An Ending; A Beginning

Well, readers, it’s my last couple hours in Europe, and I’m sorry to have failed you. I totally stunk at this whole “blogging while traveling” thing. Think of this post as an intermission; I’m not done blogging the trip, but I feel that I need to say goodbye to travel properly before resuming the blog. I’m about 8 or 9 cities behind, and have so much to cover. But I can tell you with absolute honesty that I did not fail myself.

This trip was everything – and nothing – like I expected it to be. If you follow my instagram or see the photos I post on Facebook, you might think that my trip was all about glamorous shots in faraway, beautiful places, not a care or worry in the world. There were definitely moments like that, don’t get me wrong. But there were hard moments, too. I once listened to a professor in college lecture about the subject of happiness. She had us look at our lives and ask ourselves when we were truly happy, and then pointed out that you can’t be happy all the time. Instead, we exist in a state of contentment, punctuated by spectacular moments of joy or happiness. The rest of our lives are filled with moments of frustration, sadness, boredom, etc. We are not always happy; we can’t be. This trip made me realize how true that is. I could be blissfully happy one evening, sipping Prosecco at a restaurant overlooking Positano on the Amalfi Coast, and the next morning be absolutely frustrated to the point of tears that our bed bug problem wasn’t resolved, or that I didn’t know which bus to take to get us to trail head for Path of the Gods. The thing about travel is that you come to recognize your moments of happiness, and savor them, tucking them away because of how special they are. And for me, these moments come more frequently when traveling than when doing anything else. This is how I know that this is not my last trip.

This is one of the hardest posts I’ve had to write, for two reasons.

  1. I don’t know how to make this a “goodbye” post, because I’m not saying goodbye. I’m saying “see you later!” to the many cities, countries, friends, cats, and landscapes that I’ve seen. There is no doubt in my mind that I’ll be back someday.
  2. There is only so much that can be captured by words. I can describe the walled city of Dubrovnik to you, with its orange tiled roofs that contrast the blue sea. But it’s an entirely different matter to stand upon the actual city wall, smelling the salty air and listening to the gleeful shouts of the cliff divers. I can only bring you so far.

I can only hope that my words inspire at least one person to take the leap and travel – to a place you’ve always wanted to see, or a place you know nothing about. Take with you a good pair of shoes, a backpack, and a travel towel. Do not go as a tourist: go as someone who wants to see, not look. Someone who wants to experience, not merely dip their foot in the water. Find moments to yourself to reflect on what your experience means to you, and how it fits into your view of the world. Taste the local food, and do not go carefully, or quietly. These are not travel words. Go boldly, go proudly. Shout out to the world what you want, and then take it. And when you do finally travel, leave your bubble behind. The bubble has no place in the big wide world. The bubble will not allow you to meet foreign best friends, order something off the menu that you can’t pronounce, or hike to the top of a mountain.

I hope that you’ve been enjoying this blog so far. While I did fail in my writing mission, I’m partly glad. As I play catch-up with my posts over the next couple weeks, it just means that I get to relive everything that’s happened.

I will miss the daily cappucinos, the buttery croissants, the sound of Aussies wanting to go party, the late nights spent laughing and drinking wine, the endless bottles of prosecco/rose, and many, many more precious moments.

See you later, Europe.

– Kayla

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Bit Ihop!

If you don’t know about The Cinque, well, now you’re gonna know.

Cinque Terre is a national park, a collection of five small fishing villages situated on the coast where the mountains meet the sea. The order of cities, from south to north, is Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza, and Monterosso. They are characterized by their brightly colored buildings, clustered on the edge of the water. Each town is small; it takes no more than an hour – usually less- to see one in its entirety. There is a train that runs through the area and stops at each town, with the shortest travel time between cities at 4 minutes and the longest at about 15. In addition to using the train to travel up and down, there are hiking paths going from city to city. Due to natural forces, some of these paths are closed, but the (arguably) best one is open, going from Corniglia to Monterosso (or the reverse).

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Manarola! City #2

When visiting The Cinque, most people (I’m talking about backpackers on a budget here) try to stay in La Spezia. It’s about 30 minutes south of Riomaggiore, and there’s a great hostel located there. Since we like to book things less than 4 days in advance, this hostel was completely full when we wanted to stay. Instead, we booked the only hostel in Biassa, a small mountain town between La Spezia and Riomaggiore. When I say small, I mean two-restaurants-two-small-markets small. When we tried to eat at the locals’ favorite restaurant, we were given the silent treatment from a couple rude waiters who didn’t care if we ate there or not. They literally wouldn’t give us any of the (open) tables. Safe to say, the people of Biassa really don’t like tourists.

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The amazing coastline 

After eating dinner at the hostel instead (the food was actually delicious), we drank some wine with a couple of the girls at the hostel. They’d been there a couple days, so they told us about their experiences with the hostel (bad) and in The Cinque (good). The men working at the hostel must have associated me and Em with these girls, who pissed them off, so of course they treated us like crap our entire stay. Still, we did make friends with our girls Anna and Zoe. Anna was a Swede, and taught us the phrase, “Bit ihop,” meaning “bite it” or “just do it.” This became one of our favorite sayings during the trip, and sort of a motto for us.

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Vernazza

For our first full day, we decided that it was the right day for the beach since the weather was warm. Em, Anna and I took the train to Monterosso, the only town with an actual beach. As we laid there for a couple hours, alternating between swimming and tanning, we discovered where to get the pina coladas we’d been craving: a little beach shack serving Drunk Ass Buckets (real name). The bartenders made them right there in front of you, pina coladas and margaritas and other delicious, alcoholic beverages. The buckets were huge and made perfect companions for our beach day. That night, we hung out at the hostel with Zoe, Anna, and our new friends Nick, Cain, and Heather. “Hanging out” means a couple bottles of wine, several limoncello shots, and trading stories. While not a huge fan of limoncello in the past, the stuff in The Cinque is delicious and well known throughout Italy.

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The only “true” beach in Cinque Terre. This is Monterosso! Look at that water – it’s so clear!

