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A Tale of 3 Cities Pt. 3


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).



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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!


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)


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)

Back to the Basics


This was a big weekend for a lot of people. Many journeyed down to Interlaken, a town in Switzerland known for its stunning views and incredible hikes around, well, you guessed it, some lakes. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an absolutely beautiful place that I want to visit at some point, but this weekend was a special occasion. Making the trip out to Western France, I went to visit the beaches made famous at 6:30am on June 6, 1944. This, of course, was DDay.

Before I ramble on about my trip, a quick word for my sponsors: school is still going great, I am in good health, making lots of friends, taking of bunch of tests, and yes, I am getting enough to eat. Homework is ramping up, but the smaller class size lets me work on it with groups that I’m familiar with and end up completing it faster. What I’m truly dreading is this upcoming week: I have 3 back-to-back tests on top of multiple assignments due. Up until now, I’ve been enjoying Georgia Tech-lite, where your biggest responsibility is showing up for class on time. Now I need to prove that I’ve been paying attention and understanding the material. If I study hard enough, I meet even be able to get my Materials Science test grade into the double digits! There’s a reason I’ve spent so much time in churches the past two weeks: I’ve been trying to find salvation from the ensuing storm. Alright, that’s enough of the doom and gloom talk. It’s not as bad as it sounds (really).

Saturday morning, I had to get up at the soul-crushing hour of 6am (psh, no problem for me) to make it to the train station in time. Our route would have us on a high-speed rail from Metz to Paris, transfer stations in Paris, and then take an intercity train from Paris to Caen. As we walked up to our platform, my friend ran into ticket issues. I tried to convince them that it would be alright, but they didn’t want to run the risk of being on the receiving end of a massive fine from some overeager ticket checker. Their decision to stay came after I had already boarded, so I watched helplessly from the window as they stood there on the platform and would not get on. Just as I was about to head down to convince them otherwise, the doors clanged shut in front of me and the train groaned to life. Any chance I had was now gone. This adventure would be one I would have to take alone.

I’ll admit: I was a little jarred by the abruptness of their exit. Now the dynamic duo had become the…. Well, I don’t even know what cool name there is for a singular person. With just one, I no longer had the power of alliteration on my side. Even worse, I had to figure out everything for myself. If I had any hesitation about something, I would just have to go with my gut (and it usually told me to get food). Making the most of my train ride, I began to work out the logistics of what would come next.

When the train pulled up to the Gare L’est in Paris, I bolted off the platform and began to make my way to the Gare St. Lazar, which stood several miles away. I had to be wary of time because I only had fifty minutes of layover and the next train to Caen wouldn’t be until much later in the evening. Luckily enough, the metro got me there with ten minutes to spare. Boarding it, I snagged an empty seat and unloaded the hefty pack that was bearing down on my shoulders. As the seats around me filled up one by one, I began to worry that this was a reservation only train (which yours truly did not have). Thinking back, I had passed by a sign earlier in the station that looked awfully like the French words for, “Reservations Required Dummy”. My biggest concern was the massive fine that could be slapped on me for not paying whatever marginal reservation fee there was. I made my decision a minute before the train pulled out: I would play it like “Joe Cool” and act like I belonged.

This tactic, surprisingly, worked out for me quite well! As has been with every previous train ride thus far, the ticket checker walked straight through the cabin without batting an eye at anyone. However, I knew I was lucky this time. From here on out, I’ll have to be more careful with knowing what trains require reservations and making sure I have them.

The train ride was long, hot, noisy, and crowded from Paris to Caen. As was the French custom, we had several delays in our journey. Originally a one and a half hour hop, it transformed into a three hour outing that a turtle could have done faster. It didn’t help that I was surrounded by high school delinquents who didn’t mind jostling my seat back and forth (man, when did I become a grumpy, old grandpa). The saving grace was the kind, older, French woman who sat next to me and who had brought her adorable dog with her. There’s no better therapy than having a puppy crawling around in your lap.

