Sunday, December 19, 2010

Madrid and the Little Things

In every relationship, people say that after a while you fall in love with "the little things." How many cubes of sugar in their coffee, or the way their hair always sticks up oddly on one side, or that funny way they can never, never, never decide what to order on the menu (nothing personal Jordan).  And, with time, it is these little things that you come to love.

With only two days left in this amazing city, I have been thinking of the little things I will definitely miss about Madrid. After seeing so many beautiful cities and places, I must admit at times I have forgotten about the cute, wonderful things Madrid has to offer. Although the orchestra of honking horns down Alberto Auguellera or the never-ending ham/tuna that somehow winds up in almost every meal does not make the top of my list, there are many little things that I adore about Spain which will be so missed. 

1. I love the old Spanish people. They walk and chat down the streets in their long fur coats with matching yet incredibly outdated hats, and carry themselves with a sense of pride I am not used to seeing among elderly folk. It's like they are proud they are old, and are proud of the wisdom they have acquired, and are proud, of course, to be Spanish. 

2. The dogs without a leash. It sounds annoying, but it's actually quite fun to come from the U.S. where people hold onto those long red leashes as if they are the link holding together their very lives, and here in Spain the dogs just walk where they please.  It's also funny when the dog just doesn't feel like walking or listening to directions, because he didn't get his treat or his water was not in the right spot that morning or what have you, and the old retired Spanish man grows extremely frustrated, screaming, "Pepe! Pepe, venga! PEPE!!!"at the top of his lungs across the street. Also, for reasons I do not understand, the dogs are better at avoiding getting hit by cars than the people are, so dogs without a leash wandering all over this traffic infested city really is not a problem.

3. The necessity of a cigarette-always. I know how bad they are for you and obviously I don't smoke, but I find it so hysterical that they are smoking all the time. Morning, afternoon, night, breakfast, lunch, dinner, at the pre-party, at the party, at the afterparty...you get it. It's a fashion statement and an addiction, and although I am not unaware of the health risks of second hand smoke, it's still funny to observe these proud Spaniards pull off their obsession with cigarettes. I guess, if anyone can make something totally disgusting look classy, it's going to be the Spanish women with their long shiny dark hair and Carolina Herrera bags. And the best part is, Spanish women have a higher life expectancy than American women. Smoke on, Spain, smoke on.

4. The jam packed metro's on Friday and Saturday nights. Although it's uncomfortable when there is less than an inch of space between you and the random person standing next to you, Friday and Saturday nights on the metro mark La Vida de Espana...the one it is notorious for. Everyone under the age of 30 is screaming, singing, swaying, drinking, laughing, and going absolutely insane simply because it is, well, Friday or Saturday night. The entertainment I have seen in the metro is utterly irreplaceable, because it capitalizes on a way of life that will be missed terribly.

5. Retiro. Retiro, however, is not a "little thing." El Parque de Retiro is a really really really big thing, like 350 acres big. If old Spanish people, dogs without a leash, cigarettes and crowded metros are the "little things," Retiro Park is the astonishingly good looks, the great sense of humor, the brains and the compassionate heart. Essentially it is why everybody loves Madrid, and it is just as fun in the winter as in the summer:


And so Madrid, you will be missed. Thank you for all of the unforgettable people, places and memories that have broadened my experiences and changed my life. These moments that we've all shared together really will last a lifetime; and these big things, little things, cherished things, and such truly extraordinary things are now imprinted in our minds and hearts forever...

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Italy: We're all friends here

Fresh off the plane and it was only 8:15am. And cold. Wow...so cold. But hey! I made it! After a long, sleepless night of waiting in the Madrid airport, I was relieved to find that my early morning flight to Milan had not been cancelled, despite the recent strikes. So relieved was I, that I slept the entire way to Italy and didn't even worry about turbulence or falling out of the sky. Just get me to Italy, was the last thought that crossed my mind before I dozed off into deep sleep. 

Well, here I was in Italy. Alone. I needed to meet Jordan at a different airport, also in Milan, but about two hours away (Mishap #1). I spotted a man selling tickets to the Milan Central Train Station, and knew he was my guy. I bought a ticket to the station, and stood in line for some breakfast, as my eyes zoomed in on a mouth-watering panini. But my attention was quickly demanded elsewhere-on the Italian woman behind me, who did not seem happy at all. 

"Tuo zaino. E' aperto! E' aperto!" She was talking to me. "Sorry, I'm American...Americana?" She didn't seem put off by that at all, but instead continued pointing at the back of my head and rolling her eyes. Just as I convinced myself that this situation would improve drastically if I simply walked away, she turned me around and zipped up my backpack. "E'aperto!" 

My backpack was open. Of course. "Thank you!" I said, much too loudly, and then smiled stupidly. She laughed and turned to her husband as she said, "Americana, eh!" and made some kind of funny hand motion to go along with it. 

