Friday, June 11, 2010

Europe in a nutshell...

I promised myself that I’d do lots of writing about my trip to Europe, so here I am! The only hard part is that I don’t even know where to start. I think a little synopsis of each city is the best way to get things flowin’.

London. I had been to London once before when I was in high school, but I was surprised at the amount of things I didn’t remember, or maybe didn’t appreciate, from my first trip. I found London to be very similar to the United States in a lot of ways. For one thing, American pop culture is huge. I felt really at home with all of the American music, chain restaurants, and television shows, and we share a lot of the same trends and social norms. Another thing about London that reminded me of the USA was the amount of diversity. I expected the people from each country to have a certain distinctive “look,” or similar, dominant features, but that definitely wasn’t the case in London. I guess we aren’t the only melting pot! Overall, the history was interesting, there was lots to see and do, and the people were friendly & helpful. I definitely recommend going to the theater in London; we saw Wicked and it was awesome! The only complaints I had were that the English use mayo a little too often for my liking, the food is mediocre at best, and the humidity was almost unbearable.

Amsterdam. Hands down, my favorite city of the trip. Like most people, I had heard a lot about the prostitution, pot, and partying in Amsterdam, but that claim to fame definitely sells the city short; it’s absolutely beautiful. We experienced the colorful, cultured city by foot without having to use public transportation once, and it was amazing. With Amsterdam’s system of canals, cobblestone streets, and bicycle lanes, one could live his or her entire life without ever needing a car, honestly. Cars are so few and far between in Amsterdam that when you finally see one they seem so foreign and intrusive. Instead, most people ride bicycles. Blue, green, pink, yellow bicycles everywhere. No helmets, no pad locks, no 10-speeds, just good ol’ fashion bicycles. The Dutch are so good at riding bikes that they can ride and carry on a conversation just as if they’re walking. I even saw a man riding a bicycle while carrying his baby in a chest carrier! Boats are really popular there too. We stayed on a house-boat, and although it was extremely tight quarters and only one of us could stand at a time, it was a great addition to the Amsterdam experience. All-in-all, I definitely plan to visit Amsterdam again. The Thai food in particular was really good, and to my surprise there was no language barrier; everyone speaks English. I wish we had made it to more museums than just the Anne Frank house (which was heart breaking, yet incredible) but the city was just too beautiful for us to be inside all day!

Berlin. Second runner up for my city of choice. We saw A LOT of history during this trip, but I found Berlin’s history to be the most interesting and meaningful to me. Since we knew there was a lot to see and learn, we joined a walking tour for our big day of sight-seeing. If you’re ever in Berlin, I HIGHLY recommend doing this; the city has a very dark history that the Germans aren’t entirely proud of, so a lot of historical points aren’t marked or acknowledged because they don’t want to honor the people or events associated with them. For example, the location where Hitler’s bunker was located is now the parking lot of an apartment complex. There’s no recognition of this landmark because the city doesn’t want it to be a gathering point for Neo-Naxi groups, so without a tour guide, we would have had no idea. Plus, our tour guide had some awesome fun-facts that lightened the mood and made the tour really enjoyable (like how in his famous 1963 speech in Berlin, Kennedy said, "Ich bin ein Berliner,” which he thought meant “I am one with the people of Berlin.” In actuality, Kennedy told Berlin and the rest of the world, “I am a jelly-filled doughnut.”) I also liked Berlin a lot because it was the one city we visited where I didn’t feel like a full-blown tourist, and I thought we got a real taste of the “local flavor” because our hostel was located in a more residential area. Although we couldn’t find a restaurant around us with menus in English, we found some cheap, yet delicious food by staying away from the tourist hotspots, and I actually appreciated the language barrier (I can’t say I appreciated the sound of German, though). Overall, seeing the Berlin Wall, the SS headquarters, and the incredible Holocaust Memorial had a really big impact on me and on how I put my world into perspective. That kind of reflection and insight was definitely one thing I hoped to gain from my trip, so for me, Berlin was a big success.