Around 1pm, the amazing FINALLY happened. We rolled into Caen! Now, I feel that I should tell you that the city’s name is pronounced like “cone”, as in, ice cream cone. I don’t know how you’ve been reading it so far, but let’s just set the record straight and make sure you say it correctly from here on out. Furthermore, a quick history lesson! Caen played an important role in the DDay invasion. After the Allied Forces secured the beachhead, the Germans holed up in Caen and prepared to make their stand here. The fighting was intense and left most of the city in ruins. Caen was one of the most, if not THE most, destroyed cities in all of France. The air bombing done by the Allies was fairly ineffective and ended up creating as many civilian casualties as it hurt German assets. The original plan had the Allies expecting to secure Caen within a day of the landings. It ended up taking four bloody weeks before the town would be back in their grasp. This was a city where history was buried in its walls: every street-corner holding the story of some intense firefight that had occurred 74 years ago.


Walking out of the train station, I made a beeline for the nearest grocery store where five euros could fill a bottomless pit (aka, my stomach). Thirty minutes later, I found myself stuffing groceries into my already full backpack like a homeless person and leaving the store with baguette in hand. I munched on the bread as I cruised the streets and ended up working my way towards the obvious center of the city. Why was it obviously the center? Well, it was the remains of a large fortress embedded in a hillside that loomed over the rest of the city. It was pretty hard to miss. I hiked my way up the ruins and plopped down in the soft, green grass. Enjoying my mini-feast I had acquired, I soaked in the sights from the hilltop. Although the grey clouds didn’t make for an attractive backdrop, it was still warm enough for a t-shirt and shorts. Around me, little kids on a school trip scurried around and played tag on the hillside. I’m sure none of them realized that the walls they were running around were almost a thousand years old, erected by William the Conqueror.

After lunch, I began to amble around the old town. Here and there I would see pockmarks in the walls: bullet holes which served as reminders of the fights. The streets narrowly wound in every direction from the center, as if the enormous roots from the Tree of Life. I made my way through several churches and eventually to the DDay memorial park, which situates itself a mile northwest of the city. To my surprise, there was a wonderful museum at the entrance of the park. It offered an interesting perspective of Caen and France before and after World War Two. Unlike other World War Two museums I had visited, this one was different in its tone. It paid homage to the staggering number of civilians lost and didn’t thank the Allies as incredible saviors. Instead, it highlighted how some of their actions led to a greater loss in civilian life. Like I said, it gave a unique perspective of the war that felt genuine, as if seen through the eyes of a French person living during the time.


At this point in the afternoon, I was trying to kill time until I could check into my Airbnb. I stumbled upon a botanical garden and sat for a while, enjoying the tranquility of the water flowing down the rocks and into a reflecting pond. I was very excited to check out my living arrangements this time. After all, the place I had found to stay at was in the bottom of a boat! Yes, you did read that correctly. Someone had an extra bunk in their boat and was renting it out for travelers like me! I couldn’t turn down an opportunity like that. When the time did come, I found my new dwelling not far from the city center. The host, with his two sons, was incredibly friendly and helpful. A jovial man with a perpetual grin on his face, he provided me with dinner recommendations that I heartily took. After going out and getting my fill of falafel, I returned to my bunk and got some studying done. As I dozed off to sleep, I could hear the sounds of the city swirling around and slipping into my cabin through the porthole. There was quite the party going on across the river. At some point through it all, I finally ended up getting some shuteye.

The following day, I departed from my host at 7:30am and made my way back to the train station. I would ride the rail one station further up to Bayeux. The tour I had signed up for would meet at the train station there and depart at 8:30am. Even smaller than Caen, Bayeux was a quaint town that had escaped the tragedies of the war. Due to its narrow streets, it never saw any fighting, so it maintained its pristine, rustic quality. When I found my tour group, I was easily a third of the age of the next youngest person there. Boy, did I feel like a kid. Comprised of three older couples, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Despite the massive age gap, my new groupmates were very friendly and made great talking companions. Being from the States themselves, they had all served in the military in some capacity or another. One of them had even been a pilot! We struck it off right away and would jabber incessantly about planes in the spare minutes. The guide of our group was a younger woman who was a Bayeux native. Her accent was thick, but her knowledge was vast on the topic of DDay. This was definitely not her first rodeo.