Our second full day there, we decided that we would hike from Monterosso to Vernazza, and then (hopefully) Vernazza to Corniglia. Think of it as going from 5 to 4, and 4 to 3. Anna, Em and I took the train all the way up, and followed the crowd up the hill to the beginning of the trail. While it’s not the hardest hike, it’s definitely not easy. The entire thing (to Vernazza) took us around 3 hours. While there are some flat parts, much of our way was made up of stairs. Add to this the fact that the day was warm and muggy, and you can understand why everyone on that trail was sweating buckets.

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The end of the hike, looking down into Vernazza

The hike is one of the best ones I’ve ever been on. It feels like you’re trekking through a jungle when suddenly you can turn a corner and be met with a stunning view of the sea. At certain points, you can look up the coast line and see where the other 4 cities jut out. The water is blue and clear and sparkles under the sun.

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When we finally made it to Vernazza (we ran out of water with 45 minutes of the hike left), we grabbed food and gelato. I ducked into a random gelato place and got some of the best of my life: they were known for their blackberry and their lemon flavors. I got them together in a cup, and I have to say that I don’t think I’ll ever have something that good again.

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After wandering Vernazza a bit, we took the train to Corniglia; we were tired and didn’t want to walk. However, Corniglia is not like the other towns: when you get off the train, you then have to climb 400 steps up the cliffside to the village itself. It was very cute and quiet in a quaint sort of way. The view from the lookout spot is spectacular, especially since you can find 3+ cats roaming around or lying in doorways.

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One of the many cats lounging around Corniglia

That night at the hostel was much the same as before: wine, limoncello, laughing with new friends until 1 in the morning. We made a plan for the next day, however: we would meet back in Riomaggiore at 7 so that we could watch the sunset all together. Anna, Em and I spent a lazy day in Manarola, swimming and sunning ourselves as best we could with not a lot of sun. We headed back to Riomaggiore, where we shared a bottle of cheap, house wine and an awesome appetizer platter. We met back up with the group, picked up a couple of beers and some cones of seafood, and went to watch the show. Riomaggiore doesn’t have a beach, per se; there are a bunch of rocks that you can sit on, and stairs leading down to the water. We clustered on the rocks, each finding our own little nook, and sat back. The sunset was amazing, breaking through the clouds and lighting up the coastline. Somebody suggested a swim, so at 8pm I jumped into the sea and watched the sunset from the water. Trust me, it’s way better from there.

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The best way I can describe The Cinque and how I felt about it is that you constantly get a little jolt of realization. I’m here. I’m in Italy. I am so lucky to be where I am right now. And, most of all, there’s nowhere else I want to be. Surrounded by great people, who are now my friends, and one of the most beautiful places in the world, it’s a kind of perfect bliss that doesn’t come along that often. Fortunately for me, Europe has given me several of these moments.

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Europe is full of fun doorways

We were very sad to leave The Cinque, and our friends. But we were headed somewhere just as amazing, but in a different way… Florence.

Ciao, Cinque Terre!

The Travel Took Over

Wow. It’s been quite awhile since I’ve last put out some words to you, and I can’t even begin to cover everything that’s happened since Asti, the subject of my last post. It is, however, my intention to cover as much of this trip in blog posts as possible, so it looks like everything will just be… a little late.

Written: September 11, 2016 on the train from Firenze to Siena.

Days spent in Milan: August 24th-August 27th

After the dazzling and impossible evening spent meeting my family, Emily and I traveled to Milan, where I spent most of our time sick. We were in a rare 5-person dorm, and I was assigned the top bed in a 3 tier bunk bed. We hadn’t seen anything like it yet, and it ended up being the perfect place for me to try and recover. It was promptly dubbed “Kayla’s Princess Tower.” When I felt better, we explored il Duomo di Milano, a giant structure with thousands of carvings – gargoyles, angels, spires. It was quite the sight to behold. In Italy – and several other European countries- women’s shoulders and knees must be covered. Even if you wait 2 hours in line, officials will turn you away without hesitation if you have nothing to cover yourself with. I brought a big infinity scarf to wrap around my waist, over my skirt that was a bit too short. As I tried to put it on, however, the wind betrayed me and revealed to about half of Milan just how white my ass is. Emily and our new friend/roommate, Pheobe (girl, if you’re reading this, we think you are a wonderfully awesome human being and we’re glad we met you!) laughed at me but said no one noticed. No, guys, they definitely noticed.

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il Duomo di Milano

 

Inside, we saw the replica of the golden Madonna that sits on the top spire, and explored some crypts with some dead saints whose names fled my memory the second we left. As always, the selfie sticks were rampant and endlessly obnoxious. We also took the lift to the top of the dome, where we got amazing views of the city and the many intricate sculptures that were a part of the building. I can only imagine how long that thing took to build, and how long all of those carvings took. Once we’d had our fill of il Duomo, we visited a store that sold wine – and lots of it. They had bottles of red, white, and sparkling delicious nectar from every major wine region in Italy. Pheobe picked up some prosecco while I went for a bottle of Moscato d’Asti. We also indulged ourselves and visited Laduree for macarons. I am not at all ashamed of how much money I’ve spent on macarons during this trip. There are times when I like them more than gelato.

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Promise, I’m holding my beloved Laduree bag

On our last night, at Pheobe’s recommendation, we visited the Navigli area, situated on the river. We ran into a frequent problem: we went over there around 10, hoping to find a fun bar with drinks and dancing. What we found instead is that everyone was still eating dinner. We had a late snack of arancini – fried risotto balls filled with cheese and prosciutto – and gelato, then found a bar that let you take beer to go so that you could walk along the river and hang out with friends. The best thing about is that I found a stout! Finally! All through Europe I’ve been searching for a good, creamy stout beer. The alcohol content wasn’t as strong in this one and so the chocolate flavor didn’t have quite the same effect as others I’ve had, but it was still delicious. With nothing else to do, we sipped our beer by the water, indulging in our favorite activity: people watching. People in Europe are fun to watch because you don’t understand anything they’re saying, and they have different habits and mannerisms than Americans do. This makes it very fun to try and figure out their backstory. Eventually, we’d finished our beers and had 30 minutes until we had to take the metro back, so we grabbed two more stouts. The bartender didn’t seem to want to stop talking to me, even asking when we were leaving Milan. Sadly, “the beautiful girl from California” (his words, not mine), had to leave.

