In and Out of Italy

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|| Travel Date || 28 October 2014 – 6 November 2014
|| Travel Date || 12 November 2014 – 19 November 2014
|| Travel Date || 2 December 2014 – 4 December 2014
|| Travel Date || 16 December 2014 – 19 December 2014

After many weeks of nonstop traveling city to city, I was ready to settle down and recuperate. I took an overnight train from Wien Westbahnhof to Bologna Centrale and went straight to my friend’s apartment in the center of town. She’s currently studying abroad at the University of Bologna, so she was able to give me the grand tour of her city. We walked the streets and explored all of the historic charm that Bologna has to offer. In America, most students graduate from their university in either May or June, whereas in Italy, students can graduate any given day of the week. Therefore, almost every single day I saw recent graduates drunkenly roaming the streets celebrating in traditional handmade costumes (which were quite hilarious). To be completely honest, my week in Bologna was really just focused on eating as much as physically possible; I had bolognese on anything and everything. I missed Italian cuisine dearly and quickly rekindled my love affair with carbs.

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Before I left for Europe, I specifically remember a conversation I had with my cousin. After explaining my tentative plans, he informed me that I could only stay in Europe for ninety cumulative days without a visa. Being a stubborn fool, I argued that that rule was enforced per country and as long as I didn’t stay in a single country for more than ninety days, I would be fine. I was 100% incorrect. It wasn’t until I had a similar conversation with a friend in Bologna that I finally decided to do some extensive Schengen Area research. Without a valid reason to get a visa, I was heartbroken to discover that my travels were going to come to an end much sooner than anticipated. I also realized that if I wanted to return to my family in Austria for the holidays, legally I would have to leave the Schengen Area for a week before I hit my ninety day limit. Within hours, I had booked a spontaneous trip to Israel (outside of Schengen Area) departing in three days, as well as my return flight home. I left my luggage with my friend in Bologna and packed a small backpack for Tel Aviv.

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When I returned back to Bologna from Israel, I gathered my ever-growing luggage and headed down to Florence. I was a bit stressed out after missing my first train, but the moment I arrived at the Santa Maria Novella train station, all of my worries diminished. After previously studying abroad in Florence, it was incredibly nostalgic to return back to my second home. I stayed with my friend Sofia and her wonderful family in Sesto Fiorentino, a quaint town just outside of the city center. I was greeted with warm hugs and homemade brownies topped with a “Welcome Carissa” icing drizzle across each chocolatey bite. It’s so rare to find such kind hearted people willing to welcome a stranger in their home and to treat me like family; I seriously love them. When la mia madre Italiana wasn’t cooking at home, we would go out to our favorite restaurants in town. Some nights we even had two dinners just because it was so delicious. We took a day trip down to Chianti through the rainy vineyards and drank as much Chianti Classico as we could. As we were searching for another vineyard in Radda, we stumbled across Ristorante La Bottega, and decided to stop in for lunch. I recognized immediately that it was a Michelin rated restaurant, which seemed bizarre since the dishes were priced around 5-15€. We were pleased to find that the inexpensive tab did not compromise the supreme quality. We ordered rabbit, veal, and pasta all drizzled with black truffle. We had multiple glasses of wine and even a tiramisu all for about 40€, a lunch that should have cost easily 150€. Highly recommend it! Back in town, I saw all of my old friends and made even more new friends. However, after a week in Florence, I was ready to continue traveling. I left my luggage with Sofia and departed for Brussels, then Amsterdam, and finally to London. I returned back to Florence, switched out my winter coats for my bikinis, and headed to Tenerife. Since I booked my first month of traveling in advance, I was able to fly with major airlines for a cheaper fare. While being spontaneous was fun, I unfortunately had to fly with EasyJet and RyanAir in order to not spend a fortune. Although the budget airline tickets were cheaper, I was limited to a carry-on bag. That was why I kept leaving my luggage in Italy and continuously flying in and out of the country. Luckily, my friends were extremely helpful in lending me some closet space for my suburban of a suitcase. After nearly two weeks in Tenerife, I finally returned to Italy one last time. I gathered my belongings in Florence and took a train up to Venice.

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After quite the hectic morning – yes I missed another train, and no I don’t want to talk about it – I arrived in Venice. When I first visited Venice, I was there for only half of a day, so it was important to me to be able to at least stay a night along the canals. Upon arrival, I purchased an unlimited 72-hour vaporetto pass for twenty-four euro and headed to my hostel. My father and his girlfriend happened to be traveling through Italy at the same time, so we all met at the famous Harry’s Bar for drinks before heading off to dinner. The next day, I took the vaporetto to the island of Murano for a glass blowing tour as well as some light souvenir shopping. Since it was off season, the master glass blower was on vacation – but luckily I was still able to watch his apprentice mess around. After Murano, I continued on to the island of Burano. I explored the bright, colorful homes along the canals just before a spectacular sunset. Venice to this day is probably one of my favorite cities, there’s just something so magical and charming about it. I was a bit numb after a long, chilly boat ride back to my hostel, so I warmed up with a couple of drinks at the hostel bar. Feeling pretty amazing, I decided to treat myself to a nice dinner for my last night. I went to Rossopomodoro and ate more food than a family of four. I started off with a platter of bruschetta with juicy pomodori, followed by a creamy pasta dish (o paccarettino con friarelli e ricotta di bufala con spolverata di pecorino), a montoresa pizza (mozzarella, pomodorini, salsiccia napoletana, funghi porcini, trifoliate e grana), and a tiramisu with a nutella drizzle, all complimented by a large glass of vino. I then wobbled back to my hostel and just as I was about to ascend up the staircase to my room, the bartender stopped me. We chatted and he suggested that I stay downstairs and drink. I laughed and explained that after the long day I had and the ample amount of liquor consumed, I was ready to get into my hamburger / hot dog / fries onesie and sleep. He gave me a quizzical look and said something along the lines of, “If you put on that onesie and drink at my bar, you won’t have to pay for a single drink.” Needless to say, I got drunk at that bar in that onesie until finally going to bed at around six in the morning. Two hours later, I was waking up for my bus ride to Austria. Arrivederci Italia, as always, you are dearly missed.