I got my panini and ate it quickly, because I had to catch the bus to the Milan Central Station at 9am. The only problem was once I got outside, I had no idea which bus to take, as there seemed to be multiple ones headed in that general direction. I asked a man who looked like he worked for one of the busing companies. 

"Scusi? Which bus..." I pointed to my ticket. He did not like this, and in a gruff voice said, "Not my company" (which actually sounded more like "nottaa myaa compania") Great. "But which one?" I was desperate. It was 8:56. "Which bus?" He said the same thing again, that it wasn't his company. I shot him a look of what I thought was sheer frustration, but actually must have been pity personified because he pointed me to the right bus, although he looked angry at his finger for betraying him. I thanked him and continued on my way. 

The bus ride to the Central Station went by fast and before I knew it, I was outside buying tickets to the Milan Malpensa Airport, where I was supposed to meet Jordan. This bus ride was much more fun. It was absolutely packed with Italians, and everyone was talking over each other. The lady sitting next to me was fluent in English and Italian, which was very convenient. We were talking about different trips and places we'd like to see, when we overheard what sounded like an argument between the bus driver and another woman. 

My new friend translated that there was another woman who didn't have a seat on the bus, and was instead sitting on the floor next to the driver. Apparently, the driver was saying how much he loved Italy because there were no rules, but this was just wrong. The woman seemed fixed on staying where she was, and their banter back and forth was accompanied by many bravos, clapping, and laughter from the fellow Italians. The girl next to me laughed too and said, "Eh...it's Italy you know? We're all friends here." 

I got to the airport and hopped onto my last bus, which would take me to my final destination-Terminal One. The driver pulled up to the entrance, but I was still unsure of where to go. I asked him where the arrivals were, and he kept saying something in Italian that I didn't understand. So I kept asking. Finally I put together that I needed to go on the 1st floor to the right, but before I could even say grazie he shooed me out of the bus. "Ciao!" he barked. "Ciao ciao ciao ciao ciao!" Again, my facial expression must have been one of surprise because he softened his tone a bit and added, "Ciao bella."

I finally met up with Jordan at the airport and we headed to beautiful Lake Como. Although it was snowing and colder than I thought, we had an amazing time exploring the area, doing a little shopping, and of course, eating the incredible food. 

Mishaps #2, 3 and 4 made the trip even more interesting. These were a comedy of errors such as (upon my recommendation) our late night bus into Bellagio where (I thought) our hotel was, only to discover it was in fact on the other side of the lake. Luckily we caught the ferry just in time. But this was only Mishap #2. Mishap #3 was the sad news that there was virtually nothing to do in any of the charming little cities, because everything in Lake Como was closed for "off-season." 

Mishap #4 was my favorite because what looked like the worst way to end a trip turned out to be the best. We switched hotels and arrived in the city of Bergamo, where our flight was leaving early the next morning. We caught a cab and it quickly became obvious that our hotel was far from the main city. Very far. A twenty five dollar cab ride far. To make matters worse, the receptionist at the hotel told us the only place we could eat nearby was a bar called Bingo Hall. So much for a delicious last dinner in Italy.

But instead, the events that followed went like this: The receptionist said he could take us to a nice restaurant he knew of, so that we didn't have to pay for a taxi. About a half hour later, we met up with a group of three Dutch men on a business trip who were also staying at the hotel and were going to the same restaurant. Turns out they were the nicest guys in the world, and we all sat together for dinner. Two of them were closer in age to Jordan and I, and the older man was the owner of a massive company in Holland. We laughed about everything at the dinner table, making fun of each other, sharing stories and wine, and eventually exchanging email addresses. The older man, Bart, had such a good heart and his smile was infectious. He refused to let anybody else pay for the dinner, insisting that our presence made his heart warm.

Not to mention, the meal was everything your last meal in Italy should be. Utterly delectable.

I have left out many other memories that made my trip to Italy unforgettable, but I will leave it up to the pictures to fill in those gaps:
I loved Italy...even when the people were a little impatient or confusing. No matter how many times they said "ciao" or shoo'd me away, they always offered a little smile or bella at the end, in attempt to soften their rather blunt nature. Because, after all, we're all friends in Italy.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Switzerland

"Oh wait...so, is Switzerland not the same as Sweden then?"
"Well what about the cheese? Is Swiss cheese from Switzerland or Sweden?"
"They have really good chocolate!"
"Who has really good chocolate?"

Had you been sitting next to us on the two and a half hour train ride from Basal to Interlaken, Switzerland, this is the intellectual exchange you would have overheard. Bubbly and excited, we chatted away and attempted to play a few card games, while we waited, waited, waited. 

I don't think anyone of us knew what was in store.

