A month well-spent;
backpacking and posing as Eurotrash.

Well I've been up to Paris, and I've slept in a park.

Went down to Barcelona, someone broke in my car.

And I'll search the world over for my angel in black.

Yeah, I'll search the world over for a Euro-trash Girl.
- Cracker


With copious thanks to everyone who helped make this possible, and a nod and a wink to Mixmastah Gantz

Personal Impact

This has been a time of firsts. First transatlantic flight, first long-distance bus, train, and ferry rides, first time truly traveling alone, first time seeing the great cities of Europe, places I had heretofore only known in pictures, or, more likely, dramatized and Romanticized in books. However, this is no book, it's real life, and real people, often normal, everyday, non-intellectual people live here, obviously, and go about their daily business, amidst the ghosts of history, mostly not stopping to think about the things that I've waited for years to see. It's a strange contrast.

As I expected going in, this trip has taught me much, and changed me, perhaps irreversably. The suprise has been in exactly what it has taught me, and how changed me. Rather than the great metaphysical truths and human questions(if I've learned anything regarding them, it's that they're basically the same all over, and most prefer not to talk or think about them), this has been all about the small things.

The essentials, the tiny beats which often seem so insignificant in isolation, but when taken together, make up the rhythm of life. The rituals and habits of life; eating, drinking, sleeping, grooming, &c. The things I have so neglected in my mind, and executed only when absolutely necessary, and thus haphazardly, for so long in my ever-increasing abstraction. This minute-to-minute existence under constant uncertainty has invested them with an immediacy, and thus, a degree of meaning, that I don't remember seeing in them heretofore.

This was by no means a vacation. It was one of the most stressful and difficult things I have ever been through. In many ways, it has been a supreme test of my greatest perceived weaknesses. I, who am an inveterate homebody, and have become more of one as I have grown older; I who am often afraid to go to the grocery store when it's crowded, or to call up strangers on the phone and make reservations or inquiries; who puts off errands and appointments constantly out of a fear and loathing of the simple social interactions required to fulfill such obligations. I who cannot deal with uncertainty in anything crucial to the comfortable continuation of my unchanging surroundings and routine(such as it is) decide to go to Europe for the first time, all alone, with very little in the way of pre-planning or framework. Brilliant. Obviously, I did not quite think this through.

But that's been a good thing, in the end. It's good to be challenged, especially in areas where you have demonstrative weaknesses. I've had to do many of the things I most dread and fear and avoid on a daily basis just to get by, have food and a roof over my head, while at the same time dealing with all of the barriers and complications that foreign languages and cultures provide. And though it's been difficult, and not always fun or enlightening, I've pulled it off, time and time again, because I've had to. I, and probably many other people as well, can do just about anything when I have to, when the chips are down, as it were.

Everyone I've run into(except for the few other hardy souls doing the same) thinks I'm pretty hardcore for undertaking this all alone and on so ambitious a scale. And while I don't often feel that way in the midst of all of the mess and uncertainty(more like an anxious, scared, lost little boy than a would-be brave adventurer,) at the end of the day, when I've once again managed to provide myself with food to eat, a bed to sleep in, and/or the means to move on to my next destination or see and do things I want to at my current one, I'm for once rather self-satisfied. Strange, for me, to find satisfaction and confidence in such concrete, and usually ordinary, things.

And, it's going to seem awfully silly when I get home to shirk, say, going to the grocery store, because it takes so much expenditure of social energy. Meijer is a piece of cake compared with trying to buy things you really need to live, in three or four different, scattered, stores(pharmacy, grocery, tobacconist, bakery, produce stand, etc) in a strange city, when most of the labels are in French and the shopkeepers often speak little English(and you, of course, even less French.) It'll seem even sillier to avoid making simple phone calls to take care of business, when I've called hostels and train stations and tried to convey my needs and wishes vis a vis reservations or scheduling in languages that I don't really know very well, or at all.

And one of my constant biggest(and stupidest, basest) fears, that of coming off as ignorant, or not knowing what the heck is going on, and being afraid to ask for help out of deference to my ego(to the point of even forgoing many things, places, and experiences that I can't figure out for myself immediately), is just irrelevant here. I've had to totally let go of that, because I never know what the hell is going on, and there should be no shame in that, as long as I'm willing to try to learn(which of course, I am, and for someone who supposedly loves to learn, this whole complex is rather transparently ridiculous, because it basically amounts to being afraid to learn if to do so, I have to admit that I don't know something. But, I digress.)

And talking to strangers(another thing I'm just horrible at, to my detriment), who back home will be at least reasonably sure to speak English and have some sort of common experience with me, should prove way easier than the Herculean(to me, anyway) social efforts I've forced myself to undertake to meet people and stave off the potential isolation of a month alone on the road.

This is also the first thing in a long time that I can say I truly gave all of myself to, that I can stand behind as a product of my best effort and all the passion and fortitude I could muster. I was beginning to wonder if I was capable of that kind of effort anymore, what with my constant regression into dispassionate mediocrity in my college experience, despite many attempts to right the ship. It looks like I still have it, I only require the right challenge to bring it out of me. Perhaps it's a flaw that I cannot summon it independently of external circumstances, but it's reassuring to know that I still have such reserves to draw upon, should I ever be able to, by luck or skill, place myself in the sort of situation that demands them. Those are all good, confidence-instilling pieces of information to remember in times of self-doubt and depression.

Of course, I've also had my perspective broadened in at least some of the more predictable ways I expected ahead of time. I've met and conversed, often in-depth, with people from all over the world... Britain, France, Spain, Italy, Singapore, Australia, Pakistan, Germany, Brasil, Mexico, New Zealand, Liberia, and of course, other Americans, at least the small proportion of them that aren't over here solely to party and get laid(not that there's anything wrong with either of those things, in moderation, it's just that I don't really see the need to come all the way to Europe to do what you can(and do) presumably at home, especially when there's so many strange, new, and wonderful things all around to see, do, and learn from. But, perhaps that's just me, stodgy old-fogie at 23 that I've become.)

I certainly travelled like an old person, all museums and historical sites and art and culture and so on. I didn't run into many people my age when I was out and around town, except at the most obvious places(like the Louvre.) I was met with blank stares when I explained that I would spend my last day in Paris on a walking tour of old existentialist and expatriate haunts on the Rive Gauche. I was often going to bed when everyone else was just getting started with their night. Seemingly everyone(regardless of whether their motives for travel were self-improvement or debauchery) was just gaga over going clubbing. It seems to be the main trend of my generation that I just have no facility for or enjoyment of whatsoever.

All of this has reaffirmed my faith in and love for individuals, and my counter-ambivalence toward people as a whole. I met many wonderful, intelligent, open-minded, creative people in my travels, but for each of those, fifteen more who disappointed me greatly passed through my life. I was astounded at how frivolous, superficial, party, clothes, clique, and sex-obsessed so many of my fellow travellers were. I already knew that of my peers at college, but I thought that people backpacking Europe would be more of a skewed sample, and that Europeans in general would be more serious and intellectual than the average person back home. Not so, not by a longshot. Yet more illusions added to the ever-mounting refuse pile.

But, for better or worse, I'm different. I'm serious, I'm intellectual, and I accept and embrace that, regardless of what others my age decide(and in the end, I'm no wet blanket; I can still party hearty when I want to, but limited time, money, and company of friends in this case steered me away from such adventures.) In that vein, many new avenues of interest(as if I honestly needed any more of them) have opened up as a result of all I have seen and done in the past month or so. I'd like to work on learning a couple of languages(French, and maybe German or Russian) and on perfecting my Spanish beyond its current, survival-skills-and-reading-only state. I'd like to learn a lot more about art, architecture, and European history than I already know. And, I'm seriously considering finding a way to come over here and live, somewhere, someday, for a more extended period of time.

Sociocultural Observations

So, what did I think of Europe? Well, I was surely disabused of any illusory notions of it as some sort of intellectual, liberal paradise. That process was already in motion going in, as doing my homework pre-trip, combined with the prominent rise of the ugly rightist political elements all over the place there did a lot to shake my views of the Continent as a quasi-Socialist paradise, as everything I'd like America to be someday. They seem to have just as many problems as we do, and many of them just as ugly... they're just less open about them, less willing to air their dirty laundry quite so freely than America tends to be.

The people didn't seem much more overtly intellectual, or interested in the world around them than the average American. They aren't so proud of willful ignorance as some Americans can be, and they do know a little more about the outside world than most of us do, but I think that's more out of necessity due to geography, and luck due to the better quality of their news services(of course, on the down side, you've got lots of just blatant tabloidization passing as news that would never go over at home) than any inherent differences in the societies. Same goes for the languages issue, though I found myself wishing I had been similarly educated, so as to be able to get more out of my own experiences here. I do think public education is a little better here... people seemed on the whole at least more well-spoken and read, if not much more politically or globally aware or intellectually curious, than we are.

As far as day to day life goes, well, I was suprised in some ways. I didn't expect creature comforts and conveniences to be common going in(I was prepared for cold showers, at-times dirty or extremely uncomfortable accomodations, and so on, though I never really experienced those things in the end), and I was correct in that assumption, in some ways. Lots of things Americans take for granted, like air-conditioning, public restrooms, short lines for services, convenient business hours, free places to sit in restaurants/cafes/bars and along the street(park benches, etc) are often nonexistent. Prices are generally higher, and goods more difficult to come by. There is no such thing as a true, Wal-Mart/Meijer style supermarket here, at least in the major cities.

The small discomforts are in part the tradeoff for pretty good general infrastructure... efficient and fast rail system, excellent public transportation in most cities, less unsightly development and chain-store ubiquity and homogony, public health care, bike paths, and so on. I think it's a decent tradeoff in the end, though it takes a little getting used to.