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Tenerife, Islas Canarias

|| Travel Date || 4 December 2014 – 16 December 2014

Tenerife is beautiful, mysterious, and filled with many different destinations and adventures, but similar to my experience in Madrid, it wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong, I shared some really great memories there and I am truly glad I went – but without a car, it’s borderline impossible to get around and without a decent understanding of Spanish, communication is limited. The bus system is completely faulty and like Los Angeles, places aren’t exactly walkable. I arrived at the South Airport around 5pm and not one person spoke English. I dragged my luggage back and forth across the airport and repeatedly asked various employees, “Do you know where La Laguna is?” “Hola, do you speak English?” “La Laguna?!” Finally a woman pointed to a bus and said, “Go Santa Cruz, find bus La Laguna.” Everything had really fallen into place up until this point and I was not used to being that helpless. Around 7pm I arrived in Santa Cruz where thankfully a woman there spoke some English. She informed me that my hostel wasn’t exactly in La Laguna, but that I needed to take a bus to La Laguna, then switch onto another bus, then take that bus to a specific street, then request that the bus driver pull over, and then walk a couple miles to my hostel. A couple hours later, unsure if I was even dropped off at the correct street, I began to walk down a lightless road. It was now around 9pm, I was at my breaking point when suddenly, extremely aggressive dogs started to approach me. Supposedly, the Canary Islands are known for their ferocious wild dogs or “canaria” that inhabit the island. Not knowing what else to do at this point, I embraced my suitcase, and started sprinting while tears streamed down my face. I eventually spotted a small wooden sign laying on the ground with the name of my hostel painted across it and an arrow pointing down a rocky dirt road. At the end of the road was a large shack with a single light on. I stumbled into the unlisted building, unsure if I had just walked into a stranger’s home. I asked with mascara smeared down my face, “Please tell me this is the Lagarto Hostel.” A worried man nodded and immediately handed me a very full glass of wine.

 

The next morning I was invited to go hiking with some of the hostel volunteers. Before we left, they shyly asked if I was in good shape. I laughed and gave the ol’, “Ya-yeah of course.” Honestly, I hadn’t really worked out since I left America. I ran one time in Paris and I was being cocky. My idea of “in shape” was A LOT different than theirs. I learned this the hard way after 14km (8.7mi) of intensive terrain hiking. Luckily, they were really cool about my lack of conditioning, as I crawled along the path staring at their bulging calves and chiseled quads. Even though I was slowly dying, the hike was completely worth it. We hiked Macizo de Anaga, the oldest part of the island, formed 7 to 9 million years ago by a volcanic eruption. The jagged cliffs and lush vegetation created an unreal landscape, reminiscent of the equally surreal hike I did across the Nā Pali Coast last June. After a long day of hiking, we eventually made it back to the hostel and I melted into the couches refusing to move for the rest of the evening. The next day I was completely wrecked. I crawled out of bed and made my way back to the same couch. A warm rain was passing through, so it was the perfect excuse to have a lazy day.

   

Throughout the week I continued to explore the northern part of the island. I trekked back to Santa Cruz to see the futuristic spaceship-esque, Auditorio de Tenerife. Unable to find an open cafe on a Sunday, I settled for a slice of carrot cake for lunch. The next day I caught a ride in a van with a few German surfers to a local beach. I briefly swam in the Atlantic Ocean for the first time in my life and watched as the monstrous, ice-cold waves crashed along the black sand beach. The following morning I rented a bike from my hostel. I cruised through small towns, abandoned plantations, and continued until I found a small cafe on the side of a cliff. Once inside, to my left was an old man sipping scotch at the bar and to my right was a display case full of freshly caught fish. There wasn’t a menu, so I just sat down and proceeded to eat whatever the waiter brought me. I’m not even sure what I ate, but at that point, I had hardly eaten since I arrived on the island, and I wasn’t going to turn down a warm meal. Back at the hostel, I relaxed… a lot, which was sort of difficult for me, because without a solid form of transportation I felt really stranded.

 

After six days in the north, I decided to move down to another hostel in the southern part of the island. The south has a much more desert-like climate with barren vegetation, not as aesthetically pleasing, but much warmer. Upon arrival to the Los Amigos Hostel, I was greeted by some new faces and surprisingly some familiar faces. I ran into one of my roommates from my first night at Lagarto. She was very happy to see that I didn’t have mascara on my chin and requested that I stay for dinner. She had worked out a deal with another guest at the hostel (who just happened to be an Italian chef from Milan) that if she bought the groceries, he would prepare whatever she wanted. He made an unreal seafood pasta with fresh herbs and various spices. I ate more food that night than I had all week. The next day, we all drove down the road to the beach and explored the tidepools. Within an hour, we drove from the beach, through the desert, all the way to the snow-capped volcano, Teide. None of us were prepared for the cold climate, so we snapped our obligatory touristy photos and drove right back to the beach. We sipped mojitos by the seaside and called it a day.

