Sunday, July 31, 2011

An International Experience

After flying from Rome to Thessaloniki, we took a bus into town and were instructed by our next couch surfing hosts to find a minibus to take to their place.  After wandering through the city and asking several people, we finally found the bus stop for the minibus.  We weren't sure exactly what a minibus was but when it arrived, we saw a vehicle the size of a van and once you step inside it was set up just like a bus - makes sense, a "mini bus".  Our couch surfing hosts were really nice and cooked some delicious Greek food for us.  I even learned how to make a delicious Greek salad and authentic Tzatziki sauce!  Her name is Iliana which we loved because it is so close to our niece's name.

One day, Iliana and I were going to the supermarket which I assumed was a short walk away.  We started walking when suddenly she said, "Oh, I forgot - my scooter is parked over there!"  I didn't realize we were taking a scooter!  I climbed on the back - no glasses, no ponytail holder, no helmet (very out of character for me!) and held on for dear life.  With no helmets on, we were free to have a conversation and we discovered that we share the same birthday.  As we sped through the streets weaving precariously close between cars and buses, chatting about our lives, I kept wondering whether it still counts as a "white knuckle ride" if your knuckles don't turn white because they are naturally brown!  I think it does!

Thankfully, we made it to the store and back safely and Iliana even helped me shop for Matthew's birthday present so I could surprise him (it's hard to surprise someone when you spend 24 hours a day together!)  Another cute memory was the Greek kids in the neighborhood practicing their English with us.  One day as I sat outside checking my email on our host's laptop, I heard three little girl's voices suddenly ask in unison, "Do you have a boyfriend?"  They laughed and said, "Bravo!" when I told them I am married.  The girls also taught us some basic Greek words to help us navigate our way through the country.  Navigation in Greece was a little more challenging since this was the first country we visited where the script was different.

Our hosts also borrowed a car for the four of us to take a day trip to the Mount Olympiad area.  It was a fun day of hiking, drinking Greek coffee, and driving through the mountains. 

One of the craziest moments was when their dog started chasing a whole herd of goats through the mountains!  Thankfully the dog survived! 

We took an overnight train to Athens (probably a crazy decision after our last experience but at least we had seat assignments this time!).  We laughed after finding our seats on the train because just like in Rome, we found ourselves surrounded by Indians again!  It was not as enjoyable this time because they talked very loudly and even yelled at each other through most of our overnight ride!  In the morning when we arrived in Athens, we made our way to the Port to buy ferry tickets to head to a Greek island for a few days to celebrate Matthew's birthday.

We arrived just in time to hop on the ferry and head to the island Poros.  We heard that it's very easy to find a place to stay once you get to the islands so we didn't make any arrangements in advance.  As we boarded the ferry, the man checking our tickets asked, "Do you have a place to stay?" and proceeded to tell us all about his place and his cousin's hotels.  We bargained and after arriving at a fair price, we decided to stay at his cousin's hotel by the beach.  His cousin picked us up in a van and took us to the room.  We ended up renting a moped and had a great time driving around exploring the island, relaxing on the beach, reading, and celebrating Matthew's birthday.  His immediate family and a few friends had written him birthday messages which I printed out and gave him one by one throughout the day.  We had dinner overlooking the water, then I gave him the birthday surprise - a sketchbook and inside was a list of words describing him composed by his friends and family.  It was a pretty amazing list and I hope he was blessed by it!

The ferry back to Athens took considerably longer than the one departing Athens.  Our next couch surfing hosts were Slovenians living in Greece.  We stayed on an air mattress in the kitchen which was actually very comfortable.  Matthew and I really enjoyed many great conversations with them.  It was so natural spending time with them, as if we were already friends before we met.  We were sad when our time with them came to an end.  We cooked a meal together and laughed about the international experience of Americans and Slovenians having an Italian meal in Greece!

During the days in Athens, we explored the Acropolis, Parthenon, and saw the Changing of the Guard.