I found myself to be really quite limited in a way I didn't really expect coming in... conversationally. I didn't realize just how much of my conversation(and especially, whatever meagre portion of wit or charm I am privy to) is based on obscure wordplay, slang, pop-culture reference, obscure metaphor, in-jokes, words and expressions that myself and my friends have invented, and a whole myriad of other things that people who don't speak English as a first language, and in many cases, even people who don't speak American English, just don't get. I found my speech slowly evolving into simple declarative sentences, so as to avoid having to constantly explain myself, or being embarassed when a joke fell flat, or wasn't even noticed as such. It was quite a humbling challenge, for someone like me who puts so much stock in, and has his identity and ability so wrapped up in, words.

One of my greatest strengths became a liability of sorts; I found what I consider to be my most precious gifts and most finely-honed tools to be of little use most of the time. Humbling, and another important warning to heed against the rather one-dimensional abstraction and intellectual cocoon I have slipped into over these past few years.

I was suprised that Europe wasn't more green, both in the political and the natural sense. There is much less recycling going on than I expected to see, and traffic/pollution in the cities is a lot worse than I expected, even with the good public transport, though the bike-friendly Netherlands and parts of Germany seem to be exceptions in that area. Littering seems pretty rampant, as is, annoyingly, dog shit all over the sidewalks in most cities. The latter owes partly to lack of good regulation on pet owners(I don't think there are leash laws either, judging by what I saw) and to the aformentioned lack of green spaces. Besides the requisite few parks(and in some cases, like Rome, not even that), in most cities, you see very little in the way of grass or trees. That's something this country boy really missed, and a great asset that America still has... its natural beauty, even in many of the larger cities. I didn't get to many outlying areas, so I can't really judge how well-preserved they are, but I can at least that nature is certainly much less well integrated into most European cities than their American counterparts.

People in general are kind of paradoxical. More kind, considerate, and personable in some areas, most notably commerce, where it's still customary to treat the customer as a person(and at least it seems, to own your own shop or restaurant, and thus give more of a crap about what the customer thinks of you and the service.) Much more rude and unheeding in others, mostly crowded public places, like subways, lines(there's no such thing as a line in the south, it's more like a constant game of cat-and-mouse one-upsmanship. Perhaps a symptom of the rather off-putting macho, at times misogynistic take on masculinity often exhibited in the south, though I suppose in the end, it's no worse than the American fratboy flavor of alpha-maleism.) Open, thunderous public displays of flatulence don't seem to faze anyone either, a phenomenon about which I'm still trying to decide between disgust and amusement at the lack of inhibition. Also, of course, there's the legendary BO issue, which I certainly did notice much more often than at home. Europeans would say that Americans are Puritanically concerned with cleanliness, and I would respond that I personally just don't like being odoriferously assaulted(or inflicting similar treatment on others), and we shall finally simply have to agree to disagree. I also never figured out the etiquette on sleeper trains... I was very reluctant to wake up someone who was sleeping in order to get a seat if there was any way I could avoid it(and I found that there usually was,) while most had no compunctions of rousting you out of your slumber and taking the seat opposite you, even if the train wasn't full. Don't count on sleeping much on trains if you do this, at any rate, unless you shell out for a sleeper car.

Most of these phenomena are, I would hazard to guess, linked in some way to the much higher population density over there. You tend to be in crowds and crammed in small spaces with lots of other people fairly often, and I bet that out of expediency, lots of the pleasantries and regard for others goes out the window over time. I started to get more used to it by the end of the trip, though I do think that if people here could make more of an effort to accomodate and regard one another in these tight quarters, things would be a lot more pleasant for everyone involved. All in all, I am extremely more polite than the average European(and probably the average American as well, fwiw, but Europeans are definitely more brusque and unheeding in general) in public situations when dealing with strangers, and extremely less polite and formal with friends and acquaintences and in private. It's as if the formality polarity is switched over here, and that takes some getting used to. I did also sorely miss my alone time and personal space more often than not. It's just a fact of life over here that it's going to be rather difficult most of the time to get away from people, and that's not something that agrees too well with my at-times solitary nature.

On Travel

Much as in other arenas and eras of my life, I found myself struggling to strike elusive balances... between my intense desire to travel, and my inherent incompatibilities with the life of a traveller, but also between being wide-eyed and gaping rudely, between experiencing and documenting, between being a tourist and trying to pass for a native, between respecting local customs and maintaining my individual values, between social effort and physical effort, between openness and caution, between reflection and action and a whole myriad of other things.

Par for the course for me... changing geography doesn't change my own complexities and their various battles with one another, it simply changes the arena, and amplifies or reduces some set of them depending on the situation at hand at any given time and place. Emerson talks about the same thing in "Self-Reliance"

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins. Travelling is a fool's paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.
I don't think you can run from yourself or change yourself to any predetermined end through travel, so if that's your aim, you might as well stay home and save yourself the money and trouble. Travel to learn, to broaden your horizons, to experience strange and wonderful new people, places, tastes, and customs, but not to look for something new outside of yourself, to find yourself, or fill an emptiness, Robert Cohn-style. That's just not how it works.

Chasing Ghosts

I also notice that here, and in many of my other travels, I have spent a lot of time chasing ghosts, paying homage to and following in the footsteps of my intellectual and other idols, searching out the haunts of the Transcendentalists of Concord, the Beats of Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury, the Group in Bloomsbury, The Existentialists and Expatriates in the Rive Gauche, Kafka and Brod in the Jewish Quarter of Prague, and many graves in many cemetaries. Looking for the places where everything once went down in the world of arts and letters, but finding little in the way of real inspiration or activity in their wake. All of them, lifeless, or over-touristed, or just ordinary, full of regular people living their workaday lives, perhaps rightfully heedless of the history around them, of the tall shadows in which they walk everyday. Where's it all going down now? Where are the people who will remake the world with images and words as those who came before, who I seek out so avidly in search of some small hint of their secrets? That's what I'm really looking for, what I hope to have some small part in someday, but all I find are ghosts and dust and a few humble markers and plaques in commemeration.

Is the answer really the web? Do I just not take it, and the wonderful things many brilliant people are doing with it, seriously enough? It could be. I think the talent is there, and the will is there. But, it disappoints in key ways. It seems to lack legitimacy, and perhaps more importantly, intimacy, somehow. It's too scattered, too individual, almost too big and unlimited. I don't like the elitism of a cabal, but in a place as big as even the small corner that is the personal or weblogging web, it's still hard to bounce ideas seriously off of other people, to carry on real, complex, earnest dialogue, to focus. There are too many demands, too many voices, too few ways to sift the wheat from the chaff(and to tell of which your own efforts are mostly constituted), for better or worse.

There needs to be more collaboration, both online and off, more community, more dynamism, more criticism, more big dreams, big projects, big ideas. We, and I, need to take ourselves seriously, if we're ever going to make something to equal what those who came before us, now revered ghosts who unfortunately offer little in the way of guidance, once did.


Regrets? Well, the main one I can think of is that I wasted too much opportunity and energy being too self-conscious. I was so worried about not coming off as the Ugly American to anyone, that I often rendered myself meek, and perhaps at times insincerely polite. I wasn't entirely myself, out of fear of giving offense. Next time, I'm being myself(which should be more than kind, polite, and considerate enough, unless I'm a much worse person than I, and people to whose honest opinions I'm inclined to give weight, think I am,) impressions be damned.

I remember particularly one episode where this syndrome reached a ridiculous extreme... right after I crossed over into Spain on the way from Paris to Madrid, I had to change trains. My train wasn't up on the departures board, and with about ten minutes to go before it was scheduled to leave, I was getting a little nervous. So, I went to information, and asked the woman there, politely, in Spanish, if she spoke English. She glared at me, and barked "A little." So I asked her my question, whether the ___ train to Madrid was on schedule, and she answered incomprehensibly. Ok, no problem so far, I'm used to this... so I tried in lousy Spanish, making sure to include the "Por Favor's" and "Gracias's," and she still bit my head off, and provided no useful information(her ostensible job) to boot. I eventually just ran out on the platform and jumped on the train that arrived at the prescribed time, and luckily, it was the correct one. But, I felt horrible all day, fearing that I had offended, that I had simply reinforced the already existing stereotypes, and thus deserved the treatment I got.

You know what? I did nothing wrong. I was polite, patient, said my pleases and thank you's, didn't just assume she spoke English, tried to use the local language when I ran into difficulties(and I know enough Spanish to know that I didn't accidentally say anything offensive) and that dreadful woman bit my head off, not because of anything wrong with my conduct, but because she was a spiteful old harridan(or more generously, perhaps because she was having a bad day, or has to deal with entirely too many clueless tourists. Still, that's no excuse, to my mind.) Not because I was being an Ugly American, but because she was being a raging bitch. Anyway, point being, I'm never letting myself be ashamed of myself or limit myself simply because of my nationality again. Lesson learned. Next time I go abroad, people are getting the full brunt of my existence, for better or worse. Anyway, at least I didn't pretend to be goddamned Canadian(with no offense meant to all you wonderful Canucks out there), like half the other Americans over here.

As far as my treatment as an American traveling here, it was for the most part fine. I'm not exactly your average American though, as I live a rather European(or what I thought to be European before I came here and saw for myself... I turned out to be rather mistaken in my overly-positive views about many things, to my disappointment) lifestyle at home; I ride my bike everywhere, care about environment/recycling/conservation, am not really into consumer culture, am much more liberal and tolerant than the average American, dislike American foreign policy, etc, etc. I know more about geopolitics(and many other things) than most Europeans(and Americans, of course... to be exceedingly modest as usual.) I'm here to learn and expand my horizons, not just to party, I did my homework before I came here, and I was determined to live like a European, try to speak the local language and follow local customs when possible, and all in all be the best representative for what's(in my opinion) right with Young America® that I could.

I found myself in the role of apologist quite a bit, but tried my best to defend my country in the long term view. Europeans seem to view us a bit askance, with a mix of jealousy, suspicion and fascination. They're annoyed with us more often than not, but they really would like to be us as well(with a few alterations, of course.) All in all, it was strange, and instructive, and I don't regret at all (somewhat)proudly admitting that I was an American whenever I was asked. I got snubbed overtly only once, by an older Austrian man in the metro station in Vienna, who wanted to help me with my difficulties with the ticket machine, until he found out I was American, which prompted him to promptly turn tail and leave. You know what? Screw him.