The only attraction that I had researched before my arrival to Tenerife was Siam Park, Europe’s biggest waterpark. Feeling rather adventurous, I dragged a friend with me to relive my childhood. We tubed through the lazy river, slid down aggressively steep slides, and body surfed the wave pool. I got yelled at multiple times for sneaking in my GoPro and played dumb by simply saying, “Lo siento, no hablo español!” repeatedly. Of course, Karma’s a bitch, and I look like a crippled turtle in every single photograph.

After avoiding the bus system like the plague, I took a day to visit the town of Los Cristianos. I discovered that this was the epicenter for tourism. Suddenly, I began to miss my extreme isolation… until I found Zara. Since Zara was founded in Spain, everything is cheaper and the stores are huge. After a mild shopping spree, I enjoyed another mojito by the shore, and returned to the hostel. For my last couple of days in Tenerife I did everything I could to keep myself busy. I slept as much as possible, watched multiple movies on Netflix, and counted down the hours until my flight. Now to some of you (with the exception of my first day) this trip may have sounded pretty good. Laid back, lazy days, just roaming around an island doesn’t seem too bad. Well, I would have loved that for maybe four or five days. After nine days I was calling my airline trying to leave sooner, by my twelfth day I could not be happier to leave the island. One thing I’ve really learned from traveling, is that just because a lot of people like something, doesn’t mean you will too. It’s looked down upon and even seen as ungrateful to explore a new area and not be absolutely excited about it. I didn’t even want to admit that I didn’t care for Tenerife because of these expectations. But I’m just being honest, I gave it a chance and I’m glad I did. I was able to see a new place and I truly appreciate that I have the ability to do that!

Lavish, Looney, London

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|| Travel Date || 25 November 2014 – 2 December 2014

It’s really nostalgic to go back and write these blog posts months after my return. My friends frequently ask me how I remember enough details to still compose a post, so I’m going to let you in on my two very important secrets. First, I take a lot of pictures, maybe too many pictures, but when I see a picture of my first real fish and chips in London, I could tell you exactly which table I sat at in that restaurant and how our petite brunette waitress was very kind. Second, I take damn good notes while I travel. A lot of people recommend Moleskine Notebooks, but I really prefer just writing notes in my iPhone. So, with the combination of photographs, notes, and little souvenirs, I’m able to tell my story.

I landed in Gatwick airport and immediately began to flirt with my customs officer. At this point of my travels, each time I had to speak with an officer I was petrified of being deported. A lone girl with a passport full of international stamps and no business related itinerary tends to raise a few eyebrows. After acceptance and another stamp, I quickly scurried to catch the next train into London. Since I booked my hostels very last minute, I had to stay my first three nights at St. Christopher’s Hostel. I say that with a negative tone because I had no idea what I was getting myself into. On the ground floor is a huge bar and in the basement is a massive night club. My bed was right above both of them. It’s not that I don’t like to party, I just prefer more of a separation. I do not enjoy sleeping within twenty feet (sorry, I use the imperial system) of where eighteen-year-olds are puking. I shared a room with thirteen other strangers and quickly grew fond of my earplugs.

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The following morning I joined a walking tour. Although London is absolutely massive, it was nice to get a general orientation of the city.  We started in Green Park and I arrived just in time to see the Horse Guard Parade down The Mall to Buckingham Palace. We strolled by the royal manors, the prestigious Athenaeum Club, and stopped in Trafalgar Square. We finished in the Parliament Square to see the House of Commons (Also known as The Parliament), Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey. After the tour a few of us walked back to Trafalgar Square to see the National Museum. The artwork wasn’t exactly my style, but it was refreshing to learn that most Museums in London are free, so it didn’t hurt to browse. I then walked back to the Parliament Square and across Westminster Bridge to see the London Eye and, in my opinion, the best view of Ben. It began to rain so I hoped on the tube to Borough Market and quickly bundled up back at the hostel. This is where my unlimited tube pass definitely came in handy. Later, I went to Piccadilly Circus when suddenly a massive Ferguson protest began in the now pouring rain. Thousands of people marched while I sheepishly tried to navigate around like a lost child. I ran for cover in a nearby Chipotle, got a burrito, and went back to the hostel.

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The next day was Thanksgiving. As an American, it was weird to spend my first major holiday away from home. I joined my American friend Michael (that I had met in Prague) for lunch at Pret A Manger. I enjoyed a seasonally appropriate turkey, cranberry, and stuffing sandwich with a warm pumpkin soup. After lunch, Michael left and I began walking; I got purposefully lost in the city until I arrived at St. James’s Park. I stumbled across an older gentleman surrounded by wild animals, I kept my distance and observed his Snow White-esque behavior. Ducks, bunnies, and squirrels surrounded his feet as he fed and spoke to each creature. I couldn’t help but to interrupt, he smiled, and invited me to join. I sat down on the bench with him, he handed me a handful of peanuts, and instructed me how to properly feed everyone. I sat with this man on the bench as he told me about his life and why he comes there everyday – meanwhile squirrels are running up my legs and jumping on my shoulders to snatch a peanut. I continued on back to my hostel for the longest shower of my life. Just as I was finished getting dressed, one of my roommates returned to the hostel. Feeling rather spontaneous, I invited him for, “A nice dinner, I don’t really know what it’s called – but I want fish and chips. It’s in the Primrose Hill area, there’s supposedly a big tree in the center of the bar, I don’t know, but my neighbor said I can’t miss it.” He laughed and in his heavy Australian accent said, “Yeah alright!” I soon realized that I should have tried to locate the name before departing as we walked alongside extremely sketchy uv-a lit canals deep in Camden Town. We eventually found an old staircase that led to the even darker street level where I at some point stepped in dog s**t. I proceeded to unknowingly track the excrement in and out of every establishment as we tried to find a bar with a tree in it. I finally realized the horrific lingering smell wasn’t the garbage on the street, it was me. I dragged my shoes in rain puddles and every grass lawn I could find as the Aussie proceeded to cry from laughter. We finally gave up and just stopped at the first warmly lit pub with a promising beer list. We had our fish and chips and ended up having a really great meal. After dinner, we walked back to Camden Town for a few more beers with an interesting crowd. We sat down at a table when suddenly a sixty-six-year-old man with purple fishnets, leopard shoes, and bright orange hair joined us. I liked him a lot.