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Can you believe this is somebody’s crypt?? Me neither! Photo taken at the main cemetery in Milan

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It was like something out of a movie – this old man appeared out of nowhere, speaking no English, and showed us he’s a caretaker at the cemetery. Then he gave us a tour!

Speaking of leaving… we will now leave this post for the next one – Venezia!

It’s in the Eyes

I don’t know if everyone else feels this way, but I’ve always had a maddeningly insatiable thirst for knowing where I come from. There’s a deep, visceral part of me that still belongs in Italy, in Germany. I took Italian in college in order to feel closer to the culture; with my mom, I poured over old family photos, trying to decipher who was who, and how we were related. On both sides of my family, we’re either in contact or have been at some point with extended relatives. We can trace our ancestors back, and we know names and dates and places – except for my great grandfather’s relatives.

My great grandfather (my mother’s grandfather on her father’s side) came to the states in 1916 from the Piemonte region, specifically a place called Settime right outside of Asti. He’d been born in 1893 – or so we thought. He was the only one in his family to leave for a new life in America, where he met my great grandmother who’d grown up a mere 16 miles from him. We knew the name of his mother, and that his brother was the captain of the guard to the King of Italy at the time. When he was alive, my great grandfather didn’t talk about his life in Italy that much, at least to my mother. And when he died, contacting this part of our family fell to my grandparents, my nonna and my nonno. And when we lost my nonna, we lost the letters and the contact information as well. We lost that side of the family in one fell swoop as they sat on one side of the world, and we hopelessly stared back across the ocean.

What all that amounts to is that we hadn’t spoken to this side of the family in nearly 20 years, and had never had the chance to look for them. None of our family members in the states have been to Italy in that time. So when Em and I decided that we’d spend 2-4 weeks exploring the land of our ancestors, my mother posed an important question: would we go find them? Would we go reestablish the link between our families? She needn’t have asked; I had already assumed we would try. Since we weren’t planning our trip more than 2 stops ahead, we had the freedom to make a detour. But where would we start? How would we look? Asti is not a big place, but I wasn’t about to go into every shop or restaurant and ask, “Do you know anyone with the last name Roggero?” It could take days, and we were only staying two nights.

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Countryside in Settime

Settime is a small community of houses on the outskirts of Asti, so I figured that we could start our search in Asti and ask for regional information. Our Airbnb host recommended we try a public building which turned out to be somewhere they stored information and could help find things. The first day we were there, they had just closed, so we wandered around this tiny city that I was from, knowing that we’d have to wait a little longer for answers – if there were any to be had at all.

The next morning, we returned to the public office. At first, it seemed like nobody spoke English well enough to help. My Italian is garbled and halting, and I didn’t know how to explain what I was looking for. Never had I more regretted not taking more Italian classes or continuing the study of the language. They fetched a nice Italian woman from her office, and she explained that she knew some English, enough to understand. Apart from her surprise that there was a young American woman sitting in her office, looking for long lost family, she seemed eager to help, and soon she was on the phone with a contact in Settime. She asked me questions, asking if I knew a name or another date that would help with the search, but I had next to nothing. Her friend on the phone, a cop, did not have much to go on.

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One of the few roads in Settime

How her contact found the information, I don’t know, but the ensuing onslaught of facts was like a bright ray of sunlight filtering through dark clouds. She confirmed the date my great grandfather was born, and from there the information sounded too similar to what I knew; it couldn’t be coincidental. His parents were Louisa and Giovanni. His brother was Filippo, who had been in the military and then a mayor. And then: I had a cousin in the area! And it was only seconds later that she was telling that he would meet me back at the building at 6pm, and would I like to spend the evening with him and the rest of my (newly re-found) family?

There are very few moments in life that feel like a movie script. Your mind tells you, “This is crazy. This does not happen to people. Real life does not work this way; you can’t go searching for family with just a last name to go on. This is not happening.” Except, after we had profusely thanked Vera, our new friend and helper, and left the building to walk back through Asti, it was happening. 

That evening, we met with Tullio back at the office. He didn’t speak any English, and as he drove Em and I through the countryside to his home in Settime, I tried to understand him as he spoke. I would estimate that I understood 30% of what he said. When we reached the house – where, as I later learned, my great grandfather had been born and raised – there were people waiting. Tullio’s sister was there, as well as her daughter. Tullio’s own daughter was there, not even 10 years older than me. Any suspicions floating around that I was not who I said I was, or that we had found the wrong family, were dispelled the second that pictures were brought out: I had pictures of Annibale, my great grandpa, and they looked nearly identical to the pictures of his brother. They also brought out old pictures of one of the women in the family, and pointed out how I shared her eyes, her lips, and her jaw bone. “Roggero eyes are always blue, or green.” This was it; this was my family.

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Near the family crypt

They showed me lots of pictures of my great uncle; he stood at attention in his captain’s uniform, the tallest man in any room at 2 meters (about 6 foot 7). As I looked around at Tullio and the others related to me by blood, I began to see the resemblance between them and Annibale. My mother, who I’d called earlier to relay the good news, told me that she cried when I posted a Facebook photo of the whole family; Tullio was practically the spitting image of her grandfather.

After trying to explain the lack of contact all these years, and catching up as best we could, they drove us to the cemetery, where we saw my family’s crypt. Then, we ate dinner at a local restaurant, where the food was locally grown – and had 7 courses! We tried to trade stories, and while we had limited success, there was one thing we all knew and agreed on: we were happy. We had found each other again, and it was nothing short of amazing. A miracle, indeed.

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Red wine from Asti at dinner

Unfortunately, we had to leave the next day for Milan. Now that I know what I do, I feel a sense of belonging in Asti. It was hard to say goodbye, but I know that I’ll be back someday.

Look out for my next post about Milan! I spent most of our time there sick and not feeling well, but it’s still a beautiful, awesome place.

Ciao Asti e Settime!

Kayla

 

 

 

Long-Awaited Waves

On Aug 19, we left Lyon and took a train into Nice. As the train rolled through the countryside, the thought of being on the coast was forefront in our minds. Our only change was in Marseille, and as we stepped onto the platform, we got our first breaths of salty ocean air. It was delightful, refreshing, and invigorating. Our train to Nice gave us a beautiful view of the glittering water, right outside the window, laid out before small, coastal towns. I would have stopped at every single one if I could have.