My other main regret is allowing too much of the intrusion of the primary negative character trait that has marred nearly everything else I've ever undertaken... my excessive perfectionism. I chastised and kicked myself entirely too much for every little mistake I made... every time I gave in and spent more money than I should have on something, for the sake of convenience, but out of exhaustion, not sloth, more often than not; every mistake I made that caused me to lose precious time; every important site or attraction that I somehow missed seeing; every small social or cultural gaffe; basically everything that didn't go according to plan(at least insofar as I could be said to have a plan).

I know it's ridiculous... any endeavor this new to me and on this kind of scale is bound to be fraught with error. Even if it wasn't, it'd be too orderly, too boring in the end. But still, I can never silence that little voice in the background that strives for unrealistic perfection, that thinks I should know it all ahead of time. I probably wasted as much time and energy lamenting my mistakes as I did making and correcting them. Something to work on in the future, this level of unreasonable expectation of myself.

Mistakes / Advice

There were certainly plenty of(mostly logistical) mistakes made that I'll strive to correct next time around, just to save myself the grief and time wasted. I'll make sure to be really on top of the whole making reservations process if I do this again. I was under some rather mistaken impressions going in that things would be much more fluid... hop on and hop off the trains where you like, walk up to a hostel or maybe two if you're unlucky and find a bed for the night anytime, etc. In reality, it's a lot more rigid. All but the most inconvenient and slowest trains require reservations(and are often booked full in advance), and most hostels in any kind of a desireable location are booked solid in the summer, with the exception of a few walkup spaces they set aside, for which you must arrive at a place by 9am at the latest to have any shot of landing one, a proposition which is often difficult due to the aforementioned train constraints.

By the end of the trip I had adjusted and pretty much had it down cold. All it took was a little bit of foresight and legwork to avoid a whole lot of hassle. I was booking my train out when I arrived at a place, and calling(after I got over my usual phone phobias, and quit trying to use the web exclusively, which only works if you do it at least a week ahead of time for most places, because they have lousy systems integration and third parties handling their online bookings for the most part. I'd love a crack at fixing the hostel system's web presence someday. It's pretty deplorable, and makes lots of obvious mistakes as it is now. But most of you probably don't care about obscure details of information design and systems integration and so on, so I digress yet again) ahead for reservations to avoid hiking all over town with my pack, losing half a day(and effectively the whole day, due to the resulting exhaustion), and being under a lot of stress and uncertainty. That's something I just really do not deal with well at all... not knowing what the fuck is going on when it comes to crucial things like the roof over my head or how I'm going to arrive at its door. Again, a character trait not very conducive to backpacking, but one I can at least be a little more able to accomodate having learned the difficult lessons this time around.

I would also most definitely try to do this about two months earlier in the year, especially for the southern countries, in order to avoid the tourist crush, and the heat, and all kinds of other attendant miseries. Better to go in April and May, after the cold, but before the masses come and the museums and attractions get overwhelmed to the point of being difficult to enjoy, the lodgings get booked full, and the locals get jaded and (at times) exploitative. It would also be nice to have a bit more money per diem... you can see lots of things on 35-45 bucks a day, but you end up missing out on a lot of opportunities(in my case, Opera in Vienna, Gondola rides in Venice, good food almost everywhere but Italy, going out at night very much at all, and so on and so forth) in order to keep from breaking your budget. 60-80 a day would be ideal, as you could go comfortably well under that a lot of days, and then be able to splurge on cool experiences and go over budget on other days. You'd also have a lot fewer nickel/dime worries and deal with unexpected misfortune a lot better under those conditions than you might when you're dealing with such a narrow margin for error. You can pull it off the way I did, but just be prepared to hardly ever be relaxed, and to miss out on some stuff you'd like to do.

In Closing

Well, was it everything I ever dreamed it would be? In some ways, yes... others, not so much. I certainly had my fair share of illusions shattered, and my own maxim, something to the effect that; "any over-Romanticized activity or experience is certain to involve a lot more bullshit and drudgery than anyone will ever let on" reconfirmed for the umpteenth time.

But, as stated above, I learned a lot about myself, enlarged my world and perspective, met some very interesting(in ways good and bad) people, put a lot of faces and images to a lot of places and names, and above all, challenged myself and emerged better for it. Not too bad, for a first effort.

Useful Links

For those of you who are thinking about similar adventures, here is a list of the most useful stuff I found on the web in my preparations for this trip...

Europe Guidebook
Art of Travel
Rick Steves
Lonely Planet
Subway Navigator
Currency Converter
European Railway Server
Literary Travels
Hemingway's Paris
Paris Catacombs
STA Travel
St. Dept - Bckgd Notes
St. Dept - Travel Warnings

02:14 AM | comments 0


27 June, 2002 - Urbana, Il

So, after 20+ hours ensconced in various and sundry speeding metal tubes, I am finally home, and rather exhausted, and thinking, with Eliot, that...

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time
More on that later... for now though, some preliminary, by-the-numbers factoids by way of summing this thing up, in lieu of a more in-depth analysis soon to come:

Total Miles Travelled - 11915

By Plane - 7888
Train - 3201
Bus - 368
Car - 250
Boat - 42
On Foot(est based on average of 3 mi/day, travel days excluded) - 72

Costs(Rough estimates, until all bills come in)
Total - $2450
Transport - $1050
Lodging - $600
Food/Sightseeing/Supplies/Incidentals - $800
Overall Cost Per Day - $81.67
Per Diem on the ground(ie, discounting railpass, plane tickets, supplies I bought beforehand, etc) - ~ $40

Days - 30
Cities - 11
Different Beds - 16
Languages Butchered - 6
Currencies Used - 4
Books Read - 8.5
Pages - 2854
Pictures Taken - 1516
AA Batteries Used - 24
Email Addresses Exchanged - 17
Passport Stamps - 5(No passport controls anymore most places)
Museums Visited - 9
Cathedrals - 7
Castles - 3

26 June, 2002 - Amsterdam, NL

Amsterdam has been a bit of a letdown. I was already tired and a bit low(the end of my travels being so near) going in, and those factors aggravated by the disappointment with conditions on the ground in Amsterdam, the stress of the constant need for vigilance when out and about, and the illusions of a tolerant, liberal society without the necessity of such tradeoffs brushed aside, combined to effect the aforementioned view of my experiences here.

It's kinda sad... going to the Netherlands has in a way made me a bit more of a conservative, or at least reinforced my doubts in the mass of people being able to handle great freedom responsibly. Actually, the mass isn't even a problem, nor are most of the Dutch in particular... a small minority of people, mostly tourists and immigrants(take that as you will, political-correctness-wise but it's the empirical truth, at least based on my observations), who take it one or more steps beyond the pale, ruined the better part of the whole experience for me. Which is an even worse prognosis for a liberal, open society... if a small minority can truly mess everything up for the society as a whole, then the outlook is not so good. All of which kinda meshes with my recent worries about the growing power(thanks to exponentially advancing technology combined with unprecedented interdependence) of individual and small-group actors to cause great disruption and damage to a society, but we'll save that for another time and place.

It's just relentless... you can't sit alone in any public place, regardless of the part of town, without being accosted soon enough, and either asked for money, cigarettes, or drugs, or offered drugs or sexual favors of some sort, often as a cover for an attempt to steal your stuff. And the tourists are just about as bad, because they make such a big freaking deal about something minor like being able to smoke weed legally in designated areas, as if that were not the de-facto case everywhere else except perhaps for Singapore and in some repressive Muslim countries. I mean, come on, it was easier to get weed than alcohol in high school if that's what you were looking for.

But these masses of tourists come anyway for the novelty, and they go too far, and turn themselves into drunken and stoned nuisances(not to mention targets for the aforementioned street urchins,) while most of the natives seem either bemused or flabbergasted that any of this drug nonsense is even a big deal. They're low key about it, and many other things as well, which is what makes them so cool. Anyway, needless to say, I didn't hit up a coffee shop. I thought about it, but I just wasn't in a good mood in the first place, didn't feel safe alone in the city most of the time in the first place, and didn't feel like perpetuating all the cliches I just delved into. I dunno... it sounds snobbish and contrarian on my part, and maybe it is a bit, but it's how I felt at the time. *shrug*

I'm sure I'll get back here someday, hopefully in the company of friends and in better spirits, and maybe then take a go at the more pleasurable side of Amsterdam. This time around, just soaking up the (certainly entirely unique) atmosphere, people watching, reading, watching my back, and trying to prepare and relax in snticipation of a long trip home was quite enough for me.

25 June, 2002 - Amsterdam, NL

Amsterdam is alright. I think it would be better with a couple of friends around. Kinda depends on what part of the city you are in, and what time of day it is. This is the first place on my trip where I've felt even moderately concerned for my personal safety(and accordingly, where I've felt at any sort of disadvantage in travelling alone, too). There is a definite undercurrent of sleaze and criminality in this place, doubtless an unwanted side effect of its famed tolerance. There's also not a hell of a lot to do, besides shopping, clubs, walking around(my usual staple, but a little more dangerous at times here,) and either going to museums or getting fucked up, and I'm tired of the former(I museumed myself out in the first couple of weeks), and not really in the mood for the latter.

The town itself is pretty cool on the whole though. It's peaceful, mild weather, lazy canals, tons of bikes and bike-paths, cool architecture. It'd be some sort of strange Utopia, if not for all the sleaze and tourism riding on the back of the tolerance and scenery. So far I've just walked around, as per usual. Saw the Dam and Spui squares, the Anne Frank House, lots of old churches and narrow pedestrian streets and so on, the Red Light District, and Vondelpark, the pedestrian park and public gathering area that my hostel looks out over.