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While London doesn’t celebrate Thanksgiving, they definitely do acknowledge Black Friday. That morning I checked into my next hostel, an old Victorian mansion, in Swiss Cottage. I then spent hours at Oxford Circus shopping at the Topshop Flagship store, Primark, and more. After a long day of shopping I met with an old high school friend, John, while he was in town for business. We got Chipotle (again), and then went to a trendy bar in Soho for Happy Hour. Honestly, in London when the sun sets at 3pm, there really is not much else to do but drink – I wasn’t complaining. The reunions continued as my British friend Joe (that I had met in Israel) met us in the city for some drinks. Our group continued to grow as Joe’s friends met us at another pub just past Dirty Dicks. At some point we stopped for really delicious burgers, went to a nightclub, and then another sketchy bar. I was pleased (sarcasm) to find out that the tube doesn’t run past midnight, so I slept at Joe’s friend’s house in the outskirts of London about an hour from the city. I got about two hours of sleep. The next morning Joe took me to East London and convinced me to try shepherd’s pie and mash, as well as a nice plate (more sarcasm) of jellied eel, and a large cup of English breakfast tea to wash it all down. The pie and mash may have been nice on a stronger stomach, but the jellied eel was horrific… absolutely, positively, repulsive. The tea was nice. I rode a double decker bus back to town and we headed to Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. Wonderland was precious, we drank mulled wine at the Bavarian Market, met up with one of Joe’s friends, and all played carnival games together. I discovered that “cotton candy” is called “candy floss” and in true rom-com style, Joe won me two stuffed bears. At this point I was an exhausted zombie. So after stopping at one last pub, I called it a night.

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The next day I slept in, got a huge bowl of pho, and continued being a tourist. I went to the Camden Market, the Vintage Markets, and Brick Lane. All of which I highly recommend taking the time to explore. We stopped at the famous Beigel Bake before heading over to the Tower Bridge. We window-shopped at Harrods and after a long day of walking, Joe and I stumbled across the newly opened Bubba Gump. I smiled seeing a little reminder of home and subsequently glanced over at Joe smiling ear-to-ear. I quickly learned that Forrest Gump was one of Joe’s favorite movies, so we went there for dinner. It was fun to be the tourist showing the local around the restaurant. It was also fun beating him at the table-side trivia. For my last full day in London I was back on my own. I finished the last few things I needed to see while I was in town. I hunted down an original Banksy piece, saw St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Shakespearean Globe, but most importantly – I went to the James Bond exhibition at the London Film Museum. Being an avid Bond fan and an even bigger Aston Martin fan, I was in Heaven. Finally, I somehow found myself at Chipotle again where I met up with my friend Rachel (that I’d met in Paris). We walked around the festively decorated Oxford Circus and I made the greatest purchase ever at H&M, my pizza / hot dog / fries onesie. After playing in the artificial snow sprinkling down the streets, my busy week caught up with me, so I headed back to my mansion (lol) for a good night’s sleep. The following morning I took one last stroll through town and headed back to Italy.

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Two Ends of The Netherlands

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|| Travel Date || 22 November 2014 – 25 November 2014

After a quick nap, I woke up in The Netherlands. A bit groggy and slightly disoriented, I grabbed my bag and dragged myself off of the train. Due to the lack of sunlight remaining, I eagerly checked in to my precious hostel and begin exploring immediately. I walked straight to the Museum Square and patiently strolled through the gardens outside of the Rijksmuseum. I was captivated by the meticulously manicured terrace, extraordinary architecture, and the naturally gorgeous locals surrounding me. I continued onward to the Van Gogh Museum across the courtyard. As a child, I attempted to replicate Van Gogh in my art class, unfortunately I was never remotely successful. Nevertheless, being able to see his work in person was inspiring and quite nostalgic. I stayed until the museum closed and then hopped on the tram line to the Jordaan district. I hesitated for a moment outside of the Anne Frank house and my mood immediately shifted. I’ve been to Yad Vashem in Israel and the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, but standing outside of Anne Frank’s house and knowing that so much had happened in the immediate spot that I stood, was utterly bone chilling. Once inside, there aren’t words to describe the emotions felt within those dark and narrow walls. I quietly left, brushed away my tears, and walked back to the nearest tram.