People told us that Nice is nice, and it very much is. Whereas Lyon was beautiful but overlooked, and therefore not very tourist-ridden, Nice had people from everywhere. As we stepped out of the station that afternoon, it presented itself as a busy vacation spot. Our hostel was a tall building nearby with tiny, sloping rooms, spotty Wifi, and an abundance of Australians. We shared a dorm with two young Australian girls, who we happily made friends with immediately.

Our first night, Em and I treated ourselves to a delicious dinner at a local Italian restaurant. She ordered a plate of mussels while I got ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta. For dessert, we shared chocolate fondue and fresh fruit. The entire meal was fabulous and a nice break from cheap street food.

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dinner at Le Luna Rossa

The next day promised to be hot, a perfect day for the beach. Our hostel was a 15 minute walk, so we put on our suits, grabbed the hostel towels (which we technically weren’t allowed to take out of the hostel), and set out on a mission. We’d been dreaming about jumping into the ocean for weeks; it was time.

The beach we went to was unlike any beach I have been to into California. Instead of sand, there is a 20 foot walk from the sidewalk to the water of smooth rocks the size of eggs. People crowd onto every inch of this space, even right up to the water. Women wear bikinis or one-pieces like any place back home, but men in speedos are everywhere. This took a little getting used to. There were also women tanning topless, but since that is something I have done at Pirate’s Cove near San Luis Obispo, I barely noticed.

The water in Nice is spectacular, composed of two jewel-like tones of blue waves. It is wonderfully clean, though startlingly salty (I would definitely avoid swallowing any, as your stomach will be upset afterward). In between our tanning sessions, we spent a lot of time in the water, letting the gentle waves rock us back and forth.

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Not even trying to be cute; the ocean was trying to make us fall over

That night, we went out to some of the pubs with one of our roommates, Hanne (hey girl!). We tried several bars, finally settling on the most crowded one. Wayne’s had groups of people hanging out outside, beer in hand. Inside, the front room was packed with people trying to get drinks from the bar and then trying to find a place to stand after. We got some beer, and met a couple of nice American boys as we sipped our drinks. Finally, we moved to the backroom. Instead of a dance floor, this room has 3 long tables lined up, with benches or stools on either side. Almost nobody dances on the floor, as there isn’t much space: bodies are gyrating up on the tables, fighting for space amid the flashing lights and deafening American music. A couple guys gave up their spots on the table so we could get up, and we didn’t come off those tables for 2 hours. It was a sweaty, loud, and sometimes scary time (only because there was a very real chance of falling off the table), but we had a great night dancing with each other and saying no to the many French boys asking us to dance. The next night, we had a repeat evening as we went back with both of our roommates, Bonnie and Hanne.

Our second full day in Nice saw the four of us taking a short day trip to Cannes, home of the famous film festival and a crazy number of fancy places to eat, sleep, and lay on the beach. When I say lay on the beach, I mean that in Cannes you have to pay for a spot on the beach unless you want to sit on the sand with the hot sun beating down on you. Emily and I were recovering from sunburns from the previous day, so the four of us rented beach chairs and umbrellas on one of the “paying” beaches. This was a very laid back day, as we were all tired from travel and dancing, and so we laid on the beach for a couple hours, grabbed some dinner, and headed back. I decided that while the actual beaches in Cannes are better (sand instead of rocks), the water in Nice is much better and looks a lot cleaner.

The last day in Nice was my favorite. We got a late start to the day, but after getting lunch with the girls, we headed down the beach to the left. At the end of the beach is a wall, with a cluster of rocks hanging over the ocean. You have to swim out near the cliff side to reach them, and climb up out of the water. Emily and I joined a bunch of locals and other adventurous vacationers on the rock, and jumped off one of the lower spots. Even though we couldn’t understand each other, the locals shared our excitement and gibbered at us in French or Italian while we nodded and said “Oui! Oui!”Cliff jumping is an experience that I was very excited to have over in Europe, and we’re hoping to find lots of it in Italy.

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The rocks we jumped off of are at the very center of the photo

As I write this, I’m lying on my third tier bunk in Milano. A lot has happened, and it’s been tricky so far to keep up with everything (which is why this post is late late late) but I’m speeding through this post so that I can get to the most important and exciting part of the trip so far: Asti. Keep an eye out for my next post as I detail how I found some long lost family members in unlikely circumstances.

Au revoir, Nice!

-Kayla

Bonjour, mini Paris!

(I am writing this entry as we take the train from Marseille to Nice on August 18. Though I have plenty of time, it is hard to take my eyes off the French countryside and coast that flies past the train window. It is beautiful and green out here, so close to the coast. We have already passed one town that sat right on the ocean)

The best way to describe Lyon is that it is a smaller version of Paris. Two rivers, the Rhône and the Saone, run through the center of the city, separating the Old Town and the new section. We had two nights booked, but extended one day because Lyon is just one of those cities that has a lot of to see that shouldn’t be missed.

Our first night, we got to the hostel and found it to be probably our cleanest one yet. There was a small, grassy courtyard with a hammock and some bean bags and a picnic table. There was usually always someone hanging out down there, chatting on the phone or to another traveler, or dozing after a long night of drinking. We met our roommate, a woman named Jules who we got along with immediately (love you Jules!) and drank wine with her and other visitors at a dinner they held for us that night. The wine flowed, we all got to know one another, and soon someone was suggesting a bar for us to go to (keep in mind, this was a Monday night. There’s never really much going on). There were 11 of us, but at the end of the night it was our group of 6 girls that we didn’t want to part with. Jules was the German girl who’d lived in Australia for the last couple years and was now going to work for a winery in France; there was Marwa from Virginia but originally Sudan, who was only in Lyon for that night before she had to catch a plane to Amsterdam for the weekend before she returned to Lyon to study abroad; there was Maddy from Germany and Kim from Korea, roommates in another dorm of the hostel who helped us polish off a basket of frites at the next bar/club; and me and Emily. We danced, helped each other ward off creepy French guys and get to know the nice ones, and basked in the ecstasy of travel and freedom. We took a picture on the bridge on the walk home, drunk off of the feeling of France, making new friends, and life in general (ok, so there may have been several shots adding to our happiness as well!). It continually stuns me how people of different backgrounds, nationalities, ages, and languages can fall so seamlessly into friendship.

