with Smalls and Jake inside the train station. Maggie and Glenn were on a wine tour, so they would be joining us in Venice later that evening. The past few days had felt like a whirlwind of never-ending activity. I was especially excited for Venice: next to Paris, Venice was the city that I’d always dreamt about visiting. I’m not particularly sure why, but I was not a huge fan of Florence. It might have been the incredibly crowded streets that made me nervous about knocking over people (being the giant that I am). Maybe it was the sensory overload of how much history the city has. I could spend a week studying an individual street, but with only a day to fit it all in, it was like getting a single bite of a sampler platter rather than getting the full entrée. Or maybe it was the heavy emphasis on art, which I lack the sophistication to appreciate. Of my “Favorite Cities of Italy” list, Florence comes in 3rd. However, in just a few short hours, I would be in the city of my dreams: Venice.

Posted by oklempay 11:02 Archived in Italy Tagged italy florence fireworks duomo pizza piazza forum mansion gelato uffizi caravaggio ap_euro Comments (0)

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