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At that point, I was emotionally drained, frozen from the windchill, and quite lost. I glanced down at my phone for directions only to find that my battery was depleted. So I began walking. I followed the tram tracks until I found the last tram heading in the direction of my hostel. My physical map was completely useless, so I kept an eye out for familiar landmarks and simply hopped off when I thought I was close enough. I quickly discovered that I had no idea where I was. I walked to a corner and scanned the surrounding roads for any indication of familiar direction. Frustrated, I grabbed my map and attempted to decipher the Dutch signs, but to no avail. I stood there hopelessly and began flagging down passing cars. Eventually a girl on a bike stopped for me. Hesitant of my flailing arms and spastic composure, she kept her distance and in perfect English, asked me what I needed. I thanked her for stopping, apologized for the taboo nature of my actions, and proceeded to explain that I had no idea where I was. She looked at my map and quickly recognized the area I was staying in. She laughed and said, “Well, you’re pretty far from there, it’s going to be a way down this road” as she pointed at my map. I sighed and slipped out a word or two of profanity. She warmly laughed and added that she was heading that way and then offered to give me a ride. I glanced at her bicycle and without skipping a beat, graciously accepted. She started peddling and with a running start, I jumped on the back of her bike and held on tight. We cruised along the canals and she shouted back to me, “Ohh, by the way I’m Lisa, what’s your name?” At that moment I couldn’t help but to laugh, this complete stranger had picked up a random tourist and before we even exchanged names, was willing to peddle me across town. We finally arrived to my stop and I could see my hostel just one block down. I thanked her profusely and ran inside. In the lobby I was greeted by an assembly of tourists getting ready for the local pub crawl. Being rather outnumbered by males, they were eager to recruit a female to join. Wanting nothing but a hot shower and a phone charger, I immediately declined. Unfortunately, my rejection didn’t go over well. I was given ten minutes to change, fix my smeared mascara, and meet back in the lobby. Before I could even catch my breath, I was chugging a beer and inhaling McDonalds french fries between bars.

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The next morning, I dragged a few of my hungover roommates to Omelegg for breakfast. We sipped on freshly squeezed orange juice and scarfed down f**king delicious omelettes. In the midst of a crippling food coma, we continued onward toward the center of town to the Heineken Experience. We spent over three hours educating ourselves on the history of Heineken and drinking copious amounts of golden perfection. I stirred barley, customized my own bottle, learned how to pour the perfect pint, and shamelessly skipped and danced throughout the exhibit. Slightly intoxicated, we managed to find a nearby cheese shop offering samples of the various flavors of gouda. As if the day couldn’t get any better, we then discovered locals setting up for the Kerstmarkt in Rembrandtplein (Rembrandt Square). So we stuffed our faces with freshly made oliebollen and stroopwafels, before proceeding to tour the red light district. To be honest, I was a bit nervous to go (to say the least), but the district was surprisingly quite casual. As long as you respect the women’s privacy in the windows (i.e. no photographs), then they’ll just smile at you and wave. Just like a prepubescent teen, I awkwardly avoided eye contact and marked that whole experience off the to-do list. It began to rain so without missing a beat, we quickly took shelter in a small cafe. A large cloud of smoke engulfed us as I opened the door, we were greeted by a waitress and promptly guided to their freshly harvested marijuana selection. I felt like a toddler reviewing various 401k packages, I still don’t understand why there were so many choices. After some awkward blank stares, I sheepishly headed for the door.

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For my last full day in The Netherlands, I woke up early and decided to take the first train to the south of Holland. A close family friend of mine semi-jokingly suggested that I check out his home town of Vlaardingen. If I was to make the trek down there, I was instructed to go directly to Jan Boer and get Ijzerkoekjes (iron cookies). I exited the seemingly abandoned train station and began walking down a residential road toward town. For the first time in ages, I didn’t see a single soul for nearly a mile. As isolated as I was, the similarities of the quaint suburban cottages somewhat reminded me of home and thus put me at ease. Located on the main canal, I immediately located Jan Boer. I bought a few different treats and of course a box of the infamous Ijzerkoekjes. These sugary, buttery delicacies are a Vlaardingse tradition, so it was only right that I eat as many as humanly possible. I continued exploring the quaint town up to the Aeolus Windmill and back down to the harbor. Before leaving Vlaardingen, I reluctantly stopped for a traditional pickled herring doused in raw onion on my way back to the train station. I grabbed my fish to-go and searched for utensils. The fisherman that prepared the plate for me smiled, shook his head, and pointed to a sign of a cartoon girl tilting her head back while dangling a whole fish into her mouth. Utterly mortified, I begged for a fork and knife. He laughed (most likely didn’t speak English) and just shrugged his shoulders. I then proceeded to dangle a whole fish above my mouth and gnaw away at the potent snack in true Vlaardingse-style. Feeling culturally accomplished, I rushed back to the train station to return to Amsterdam. Upon my arrival, I rented a bike and peddled all over town. I rode through colorful parks, up and down the picturesque canals, and got lost deep into the quaint neighborhoods. Renting a bike in Amsterdam is an absolute must during any time of the year. Even though the weather was a bit chilly, I was having a glorious time gliding through town. My only regret was not renting a bike sooner, but of course, there’s always next time. The following day, I packed up my stuffed suitcase, said my goodbyes to Jopie (the hostel cat), and was off to the airport for my next adventure.

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Bustling Bruxelles

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|| Travel Date || 19 November 2014 – 22 November 2014

After a quick detour to Israel, I was back in the Schengen Area. I returned to my luggage in Italy, swapped out my t-shirts for winter coats, and I was off to Belgium. At this point in my travels, I really wasn’t picky with my hostels. I typically booked a bunk within five minutes based on the reviews, I stored the addresses in my phone, and continued on with my day. When I landed in Bruxelles, I had no idea where I was going, I just followed my map and began walking. Unfortunately, I wasn’t quite ready for the unexpected wind chill that accompanied my cobblestone stroll. Upon arrival at my hostel, my ruby colored nose was frozen, my fingers were numb, and all I wanted to do was wear everything in my suitcase and sit by the fireplace. Instead, I discovered I was in the wrong hostel. As it turned out, the hostel I originally booked was being remodeled. The lobby had been painted that day, so I was expected to check-in at this hostel across town, and then find my previously booked hostel. I was handed a stack of sheets, a towel, and a paper map. I looked out the window at the chilly street and tried to fathom the idea of trekking back outside. I turned back to the American expat working at the front desk and said, “I can’t, I’m sorry, I need to stay here.”