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“Starfishing” after we ate: they’re too full to move!

The next morning, Emily, Jules and I woke up late, bodies tired but minds alive with the happiness of being in Lyon. Emily and I extended our stay one more night, knowing we couldn’t leave the next day. This is the great thing about not planning things out; we had nowhere to be and could stay if we wanted. A little hungover, we started the hike up to the Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere, a beautiful cathedral that overlooks Old Town. We quickly sweated out any lingering alcohol as the sun beat down on us relentlessly. On the way up, we rounded a corner to see the Roman ruins that we’d seen in a “Things to do in Lyon” article. You could enter at will, and walk among these stone amphitheaters that have been around since ~1200 B.C. There is so much here in Europe that you can touch and know that it’s something that has been around for hundreds of years, and endured. History at your fingertips, indeed.

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either the Rhone or the Saone; I don’t remember!

At the top of the hill is the Basilica. We were happy to get there, due to the fact that we were sweating buckets, but when we stepped in the main room we nearly forgot all of that. There are mosaic masterpieces everywhere: the floor, walls, ceiling. We tried to take a couple pictures, but nothing can accurately capture what it looks like. It was dark and cool, and we just sat in there for a good 20 minutes, cooling off and looking around. The inside is beautiful beyond words, and no matter how much I wanted a good picture, cameras just can’t capture how amazing it was to see it.

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la Basilica of Notre Dame de Fourviere

Outside, there’s a lookout point so that you can see all of Lyon, which is stunning. When we were too hungry to stay, we went back down the hill to find an eatery. I stopped in front of one in Old Town, and we stared at it for a minute, confused. I was given advice to only eat places where you can’t understand the menu because it’s in the native language, but you don’t realize till you’re doing it how hard it is to order when you have no idea what the dishes are!

After a kind employee took pity on us, we sat and ordered a late lunch. Emily got a salad and a crepe, while I decided to try authentic Lyonaisse food: saucisson chaud de Leon. It was a thick sausage, sliced and marinated in a red wine sauce accompanied by cheesy potatoes (best ones I’ve ever had, sorry Mom), asparagus, and a small salad. My bet paid off because the entire dish was absolutely delicious and one of the best meals I’ve had in Europe. We went back to the restaurant the next day for dinner, and I had the same thing – no ragrets! (Le Petit Grouton in Old Town Lyon, for curious food lovers)

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saucisson chaud de Lyon

We spent one more day in Lyon, doing a walking tour and taking a boat back up the river, followed by nap/rest time. Meaning Emily took a nap while I watched a couple episodes of Orange is the New Black.

As of 2 hours ago while writing this, we reached the coast. We have encountered so much bad weather in the past couple weeks (Paris was lovely the whole time, but this morning in Lyon we woke up to pouring rain!) that we have been itching to reach the coast and the beach. Despite what happened in Nice a couple months ago, we’re very excited to take a couple days and relax. Even just changing trains in Marseille earlier, we breathed in the air and agreed that it felt incredibly good to smell the sea. Read on to my next post to find out just how nice Nice is!

Au revoir Lyon!

-Kayla

 

To Love, or Not to L0ve…

I skipped a couple stops on our trip for this blog due to tiredness, laziness, or possibly-maybe-definitely being a bit drunk, but basically between this post and the last we’ve been to Brussels (1 night), Brugge (2 nights), and this is the last of 5 nights in Paris. I didn’t blog about Brussels because there really wasn’t much to blog about, except for Georgette’s Cafe that had AMAZING frites (which will never again be “French” fries to me because THEY’RE NOT FRENCH, they’re Belgian; and Delirium Cafe, a bar known for its pink elephant logo). And then there was Brugge, which I will blog about and explain why I didn’t have the heart to blog while there, because when you love something deeply you don’t want to be on an electronic device for even a second.

And then… there’s Paris.

I received a lot of opinions about Paris. There were the, “Oh my goodness, you’ll LOVE Paris!” people, which I appreciated because these people then added that they could see me fitting in there. These were also the people that seemed very excited for me to go and wanted me to love it as much as they did. Instead of telling me HOW to feel about Paris, these people told me why they loved it, and knew me well enough to know that I would love it in my own way. Basically, these people wished me well in Paris, and hoped I would enjoy it.

Then there were the people who told me what they didn’t like about it: how dirty it was, how the people were rude and how touristy it was. I’m not going to say it isn’t those things (to an extent), but what city isn’t?? I didn’t think it was any dirtier than San Francisco, any more touristy than New York, and these are places that I love! The rude part, you just deal. There is a huge difference between someone trying to convince you to hate a city, to talk about it in a way that they hope you had as bad of a time as they did, and someone dreamily saying, “Oh, you’ll fall in love with Paris.” Sorry, but I won’t be validating your dislike of it anytime soon.

In Paris, we got lucky with a cheap Airbnb, across the Seine River from the Eiffel Tower. The flat had 4 bedrooms -of which ours was the largest with a big, comfy bed – and we had free reign of the kitchen and the living room, which contained a piano, a samurai sword, a mask collection, and a tiny balcony with a small table and 2 chairs. With plants and books everywhere, and the way the light streamed in, the place looked beautifully and stereotypically… French. It was amazing. And then there was the bunny.

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Our host was helpful and accommodating, despite the fact that we never saw him. He did, however, fail to mention his bunny. Its name was Patapouf. He was adorable, but also kind of an asshole. The entire 5 nights we were there, we barely saw him eat or drink anything. He hopped around with no clear goal, and once he’d warmed up to our presence he would proceed to get very… friendly with our legs. I know for a fact that my leg doesn’t resemble a female bunny. At all.

The first full day in Paris, we visited the Louvre. It’s essentially a giant maze, containing sculptures and paintings and art on art on art. We made a mad dash with what seemed like half the population of Paris to see the Mona Lisa, and stood near it for a couple minutes just thinking about it (who’s she smiling at? Is she constipated? WHAT’S THE SECRET????). We moved along pretty quickly, however, as the entire room was full of people waving their selfie sticks around trying to take 5 billion pictures that they’ll never look at again. The Venus de Milo wasn’t as crazy, but much of the same was happening everywhere.