If you're traveling alone, and not a huge, hulking guy, I'd recommend avoiding the Red Light District, even by day. I just ran the gauntlet there, and in four blocks was accosted by six or eight assorted pimps/drug dealers/homeless people, some very aggressively, even though I took precautions, like stowing my camera away, telling people to leave me the fuck alone in Dutch, avoiding eye contact, walking quickly like I knew where I was going, etc. Walking alone through there must just be like wearing a big target on your back.

A big Rastafarian guy who I dismissed thusly a block earlier even went so far as to chase after me and grab me(gently, like I was his friend or something, yes, but still) around the shoulder, from behind, and ask me if I wanted a "nice girl." I said no, and then he said "My friend behind you... don't look back... he crazy, he smokes crack, he already kill two people. Give me 20 euro, and he no kill you." I should have replied "Only two?" but I thought better of it.

Since it was broad daylight, and there were lots of people around, I told him that I'm sure he tells that to every tourist he snares walking alone through here, and that I'd take my chances; disentangled myself, and got the hell out of there. I think what they were really trying to do is steal my wallet by distracting me(hence, the "don't look back"), which would have been a disappointing exercise, considering that I didn't have one with me. Quaint(not that I expected quaint by any means... more like a mini-Eurovegas with red lamps replacing the neon... sleazy, dirty, seedy perhaps, but fairly safe and regulated. Not so), or even amusing, the Red Light District very much is not, from what I could tell. Maybe I was just unlucky, but I tend to doubt it.

Tonight I'll probably wander around the safer areas... the nightlife-laden squares and boulevards near my hostel, for awhile, and tomorrow go to the Van Gogh Museum and maybe another small musee like the torture museum or the sexmuseum(if I can get over my aforementioned museum antipathy), before getting on the bus for London, and eventually, home, in the late evening.

23 June, 2002 - Munchen, De

I found out today that you can do quite lot in Munich on an eight hour layover. I left Prague at 6:25 in the morning, coming close to missing a train for the first time since I've been here(I got up late, and the tram to the train station doesn't run a full schedule that early, information I wasn't privy to.)

I rolled into Munich a little before two, and jumped on the S-Bahn to go out to Dachau, the restored concentration camp and holocaust museum. I met some other Americans, crazy christian kids who were on holiday from bible school in Austria, on the bus, and we toured the camp together. It was sobering and disquieting(and those words don't really suffice to capture it) walking through gas chambers and looking into crematoria with ash still inside. Chilling would be more like it I suppose. It's something everyone should see though, even if it's not exactly a pick-me-up.

To add a little cheer to my day after that, I proposed to go walking around Munich, ending in the Englischergartens, a wooded public park that is probably even bigger than Central Park. I sat around for a couple of hours reading, and then tried to get into a game of pickup football with the Germans, finally having success near dark. I'm afraid I didn't acquit myself so well, the mind was willing but the body was sadly not. My legs were leaden from two days of walking all over Prague, and eight hours on the train that morning. I did at least show enough knowledge of tactics to demonstrate that I knew the game well, and had a couple of glimmers of playmaking brilliance, but I couldn't beat anyone one-on-one to save my life. My feet had grown roots.

No matter though, the German guys were very nice about it, and I by no means ruuined the game, I just didn't play as well as I'm capable, which is disappointing, but not so bad a reflection on the state of football at home as it could have been, in light of the respect earned from the scare we gave Germany a few days ago.

After that I strolled through the university quarter, all cafe-lined streets and people walking, talking, seeing, being seen. Munich is a pretty cool town, though sadly with a bit of a dark undercurrent of racism going on, if what the Liberian by way of London I met on the train tells me is true.

I caught said train at around 11:00, chatted up the Liberian guy for awhile, ate some bread, and fell dead asleep. That is, until this loathsome, implacable old German guy who smelled of cabbage and cheap cigars, took it into his head to not only sit in our car(which is fine, I suppose), but to climb over the two other people to the window seat, and wake up the one person in the car who was sleeping(and soundly I might add) and make him fold up his seat(and drop his glasses and a good deal of his change all over the car in the process, being only about a third of the way awake at the time.)

I was of a mind to tell him to bugger off, but I had no idea how to say that in German, and also no idea whether this sort of thing was standard procedure, or this guy was just a right bastard. He proceeded to pass right out and sleep like a baby, interrupted only by occasional loud farts and snores. Exhausted as I was, I hardly slept a wink until he got off at Koln, around 5am. I should have just sprung for a couchette I guess.

I'm in Amsterdam now, safe and sound at hostel Vondelpark, but tired and waiting for my room to be free at 2pm. After that, a shower, a nap, and hopefully I'll get out and do a little exploring later on in the evening.

22 June, 2002 - Praha, Cz

Prague is contradiction. A heady mix of strange-fitting elements, built right on top of each other... Eastern Bloc, Gothic, Baroque, Medieval, Neo-Renaissance, Capitalist excess, and plain old hearty Czech. The oldest people speak German, the middle-aged Russian, and the young English(of course, all speak Czech first)but, somehow, it works. This is definitely the most interesting, varied place I have been so far.

Coming into town, things don't seem very promising. You pass a seemingly endless array of mouldering smokestacks, drab boxy concrete flats, and other run-down relics of the Warsaw Pact. The train station is stamped from the same mold(as are much of the underlying, infrastructure type things here. It's all dingy and dilapidated and drab, but it works well enough) and upon leaving it, you walk down fragmentary concrete path bounded on each side by overgrown weeds, to the tram stop.

But then, after the tram has gone about three or four stops, it's like a whole other world. You come over the hills and a greeted with a bustling, modern city, built seamlessly among and around the almost perfectly preserved works of a thousand years of history, castles, spires, domes, bridges, transmission towers, and construction cranes.

It's a jovial and happening place. I felt like all I really saw in the other old capitols, Paris, Vienna, Rome, etc, were ghosts, like nothing new and exciting culturally or otherwise was really going down. But this place... it's up for grabs. Shit is going down(but in a good way, not really an ominous one.) True intellectual and cultural freedom has been around for a short enough time that people still value and exercise it... and it's relatively cheap to live here for a large city, too. There are a lot of ingredients in place for this to possibly be a new cultural center in the coming years, rivalling and perhaps even surpassing what it once was.

Right after I arrived, it was time for the USA - Germany game, so I went downstairs to the bar and found a seat. It was great, everyone(save the four or five Germans) was rooting for the US(Europe may dislike us, but they hate the Germans even more, especially when it comes to football.) And even the Americans there were getting really into it, pounding tables, chanting, going nuts at every near miss, realizing perhaps that the game can indeed be exciting even without high-scoring exploits. We outplayed Teutons, gave them all they could handle and more, but sadly still unluckily lost. Still, we left with our pride intact and a new respect in the eyes of most of the Europeans who were watching the game.

Other than that, all I have really done is walk around a lot. I started at Wenceslas(named for the Good King of the song) Square and did a loop around the city... walking the narrow medieval streets below the Karlov Most(Charles Bridge) a lively relic of the 14th century, lined with buskers and peddlers, and equipped with stunning views out over the Vltava River(which to my mind rivals even the Seine for picturesque views.)

Then it was a hike up to the enormous and imposing castle on a hill overlooking the city. This is the first real castle I´ve been in since I came over here, and it was impressive, if a little non-authentic since a lot of it has been ripped out and redone over and over again, repurposed to the needs of the people of the city. There are even houses built into the walls, one of which was home to Franz Kafka for awhile.

Immediately after I finished the castle, I noticed the thunderheads gathering over the hills which ring the city, and started to hear faint rumbles in the distance. I hurried back down the hill and across another bridge towards the old town square, as the cool wind whipped up stronger and the first big drops started to fall. I was making for a bookstore, Big Ben, which turned out to be closed. My next target was Kotva, a supermarket a couple of blocks away. Unfortunately, the storm broke before I could get there, and I got soaked fairly thoroughly. It wasn't so bad though, especially compared to the withering heat I'd been enduring the past few days.

I tried to figure out grocery shopping Eastern Bloc style(the place looked like another relic of that period) and jumpe the metro back to base, the Clown and Bard hostel, which is interesting in its own right... rather bohemian, kinda punk rock(graffiti covers nearly every exposed surface), a little broken down and ramshackle in places, but good in the really important areas(ie, beds and clean bathrooms.)

20 June, 2002 - Wien, At

Vienna is very hard to pin down. There's no real defining characteristic or personality to it. Very staid, cosmopolitan, clean, and efficient. Very German, I suppose(this is Austria, yes, but it is very German to me, anyway, and of course German is spoken here, part of the reason Hitler was so eager to snap it up back in 1938) but a little more laid back than I presume big-city Germany will be.

There's really not much to the place, but I still like it. All I've done is walk around, check out the imposing and striking architecture(the city was undamaged in WWII, at least compared to many others around here, and thus there's a lot of really cool old stuff left from the Hapsburg era), and the riverwalk along the Danube, and get my own shit together(I actually have both my train and my accomodation taken care of for Prague, much to my relief.) And the people at this hostel, both the residents and the staff, have been unusually friendly and accomodating, even by the rather high standards I've encountered in my travels to date. It was a good spot in this trip for a place like this... I needed a bit of a slowdown after the mess in Italy.

19 June, 2002 - Wien, At

It's amazing what wonders clean clothes, a shower, a roof over your head, and a grocery store nearby can do for your spirits. Today was a day of getting things back in order and taking care of business. I didn't really see much of Vienna yet... I arrived early after a pleasant train ride(as far as train rides go, anyway) with some Bostoners, waited at the hostel and chatted with the large and friendly group of its denizens out in the courtyard, until late morning when I heard my fate as far as lodgings go(for once, things worked out the first time, and I got to stay where I had planned to.)

I finished up all of my domestic chores, went grocery shopping, and then crashed out for most of the late-afternoon / early evening. I needed sleep, as train sleep just doesn't really cut it, and I was already run down from the heat and walking of the previous two stops in Italy.

I finally woke up around eight, took a walk toward the city center, and got spectacularly lost, jumping a train that I happened upon by accident to get back here. Vienna is huge, and quite a maze. I'll have to figure it out tomorrow, see what I can see(I don't have any must-see's here either, so it's more wandering and taking it all in) before I head on to Prague the day after tomorrow, probably in the morning.