I unpacked, eventually regained sensation in my fingertips, and proceeded with caution back down to the lobby. I stood by that same fateful window, glancing at the windswept trees, and decided that I was going to stay in for the evening. I grabbed an open table and began working. A few hours passed and I started to get hungry. The idea of the cold was still far worse than my growing hunger, so I continued to work. I eventually finished my tasks and needed to appease my appetite, so I grabbed a few equally timid travelers, and we all sprinted to town. The cool air pierced our throats like swallowing dozens of little ice needles, and the only cure was freshly deep fried comfort food. Fully frozen and slightly delusional, we stumbled across a place called Fritland. I indulged in authentic Belgium fries, drenched in homemade sauces, sizzling hot fried chicken, and washed it all down with a huge coke. My frozen arteries joyously began pumping pure oil like a newly refurbished car engine. We wobbled back to the hostel in a deep food coma and crawled into bed.

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The next day, I located a walking tour and eagerly followed my tour guide throughout the historic city. We started at the Grand Place, met the Manneken Pis (and his less popular sister), and then stopped for some Belgian waffles at Leonidas. We saw massive Cathedrals, elaborate shopping districts, stopped at Parc de Bruxelles and the Place Royale, then finished the tour with a panoramic view of the city. I sat in pure amazement until my limbs gradually began to freeze to the cement steps. With the rapidly diminishing sunlight, I was forced to rush back toward the warmth of my hostel. I stopped at Exki for a quick muffin and tea before positioning myself directly in front of the lobby fireplace. At this point, it was too late to continue exploring but too early to go out for the night. Instead, I sat in the lobby making new friends, drinking beers, and sharing travel stories.

During my walking tour, we saw a bunch of collegiate-aged locals running around in decorated lab coats, completely intoxicated. Bewildered, I asked my guide what was going on. He playfully scoffed and explained that it was an odd tradition and that if I went out that night, I would see even more shenanigans. I explained this phenomenon to the other travelers at the hostel and they laughed and exclaimed, “Well what are we doing here then? Let’s go!” We got two blocks down the road before we were surrounded by hundreds of people, commercial-sized trucks were rolling down the street with drunken students hanging off of them. They’d pull over, swing open the doors, and sell alcohol straight from the truck. Police enforcement set up barricades and shut down roads for everyone to walk through. It was a complete mess. We managed to find a relatively sober-enough student to explain to us some of their traditions. I wish I could reiterate the nonsense he exclaimed, but essentially it was some type of fraternity graduation. Rather than customary graduation gowns, the locals donned white lab coats littered with graffiti. They also wore these goofy hats with sizable brims decorated in golden pins representing various achievements. Needless to say, I was a bit jealous of their obscene traditions, because they definitely sounded like a lot more fun than my graduation. After squeezing through the cramped crowds, we eventually made our way to dinner before heading out for the night.

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For my last day in Bruxelles, I bought a 24-hour metro pass and explored every possible landmark that I had missed the day prior. Some attractions were completely pointless and obnoxiously expensive (i.e. Mini Europe), but at least I was able to say I saw everything I wanted to see. Feeling rather accomplished, I returned back to my hostel to regroup. There, I managed to rally a couple of my roommates and we all went out for some mussels in Brussels, which as fun as that is to say, I really still don’t see the excitement for mussels. After dinner we went to Délirium Café, a glorious bar with over 2,000 beers to choose from. First off, Belgians take beer very seriously. Not only does Délirium break records for quantity of beers available, but for quality as well. Needless to say, we drank a lot of beer and all had a great time there. All in all, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised with Belgium. I’m ashamed to admit this, but before I landed in Bruxelles, I assumed that it would be just another city to mark off of the bucket list. I had heard great things about the de facto capital of Europe, but I guess I still underestimated the experiences I would have and the friends I would make. As excited as I was the following morning to take a train to my next adventure, it was a bittersweet departure from one of my favorite European cities.

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Instantly in Israel

Haifa

|| Travel Date || 6 November 2014 – 12 November 2014

After rapidly traveling across Europe for over a month, it was time to get serious and figure out what the hell I was doing. I’ve always planned everything very thoroughly, but this trip was different. I suppose I also tried to mask my laziness with spontaneity. I didn’t plan for legal issues, travel complications, or financial circumstances – I just wanted to see the world. Ignorance is bliss, right? So when I arrived in Italy, I knew I needed to make a plan. Subsequently, that’s when reality sank in. After a lot of research, I realized that I had to be back in America by Christmas Day if I was to stay in the Schengen Area of Europe. I hoped to travel for longer than ninety days, but now my main priority was figuring out how to stay for the holidays. I had to buy time and pick a country fast. I started looking all over the world at hundreds of trains, boats, and flights. It was last minute, I wasn’t prepared for anything, and I had a very short travel window. I found a flight and booked it before I could even think about what I was doing. Three days later I was in Israel.