 

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Disclaimer #1: I hate selfie sticks.

After we left, walked down Rue de Rivoli for food, and hopped on the metro, we went over to Notre Dame Cathedral. It was beautiful, situated on an island in the middle of the Seine. The Gothic style building was massive and breathtaking… and then you see the line to go in, as long as a football field. We settled for taking a couple pictures in front and getting ice cream.

Disclaimer #2: We’ve eaten a lot of ice cream. And gelato. And croissants.

Looking for the next metro stop, we crossed the Seine and happened to come upon the bouquinistes! These are people who make a living setting up stalls along the river, and then have hundreds of worn, old copies of novels/books, all in French, for less than 10 euro. They’ve also started selling prints, keychains, small trinkets, and old maps. I saw an article a couple months ago saying that these businesses were in trouble, due to digital reading; my purchase won’t make a difference, but I did pick up an old copy of The Alchemist. It’s in French, and my French is terrible, so it’s going to be lots of fun to read.

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That night – and two other nights of the five we were there – we grabbed some take away (food to go) and sat on the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower. We claimed our favorite spot, and enjoyed the beautiful weather as the sun went down, accompanied by a bottle (or 2) of cheap wine. We made numerous friends doing this, including a just-married couple and several adorable little girls who gave us kisses on the cheek. This time also included people-watching and telling the men hawking cheap bottles of wine or Eiffel Tower key chains: “Non, merci!”

Perhaps our favorite day was Versailles. We left late – which is not recommended by anyone and you should really get there as early in the morning as possible –  and took the wrong train, which actually ended up working out just fine. It stopped at a different section of the city, and so we walked through the town of Versailles, got a sandwich, and picked up delicious nectarines from an open air market. The line into the palace was an hour long, followed by a tour through the opulent rooms and chambers. What person needs three sitting/receiving rooms, a private room, AND a bedroom? Our favorite room was probably the Hall of Mirrors, decorated with hundreds of gold-gilded mirrors and crystal chandeliers.

(Funny anecdote: you could use one of their audio guides for free, and as we walked into one room that looked like the King’s bedchamber, the guide explained that it was not, in fact, the bedchamber. This became hilariously funny as a horde of people without the audio guides crammed in front of the bed, trying to get pictures and selfies of it. It was just a bed)

The tickets we bought were only good for the actual palace building, but what intrigued us were the gardens. The Versailles Gardens are famous, beautiful, well-kept, and huge. Many of the palace windows looked out on them, and they spread for miles and miles. Everything was a vibrant green and the hedges were perfectly trimmed. From above, the gardens look like a forest, but one too precise to be natural. Deciding to splurge, we paid to explore.

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The only way to really see the gardens is to wander through them, randomly choosing which grove to venture into. It was a beautiful summer day, and we just strolled until we came upon a café sitting in the middle of the trees. We had already been discussing what we wanted to eat (crepes, as usual) and figured that a nice glass of rosé wouldn’t hurt as well.

Em ordered a crepe, but one of the waiters convinced me to try their house dessert, something called a melba which turned out to be vanilla ice cream swirled with raspberries and topped with French cream. One of the French waiters, a charming man with brown hair and a teasing spirit, kept coming over to our table to talk to me. One of the greatest regrets of this trip so far is that I walked away without his number.  There is something about Paris that makes it so easy to fall a little bit in love with everything around you.

Other highlights of the 5 days:

Hiking up a bunch of stairs to get to Sacre Coeur, a beautiful cathedral with sweeping views of Paris

Hanging out with my friend Elle from Italian class at Cal Poly (thanks Elle!). We met her at the Shakespeare & Co. bookshop, then went to lunch in a Parisian café where we enjoyed croque monsieur. The next morning, we met her at the Paris Catacombs, a series of caves under the streets where they moved bones from nearby cemeteries in order to make space in the 1800s. They were creepy but such a powerful and interesting experience
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On our last night, we finally bought Eiffel Tower keychains from one of the men selling them around the Eiffel Tower itself as they yelled “One euro! One euro!” So to the people back home getting souvenirs, you’re welcome

Alright I need to stop this post before it takes you an hour to read it. Stay tuned for the next one, coming in hot!

With love from Paris,

Kayla

Sum of Its Parts

As we left London a couple days ago, I thought to myself: How can I leave this city? Even though we’d had unlucky mishaps, I’d fallen in love with London and its inhabitants, its food, its old buildings, and its historical sites mixed in with new wonders. Now, as we prepare to leave Amsterdam tomorrow, I’m having that feeling magnified by 10. I don’t know how I can stand leaving the cobblestone streets with their sweeping canals, the way we can walk anywhere, and with no destination in mind still see so much.

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I had no idea Amsterdam was a bike city! They get around on these cute bikes, mopeds, and a very few have cars

Today, we witnessed a combination of events that few can say they’ve experienced. Despite a lack of planning for this on our part, it was their huge Pride Parade. And even though I haven’t been to a Pride Parade/Celebration before (I always miss the one in San Francisco), I doubt that any come close to Amsterdam.

After breakfast this morning, we ventured to the canal two streets away, and were met with a wave of color, noise, and people. Lining the canal to the right and left were people sitting, standing, dancing, and drinking. The lucky locals were in their boats parked on the canal sides, partying harder than anyone else. Pink was everywhere, while certain boats stuck to a theme. We watched a boat overflowing with people in a tropical theme – some took it as far as dressing up as bright birds – as they pulled out the biggest bottle of Absolut Vodka I’ve ever seen and proceeded to pour shots for the entire boat. As the parade came down the river toward us, we realized we needed to leave for our special date… with Anne Frank.

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This was what the entire length of the canal looked like – and it’s a couple miles long!