18 June, 2002 - Venezia, It

After a somewhat delayed train ride(and confusing, since I didn't know what the hell was going on, not speaking Italian and all; it turned out to be a chemical spill near the tracks at Mestre, information which I found out finally by looking out the window as we passed the cleanup in process,) I arrived in Venice.

It definitely lives up to the hype as far as scenery goes. Canals, canals, canals, and houses perched precariously on the edge of them, with a labyrinth of insanely narrow, bendy streets attempting to connect it all together. No cars or other motorized transport, which imparts a welcome quiet on the place, after a week of loud hotrodding motorbikes and other city noise and smog.

There was another huge medieval square too, even bigger than the one in Florence was, with divebombing pigeons, and bounded on three sides by tall row-buildings, and the fourth by a cathedral that looks like something out of a fairy tale, also the purported burial place of St Mark.

The other cool thing was that the Italy world cup game was going on, and it was on the tv or radio in literally every other house and shop, with large groups of people huddled around tv's at places nice enough to set one up outside. If I understood Italian, I could have followed the game by ear, just walking around, from one window or booth to the next. It felt like being in Brooklyn at the height of the Dodgers in the 50's. Unfortunately for them, a lot of Italians went home disappointed, as South Korea scored a stunning goal in extra time. The crowd I was in, huddled around a small tv in an alley, scattered immediately in disgust and disappointment.

I'm glad I only stayed the day though, it was the right way to do it. I saw the place, and it was nice, but the novelty starts to wear off after a few hours of walking around, and there's just really not much to do there, at least within my budget(there's gondola rides, and opera, and concerts, and lots of other more upscale stuff, but that's all too rich for my blood this time around.) But hey, at least I saw it before it sinks. Better get to New Orleans sometime soon too :]

17 June, 2002 - Firenze, It

So, other than the aforementioned difficulties(I've basically come to the conclusion that if you want to go to Italy on a budget, and enjoy yourself at all, you'd better go in the low season, it's too much of a tourist trap in almost every major city in the summer), Florence was quite pleasant. Beautiful views of the hills of Tuscany, a nice riverfront walk, lots of history(Dante's reputed house, as well as a sort of Pantheon of Italian greats, this really cool row of statues between the two wings of the(closed, unfortunately) Uffizi museum) and narrow, winding streets, ancient buildings interspersed with modern commerce, and finally, a huge, medieval-style square, the likes of which I had expected to see long before now.

All I really did was walk around, but it was nice just having a day to wander and not have any set goals, no "must see this, and then that, &c." I finally crashed out(after my little quasi-tantrum below,) and got on a train for Venice early the next morning...

17 June, 2002 - Firenze, It

I'm trying, Lord, how I'm trying... to be patient, to remind myself that this is not America, that I, for better or worse, am the spoiled product of a culture of extreme convenience. But, this is ridiculous. I looked around all day for somewhere to buy some food, to no avail. I finally bought about the worst loaf of bread I've ever had, and ate about half of it, along with the rest of my snacking reserves, in the midst of my walks around the city.

I came home before dusk, showered, and collapsed till a little after ten; awoke absolutely famished. Wandered around the neighborhood, everything is closed, no restaurants, no corner stores(there weren't any to begin with, remember?) Finally, in desperation, I went to the hostel next store, the one I tried to stay at this morning, which I noted sells snacks and pop. I picked out a few things to tide myself over, and went up to the desk. The bastards wouldn't sell me anything, since I'm not a guest, even after I explained my situation. Whoever heard of a business not willing to sell stuff(especially at a big markup) to a customer? This just defies all reason(American reason?)

But, I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd here, so I restrained myself from either going off on a petulant tirade, or curling up in a corner and bursting into tears. Barely. I'll just go upstairs and eat my goddamned crust of bread and drink my lukewarm water, and go back to sleep, in the hopes that tomorrow will be a better day(but it's not looking up, three inquiries to hostels in Vienna, all full. I expected some inconvenience, and a lot of difference, and a lot of uncertainty, none of which I deal with particularly well in the first place... and I'm trying, as I said, to be tolerant. But, a man has his limits.)

Florence, incidentally, was quite charming otherwise. I'll write about that tomorrow, when I'm hopefully in a better mood. I'm sorry I'm being so negative here, but it's always easier to write about the bad than the good, and in this case, I just really needed to vent. And so I have. Goodnight.

17 June, 2002 - Firenze, It

So, I'm in Florence, but it's pretty much closed. All the museums shut down on mondays, and that's about all there is here. I'm basically just walking around all day and getting a good look at the place, which is indeed quite charming and beautiful. The circumstances don't really bug me, as I needed a break from so much regimented doing in favor of some relaxed strolling and seeing anyway.

Things are getting more in control as far as trains and accomodation go. I've learned to be on top of things... to book a train out right when I get into town, to either book a hostel ahead, if possible, or arrive very early in the day(though that even failed today... I got here at 9:15, and still didn't get a room in my target hostel, on a freaking monday. So, once again, I got farmed off to the pensione down the street, though unlike past instances of this phenomenon, this one is pretty expensive, at 25 euro a night. Oh well, it's only one night, and I'm tired of hauling a 40lb pack all over town to save five bucks, and I don't really need to since I have plenty of money and the end of the trip is in sight.)

Speaking of saving bucks, Italy, or at least Rome and Florence, are just hell on backpackers. The idea of backpacking(at least as I conceive of it) is that you avoid the heavily touristed areas, and live like a local(or at least spend your money like a local, since of course you'll still go to check out the sights and all.) However, here, there are essentially no non-touristed areas in the city-centers. I walked around Florence for three hours this morning, and never saw a grocery store. I'm not expecting Wal-Mart here, just a nice little corner store with, y'know, fruit, bread, juice, and so on(the likes of which you can find every two blocks in Paris or London, where actual people still live and work in something besides the tourist industry). Nada. Nothing but high-end fashion shopping, hotels, restaurants, and historical sites. Same in Central Rome... the best I could find was essentially a liquor store, which sold a few food essentials at a rather ridiculous markup. I've been reduced to shopping in train stations and at kiosks in squares, both of which are way overpriced.

Anyhoo, I'm gonna go bite the bullet and pay like £6-7 to get new batteries for my camera, and just wonder around the city some more, check out the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio and hike on up to this park in the hills with a great view of the city, and that's about it. I've got a morning train to Venice tomorrow, 10 hours of layover to explore the town, and then a night train(I actually managed to get on one. Woo!) to Vienna.

16 June, 2002 - Roma, It

Today I switched empires, from the Holy to the often not-so-holy Romans. I had quite a better time of it, though the heat was just stifling. I walked around the(much more humble and fragmentary than I had anticipated, though still quite interesting) remains of the Roman Forum for a good chunk of the afternoon. Lots of shattered Doric columns and dust, with heat visibly radiating off of them. It's hard for me, never good at mental pictures, to visualize the grandeur that was once there, but it's fun to try nonetheless.

I then retired for a brief siesta, and returned to take on the Colosseum at around five, when the crowds and the heat had both lessened. It certainly was awe-inspiring, if again a bit of a hose-job at 8 euro just to go in and walk around(incidentally, a euro is for all intents, equal to a buck now, with the deflation of the dollar in recent weeks, much to my consternation. I've probably effectively lost 50-75 bucks of potential spending money in my account over here due to that little vicissitude.) Still, quite worth it, pecuniary griping aside.

Now I'm trying to get my crap together for the last ten days or so of this trip(which, for the benefit of those wondering, I have decided not to extend. I'm pretty sure I have the money to do so, but I don't think the corresponding stamina is there. A month is quite enough for a first undertaking such as this, at least for me.)

And I've decided to screw spontaneity, and just make reservations as much as I can the rest of the way. What good are theoretical options, when I'm invariably sticking to my predetermined itinerary(with a couple of cuts/extensions) anyway, and time is now too short to really extend my stay in any of the 3-4 places I have left? So, I have one night and 2 days in Florence, a half-day layover in Venice, and then on to Vienna for two nights. After that, I will either go west to Salzburg/Munich/Amsterdam, or east to Prague/Berlin/Amsterdam, the last variable to be decided, a deed which will be done shortly... probably at latest in Venice at the train station. I'm leaning toward the latter, though I hate to skip Salzburg when so many have commended it to me, and I'd really like to see Dachau, just outside Munich. But Prague is so tempting, it has some sort of a weird romance for me... The Golden City, of Rudolph II's court, the home and background of Kafka, recently emerged from the mystery of the Iron Curtain; and Berlin would be nice too, though I don't know much about it, infamous walls and gates aside. Maybe I'll just flip a coin. I've never been very good at definite decisions :]

15 June, 2002 - Roma, It

Ok, so I was a little hard on Rome. I had a bad day. Anyway, I found out what's up... the whole town's crazy-packed because this dude, name of Padre Pio, got canonized today. Hence, there were like 60,000 people here expressly for that occasion. Wish I had known that ahead of time. Ah well.

Last night was better. I got settled in the new place, met some cool roommates(religious studies majors, which is almost equivalent to philosophy, only with a Jesusy(and other deity-y) bent) from Texas. Later, I took an evening walking tour of all the public gathering places in the heart of town... the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Venezia and Campidoglio squares, and on down the wide Fori Romani Avenue to the ghostly-by-night Colosseum. Then home, and sleep.

I decided to stay another night, rather than hopping an afternoon train to Florence and taking my chances on finding a room. Now I'll just take the earliest train monday morning, stay all day and one night in Florence, and head off the next day for Vienna, hopefully with an afternoon's stopover in Venice.

15 June, 2002 - Roma, It

Well, you can color me unimpressed, perhaps even irritated, with Rome so far. It's hot, dirty, crowded, crawling with old white people(ie, tourists,) has the worst public transport of any large city I've ever been to, and is(unsuprisingly, yes) way too hung up on the Catholic Church. Also, there are cops just everywhere, which makes me feel more nervous than secure, as it either means that a)they're actually necessary, or b)they're not, but they have them anyway for show or other, more mischievous purposes, neither of which sits very well with me.