The 2am flight from Athens to Tel Aviv made me start to question our sanity with all these overnight travels!  I guess it's how it has to be when trying to stay on a tight budget.  Our arrival in Israel was quite memorable so check out the next blog post to read about it!

Italia - Part Due (two)

Eleven people stepped off the train together in Florence.  We didn't realize at the time but the same couch surfing host was hosting ALL of us.  Well, almost all of us - two Chinese girls were just there to get their luggage because they had been hosted the night before.  This was our second night there but we didn't realize how many others would also be there. Three Americans, a couple from the UK, a guy from Japan, another guy from Estonia, the two of us, and our couch surfing host filled his flat in Florence.  Matthew and I slept on a mattress on the floor in the computer room while others slept in various places including a tent on the balcony and a room made out of cardboard in the hallway.  It was actually quite fun to stay with so many other people.

The rest of our two days in Florence was a blur.  My traveler's fatigue and feelings of being homesick were at a peak so I really can't describe much of Florence in any great detail at all.  (I can say that things have been better since that point!)

After Florence, we decided to head to Venice and find a place to stay once we arrived.  The art festival going on (which we didn't know about until arriving) made it difficult to find accommodations.  Many of the hotels and even hostels were full.  After walking around and talking with many places, someone referred us to a "word of mouth" hostel where we eventually decided to sleep.  It was definitely an adventure as we ended up sharing a tiny single bed on the bottom bunk.  The poor guy on the top bunk had just broken his foot and had to jump down on his other foot. We felt really bad for him, especially because his trip was supposed to take him to many more destinations.  Here are a few pics of the hostel:

Walking around Venice with it's bridges, gondolas, and lights is spectacular.  "Have fun!  You will get lost!" is what one of the hostel workers told us as we left to explore the city.  We wandered around exploring the shops, drifting through art galleries, indulging in the occasional gelato, and sitting on benches watching people.  One afternoon, we sat to rest on a bench in a square and watched some Italian kids kicking around a soccer ball.  There was an accordian player at a restaurant behind us and I swear he was playing the theme to the Olive Garden restaurant.  It was a really funny moment and made me think of my sister.

Our final destination in Italy was Rome.  We decided to take an overnight train which proved to be a crazy experience.  It was only after we had boarded the train that we realized that our tickets were for "standing room only" for our overnight journey.  We also did not yet have a place to stay once we arrived in Rome.  Before we made the realization about our tickets, we plopped ourselves down in one of the rooms that sleep six and quickly befriended an Italian man who did not speak a word of English.  We tried to tell him that we didn't know where to go since our tickets did not show seat assignments but he kept gesturing for us to stay where we were and seemed to tell anyone who tried to take our seats to leave us alone.  Another couple joined our car with tickets that had seat assignments.  We hoped that we could make it in these seats through the night without being kicked out to stand through the night.

The other couple was Canadian and our Italian friend shows us how to recline the seats so the four of us could lie down.  The Canadian girl and I bonded over our dislike of feet as the guys put their feet right next to our heads!  When the conductor told Matthew he had to take off his shoes if he wanted to lie down, I laughed out loud at our non-English speaking Italian friend who started crossing his eyes and making faces like he was going to pass out because Matthew's feet were so stinky!

The rest of the night people got on and off the train (including in and out of our car) and it was only by the grace of God that we were able to stay in those seats all night long!  We were so thankful!  We arrived in Rome exhausted at around 6am and ended up waiting around til the city woke up before we tried to find accommodations for the night.  We decided to try to find a hotel because we were exhausted from traveling overnight, waking up every time someone came to our train car and waiting to see if we would be kicked out of our seats.  No offense to Matthew but it was kinda hard to sleep with his smelly feet next to my head all night too!

