My 25 Euro Cornetto

I just missed my train and am drowning my sorrow in a giant cappuccino at the station café. Is there anything more depressing than a train station waiting room at 7:00am? Maybe the Reg bookstacks during finals week.

My original plan for this morning was to stopover in Florence for 2 hours before my train to Naples. I had already day tripped there last week but I did not get a chance to see the Galleria d’Accademia, which houses Michelangelo’s David. But this dummy here just had to stop to get the pisctacchio cornetto she spied in the bakery window, didn’t she? So now I get to spend two extra hours in Bologna Central Station – 25 Euro poorer and kicking myself over and over again for making such a rookie mistake. I am angrily chewing. The brioche should taste perfectly sweet and doughy, but all I taste is salt.

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Sometimes these were filled with strong rum cream. Venice was pretty great because of that.

I should rewind and first say, Buongiorno! Back in November, I spotted a $350 round-trip ticket from Cairo to Rome for January and I went for it. The great thing about working at AUC is that we get the American, Coptic, and Islamic holidays off, allowing me to take a 15-day (!!) vacation this month. What’s not so great is the little spending money I have saved up from my job. But through proofreading and babysitting gigs, I’ve managed to scrape enough together to travel quite comfortably for two weeks.

After five months of living in a Muslim country, I kicked off in Rome with a huge fanfare of prosciutto. Melon-wrapped prosciutto, prosciutto Panini, prosciutto and mozzarella sampler plate, cheap supermarket prosciutto on a 1Euro baguette – alas, I am now officially done with prosciutto.

From Rome, I went on to Florence and then Venice, which together constitutes the holy Trinity of any Italian trip. Though each city has a distinct individual history, they all are located in Northern Italy and you just feel the reliance on tourism in the restaurants, stores, and sights. Well of course there are natives (even native Venetians though they only number 66,000), but I couldn’t easily shake off the “Disneyland” vibe from any of those cities. If you will allow me a few myopic generalizations, Rome is for the famous monuments, Florence is for Renaissance art, and Venice is for honeymooners.

Thus, I’m dedicating an entire post just for Bologna because:

  • I think it’s under appreciated.
  • I had to hunt for the Bolognese tourist attractions amongst a sea of local spots, whereas the exact opposite was true for the Trinity.
  • There are already thousands of travel articles written about Rome, Florence, Venice.

I’ll definitely get that Bologna post up soon. Recently, a lot of my friends are planning trips to Europe and have asked me for backpacking advice. As I wrote my lengthy replies, I realized that I actually am qualified to share practical tips and design itineraries for 20-something kids who want an exciting yet affordable travel experience. A lot of travel sites with lengthy forums and discussions seem to be dominated by an older demographic and those with families. It’s probably because us youngins’ tend to wing it, which I’ve come to believe is always not the best way to travel.

But for now, I will say ciao to the North as I make my way South to the sun-drenched region of Campania. I’m planning on hitting Naples, Pompeii, and the Amalfi coast. It’s also going to be my first time Couchsurfing! Please pray that no pistaccio baked good will cause me to miss another train. Grazie.

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The coat of arms for Rome, Florence, Venice, and Bologna. Sorry Rome, but why are you so basic?

In Memory of Disposable Kodaks

At the start of my romp around Europe in March of this year, I decided to pick up two disposable cameras in London. I was drawn to the challenge of capturing two weeks of adventure in less than 60 images. I really do believe in soaking up and being solidly present in the places I visit. I see too many people constantly glued to their cameras or phones, that they forget to see the world right in front of them with their own eyes, and not through artificial lens. Photography is amazing, but not all of an atmosphere or mood can be picked up in pixels.

When I walked back to my apartment from the Kodak store with my fresh batch of photos, I was actually smiling ear to ear. Something about the combination of anticipation and nostalgia in looking at pictures taken five months ago. It’s a new age (now, old age) time capsule, a blast from the past reminding you of how far you’ve come, and the fascinating places still left to be discovered. Aside from this fluffy stuff, here’s what I learned about taking pictures with disposable cameras:

Pros

  • They are lightweight.
  • You feel hip.
  • Instant vintage filter!
  • Everyone looks great because HD quality is not always a good thing.
  • It’s like Christmas morning when you pick up your developed photos.

