Backpacking Blogger, Part III: Venice, Florence, Rome

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When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s Italy.

If Prague had greeted us with fairly Mediterranean weather, we got the actual Mediterranean weather in Italy, forcing us to shed our warmer Oxford-ready layers.

We spent about six days in Italy in total, spending two days each in Venice, Florence and Rome. Venice was our first stop. Central Venice (or Venezia) is a city built on water, and encompassed basically every stereotype of Italy that I’d ever received from films and photographs. Romantic lights, gondolas, gelato, pasta, accordion music, Venetian masks – it was all there.

Rather than bore you with listing all the landmarks, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves:

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Out of the three Italian cities we saw, Venice was my favorite. I guess there’s something about reflecting on the waters, away from the crowded parts.

In Florence, we got to take it pretty easy since we did all that we wanted to do in one day rather than the two that we booked, which ended up being for the best since it rained the second day.

Florence, although pretty, didn’t live quite up to what I’d envisioned – except for maybe the speedy little Vespa drivers. Seriously, watch out for traffic. What we did see was of course beautiful, but I couldn’t have imagined us staying there for longer than we did.

Nevertheless, here are some images for your perusal:

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To end our travel break with a bang, we hit Rome. How a city notorious for gladiator fights and martyring Christians evolves into one of the world’s romantic cities is beyond my explanation. It was also the perfect time for us to make obscene amounts of Lizzie Maguire movie references, as we traipsed through the Coliseum, Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain.

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As a whole, the city culture of Rome was super-overwhelming. The combination of the heat, relentless vendors, secondhand smoke, terrible traffic, crowding and the fact that I was running out of the energy I had had at the beginning of our travels was overpowering, so sadly, this is probably the strongest impressions of what I’m left with when I think about how my time in Rome was.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do – as in don’t be an obvious tourist. Talk quietly, avoid leer-ers, watch your bags, don’t make it evident that you don’t know where you’re going, and don’t fall for any tricks.

I’ve mentioned it before and I’ll mention it again – BATHROOM FARES. It usually costs between 1-1.5 euros to do your business in a public toilet. Which sucks, because when it’s hot (which it was), you need to drink water as to not get dehydrated. Water naturally makes you have to “go,” and go shell out those euros in order to do so. Come on, it’s a basic human right that’s being exploited for profitable purposes!

Okay, enough of my ranting.

I think I’ll take the easy way out and again post photos of the Vatican, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and the other landmarks I mentioned above, since a picture’s worth a thousand words anyway:

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What I learned in Italy was how to appreciate art as a form of religious reverence, especially as I wandered into various cathedrals and basilicas. I also learned that in spite of all of Italy’s artistic beauty, I resonate much more with the natural beauty that I’d been so fortunate to witness in Western Europe. I guess the romantic cities just aren’t for me, but I will be happy to keep visiting them even if that means re-confirming this notion.

I saw and did a lot in Italy, and have memories there which I can look back upon with fondness. But I was ready to go back to jolly England, where I hold greater fondness, by the time I said “Ciao” to my little Italy.

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Backpacking Blogger, Part II: Prague

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After nearly missing our train from Berlin to Prague (no thanks to a rather grumpy and unhelpful train station attendant), we did indeed arrive safe and sound in the much warmer land of the Czech Republic.

How to best describe Prague…do you remember those “Once upon a time in a land far, far away” sequences in old-school Disney princess movies like Cinderella? Basically, Prague looks like one of those cute, charming little fairytale land towns. And appropriately, Prague was supplied with many a young couple happily flaunting their perfect happily ever afters.

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Prague is a fairly walkable city…we trekked from the train station in central Prague to our hostel in the more residential area, the aptly named Czech-Inn hostel. Not too bad of a hostel…great wifi, great location, although I was slightly put off by the abundance of young spring breakers in our midst.

Something I wasn’t aware of prior to our arrival was the different form of currency which the Czechs use…rather than the euro, they go by the crown. 25 ck = approximately 1 euro.

I think three days spent in Prague was plenty sufficient time to make a number of “Czeching out Prague” jokes, and to get the essential touristy items squared away…there was the Old Town Square, Astronomical Clock, Charles Bridge, Jewish Quarter, the John Lennon Wall, Petrin Hill/Tower and Prague Castle (as well as some cathedral whose name I forget at the top of Petrin Hill).