Our tour started with the Point du Hoc, which was a set of cliffs that housed a scary array of German anti-naval and anti-air batteries. The craters from the bombs were overgrown with brush and the same lush, green grass that I had seen in Caen. In some places the craters were ten or fifteen feet deep! As we stood at the edge of the hundred-foot-tall cliffs, our guide explained that the Army Rangers had to scale these very cliffs by cutting slits in the rocks with their knives and climbing up with their hands (even Bruce Willis would be scared of these guys). The original plan called for them to launch grappling hooks and make the ascent with the aid of ropes. Unfortunately for them, their ropes, drenched in the ocean’s salt water, prevented the hooks from reaching the ledge. When the Rangers did get to the top, the Germans had already packed up all of their larger guns and replaced them with telephone-pole look alikes. The men that came over the ledge were hit with a heavy torrent of bullets that kept them pinned down and slowed their advance. By the time they finally captured the Point, the Germans had regrouped a mile away and were preparing a counterattack. Pinned up against the cliffside they had worked so hard to reach, the Rangers had to fend for themselves for two days before reinforcements would reach them. Of the 225 men that had landed, only 90 made it through.


We continued on to Omaha Beach itself, which is a shallow stretch of sand that goes on for 3.5 miles. It was a fairly good landing site for the Allies to pick, but the Germans had the advantage of sitting on the high ground. After disembarking from their water transports, soldiers had to crawl past tank traps, barbed wire, landmines, and dodge the deluge of bullets that rained down across the beach. Even with the Germans caught off guard about the attack, it was no easy feat making it up the beach. We didn’t stay too long at Omaha Beach, but our guide told us some fascinating stories that transpired that morning.


By the time we got to the American cemetery, it was nearing midday. There was a good gaggle of tourists surrounding the centerpiece of it all: a beautiful statue showcasing the youth of the troops as they came in from the water and onto the beaches. We walked among the white crosses, which seemed to glow in the sun. At one point, we heard the deafening roar of a C-130 as it flew overhead and out onto the water. With DDay being so close, there were actors everywhere getting ready for the large scale re-enactment that would take place in a few days. That day we saw tanks driving down main roads, people dressed in the garb of World War 2, and planes from the era practicing maneuvers. I’m sure it would be quite a spectacle to see. As we rounded the edge of the cemetery and made our way back to the van, we were stopped short by the sound of “Taps”. At the statue, there was a procession going on for veterans of the 101st Airborne. As the notes played, there was a hushed silence as all movement ceased and everyone faced the center. There, several veterans stood and held a salute for their fallen brothers. It was a very moving tribute that sent shivers down my spine.


Thirty minutes later, I was back in the city center of Bayeux and making another grocery run. I had said my goodbyes to the group and found a quiet place to eat my loaf of bread and block of fresh cheese. I spent another hour exploring the city before making the trip over to the train station and beginning the journey homewards. Although I’d only been in Western France for 24 hours, I felt like I had seen enough to last me a week. The train ride home, I mulled over the famous landmarks I had seen and how significant they are to our history. The beach, soaked with the blood of thousands of young men, lays testament to the noble sacrifice given up in the name of freedom. Those men may not have realized the importance of it at the time, but their selfless devotion and courage in the face of insurmountable odds provided the stepping stone to the world we live in today. Through the celebration of DDay, we remember their legacy. Within Arnold Air Society, we have a quote that we say after every session of PT, which we dedicate to the POW’s and MIA’s. This DDay, I hope you can take some time to remember those who gave up their life in the hope of making the world a better place. As we like to say: “Always Remember, Never Forget.”

Posted by oklempay 22:02 Archived in France Tagged boat castle normandy bayeux rangers caen dday st._lazare Comments (0)

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