Once the city woke up, we found an internet cafe and searched for hotels.  We found one near the train station for a reasonable price so we decided to walk there to see if any rooms were available.  We arrived there and after booking the room, we slept for a few hours before starting to explore the neighborhood.  The funny thing was that this randomly selected place in Rome was right in the Indian part of the city!  Everyone around us spoke in Hindi and many of them kept asking if I was Indian and gave us free fruits and discounts once I affirmed my Indian origin.  We enjoyed our fill of Indian cuisine during this portion of the trip!

The next day we took the Metro to explore more of Rome.  I was amazed to walk out of the Metro station, look up and see the Colosseum right there!  The first time we saw it, it was dusk and the pink sky and twinkling lights made it even more beautiful.  Other highlights in Rome included touring the Vatican Museum, seeing the Sistine Chapel, and St Peter's church.  The Sistine Chapel was incredible and we stared up at that ceiling for quite some time.  I was struck at how much bigger it is than I had anticipated.  We also stayed two nights with Matthew's cousin's friend, Sam, who is in culinary school in Rome.  He was a gracious host, as he cooked a delicious meal for us and we enjoyed watching fireworks from the roof of his apartment building with some of his friends.

We woke up early to take the Metro to the bus stop where we would take a bus to the airport to fly to Greece.  Next stop - Thessaloniki, Greece!

Monday, July 11, 2011

Italy - Part One

Luca, our first Italian friend (through couch surfing, of course) picked us up at the Pisa airport.  He rode his bike there and pushed the bike home as we walked the 30 minute trek with our packs on our backs.  The flight to Pisa was another Ryan Air scramble to get the best seat you can.  Matthew and I were apparently at the end of the scramble because we did not get seats together.  My feelings of being homesick and missing friends and family were starting to crescendo.  My thoughts during the flight were directed towards them as my hopes of sleeping through the flight were interrupted by the little girl banging on the back of my seat through the duration of the flight.  After seven weeks of traveling, the backpacker's lifestyle was starting to get to me.  There were definitely times in Italy where I did not feel like walking around outside in the hot sun all day looking at yet another statue.  I missed my couch.  Yes, we were couch surfing on other people's couches but I missed my own couch, and being able to stretch out and take a nap on it.  I was thankful that Matthew was patient with me during this homesick bout.  Despite my traveler's fatigue, we saw some amazing sites in Italy, including Pisa, the Cinque Terre, Florence, Venice, and Rome.

Luca made dinner for us after our walk back to his house.  The sky was just getting dark and the lights in Pisa along the river were gorgeous.  After our Italian dinner, Luca toured us around Pisa where young people lined the streets hanging out.  He kept commenting on how no one was out tonight but we kept thinking there were so many people outside!  He told us stories of the history of various places as we walked through the square in Pisa until we reached the Leaning Tower.  It was lit up and I was glad we saw it at night because it was beautiful.

The next morning we hopped onto a train to head to the Cinque Terre where we would finally end up staying in a hotel for the first time on this journey.  Another first was that we didn't know where we would stay when we arrived.  We would find a room once we got there.  After finding a place that rented rooms, we followed two Italian guys down the street and into a little alley way, then up what felt like a million stairs to the room.  It was pink.  All of it.  From the walls to the bedspread, to the pillows, to the pictures on the walls.  Pink.  We took it.  Who wouldn't after hauling your luggage up the million stairs?

During our few days in the Cinque Terre we blended in with the rest of the tourists.  We heard more American accents than any other accent or language.  It was a fun few days of hiking between the five Cinque Terre towns, enjoying Italian gelato, chatting with other tourists, and me sitting by the water watching Matthew dive off cliffs into the refreshing water.  Here are some photos of The Cinque Terre:

And a video of Matthew cliff diving :)

No Spanish people in Spain

Matthew and I did not meet any Spanish people in Spain.  If you remember from previous blog posts, Spain was a destination that we added after our trip had begun because my aunt from the UK offered that we stay at her house there.  After finding a cheap flight on Ryan Air, we confirmed this new addition to the itinerary.  The plan was to go, meet my aunt's friends, hang out at the pool and the beach, read books, and rest.  It's a rough life, I know.