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We took a nice hike up to the top of Petrin Hill on Day 2, which gave us awesome panoramic views of the town down below. It was good to get away from the touristy parts for a bit, and just soak in the scenery.

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I can’t speak much about the Czech culture, especially as the country just turned 21 this year. I don’t think I actually ate any Czech food, but I did hit up the local Tesco regularly to get my fill of salad and trail mix! But not to put you under the impression that I’m on a restrictive diet, we found a gelato stand, and a surprisingly cheap Italian restaurant in town.

Like I said, three days was enough – don’t expect to have too much to do if you stay longer than that. As a whole I enjoyed seeing Prague, as it was the closest I’d get to seeing more Eastern European culture on this trip.

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Some words to the wise: Beware of the added fees of things that are commonplace in the States! Using public toilets, asking for a bottle of ketchup, taking your restaurant food in a doggy bag, and getting water all have extra costs! Although the Czech Republic is at a lower cost of living than say, the UK, Prague is hub to hundreds (may thousands?) of tourists, and they intend to profit from it, obviously.

Backpacking Blogger, Part I: Berlin

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Is two weeks after the fact too late to blog about a two-week stint of backpacking in Europe? Regardless, I hope that some of the following stories, accounts, pictures, and occasional advice will be helpful to any readers who might harbor interest in the prospect of going to some of these places.

Let me begin by saying that I and my travel group were backpacking in the sense that all our belongings were in backpacks as we shifted from hostel to hostel, underground station to rail station, airport to bus stops, etc. We were not backpacking in the sense that we had to sleep outside, create our own fires, or use leaves as nature’s toilet paper.

I would also like to add that I write this from the perspective of an amateur and college student, thus a lot of things were fairly budget-friendly to the wallet of a college student. We weren’t on a five-star vacation.

Alrighty then, here goes!

Out of the five cities we managed to cover in thirteen days, Berlin was my favorite. Contrary to what I was led to believe, Germany was surprisingly quite affordable. Other added bonuses: EXCELLENT public rail system, most everyone knows English (although I did make myself look like an idiot a few times when I would gesture to whatever food item in the café I wanted, and then hold up a number on my hand, just in case they didn’t speak English. You either run the risk of seeming arrogant for assuming that everyone knows your native tongue, or seeming arrogant for assuming that they don’t. Such a Catch 22!), the city is REALLY clean, and – not that I’m biased or anything because of some German roots that run in my family – but the people are rather attractive.

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There’s only so much you can do in Berlin in three days, but I’m pleased with what we were able to manage – Brandenburger Tor (which is stunning at nighttime), Berliner Cathedral, Charlottenburg Palace, the Jewish Memorial, the Reichstag and of course, the Berlin Wall.

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We also got to see the site where Hitler committed suicide, which is currently a parking lot. I give a lot of credit to whoever’s idea this was – thank you for not making the place a memorial for him.

Perhaps the most important part of the Berlin experience was visiting Sachsenhausen Memorial. One “must” item on my lifetime “must-see/do” list was visiting a former Holocaust concentration camp. A sharp contrast to our other, more fun Berlin excursions, seeing Sachsenhausen was what I most wanted to do. I would agree with my dad, who believes that if given the chance, remembering one of history’s most devastating atrocities on the grounds where it happened is something everyone needs to do. Sachsenhausen gave me a lot to think about – how the role of faith plays in such a circumstance, how easily the mind can be manipulated into carrying out such terrible deeds and the importance of remembering the past. As I treaded through Sachsenhausen, all I could see were the images of past prisoners.

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Despite how heavy that day was, I love Berlin because of its acknowledgment of its dark past. Germans don’t try to sweep any of it under the rug – rather, they admit to what happened and use reminders of its mistakes in history to keep from repeating those mistakes again. This resonated with me as a sort of phoenix metaphor; a city that could rise from the ashes and become something beautiful.

Perhaps another reason why I enjoyed my time in Berlin so well was because we coincidentally ran into about half our APU study abroad cohort – which made exploring the city and trying out the bratwurst all that much more enjoyable.