On the positive side, the food is good, and most of the people I've dealt with have been nice enough. I'm probably not being altogether fair here, just calling it as I see it at the moment. Probably I'm just feeling the effects of train lag. I am certainly quite exhausted, after the 18 hour train ride followed by the eight hour search for accomodation in stifling heat and humidity(which never got fully resolved exactly... they promised me a room, then found that they didn't actually have one, put me up in the private apartment of one of the owners for the night, and then shipped me off to a nearby pension for today, much like the one I stayed at in Madrid). It would be nice to have stability at least within my stays within individual cities. Finding and keeping a place to stay in each new town is getting to be a bit of a ridiculous drain on my time and energy on this trip(and it's not even officially the "high season" yet, though it's indeed getting close.) However, I don't know how I can book the week or two ahead of time that most hostels seem to demand, and still retain any sort of freedom or spontaneity for movement. In this case, I didn't know if I was coming here or Florence... it all depended on the train schedules. It's frustrating.

Duly exhausted by all that, I went up to the Vatican this morning, to take a look at the museums(since they're closed sunday and I'm leaving sometime on monday.) I thought the Louvre was bad, but it was wonderful compared to this racket. The main attraction at this place is of course the Sistine Chapel. Now, logically, you'd probably want to do what the Louvre does with the Mona Lisa, at least to some extent, which is to put an entrance fairly nearby, so as to minimize the crush in the rest of the museum, and keep people from having to herd themselves through miles of corridors to see it. But no, they put the entrance a good thousand meters away, and run you through all kinds of twists and turns and narrow doors and stairways and stifling heat and so on. It seems endless. I bet the idea is that they want people who are going ostensibly just for the Chapel to see some other things along the way(and there are some good ones... Raphaels, Botticellis, Da Vincis, etc), a noble aim that fails miserably, as you're pushed on by the hordes without getting to stop for much of real look at anything, and even if you go back later, you of course run into the same problems. It basically serves to both choke the rest of the best other parts of the museum with crowds, and make it unduly difficult to get to the Chapel.

Add to that the fact that they charge 10 euro to get in, and only open the place 8:45-3:45 weekdays and 9:00-1:00 on saturdays(which can only increase the crowding), and you've got a real mess, and a bit of a ripoff, considering that it's run by one of the richest organizations in the world and all. Even the Louvre was only 5 euro, and stayed open till five four days a week, and till nine the other two. And the British Museum was freaking free. C'mon.

Anyway, the chapel was indeed beautiful, if a little rankling, since they herd hundreds of people in there shoulder to shoulder, after the aforementioned thirty minute trek, and then expect you to treat it like a church, be silent, no hats/shorts/tank tops, no taking pictures, even without a flash(which, unlike the other rules, does at least make some logical sense, since most people don't know how to operate their cameras without a flash, and the flashes can degrade the artwork. If that's the real reason for it, anyway.)

The abrupt and surly guards practically ripped my hat off my head(which I didn't even realize I had on, being so used to wearing one and so tired and crabby, and didn't know I had to take off anyway, since it's perfectly kosher in the rest of the museum, and I didn't see any signs or anything about it), and were constantly clapping to get people's attention and then exaggeratedly "shhh-ing" them, in the process doing far more to break the holy silence than most of the people were in the first place.

Anyway, I can see needing to be silent and respectful and follow silly(to my, agnostic mind) dress codes in St. Peters... that's still an active church. But this is a museum now, and was never much of a holy place... more of an extravagant popes' bauble, albeit a masterpiece of one. If you had to treat every church-turned-museum in Europe as a church... well, that would really suck. Luckily, you generally don't, only in overly pious and pompous Vatican City.

I think maybe this kind of travel is just not very compatible with a lot of museum going, at least for me. It's not a good idea to subject myself to huge crowds and stifling heat and all kinds of associated stresses when I'm already physically and socially exhausted from just trying to keep a roof over my head and food in my belly. Better to come in the winter sometime later on, when the crowds have lessened, and when I hopefully have the means to be more relaxed and take more time in any particular place.

Anyway, I've got one more night here, which I will mostly take easy, perhaps just going up to the Spanish Steps and then checking out some of the squares and fountains... and then all day tomorrow, which will be devoted to the Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon, basically all the Roman ruins. Hopefully I'll be able to enjoy it more than my first hours here would indicate, and then move on to an even better time in Florence.

14 June, 2002 - Roma, It

And what a train ride, or rides, to be precise, it was. First leg was Barca to Montpelier, then caught another, bullet-train this time, to Lyon, then a leisurely, scenery-packed evening ride over the Dolomites and Piedmont to Milan. I thought I might get stuck in a bit of a spot in Milan, arriving so late(near 10pm) and having nowhere to stay and no train reservation onward.

Luckily, the once-thought-mythical night train without reservations does indeed exist, in Italy. I just barely made the last train to Rome, whiled away part of the time talking with a girl-crazy Italian kid about US drug policy, and fitfully trying to communicate with one of my suitemates, a boy of 19 just off the boat(or whatever, just an expression, of course) from Pakistan, who was kind, smart, inquisitive, but grossly misinformed about world affairs(he thought that the US had killed 50% of the Afghan population, and that we are taking it on as conquered territory. He also thought that George Bush had said something to the effect of "Death to Islam" after the attack. I'm afraid that this is quite emblematic the kind of ignorance and propaganda we're up against when it comes to the Arab world. Rather scary.)

Unfortunately, I couldn't communicate well enough to really change his mind on anything, but we did at least develop a good rapport, and he says he wants to see America for himself(just as soon as he makes enough money working in the factories of Milan to fund bringing some of his 12 brothers and sisters west. This trip is teaching me just how privileged I am, among other things, which I will detail later.)

Got some fitful sleep in the berth between around 2:00 and 6:00, when the train arrived in Rome. Of course, nothing was open then, so I took the metro(lousy, slow, and dirty compared to those in the previous cities Ed: Found out why, sort of... they can't ever expand it, because everytime they start digging, they find new archaological sites. Still, they could stand to upgrade the existing part, to make it less crappy in general. Anyway.) over to the Circus Maximus area and sat half-asleep against a tree watching the sun finish rising over the Colosseum. I floundered around Rome Sisyphus-like most of the morning, carrying my heavy load in search of an internet cafe, a bookshop, a hostel, anything(I neglected to study ahead in Barcelona as well as I should have.) I finally gave in and went back to the train station, dumped my bag in a locker, and finally found an internet cafe in the mall in the basement, albeit an extortively expensive one. Researched hostels, roamed around forever getting turned away from full ones, and finally lucked into a room at a place called Freedom Traveler, where I am now decompressing, awaiting the end of lockout, and catching up on my journalling.

12 June, 2002 - Barcelona, Esp

My last day in Barca was one of vistas buenas. First I metro-ed up to Parc Guell, Gaudi's(the guy who did the cathedral mentioned earlier) foray into landscape architecture. This is one hell of a crazy-ass park, let me tell you. Half unearthly landscape, half regular accoutrements associated with parks... picnic tables, basketball courts, etc, all laid into the side of a hill overlooking the city, with spectacular views everywhere.

Afterward I headed for Montjuic, the sizable hill/mini-mountain overlooking the harbor, where most of the museums and old Olympic venues are located. I hiked through the surreal and grandiose Olympic Plaza, and on up to the castle at the top of the hill, replete with yet more spectacular views of the coastline and the Mediterranean. All of this took quite some time, so by the time I got down, all I had time and energy left for was one last walk through the fading twilight, down Las Ramblas and on through the pedestrian/market Gothic Quarter back to my hostel. Played some cards, shot a little bull, and turned in before midnight, as I had a train to catch bright and early in the morning.

11 June, 2002 - Barcelona, Esp

Today was busy. I got out and about early, finally managing to do my laundry in the morning. Then it was the usual first full day walking tour of the city, starting at my hostel in the old quarter, and heading towards the sea. I toured the port, then headed up the combination of market, social hour, and exhibitionist circus that is Las Ramblas, the pedestrian artery that splits the city. Then I hopped on the metro and moved on to La Sagrada Familia, which, though I haven't seen some of its rivals in the sweepstakes(the Taj Mahal and the Sydney Opera House come to mind) is easily the most beautiful structure I've ever laid eyes on. I'm really not a fan of cathedrals in general, but this is a different animal, a work of art posing as a church.

Afterward, I ambled down a wide avenue to the beach(my first semi/nude beach. No big deal, really, in retrospect *glances up* "Yep, those are naked people." *Goes back to whatever it is I was doing*), and took a long/awaited and much needed bask in the sun for the rest of the afternoon.

Barcelona is like some sort of strange, otherworldly paradise. It seemingly has everything... Perfect weather, beaches, mountains, nightlife, counterculture, history, architecture, sports, lively pedestrian avenues, beautiful parks, incredibly diverse and friendly people, fairly low cost of living &c. Like LA, if it had a soul, and less sprawl/pollution, or San Diego, if it had hundreds of years of history and brilliant architecture. I could live here a long time, if I spoke the language a little better(I thought I knew a lot more Spanish than I in fact, do. Plus, the dialects and accents here are quite divergent from the Mexican variety of Spanish I learned in the states. I can get by ok with it, a lot better than I did in France, but I can't really carry on much in the way of a conversation.)

But, I must see Italy, of course, so soon(thursday morning to be exact) I'll be enjoying a redux of the train clusterfuck of before(once again, the night train is booked. I think the idea of riding night trains on an even semi-spontaneous European trip must just be a total myth), with three transfers and and 13 hours lying between me and Milan, and dog knows what in the way of accomodation when I arrive there at 10pm with no trains to Rome of Florence until morning. As always, I'm sure something will work out, and it'll doubtless be interesting in some way or other.

10 June, 2002 - Barcelona, Esp

Ok, I think I've had my trial(and accompanying little hissyfit) and come through it none the worse for wear, though disappointed about missing out on much of what Madrid had to offer.