I would hope that Anne would approve of us visiting her house on this day. If there’s anything I learned from walking through the three small rooms that hid her and 7 other people (and I learned much, felt much, and reflected much), it’s that a lot of people suffered so that others could progress. From her writings, I could see the way that oppression and hate had touched this innocent girl, yet it hadn’t broken her spirit, it hadn’t broken her. She grew up much faster than any teenage girl should have to grow up, yet she never gave up hope that she would survive the concentration camps, the war, the Nazis. As I read what she had written, 72 years ago, a quote by Emily Dickinson resonated within me:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all

       – Emily Dickinson

As we walked around and let the walls tell us their stories, the sounds of the party outside randomly filtered in. The juxtaposition of somber, violent history against jubilant celebration of equality and love was nearly overpowering, and definitely humbling. I couldn’t help but think how far we have come, and yet how far we have to go as there are those who choose hate over love.

After the Anne Frank experience, one that I will not soon – or ever – forget, we walked through the centrum of the city to one of the markets, the Waterlooplein Market. We had enough time to browse some stalls and find a choker necklace for me (overpriced, but now I can say “it’s from Amsterdam!”) before the market closed, the second time that has happened to us. Obviously, we need to start going to these earlier.

With nothing to do, we found a spot to sit with our legs dangling over the canal, and sat looking at the water, talking about the day, and waving at passing boats. The sun finally came out, making the water glitter and making the canal even more beautiful. The joyful vibe from the parade had filtered throughout the whole city, and we sat there, happy to be right where we were.

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There weren’t a lot of people around, so it was a good time for a photo op

In order to save some money on a meal (though I’m not entirely sure we did, but whatever), we decided to visit the grocery store and make our own meal. We ended up dining on chicken mixed into pasta and spinach, covered in a sauce of two different kinds of cheeses. The fact that there are cheese shops on practically every corner has had us going a little nuts.

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Delicious dinner + wine at the adorable apartment we’re renting!

As the night wore on, we realized we hadn’t yet been through the Red Light District. For anyone not familiar with it, the RDL is composed of a few streets where it seems that anything is legal. People – men, mostly – walk up and down the streets, looking into neon-lit windows or ducking into shops to buy whatever they desire. There are the sparkling, magical parts of Amsterdam, and then there are the gray areas.

Though some of may not be comfortable to see, I felt it was an important part of the city and shouldn’t be missed. For a long time, I’ve struggled with taking people as they are and not expecting them to be someone or something they aren’t. I’m the opposite with cities. I can see the parts – the light and the dark and the in between, the good and not so good – and put them together to accept them, to love the sum. That, I think, is why I love exploring a city at night as much as I love exploring it with the sun: there is so much that comes out of the dark, and a city transforms under the moon.

Tomorrow we travel to Brussels. I am excited for the adventure to continue, yet sad to leave a place that I feel I understand, a place I could spend a significant amount of time.

Lessons learned from today: love one another, and when the light in the world is dim, don’t let anyone steal your hope.  Hope endures, and creates a legacy for others to inherit.

Happily eating a stroopwaffle before bed,

Kayla

 

P.S. Happy first day of the Olympics! Haven’t watched anything yet, but you can be sure I’ll go through hell to see the USA Women’s Gymnastics team SLAY.

 

 

What They Never Told Me

Sometimes in life, things don’t go the way you’ve planned. The same goes for traveling. Ideas and goals change, but it’s the bigger stuff, too; the stuff you didn’t expect. When I was prepping for this trip, I knew there was much I hadn’t thought about, I just didn’t know how much. Turns out, there’s a lot.

I’ve had people tell me, “Oh what a wonderful vacation!” After what we’ve experienced so far, I have to politely disagree on that description of what we’re doing. Vacations are a relaxing time, a time to unwind and take a break from the world before diving back into your daily life. This trip is different; it’s an adventure, where good and bad things happen and you don’t just go home afterward – you have to keep going, and carry the mistakes and frustrations with you.

There’s more to backpacking, too. You don’t anticipate the sweat from walking to your hostel from the train station; if you experience one kind of weather, you’ll get sick of your clothing options in a week. You leave for the trip excited and resolved to keep up the blog, keep up the blog, keep up the blog – and then somebody asks if you want to go get a beer or late night pizza, and that’s the rest of your night. Or when you get to your bed at the end of a long day of walking – 5 miles, 8 miles? – and fall into bed to get the most amount of sleep possible before getting up to do it all again the next day. And unlike a vacation, when you know that all of the shit you’re going through is only temporary because you’ll be back in your comfy house and walking around in sweats and slippers to find the cereal in the cupboard, this doesn’t stop. We’ve planned on three months; the comforts are small and fleeting. Once you become relaxed, it’s off to the next stop.

Why am I going on and on about misfortunes and disappointments? Well, dear reader, it’s because we suffered our first travel mishap. Okay, more like… disaster.

We didn’t technically miss our flight from London to Amsterdam. When we got to Gatwick Airport, the bag drop had closed 7 minutes before. It wasn’t enough that we were tired – London is an extremely exhausting city – not to mention a little hungover, and sad to be leaving a place we’d fallen in love with. Add to that the crushing realization that because our bags couldn’t make it on the flight, we couldn’t either. After an hour and a half of scouring the internet for options that did not include buying another flight for over 200 pounds, we realized that there was no way we were getting to Amsterdam that night.

Fortunately, we were able to spend the night back at our hostel due to some overbooking we’d done months earlier. Knowing that we had to get to Amsterdam and not wanting to waste even more money, I turned to an app I had only heard about: Bla Bla Car, an international rideshare service. I had no experience with the app, but after searching London to Amsterdam I found a single ride for the next morning, leaving at 11am. He had two seats left; I booked them quickly, and only stopped to caution myself after. Everybody had warned us about being “Taken,” and I’m certainly not trying to prove anyone right on that one.

We met the driver and his friend the next morning, and picked up another guy soon after. It was squishy in the car, but our fears were dispelled right away. The three were Londoners on their way to a techno festival in Amsterdam for the weekend. Conversation slid easily from topics like travel to music to the things they wanted to buy in Amsterdam. These weren’t a bunch of creepy guys looking to kidnap us; they just wanted to take a lot of drugs and dance to their hearts content for three days straight. Personally, I think we got a great deal.