Cons

  • Photo quality is hit or miss, especially for indoor shots. I only bothered scanning around 40% of all the photos.
  • You get called a try-hard hipster.
  • It’s expensive to develop. CVS was charging something like $18 a roll.

Overall, I definitely plan on using disposable cameras again when I travel. They’re a lot of fun and the resulting photos make beautiful souvenirs. I now have envelope stuffers for the letters I’m writing to my friends abroad who were kind enough to host me and show me around. The photos are also cheery decoration for freshly minted, post-grad millennial apartments.

I already sealed the pictures I took of my friends and myself into envelopes to be mailed, but I still have plenty from just around town. Now without any further ado, and in no particular order, I present my 2015 European Backpack Trip in twenty-one images! Click on them for closeups and occasional captions. Can you guess where each was taken?

Hopping Through Central Europe: Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna

Memories really do fade quickly. Or maybe just the ones that weren’t that important to remember. I visited Berlin, Dresden, Prague, and Vienna over three months ago, but I must’ve been having way too much fun this last quarter of college to have bothered to document those experiences. By now, all that’s left is how my expectations for each city differed from the actual thing. That disconnect may actually be 68% of the joy of traveling.

Berlin, Germany

Expectation: Artsy, modern, great for history buffs, unfriendly to tourists, intimidating

IMG_2965Reality: Maybe I’m just used to “intimidating cities” because I’m a Chicago-girl, but I found Berlin to be the most American-like city that I visited in Europe. The architecture was glassy and sharp. The graffiti was edgy and reminded me of Pilsen street art. The food was so refreshingly affordable after a week in London and Paris (and had actual flavor!)

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Currywurst and fries!

The most impressive thing about Berlin was hands-down, the way the city marks its history. Topography of Terror and the Holocaust Memorial were both extremely well designed, informative, and grappled with the politics of national memory. IMG_2967

Dresden, Germany

Expectation: Free four hour stop over on the train from Germany to Czech Republic. Therefore no expectations.

Reality: The bombing of Dresden would have been considered a crime against humanity had the Allies lost the war. The city left the charred markings untouched on the buildings in memory of that event. I found out that the Dresden Academy of Art is a pretty big deal. The city is a weird juxtaposition of High Renaissance complexes and gleaming new shopping centers.
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Prague, Czech Republic

Expectation: My good friend’s girlfriend lives near Prague Castle. They filmed the Bachelorette here and it looked absolutely stunning. Milan Kundera’s city/country.

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Still from The Unbearable Lightness of Being, featuring the Prague Spring.

Reality: Prague and Paris are now tied in my heart. Though I could never taint my experience of Prague by aspiring to work there. No, Prague is a city in which to slow down, marvel, and share with a loved one. I’ve only ever had one other intense emotional reaction to a city before, and that was in 2013 when I walked along the Seine for the first time in Paris. This time, I took a midnight stroll from my hostel near Prague Castle, over the Charles Bridge, and into Old Town Square. That moment when the city widened before my eyes as I crossed the river, spotlit towers and an expansive sky framed by the Bridge’s stoic stone statues – I think I teared up.

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A courtyard in Prague Castle. Romanesque to Renaissance to Empire style- a living architecture textbook.

The cafes are also magnificent. The Czech tradition of fostering the world’s most beloved writers still prospers – and I bet those cafes have something to do with it. Czech food also is the best tasting in all of Europe in my opinion! It’s rich and tender and flavorful and filled with spices. Ahhh I fell in love with the roast ducks and potato dumplings and the nutella-filled spa wafers.

Cafe Louvre, where Einstein and Kafka were patrons.

Cafe Louvre, where Einstein and Kafka were patrons.