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After a long travel day consisting of extreme weather delays, dealing with the excessive security at Ben Gurion Airport, and getting lost outside of the HaHagana train station; I finally arrived to my hostel. I sat above the city on the rooftop terrace and just stared into the darkness of the night. I was a bit delusional from my flight, so I finished up my work and eagerly went to bed. Israel was the first international country I ever visited, so being back was nostalgic yet oddly intimidating. I woke up and returned to the terrace, this time staring at the now illuminated city encompassed by the distant Mediterranean Sea. Even though I was surrounded by a ton of other travelers, I was a little shy because I was a bit out of my comfort zone. I sat there blankly scrolling through my phone when I overheard a few people talking about heading to the beach. I looked up to see who was speaking when I accidentally made eye contact with him. I awkwardly smiled and he warmly invited me to come along. I looked around and suddenly everyone was smiling and gathering to go. Within minutes, we had a huge group together, all walking down the road. We tanned, swam, and swapped some bizarre travel stories in broken English. After the beach, a few of us split off for Happy Hour at Perla Bar before stopping at Changos for some impressively delicious carne asada burritos. We quickly regrouped back at the hostel before heading out to the club. Later, a handful of us blindly followed a volunteer from our hostel to this abandoned looking building. I looked down at my sandy converse, my cuffed skinny jeans, my casual t-shirt and just laughed. Usually if I’m going to a club, I’d try to dress like I didn’t just roll out of high school. I had no expectations, no idea where I was, and I wasn’t really sure what I was getting myself into. A little bit of muffled music made it’s way through a long corridor as we navigated our way to the courtyard. Suddenly I was blinded by bright lights, loud music, and essentially the entire city squeezed into a two story outdoor club. We grabbed some cocktails and made our way into the sticker room. Yes, you read that correctly, there was an entire room strictly dedicated to stickers. We covered faces in tribal patterns and squeezed our way to the dance floor. There was great music, a strange crowd, and enough stickers to entertain thousands. After an amazing first day and an even better evening, I really didn’t want the night to end. So as we were all heading back to the hostel, I managed to drag the whole group back to the beach for a late night swim – which actually ended up being a lot of fun.

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The next few days in Tel Aviv flew by, our hostel crew became really close and we did everything together. We walked through the old streets of Jaffa, relaxed on the beach, shopped at the Carmel Market, and ate as much hummus and pita bread as was humanly possible, all before leaving Tel Aviv. A few of us took a train up the coast to Haifa to explore The Bahá’í Gardens, making it to the top just before sunset to watch as the colors of the city changed from the diminishing sunlight. We trekked back down the hill to the boardwalk filled with tons of restaurants and bars, and treated ourselves to a nice dinner. Our group then became even smaller as a few of us left for Jerusalem. The next morning we took a quick walking tour of The Old City before sprinting through the bus station to make the last bus to the Dead Sea. Eager to find some natural mineral mud, we went to the Ein Gedi Spa. We dug straight into the ground and covered ourselves head-to-toe in cold, rocky, gooey mud. We soaked off the mud in the salty sea and floated atop as we watched the sun set behind Masada. After a much needed, therapeutic day we bused back to Jerusalem for delicious Shakshuka and Israeli wine at Tmol Shilshom. While we were out, we explored the streets and late night markets before heading back to the hostel. The following morning we returned back to The Old City to explore even further, unfortunately the previous walking tour had hardly scratched the surface, so there was a lot to see.

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Before I left for Israel, my friends and family were a bit nervous because of the situation Israel is in. When I traveled to Israel my first time, I was protected and escorted by IDF soldiers the entire time, so I never faced any danger. Unfortunately when I returned, that wasn’t the case. After walking around all day, my friends and I stopped at an outdoor cafe for a couple beers. We were laughing and relaxing when suddenly a bomb exploded. Luckily, the explosion wasn’t close enough to physically endanger us, but it was loud enough to emotionally shake everyone within the immediate area. I looked up and froze. A group of soldiers were sprinting toward the explosion and there was a visible panic around us. I turned to my friends, attempting to gauge their reactions. Which way were we going to run? Where do we go? Why haven’t we moved yet? Why isn’t anyone moving yet? What the $%^& is going on!? My friend turns to me, smiles and asks me, “Are you ok…?” To which I replied, “What do you mean am I ok!?” It was then that I realized that nobody seemed to care anymore, after the initial shock diminished, it was as if the explosion never happened. I must have been pale in the face because suddenly a waiter was offering me water and asking my friends if I was ok. I slowly nodded and instead asked for another beer. I quickly gulped it down and suggested we immediately leave. We caught a ride back to Tel Aviv and I began to breathe again.

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Later that night, I met up with some old friends from my birthright program at Rothschild 12. A few more drinks, a tasty meal, and good company removed the edge from the day. It’s always amazing to see familiar faces in foreign places, especially after nearly three and a half years apart. In 2011, I wasn’t sure that I would ever see these people again, let alone have thought I’d see them so soon. Traveling really makes you realize how small this massive world is, and really, returning to these places isn’t as hard as we all make it seem. For my last day in Israel, I slept in and relaxed all morning. My friends had all either headed home or off to other cities, so for the first time since landing, I was on my own. I walked down to the beach and just relaxed and tanned one last time before packing up and heading to the airport. I grabbed a blended Aroma coffee and sat at the window of my terminal, just reflecting on the week I had in Israel.

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Wandering in Wien

IMG_3655|| Travel Date || 22 October 2014 – 27 October 2014

After traveling for a nearly six weeks in Europe, I’ve really come to realize how small the entire continent is in comparison to the United States. If we had a second California annexed to the side of our country, we would cover more square miles than all of Europe. With that scale in mind, when I travel from country to country, it feels like I’m just traveling state to state. Which is really not that daunting.