Barcelona is better; I'm back in the hostel atmosphere, and in a great location, in the Gothic(read: old) Quarter, with narrow, pedestrian streets and interesting architecture abounding. I'm too tired from my day's journey to do much besides scope out the neighborhood, but that's ok... at least I have a neighborhood to scope out, which is good enough for me.

09 June, 2002 - Madrid, Esp

Madrid has been, well, frustrating. This is the part of my trip where I turn into a bit of a spoiled American baby, I'm afraid. Give me convenience or give me death. For, there has been nothing but a mass of inconveniences in this chapter of my travels. First, there was the train problem, and the resultant lack of a proper youth hostel to be found. All of that pretty much did away with saturday as far as being able to see or do anything, and made me more nervous than I would like to be, sharing one room with a stranger and all(though he seems nice enough, and has scarcely been around anyway.)

Today is sunday. Nothing is open in Madrid on sundays, except bars and cafes. I can't even do laundry(which sorely needs to be done), let alone go to El Prado or anywhere else I wanted to see while I was here. I contented myself with walking around the city in the morning and early afternoon, which was the nice and rewarding part of the day... strolling the Gran Via, Plaza Mayor, Playa Del Sol, and playing frisbie in el Parque de Buen Retiro were all good relaxing, and much-needed fun.

But, later, still more problems arose. I had to book a train out for Barcelona tomorrow. I wanted to take the overnighter, which was, of course, booked up. And, since the main ticket office is closed(again, sunday) I had to go all the way across town to the other station, since each particular station only seems to know what's going on at their own location, schedule-wise, and the train that was booked up was the only one leaving from that particular station(all very sensible, no?). Anyway, after a trip across town on the Metro, and another difficult process at the other station(European ticket clerks and public service people are just like the American version, generally surly and unhelpful, because they work a shitty job and deal with idiots all day. The fact that I don't speak their language places me rather firmly in that category, like it or not.) I ended up stuck on the 11:00-6:00 day train. The museums all open at 10:00. So, no art and culture for me here :(

I'll also end up getting into Barcelona probably too late to find a good hostel once again. I called ahead, and they won't take bookings over the phone. I tried the internet, but you've got to book two weeks ahead(which I didn't do, as it really cuts into the flexibility on a trip like this, which seems even more needed due to the uncertainty of the train situation.)

In short, none of this is nearly as easy or straightforward as it seemed in the books, or the first two stops, which I admittedly had already planned out and reserved ahead. Now, I don't mind a few difficulties along the way, again, part of the adventure, blah blah blah... but when I basically lose a whole city, and 2+ days, I am a rather unhappy camper. Madrid seemed like a delightful place on the surface, easy to get around, fairly inexpensive, kind, vivacious people(excepting the ticket clerks, or course.) I wish I had gotten a chance to see more of it. Hopefully Barcelona will be better.

08 June, 2002 - Madrid, Esp

So, this train business is a lot more complex than they let on in the brochures and guidebooks. I had vainly assumed that you merely walked up to the train you wanted a little early, flashed your pass, and fought for a second-class seat, first-come, first-served. Turns out that some trains need reservations, and most overnighters require a supplemental payment in addition to your railpass. And forget about high-speed or direct connections, they're right out, cost-wise. To get the direct night train from Paris to Madrid, I would have had to pay 68 euro extra.

So, I took the indirect route, with a transfer at Irun. I only took *counts on fingers* thirteen hours. And I still had to pay 19 euro. And there was no dining, or even sitting and smoking/talking car... you were confined to your sleeping compartment or the small space by the bathroom on the end for the duration of the first train, around nine hours. Kinda sucky.

But, enough bitching, I got here alright, and met some cool kids from Philly, with whom I shared a berth. The second leg was just fine, if ponderously slow, with striking views of little Spanish(and doubtless, Basque as well) villages nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees to pass the time.

Unfortunately, this slow route got me into Madrid so late that all of the hostels were filled(it's not a good town for finding hostels evidently, there are only a few and they don't really take online bookings, as far as I could tell.) Luckily, the kind proprietor of Hostal Barbieri took pity and helped myself and a new Czech friend(whose name I have not yet ascertained how to spell) who was in a similar predicament, to find a cheap double in a nice little pension, the Hotel Dominguez(Ph# 034 91 532 1547, for mom's peace of mind :] ). I'm paying no more than I did for a hostel in London or Paris, so it's no problem really, though I do rather miss the youthful clientele, instant camaraderie, and kitchen facilities that the hostel atmosphere provides. Oh well, Cést la vie. I´ll make double sure to book ahead for Barcelona, even if that means trying to navigate making reservations over the phone(which I dread enough in my native language, let alone in a foreign tongue, albeit the one I know best, at least.)

All I've really done here so far is wonder around the Playa del Sol with a fellow backpacker I met via a bulletin board, who has a similar philosophical bent, and enough of a knowledge of Madrid(having been here a couple of weeks already) to show me around, a service for which I am very grateful. I took my leave of him, and now I am at the EasyEverything(they're ubiquitous here, like the Mickey D's of internet cafes) just off the Playa Del Sol, catching up on my journalling, the results of which, vis a vis Paris, can be seen below.

Madrid is gonna be kinda chill, mostly just walking the wide avenues and parks or sitting and reading the the huge public squares. I'll probably hit a museum or two(there isn't much else here, besides discotheques and nightlife), but I'm getting to the point where I need a break before I can hit my second wind on this trip, for Barcelona, and the richness of Italy lie ahead soon enough.

07 June, 2002 - Paris

My last day in town was decidedly low-key. I checked out, left my bags in the luggage room, and embarked on a walking tour of the literary history of the Rive Gauche. I walked by all of the famous cafes(now ridiculously overpriced, to my dismay) once frequented by the Hemingways, Camuses, and Fitzgeralds of the world. I checked out Gertrude Stein's former salon, and the real site of the original Shakespeare and Co, and finally hit Montparnasse Cemetary for a quiet walk amidst the graves of Sartre and Baudelaire, among others.

Finally, there were train reservations to be made, and that chore finished, I wiled away the rest of the day reading a copy of Jane Eyre(enthralling, can't believe I dissed it before without really reading it Ed: though unfortunately the ending totally blows. Oh well.) I found at the book exchange at Aloha. Made my way over to the chilly train station around 9:00, and shipped out on my first sleeper train, toward Madrid at 11:15.

05/06 June, 2002 - Paris, Fr

Ok, where did I leave off? Oh yes, I was about to go to the Louvre. That was a bit of a clusterfuck. I got soaked to the skin by the pouring rain on the way over there, and when I got there, it was a total zoo. It's one of those places that everyone probably should see once, but perhaps never again, unless they can find a way to avoid the crowds(and I even had a few tricks, like going in through the rear entrance, located in a shopping mall, and going in the evening on one of the two nights the place is open late.) I still felt like cattle.

The Mona Lisa was the most ridiculous of all... people were stacked up like twenty deep in front of her. I stole a quick look, and escaped the claustrophobia(I´ve never really gotten the whole Mona Lisa thing... sure, she has a beguiling look on her face, like she knows something we don't, &c, but I'm much more impressed by Da Vinci's amazing sketchbooks(some of which I was lucky enough to see at the British Library) personally.)

But, the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace were as advertised, and there were some other interesting points... the Sumerian collection, and especially The Code of Hammurabi on a giant obelisk were cool. Not a total waste of time, just a lot more trouble than I would have preferred.

After that exhausting experience, I fled back to the hostel for drinks, reading and a very interesting conversation on politics, literature, pop-culture, etc with various people from Australia, Ireland, Singapore, and other far flung points. Got to bed quite a bit later than usual, but that´s ok.

After my late night I finally allowed myself the luxury of sleeping late the next day, and shambled out of bed and towards the Musee Picasso around noonish. This was very interesting... his personal collection, ceded to the French government in lieu of back-taxes, and housed in a homey old walled manor house. No masterpieces here, but an interesting window upon the man and his work and method. The guy was incredibly prolific, that's for sure. I'm starting to think I like these smaller specialty museums a lot better, even if they don't have the great masterpieces... they are a lot less overwhelming, and provide ample opportunity to stop, contemplate, and actually learn.

After that, I tried my hand at a little small market shopping, and succeeded in making my first transactions solely au Francais, much to my amazement. Then I got a little turned around and ended up walking a good twenty blocks out of my way on the way home, but I'm starting to like getting lost(so long as I don´t get too lost), as I get a better feel for a place, and see things I might not otherwise get to.

After supping upon my shopping's rewards, I headed out for the requisite Eiffel Tower trip. I had hemmed and hawed and waited on this one, at times dismissing it as over-priced and cliche, but I finally decided it was something you simply must do if you're in Paris for the first time, crowds of tourists be damned. So, I did, and the view of Paris at night was more than a just reward, and additionally, I got to play a bit of pickup football in the park in the shadow of the tower on the way home. All in all, a full day, and I returned home and collapsed early in anticipation of my last day in Paris.

05 June, 2002 - Paris, Fr

I'm starting to feel pretty much at home in Paris now. It's taking about a day and a half per city to get my bearings, on average, though it will probably get better, since I'm tackling the two largest cities on my list first. So far, I've done the Musée Rodin, which was wonderful as far as Museums go, intimate and beautiful, and walked up the Champs Elysée to the Arc de Triomphe, which is kinda sterile, but provides a breathtaking panorama of the city from the top. I also bummed around and read at the Jardins du Luxembourg, where Hemingway, Pound, Fitzgerald and others did pretty much the same.

And I took a quick look at Napoleon's Tomb, which is beautiful, but a little creepy when you remember who is buried there and see how much he is honored by the French. After all that I took the metro over behind the Louvre near the Red Light District, to look for cheap lunch and an internet cafe. I ended up buying sandwich fixings and eating a quick picnic lunch in some unidentified plaza, and then calling it a day.