Many people’s number one complaint about Prague is that it’s too touristy, but my reaction was the complete opposite. Yes, the tourists swarm to the city, but the city’s hallmark cafes, streetcars, parks – they are all also well used by the locals. Perhaps it’s just a little hard to imagine how such a storybook place can still exist and function in the modern world. I did benefit greatly from having a local friend show me around. Any city is infinitely more well appreciated when the experience is shared with a great friend and/or someone who can show you the “real” parts of the place.

Colorful.

Colorful.

Fun Facts: 

  • Beer is cheaper than water at $0.68/liter (and it’s good Czech beer).
  • Cannabis paraphernalia is abundant
  • Strip-club industry is on the rise.
  • Europe’s premier bachelor party destination for the reasons cited above
  • Surprisingly large population of Vietnamese immigrants

Vienna, Austria

Expectation: Cultural capital for the performing arts, intellectual hot bed (at least historically), home of the largest collection of Egon Schiele’s works.

Reality: Kind of racist, stuffy, and elitist. The Egon Schiele Museum was bomb though. My favorite part of Vienna was the museum’s exhibition at the time that explored Schiele’s romantic relationship with his muse, Wally. It was the most personal depiction of an artist and his works that I’ve ever seen, and thus also my favorite. Read more about their relationship here.

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I know I sound kind of salty about Vienna but, I still had a grand old time because I was staying with my good friend. One of those friends with whom you can carry four hour long conversations and feel energized at the end instead of drained. Oh, despite the snootiness, Vienna really does have the best coffee in Europe. That melange…IMG_3134

All in all, Central Europe shouldn’t be skipped over! In fact, it should be a prime destination. It’s so affordable, so well preserved, and really quite different from Western Europe. I was kinda broke so I took the buses a lot, but if you get a chance, take the trains! You will be treated to a view of twisting rivers snaking through forested valleys and dotted with colorful homes. Leisurely train rides through Europe must have been modeled on the ones going through Central Europe. That dining car and its frothy cappucinos are just quintessential European Backpacking Perfection.

An American Girl in Paris: Part 3

I’ve officially now been to Paris more times than I’ve visited New York City. Then again, I’ve never been particularly drawn to the aesthetic of the Big Apple. Religiously watching Sex and the City is enough for me (snaps for you if you get the title reference). It’s one of those charming, life’s blessings to have experienced Paris in three separate seasons. I think I can do without trying Paris in the winter though – I hear the sun goes down at 4:00pm and after fall quarter, God knows that seasonal affective disorder is real. Anyway, being in Paris again felt so incredibly familiar. Each time, Paris is still a mecca for artists, it’s still incredibly stylish, its selection of perfectly baked carbohydrates is still fantastic – this city just perfectly fills the Eiffel Tower shaped hole in my heart.

Despite all that time clocked in Paris, this visit was marked by several firsts and I left with many things still on my checklist for the future. A mere five hours after arriving in Paris, I dragged my lazy-ass and my lovely host, Amy, up to Sacre-Coeur in Montmartre. Better late than never, right?

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But I’m also such a creature of habit. We went for my third time to Bouillon Chartier for lunch. It’s just such a rustic, typically French interior design with wall-to-wall mirrors and wrought-metal bulb lighting. Not to mention the free wifi.

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I took my last requirement for my Visual Arts minor last quarter on contemporary art and that made me all the more excited to check out Palais de Tokio. It went above and beyond my expectations. It also helped to share the experience with a cute art design school French boy. I know a lot of people are perplexed by contemporary art. Or more like, “What the hell is this crap?” But Palais du Tokio would impress even the most skeptical. From Jackass video installations to large-scale mechanical instruments powered by magnets to a freakishly realistic female robot, there is something for everyone. Outside of the actual exhibition space (which is huge), there’s also a café, restaurant, movie theater, and dance club. Everything is open late into the night. And is there a better time to experience art than in the creative vortex of after-sunset?

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Kenji Kawakami, the artist responsible for the famous series of “ingenious” inventions that went viral a few years ago, had his exhibition at Palais!

I finally found it, by the way. The best croissant in Paris resides at the Café St. Regis on Ile St. Louis. Dense and fluffy and warm – if this was the last croissant I ever eat, I’d contently state, “It’s better to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all.”