By the way, for those that have never flown Ryan Air before, it is an experience!  In our experience, once people check in they stand in line at the gate well before the plan even arrives since there are no seat assignments.  Everyone waits in line until they board you on buses that drive across the tarmac to the plane where everyone hops out and runs to get on board so they can grab a good seat.  Like I said, it's an experience!  It's not nearly as much of a rush to get off the plane because most people have their luggage carried on.  Seems to be the opposite in the U.S.  Although they do still open their seatbelts a few seconds before the light actually goes off.  Cracks me up that those few seconds are so important.

Anyway, back to aunt's house is beautiful and comfortable.  Her friends, also UK residents who vacation in Spain, were very kind and helpful.  They fed us, drove us around, took us to a local theater production, and took me to the market while Matthew played golf in a tournament with another of my aunt's friends.  This is why we didn't meet any Spanish people in Spain - we were surrounded by people vacationing there, mostly from the UK, which ended up being a restful, relaxing time.  We will have to return again to truly explore Spain another day.

Next destination, Italy including Pisa, the Cinque Terre, Florence, Venice, and Rome...

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Five days in Paris

We arrived in Paris after dark.  It was almost midnight.  This was the first time we had to navigate through a city for the first time after dark.  I'll be honest, I was a little nervous but Matthew is such a confident traveler, he knew right where to go.  This was also the first time we didn't know where we would stay until shortly before we arrived.  At the last minute, we heard back from our hosts - friends of Matthew's Scotland friend - that we were welcome to stay with them.  Jo, who lives in a flat right near a metro stop in Paris, and her boyfriend Paul who lives in the next flat.  We were to stay with Paul in an extra room.  After successfully navigating our way through Paris, it took a minute to find the flat to meet our new friends.

We liked him as soon as we met him.  Paul's Scottish accent sounded a little out of place in Paris and we learned that he had just moved there two weeks before.  As soon as we met him, it felt to me as if we had all been friends for years. In the morning, we chatted as he gave us a list of a few helpful French words while we enjoyed the fresh baked French bread and chocolate croissant.  It was great to meet Jo that day as well.  I loved listening to the intonation of her voice rise and fall as she spoke English with her French accent.

We spent five days in Paris.  Matthew and I were wishing we had a pedometer to see how far we have walked during this trip around the world.  Paris was definitely one place where we walked, and walked, and walked some more.  The city seems to go on forever with endless streets to explore.  Among our favorite sites to see was Notre Dame.  We have been in many cathedrals as we have toured Europe but there was something about this place - maybe the stained glass windows or the tall ceiling, I don't know because the other cathedrals had those things too - but something about that place just made my heart want to worship.  As we left to explore other parts of the city, I kept finding myself singing softly with a smile on my face and peace in my heart.

Matthew and I also went on a quest through the Musee d'Orsay - an art museum that contains a very special painting.  Our very dear friends in Colorado, Mark and Peg, had given us the name of a painting in this museum that upon seeing it, changed their lives.  We found it.  It was incredible.  If you want to know what it looked like, you can ask us about that next time you see us too.

Paul and Jo took us to their church, an American church plant but the service was in French.  We thought back to our German church experience as we again found ourselves hearing songs we know in another foreign language.  The amazing thing was that the sermon was based on the exact same verse that the German pastor spoke on, and the two messages were strikingly similar.  So cool that God can speak to our hearts a message in two completely different countries with completely different languages.

Some other highlights of Paris - seeing the Eiffel tower at night, trying to find friend's recommendations throughout the city, listening to live music while overlooking the city on the steps of Sacre Cour (a church on a hill where there has been someone praying 24 hours a day for the past 120 years!), and Paul and Jo treating us to a delicious crepe dinner while we talked for hours.

Our five days in Paris flew by and the next destination on our journey...Spain.