Rome. Oh, the love/hate relationship I had with Roma. As much as I told myself not to get my hopes up by the romanticized depiction of Rome bestowed on us by Hollywood, I have to admit it definitely got to me, causing some disappointment. More so than any of the other four cities, Rome felt like one big, crowded, dusty and dirty tourist attraction. Shame on us for going right at the start of the city’s big tourist season because I felt like that put a bit of a damper on our visit. Even still, I enjoyed seeing the very famous, and VERY old sights that the city has to offer. One unique thing about Rome that I thought was pretty cool was how there’s literally an ancient city plopped down in the middle of a modern day one; it was pretty crazy to see office building and apartment complexes on the same block as the Colosseum! Again, maybe I let the idealized Roma get the best of me, but another unfortunate letdown for me was the Vatican. I’m not an overly religious person by any means, but being Catholic, I had hoped that the Vatican would have more religious significance to me than it did. Instead, it just felt like another place for tourists to push and shove to get the best pictures. That brings up another issue I had with Rome: the pushing and shoving. I understood that by putting myself in a country with a culture different from my own I was going to have to come to terms with some different norms, but man, was it tough! By American standards, non-native English speakers are rude. The English and Irish were on board with us in terms of common courtesy, but not the Italians or Germans. For example, if I were in the way and an Italian man or woman wanted to get by, they would just push on through without even acknowledging me. Maybe it could have been the language barrier, but I didn’t get one “excuse me,” “sorry,” or even a “move!” in Italian, German, or eye contact either. For me, manners are HUGE, and it was really difficult to not give an elbow and an “oh, excuse you!” back. I’m sure a lot of it is due to the fact that those who are native to the cities get annoyed with all the tourists, but it still got on my nerves big time. Even waving to say thank you when a car stops to let you cross is unheard of there, but we still did it out of habit. The Italians must of thought we were pretty popular with all the people we were waving to! Another let down was the cuisine. Surprisingly, we actually had better and less expensive Italian food in Berlin than in Rome. The wine was very good and cheap, but it was pretty much impossible to find a fresh cup of real American coffee to go, which was a big change from the other cities we went to where there were Starbucks on every street corner. I know this synopsis has basically been a bunch of bitching, but I do think Rome is worth visiting for the sake of it. I suggest going during off-season when tourism isn’t at its highest point, and to make the visit to Rome a quick stop like we did.

Dublin. What a great city to end the trip in. After two full weeks of straight sightseeing and traveling, it was nice to relax, throw some back in the pubs, and enjoy the atmosphere. By traditional standards there isn’t a ton to see in Dublin, and we didn’t have the time to travel out to the pretty country or coast, but I can see myself living in Dublin more so than in any of the other cities. Having mostly Irish heritage and being from Massachusetts, I felt at home with the Irish, who were welcoming, fun, and most noticeably, handsome! Walking by the pubs (there’s over 700 of them in Dublin alone) and hearing everyone singing along with the music and just enjoying life reminded me so much of Boston. I also felt a lot safer in Dublin than I did in any of the other cities (Dublin was the only place where we stayed out in the bars and pubs past midnight), which definitely says something coming from two very cautious girls. Although we didn’t eat any conventional Irish food, we ate and drank very, very well, and I thought the service was better than anywhere else we visited. It was sad to see our trip come to an end, but we had beautiful weather and a lot of fun while in Dublin, and I definitely recommend visiting!

I could really go on and on, and the more I write about the more comes to mind. I definitely have more writing to do, but I don’t know if I could even put into words how great my trip was. Europe is definitely a place that each person needs to see for his or her self because no pictures, movies, or books can truly do the experience justice. It opened my eyes to a lot, and ignited a longing to see more of the world, which I definitely plan to do. Five countries in two weeks was a lot, but it’s definitely doable and easy if it’s with the right person (remember, you are spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week for two whole weeks with them). Luckily Sarah and I each wanted to visit Europe for the same reasons: to see and learn as much as possible. With this agenda, being in bed before two and getting up before nine worked for both of us, and we never had any real conflicts of interest. Between the two of us and the some help here and there, getting around and finding our way wasn’t half as tough or stressful as I thought it would be. I can’t wait to start planning for our next trip!

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