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Other than that, most of my time was spent visiting the museums for my B.A. thesis research and shopping for warmer clothes as I completely underestimated Europe in early April. Being from Chicago kind of does that to you – you think nowhere is as freezing as Chicago but actually you don’t have a monopoly on annoyingly cold temperatures in spring.

I always fit in a dinner and walk through Paris at night. It’s not called the City of Lights for nothing.

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Today also marks the one-week checkpoint of my trip. I don’t know how those people who go backpacking for months do it. I have already developed a persistent tickle in my throat and a dull feeling in my feet. It’s the middle of Easter Break for most of Europe. That means more tourists but also more young people traveling which then means more random friends to make on long train rides. Oh, I forgot to say where I am at the moment. I’m sitting on the TGV from Strasbourg to Mannheim, having successfully completed part one of my two transfers en route to Berlin. First time in Germany! I will have to remember to not jaywalk.

London, England: Second Time’s the Charm

My first time in London in 2013 did not leave a fantastic impression on me. I didn’t hate it, but I wasn’t supercalifragilisticexpialadocious-ly excited about it either. Of course, first impressions can be extremely deceiving and that’s why I try to give everything (everyone) a second chance. I’m glad I did because London did not disappoint. There are some cities with a world famous aesthetic. Like Kate Moss muttering “Get the London look” through her tooth gap, or the Spice Girls, or Kate Middleton, or Burberry with a pair of Hunters. But London actually fulfills all those expectations. So much plaid, so many trench coats, buckets of rain, and a lot of dry, sarcastic British humor when I asked for directions.

Me: Excuse me sir, do you know which tube stop is Camden?
Ticket Counter Guy: Yes.
[long, awkward pause]
Me: So… would you mind telling me…?

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There’s just so many famous landmarks in London. Haymarket is but one.

I stayed just one night at the Astor Hyde Park Hostel in Kensington (can’t seem to shake UChicago no matter where I go). A bit far from city center but it’s a charming part of London with beautiful royal gardens and several museums (which are all free). For less than two days, I packed in a lot of sights. I must have walked or stood an average of six hours each day, but with so much to see and do, time flew. Part of my B.A. thesis talks about the British Museum so of course, I paid them a visit.

A very stereotypical London street view from a very stereotypical English drawing room at the hostel.

A very stereotypical London street view from a very stereotypical English drawing room at the hostel.

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This could belong in the Reg somewhere.

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Possibly my favorite exhibit at the British Museum. It’s a piece on life and death (isn’t everything?), and part of it displays the average amount of pills a person takes during his or her lifetime.

When I was in middle school and high school, I had a phase when I was obsessed with Elizabeth I and the eight wives of Henry the VIII – way before HBO came out with the scantily clad and irresistibly good-looking cast of the The Tudors. So I got a little too sentimental crossing the Tower Bridge and walking past the Tower of London. Just realizing that that hole in the center was the spot upon which they used to spike a traitor’s head as warning, or that this was the exact sight Elizabeth saw when she was sentenced to the Tower on suspicion of plotting against Mary. I feel like twelve-year-old-Wendy would’ve tweaked out over this way more, but twenty-two-year-old-Wendy still got a liminal moment out of it.

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Speaking of twenty-two-year-old-Wendy and responsibilities, I also visited the London School of Economics. LSE is a prospective graduate school of mine with a great international affairs program and an even greater dual-degree program with Science-Po. It’s nice knowing that I’m getting more excited about the London half of that program, if I were to attend. I bought a tote-bag and a pocket version of Ovid’s The Fall of Icarus from the LSE bookstore. Fun fact – books are super cheap in Britain because there’s no tax on it. Similar to how there are government subsidies on wine and bread in France, what a country chooses to subsidize or tax can say a lot about where its priorities lie.

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I read my book in the student lounge. I love this book.

London has the posh, classic look, but one can’t leave out the punky, gritty teenage-urchin-child parts. And that’s what Camden Town basically is – tattoo parlors, red plaid, leather with studs, and piercings. And Converse. Converse everywhere.

Vintage cameras basically scream hipster.