The drive took about 8 hours, as we traveled through 4 countries. We spent 1.5 hours in the car to the port of Dover, where we drove on to a giant ferry. Despite all of the disappointment about missing a day in Amsterdam, wasting the flight money, and generally messing up, this ended up being a crazy and wonderful alternative. As we left the port, we could see the White Cliffs of Dover fading away in the distance. It’s definitely not something I had ever expected to see, and it makes for a great story, right?

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Strait of Dover

After two hours spent relaxing in the lounge and eating ship food, we got back onto land at Dunkirk, France. From there we spent about 4 hours driving through France, Belgium, and the Netherlands to finally reach the much anticipated Amsterdam. I don’t remember a happier moment than meeting up with Kassidy (Emily’s friend!) in the street and going up to the flat to set our packs down. By this time it was 10pm, and we went out into the streets. Giant pita with falafel has never been so welcome, nor scarfed down so fast.

As I write this, we have just finished our first full day in Amsterdam. After waking up late (it was the first morning I’ve woken up later than 6:30am, so yay!), we went downstairs to a highly recommended coffee shop called Bocca. Around the corner, we grabbed giant crepes filled with nutella, strawberries, and bananas; with nowhere to sit down, we found a dock floating on the edge of one of the canals and sat with our toes dangling over the water, trading stories all the while. The threat of rain had us grabbing our rain jackets, and then we were off into the city.

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Fat crepes!

 

If anyone’s ever been to Amsterdam, or heard about the Anne Frank Huis, you might know that it’s always busy. Tickets sell out amazingly fast, and the line to buy tickets at the door is insanely long. We got there around 1:30pm today, and people can buy tickets at the door starting at 3:30. Not wanting to wait 2 hours in line, we decided to walk around the city, and try again later. We bought a hunk of goat cheese and a baguette, eating on the canal again; we took pictures of all of the many tree-lined canals and the beautiful buildings on either side. Completely by chance, we happened upon the Banksy museum; the three of us love Banksy, so we decided to pay the euros and go through. Safe to say I was in awe, and it was a fun museum.

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Banksy’s “Pornography of War”

For dinner, we went to Nes 41. Their menu changes daily because they get their food fresh, so we dined on a charcuterie plate followed by tender beef with goat cheese and a raspberry sauce. This was all accompanied by Fanta cocktails (shoutout to Auntie Lori and Omi! The fanta is just as delicious as it was 10 years ago, although the Spanish liqueur they put in it really added to it).

I took a walk through the city alone today to go back to the Tulip Museum we’d seen earlier.  As I walked among the canals and the casually – but still fashionably – dressed people of all ages and creeds, I realized that within less than 24 hours, I had fallen in love with Amsterdam. The city is large enough to have lots of things going on, yet you can easily walk everywhere. The people are nice and the food is wonderful.

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My favorite photo so far – it’s the troll looking to exact his toll!

I  bought myself a pink tulip from the museum today. As a sentimental traveler, I’ve decided to pick up one small memento from each city, my way of remembering what I most loved. The tulip will remind me of the quaint buildings squished together; the music as the Pride celebrations began Friday night and people began to dance; and the way the sun set as I stared down the length of a canal, watching the light beam across the water and set the trees on fire.

I don’t know how I’ll leave, but at least we have one more day.

Your wayward, but most importantly alive traveler,

Kayla

Expectations vs. Reality

It’s safe to say I love London. As in, I could live here. We’ve now visited multiple parts of the Greater London area, such as Soho (where our hostel is), Camden, Westminster, and the East End. They’re all great but so different, and the best way I know how to describe this whole place so far is that you can see, hear, or eat literally anything in this city. Way cool.

My main goal for this blog was originally to write every night. How ambitious I was! After a full day of walking, eating, talking, and sight-seeing, the last thing I want to do when I fall into my twin bunk bed at 12am is to hop on my tablet and write a blog post. Two edged sword, though: I now have 4 days to cover. Whoops.

Day 1: Our first official day

Our hostel advertised this free walking tour of Westminster, so we decided that it’d be a good way to meet people/begin seeing the city. What people don’t tell you about planning a trip is that deciding your plan for the day is pretty difficult!

The tour started in Green Park, then moved onto Buckingham Palace just in time to see the changing of the guard! There were thousands of people camped out waiting for this event to happen – and it’s like this every day!

20160729_102516992_iOS Next we moved on and saw the horse guards, Trafalgar Square, and Westminster Abbey while listening to facts and funny anecdotes about what we were looking at. If anybody knows a way to get into the Abbey without paying £20, please let me know! I want to walk on dead people!

This day included a lot of walking, so of course we treated ourselves to a nice nap… in preparation for a night out. Yes, we had paid for tickets on a pub crawl with people from other hostels. 5 pubs, free shots, and lots of American music accompanied by dancing. This is Covent Garden we’re talking about, on a Friday night. Personally I think that’s super cool.

We had to be at the first bar at 7:30, so we rushed to get ready. Knowing we needed to eat, we stopped at a cheap, hole in the wall Italian place that turned out to be amazing (tortelloni with mushrooms and a tomato cream sauce, anyone?) So far, we’ve had absolutely no trouble finding delicious food for less than £10. Highlights of the rest of the night:

  • A bar with candy shots
  • A speakeasy style bar where our guide told us we could ask for any drink and the bartenders would know how to make it (we didn’t test their knowledge, but we did try a delicious cocktail with a starfruit hooked on the glass)
  • A bar with 5 levels; each level had a different style of music playing and there were all kinds of people dancing there. We loved this one, until…
  • We got into the Cafe de Paris, which isn’t a cafe at all but a very popular nightclub with a sweeping, two-sided staircase, fun music, and a young crowd ready to dance all night (we didn’t leave til 3am, and there were still people dancing!)

Turns out that going out and drinking with people from many different countries is truly the best way to get to know each other, because we made some awesome friends that night! Shoutout to Jesus, Roger (a fellow American), Mabel, Vinda, the awesome Australian guy – who we scandalized with a popular American term that means something totally different in Australia, and then totally lost track of him without catching his name – and the Italian contingent, four young men we never actually talked to and who weren’t all actually Itaian, but looked it. We were so lucky to find a great group of young people who genuinely had our backs that night!

Due to my tendency to write lots of details and long anecdotes, I’ll post more about the other days. Cheers!

– Kayla