I spent the day in Budapest, hopped on a bus, and was in Vienna within a few hours. I was too eager to meet my relatives in person, after months of emailing back and forth, and I accidentally got off at the wrong stop. I was standing in the Vienna Airport, only to find I was still 30min away and needed to get on the next bi-hourly train – departing in 5 minutes. Horrified, I looked up and saw an information booth across the airport terminal. I found out where I needed to be and proceeded to sprint across the terminal to the underground train station. I blindly stared at the foreign ticket booth on the train platform and without even attempting to translate, I turned to the now freaked out woman next to me, and in a panic asked if she spoke any English. She grabbed her daughter and threw her between us to translate. I looked at my phone and told her where I needed to be and that I now had one minute to be on the train waiting next to us. She grabbed my credit card, bought my ticket, and then pushed me on my way. I bolted for the train, my luggage handle snapped, and a man onboard quickly grabbed my luggage and threw it on the train with us. The door snapped shut and I was on my way. Needless to say, great first impressions were made with my extremely patient cousins*. We laughed it off over a much needed dinner, and then I went back to my hostel to relax for the rest of the evening.

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The next day, I was up bright and early to go sight-seeing with my cousins. Something I truly admire about Europeans is their passion for their heritage and it’s rich history. I was lucky enough to have two extremely knowledgable tour guides explaining every elaborate detail of Vienna. We started in the Maria-Theresien-Platz, situated between the Naturhistorisches (Natural History) Museum and the identical Kunsthistorisches Museum. We then crossed the Burgring to the Hofburg Imperial Palace before strolling down Kärntner Straße (Famous shopping street) to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. At this point it began pouring rain, so we dined at Café Diglas for some hot soup and warm shelter. Afterward, we continued onward through Stadtpark to the infamous, Café Schwarzenberg for some traditional Viennese coffee and pastries before heading back home.

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The next day, we watched the Morning Exercises of the impeccable White Lipizzan Stallions at the Spanische Hofreitschule in the Imperial Palace. After a bougie morning, we strolled out into the Palace courtyard to where the Bundesheer (Austrian Army) was setting up for Nationalfeiertag. As intimidating as they all look, they were all very kind and bashful. I actually had to pull them inward for a photo just to break the ice, since they were so reserved. We then went to the Naschmarkt, a large outdoor marketplace with tons of fresh food and little restaurants tucked in between. We stopped for lunch before heading to Schönbrunn Palace, we walk through the gardens and up the hill to a beautiful panoramic view of Vienna. We rode the Ringstrabe around the city and then back to my cousin’s apartment for an absurdly delicious homemade dinner and cocktails.

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It had been a dream of mine to see the Hundertwasserhaus designed by the Austrian architect, Friedensreich Hundertwasser. So we trekked across town and eventually found the crazy house. It didn’t even seem real, it looked like something from a movie set. Bright colors, crazy misshapen structures, all stacked like nothing I’ve ever seen. We then went to Augustiner-Keller Bitzinger, where we met my aunt and uncle* for lunch. I splurged on a plate of authentic Goulash and a side of Ratatouille. We then bundled back up for the cold and made our way to the Belvedere Palace to see Klimt’s work. So The Kiss was nice, but there were way too many people pushing to get a glimpse at the painting hidden behind a glass barrier, armed with security on each side. I felt as if I was being shoved to watch something on TV. I’d rather be able to get up close and personal with a piece and truly give it the time of day, but, it was still beautiful nonetheless. After the Belvedere Palace, we drove to the outskirts of the city to stop by what was my Great Grandmother’s apartment. Though she passed years ago, it was really neat to see where some of my family used to live. We continued onward up the hillside to the beautiful restaurant, Ganslessen, nestled between wineries with another panoramic view of the city. We started with sparkling wine and chardonnay before ordering a massive, mouthwatering, feast of traditional Austrian dishes. Needless to say, we enjoyed every last bite. We finished off our meal with a shot of espresso, and we were on our way. We all headed back to my cousin’s apartment to Skype with the rest of my family back home. We set up multiple screens and gathered as many family members together as possible. It was beautiful watching my grandmother speak German with my Austrian relatives, everyone was so happy to finally meet each other. We laughed and shared numerous stories that I had never heard before. It was really an unforgettable experience.

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The next morning we all met at Blau Stern for breakfast. My uncle then brought out an envelope of photos and postcards, each tied with a story of my family heritage. We sat there for hours sharing even more stories and more laughs. We then went to the unsettlingly creepy amusement park, Prater. I know it’s not supposed to be creepy… but it really was. After a long week of being an excessively busy tourist, I opted for a quiet last night in with fuzzy socks and an elaborate turkish dinner delivered to my doorstep. The following morning, I packed up and checked out of my beautiful hostel – which by the way, I didn’t even mention yet – I stayed in the greatest hostel, ever, in Vienna. It was an old apartment from the 1800’s converted into a modern, minimalist, and precious hostel, all maintained by the sweetest host I have ever met. I highly recommend staying here, it accommodates all ages and really was the perfect home. I met up with my cousin and together we went to meet my great aunt at Café Griensteidl. We ordered coffee and pastries, and talked for hours. I showed her pictures of my grandmother and her face lit up, even though they hadn’t seen each other in over thirty years, she still immediately recognized her. We eventually made our way to Plachutta’s Gasthaus Zur Oper where I finally tried my first Schnietzel with a pint of beer. I then sadly said goodbye and I was on my way to the train station for my next overnight train, which thankfully was a much nicer experience than the one from Prague to Budapest.

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* My “Aunt”, “Uncle”, and “Cousins” are all distant relatives, while I’m not sure of the proper title of the exact connection, we’re related – and that’s all that really matters 🙂