Until, out of nowhere, Switzerland was upon us. We gazed out the window and were shocked by the beauty and radiance of it all. The lake was a perfect crystalline blue, and we could see the reflection of the breathtaking snow-capped mountains in the water. It was SO blue. There were rolling hills, and the most charming houses I have ever seen, against a backdrop of pure periwinkle sky. And to think, this is only the view from our train window. 

We arrived at the hostel (Balmers!) and were greeted by a warm, helpful staff member, who assured us Switzerland was going to steal our hearts in no time. After a good nights rest, the group of us got up early Saturday morning and decided what we wanted to do. Some went skydiving, others canyon jumping. While these things are all incredible, once in a life time experiences, I am not the adrenaline seeking type nor do I envision I would gain any pleasure by throwing myself off a ledge, or worse, a plane, and thus decided on a hike. 

Jordan and I stumbled into a lady at a nearby shop who kindly suggested we take the "Wengen" trail, which takes you pretty high up and provides a majestic view of Interlaken. Up up up up up we went, for an hour and a half, and it was so worth it. The sun casted its soft glow on the green, green hills, making them shimmer and sparkle. Everything was so open, luscious and serene, and almost too good to be true. The beauty of Switzerland completely surrounded us, mesmerized us, swallowed us; it was exhilarating. Even the cows looked pretty. 

Our flight left at about 1:30pm on Sunday, but we all got up at 5:45 in the morning to go watch the sun come up. We found the perfect spot where all of the mountains came together in one place, casting their glory in the reflection of the undisturbed water.

Then, as if this wasn't enough, a gorgeous white swan floated towards us, clearly just as entranced by us as we were by her. She decided to stay very close to us, and we all watched the vibrant pink sun rise over the mountains.

As we walked back towards our hostel to grab some breakfast and finish packing, we saw a large flock of ducks in the pasture nearby. We began chasing them, watching as they flapped their royal blue wings against the chilly air back towards the lake, their home.

Lately I have been thinking that it might be time for me to go home, too.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Paris, my Cherie Amour

"Cherished love," in case you're wondering. It fits so perfectly. Paris is a lot of things, it's lovely and charming, it's quaint but crowded, it's fast-paced and at times, slow moving. But more than anything, Paris is my cherished love. Alongside my cat Meow Meow.

The first day we spent in Paris was my favorite, because the entire day I felt like I was in a fairly tale. Paris absolutely enchanted me. 

 And so it begins...

Following the advice of a friend who is studying abroad there, Jordan and I went to a bakery for breakfast and I ordered a chocolate croissant. Needless to say, we went back there every morning and I ordered the same chocolate croissant for four days in a row. One day I had two. They were to die for. 

Without even realizing how lucky we were that it wasn't raining, we found the metro and headed towards the Eiffel Tower. Camera's in hand, we ventured through a beautiful little park and were immediately satisfied with our decision to be the stereotypical tourists for the day, because, well, look:
 
After deciding, Ok Ok we have had enough of the Eiffel Tower, we saw some stairs that led towards this plaza, which seemed to give a pretty good view of the city. We finally reached the top of the plaza, and took yep you guessed it, more pictures of the Eiffel Tower. Because actually, you can never really have enough of it.  
Later on in the day, we got some lunch at a cafe nearby. It was so picturesque and perfect. We sat outside, chatting and people watching and being Parisian, eating our fromage sandwiches.
We eventually found our way in the Jardin de Tuileries, a colorful garden with a nice path that takes you either to the Louvre Museum or towards the Arc de Triomphe. Before we decided on either destination, I had my first nutella crepe in the park. It was so gooooooooooood, I made a mental note to try and have one everyday!

We walked towards the Arc de Triomphe, got some cool pictures, then turned back around to spend some more time in the gardens and head towards the Louvre. We sat down, admiring the scenery and  feeling elated, when we noticed that the sky had turned into a magnificent shade of pink and purple, casting a magical glow on the water. Again, the feeling of being caught in a fairytale surrounded me, because everything was so new and exciting and blissful. Who was I to be sitting underneath this gorgeous pink sky, eating crepes and laughing with my best friend, in the most incredible city in the world?
                                                                                                                                                                                            The day came to a close as we toured the Louvre, then grabbed dinner at a local cafe by the hotel. The next three days flew by in a rainy whim, but I have chosen a group of pictures which I think truly encompass Paris...



Alas, my fairytale weekend came to an end. It was weird returning to the Madrid airport and getting that familiar feeling in your stomach, the one where you have just come back from an enjoyable trip and are overwhelmingly disappointed to be home. Except I wasn't back home, I was in Madrid, another incredible city. How spoiled we are...and how lucky.

Charles Dickens once said, "I cannot tell you what an immense impression Paris made upon me. It is the most extraordinary place in the World!"

So we are in agreement. There is nothing quite like Paris, my favorite city, my cherie amour.