As a sidenote, I’ve heard many people say that German is not a pretty language; that it sounds angry. I would like to counter this. Obviously any language will sound angry if it’s said in an angry tone. I found Deutsch to sound very fluid – simultaneously strong yet fluid.

The dos and don’ts: DO take advantage of the public “bahn” system in Berlin – Berlin is the size of some small countries, so you will definitely be getting around this way. DO experience both the fun, touristy aspects of Berlin as well as places like the Berlin Wall that force you to think. DO try the bratwurst. DON’T take out more euros than you need – especially if your bank charges international fees. DON’T be that person who takes selfies on sacred memorial grounds. DO enjoy yourself. It’s “der” fun!

Homeward Bound

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After two straight weeks of backpacking, I now sit in one of my favorite Oxford bookstore/cafes mulling over the fact that a) I still have to sort out a few errands before departing for London tomorrow, and b) my time here is sadly nearing its end.
I’ll write another blog posting about my short backpacking stint, but now’s not the time. I will say, however, that shortly after my time in Berlin and Prague, I found myself missing Mother England more than ever even while traipsing through various bridges, basilicas, and old Roman monuments in Italy. Yes, I realize how terrible that sounds.
But I missed the cold. I missed my face getting chapped by the freezing winds, and happily layering up in my black puffy jacket. I missed hearing the English accents that have become more familiar than my own, and using currency with the queen on it. I missed drinking tea, instead of coffee (which I drank to keep myself awake whilst traveling). I missed stumbling into a picturesque park on my own and watching the sun start to set. I missed the familiar habit of wandering aimlessly into a vintage shop or bookshop with no intention of buying anything, but being intrigued by the prospect of owning an old-school hardcover of Sherlock Holmes or some of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s work. I missed sitting in the “Harry Potter corridor” of New College listening to the wind rustle through the tree branches. Perhaps most of all, I missed the quiet pleasure I had in an environment that forced me to dwell in my own thoughts, away from the chaotic normalcy.
I’ve never been the sort of person who absolutely NEEDS to be surrounded by people 24/7 in order to be happy or to function properly. I get my energy both from good company and solo reflection time, in healthy amounts. Fortunately, Oxford provided this healthy balance. I wouldn’t say that I learned the MOST about myself while here, but some of the self-doubts I did harbor have been diffused the longer I was confronted with my own thoughts, values, and beliefs.
For example, being in such an academically-invigorating environment could be mentally and emotionally exhausting. I may never be as smart as some of the native Oxford students here. I may never be able to force myself to like political debates. I may never understand economic news headlines. I may never find interest in devouring an entire book list of philosophy writers. But what I do know is that no one can compete with what I can do for other people. There will always be someone smarter, stronger, more attractive and witty, but no one will dare be able to compare my contribution to another human, or deem it not “good enough.” I don’t need to impress anyone – okay, so that might not be completely true, but I don’t need to impress EVERYONE…but if anyone ever gives me the impression that I need to, this person is obviously not worth a moment in my thoughts.
While at college in California, I’m careful to differentiate between my on-campus apartment and my actual home in my lazy beach hometown. But on our flight from Rome to London last night, I caught myself saying, “I’m going home to England!

 

 

Of course I’ll be happy to roll up into the driveway of my brick-orange house. There are definitely aspects of American/California living that I have been separated from for far too long – like to-go coffee cups that AREN’T the size of Dixie cups, NOT having to use the public buses to get from place to place and NOT having to pay a whole extra pound for “eating in.” And obviously there are people like my dad and close friends whom I haven’t seen in ages whom I greatly look forward to seeing again.
But the fact that I let the word “home” slip while casually talking about Oxford/England/United Kingdom means quite a lot to me. I have indeed felt at home – maybe not in a familial sort of way – and I cannot resonate with the idea of my United Kingdom chapter being over once I step foot into Heathrow Airport. I’m not totally sure if this is just another case of juvenile-ish post-study abroad mentality, or if this seemingly insuppressible feeling that I’ll be back is indeed valid.
If home is where the heart is, my heart has been divided multiple times and set in the places that have me counting down the minutes until I can go back. I would say I’m soon to be homeward bound, but I think I’m leaving one for the other.