This morning I went to see the Pantheon, which was disappointing since the Foucault Pendulum(which I have always wanted to see after reading the book) was taken down in favor of some sort of wiggy modern art exhibition featuring giant inflatable sphere, which was interesting, but very much not the pendulum I wanted to see. Additionally, my camera batteries crapped out before I reached the crypt, so no pictures of Descartes', Rouuseau's, and other famed French figures' tombs for me :( Sort of a wash.

Otherwise, all is well. Seriously, I know it's chic to rag on the French(and I've done a bit of that here already, old habits dying hard and all) but in reality, all of the rumors would seem to be untrue. I've been treated with nothing but kindness, and had no real problems figuring anything out, even though I don't really speak a lick of French.

They do make it a bit of a challenge though. No spoonfeeding or signs in six languages like in London. I kinda like that though, it's like, "Fine, we welcome you to visit our country, but do your goddamned homework and use your brain, because we're not changing anything to accomodate you." Refreshing, after how tourist-centric(and thus, sort of cheapened and made unreal) lots of the sites I looked at in London were. I like a good puzzle, and luckily I know enough about word roots and reading in context that I've had no problems. I just wish I knew the language, because I think I could get a whole lot more out of being here if I did. Still, there's already too much for the five days I'm going to be here. Well, off to dodge raindrops and head for the Louvre. Perhaps tonight I'll write out some general impressions on my first week or so out that have been brewing over the past few days.

03 June, 2002 - Paris, Fr

So, after a long(and confusing... dozing off only to be awoken three times, once by customs, once to deboard onto the ferry that I didn't know we were taking, assuming in my naiveté that the bus would go through the Chunnel, and once to get back on the bus from the ferry, all in my customary disoriented post-wakening state) overnight bus/ferry trip, I am now in a rainy city of lights. So far all I've done is ride the Metro around all over the place looking for hostels(I finally found one on the third try. Note to self: book ahead from now on) and walk up and down the Seine to get a good first look at everything. The French like to build on a grand scale, evidently(I could make some sort of wry ugly-Americanesque comment about making up for other inadequacies, but I won't.) I thought Trafalgar Square was a bit too ostentations for my taste, but it pales in comparison to this. Breathtaking, if a little imposing and distant.

Later, I made my way to Shakespeare and Co(which is much like, and evidently affiliated with City Lights in San Francisco. A nice literary/expatriate haven, if a little over-touristed.) I moved on down the block to this internet cafe from there, and here I am. I'll write more extensively later, when I'm not on the clock at such a level of expense. I'll also be editing and adding to older entries as I see fit, as I've been rushed most of the time, which for a constant revisor and annotator like myself, is anathema. I keep thinking of new things, but don't have access to write. I'll get it all down eventually.

For now, Au revoir.

02 June, 2002 - London UK

So, I'm at the EasyEverything outside of Victoria Coach Station, frittering time until my bus for Paris leaves later on tonight. I ended up basically staying in last night, icing my big toe(which is better, but still a little painful) and watching reruns of the day's football action in the lounge. I'm afraid I'm going to need more downtime on this trip than I had anticipated, but since I got through London, which is just ridiculously expensive, on only 30$ a day, it looks like I should be able to accomodate that and still go everywhere I want to.

Today, I checked out early, watched part of the Spain / Slovenia match with some animated Spaniards, and then took off for the British Library, to take a look at their rare manuscripts, including the likes of a Gutenburg Bible, a first edition Shakespeare folio, and a draft manuscript of Finnegan's Wake. Interesting stuff. Then I bummed around Gordon square(home of the infamous Bloomsbury Group) for awhile, and finally headed for the Tube, which brought me here, to the station. And now, I wait. I think I'm going to go bum around Hyde or St James Park, maybe take a look at Speaker's Corner, or just sit under a nice shade tree and read and relax. Tomorrow... the City of Lights

01 June, 2002 - London, UK

More London... There's just so much of it. Yesterday, I arose early, had a bland-but-filling breakfast, and walked in a loop down through Leicester Sq, Trafalgar Sq, and back up through Piccadilly circus and Chinatown, ending at the British Museum. The highlight was probably talking to an eccentric hobo in Leicester, who wanted, for some reason, to know all about the Amish. What is with the fascination with the Amish, on a seemingly worldwide scale? I guess I'm just used to them, having grown up adjacent to their community, and these things being relative, I don't have the sense of foreigness required for such interest. Anyway...

The British Museum was formidable. I got through most of it, the highlights for me being the Rosetta Stone, the reading room(where practically anyone and everyone who was significant in European letters has worked at some point,) the mummies, and the clockwork exhibition. On the downside, one can only look at so much pottery and vase-work before his eyes start to glaze over(pun vaguely intended.) I'm sure it's all important archaeologically, but from a museum-viewer standpoint, it gets tiresome. Still, it was all excellent context to all of the literature and philosophy I study, and it was awe-inspiring at times to see objects simultaneuosly so ancient, and so intricate and sophisticatedly crafted. Definitely well worth a visit if you're ever here.

After that, it was a couple hours of much-needed rest, and then off to a light early dinner, followed by drinks and good conversation with Michelle and her man Alec. We talked about the social strangenesses associated with the whole weblogging thing, compared notes on the US, Singapore, and the UK, and generally had a jolly evening. My thanks and regards to both of you for humoring a somewhat lonely traveler.

Today, I attempted to do the Tate Modern, but only made it through about 1.5 floors before my poor left toe started protesting too much. It seems I have a slightly ingrown nail, or something the matter, which all of this walking has exacerbated to the point of making walking any distance rather painful. I'll have to get some new insoles for my shoes, and ice it and take it easy until I get to Paris I'm afraid. Unfortunate, but probably to be expected, and not really disasterous as far as my trip is concerned, as I've already seen all of the absolute musts for me in London anyway.

Things are crazy here, what with the World Cup, and the Queen's Golden Jubilee going on concurrently. I'm going to go out and soak up some more of it, and then head back in to do laundry and ice down my bum foot. I probably won't write again until Paris, as I check out tomorrow morning early, then plan take the Tube to the bus station, stow my bags, and laze about in St. James Park and adjoining areas(perhaps taking a quick jaunt over to Westminster Abbey), until my bus leaves in the late evening.

29 May, 2002 - London, UK

So, I'm in London(and no, I still can't believe I'm walking around London, all alone in the world. I feel ever-so growns up), and damn are my dogs tired. The flight was uneventful, though extremely long and tedious. I strolled off the plane into a cold rain whipped by a biting wind, thinking to myself "Yes, this is London alright." I spent the whole day yesterday walking all over the city in somewhat of a haze, dodging raindrops, in attempt to stave off jet lag. It worked, nominally, with a few misadventures interspersed(like getting lost and walking all over Bloomsbury with my heavy pack in the rain, searching for the hostel, and paying way too much for a first meal of fish and chips at a touristy restaurant near the British Museum out of desperate hunger) I saw basically all of the big outdoor landmarks up and down the Thames in one sense-assaulting binge.

And, after a few detours and missteps, I feel like I know my way around, both aboveground and Underground. And the hostelling experience is actually quite nice as well so far, lots of fellow travelers, friendly staff, just a cool, sort of Bohemian atmosphere. And the showers even have hot water, contrary to popular belief.

London actually reminds me a lot of Boston, which would make sense, I suppose, since Boston dates back to British colonial times and all. But, even in some of the more modern aspects, I see similarities... the Thames winding through the city, bifurcating it only to have everything reconnected by criscrossing bridges. The parking garages underneath the parks. The UCL campus, which is eerily similar to the BU campus. The rowhouses and apartments, which are taller here, but otherwise similar. The main difference, of course, being the sprawl, and the scale. This place is massive. Time to go explore some more of it. Today it's the British museum, and then perhaps a bit of the nightlife with Michelle

29 May, 2002 - Urbana, IL

Well, I'm all packed up and ready to set out on the journey of a lifetime(at least up to this point.) Here's my rough itinerary, which will of course deviate quite a bit along the way...

Flight from O'Hare to Heathrow(05/29-05/30)
- 05/30 - 6/02 - London(Generator Hostel, Bloomsbury)

Night Bus to Paris (06/02-06/03)

- 06/03 - 06/06 - Paris(Auberge Internationale des Jeunes or Aloha hostel)

Night Train to Madrid(06/06-06/07)

- 06/07 - 06/08 - Madrid(Los Amigos or Barbieri hostel, possible daytrip to Cordoba)

Night Train to Barca(06/08-06/09)

- 06/09 - 06/10 - Barcelona(Kabul Hostel or Hostel Fernando, or Pension Bahia)
Night Train (06/10-06/11)

- 06/11 - 06/12 - Cinque Terra(Ostello in Manarola), or Nice(Clairvallon Relaid International de la Jeunesse), or Chamonix(Alps Cable Car to Italy, then Pisa or Genoa?)

- 06/13 - 06/15 - Rome(freedom traveller or hostel casanova or beehive)

- 06/16 - 06/17 - 2/3 of Naples(6 small rooms or hotel Imperia, daytrip to Pompeii), Florence(Ostello Santa Monica), Venice(Venezia Youth Hostel)

Night Train to Vienna(06/17-06/18)

- 06/18 - 06/19 - Vienna(Wombat's hostel)

- 06/20 - 06/21 - Prague(The Boathouse hostel)

Night Train to Salzburg

- 06/21 - 06/23 - Salzburg(Yoho hostel) and Munich(Euro Youth hostel or 4YOU MUNCHEN hostel, Daytrip to Dachau)

- 06/24 - Cologne/Rhine Valley(Station House hostel or Köln-Riehl hostel, Castles, river cruise? Romantic Road bus?)

- 06/25 - 06/26 - Amsterdam(globe, flying pig, or bulldog hostel)
Night Bus to London(6/26-06/27)

- 06/27 - Fly out of Heathrow

I'm extremely jacked right now. In a little over 24 hours, I'll be in freaking London! This just isn't registering. I better try to get some sleep(as difficult as that will probably prove), so as to be able to stave off jetlag at least somewhat upon my arrival. See you on the other side of the pond..