Vintage cameras basically scream hipster.

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Though I’ve always thought of England as a little removed from the rest of Europe (it is an island after all), parts of London definitely fit the European mold. Little winding cobblestone streets lined with pubs and specialty bookstores, historic churches in every neighborhood, extremely well-dressed men – definitely quintessential Europe. I guess the fact that I could understand the language threw me off.

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London, you’ve been amazing. However, you’re still just a really great one-night-stand in comparison to my soulmate, my delectable muse, mon amour – Paris. She’s just a 1.5 hour ferry ride and 5 hours drive away. Be still my quivering heart…

Anticipation is the Best Part

We all form ideals about things – the ideal college, the ideal boyfriend, the ideal career. Of course, we never reach most of these ideals, but a lot of the time it was the pursuit of this perfection that motivated us to get as far as we did. I am blogging this from Café Rouge in London, a few yards away from the British Museum. I have half a croissant smothered in strawberry jam in my mouth and listening intently to the two girls next to me gossiping over Sunday brunch a la Sex and the City. One girl is appalled by the lack of fashion sense and texting etiquette of the 35-year-old guy with whom she went on a date. The other is nodding sympathetically and asking an endless string of and-then-what-happened’s like the perfect gal-pal she is. Oh, I’m also sipping on a chocolate cappuccino. I think this is one of those rare instances in which the concept of an ideal manifests itself into reality.

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Today is the first day of my dream European sojourn – launch off in London, parading to Paris, boogying down in Berlin, prancing through Prague, dropping off in Dresden, and venturing to Vienna. I have the perfect mix of alone days and meet-up-with-friends days. I have days scheduled for field research and drafting my B.A. thesis. I have days with nothing planned at all. I just purchased a disposable camera with a 30-photo capacity roll of film to satisfy my hipster quota (I have a reputation to uphold). And most importantly, right now the exchange rate is 1.00USD to 0.92EUR. Thanks Obama.

I think people who love ideals also are pretty into making lists. I’ve almost never checked off an entire list on schedule, but here’s to trying!

  • Buy a durable tote bag from an independent bookshop
  • Find a vintage sweater and dress
  • Go on a run through every city’s most beautiful park
  • Complete 30 pages of my B.A. thesis
  • Stay within my 300EUR spending budget
  • Finish Super Sad True Love Story

I’m going to keep this list short. God knows what happens when Wendy gets overambitious and lets her ideals grow wild.

Alone in Strasbourg

No, Strasbourg is not in Germany. Once you get near Benelux (Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg), all the streets seem to alternate between German, French, and Dutch names. I really wanted to visit Frankfurt or Munich but there just wasn’t enough money left in the coffers so I cheated and went to Strasbourg, which is in the Alsace region of France – as German as you can get without actually crossing the French border. Luckily, it is also the “Capitale de Noel” or Christmas Capital.  Unluckily, I hadn’t the foresight to factor in increased levels of homesickness during the holiday season when I decided to be cool and travel solo for a weekend. Thanksgiving had just passed and I was hitting that three-months-away-from-everything-familiar mark. And you know what cures that, right? Three days in an even more unfamiliar city on the weekend that every European family and couple decides to go out and be merry together at the biggest festival celebrating the love of togetherness and friendship.

But no, all in all, my first experience traveling alone was relaxing and beautiful. Though I’m beginning to think that Europe is just beautiful everywhere. You can walk around a corner and oops, I ran into this 12th century perfectly preserved and still in use Gothic cathedral, my bad. Case in point:

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The entire thing – inside, outside – still overpowers my senses today in the same way it has for centuries. Let that sink in a second; before the world wars, before the founding of the United States, before the discovery of the New World, these walls already stood. Countless people throughout all that time have tilted their heads back at distressing angles for unforgettably long pauses to take in the ceiling’s criss-crossing beams, the exact same way I did now.  How many sick or dying have these candles burned for? How many echoes of whispered prayers have swept through the halls? Some human behaviors never change, such as the need for comfort from others, and hope, and community.

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Traveling alone gave me much more time to be with my thoughts. I realized I’m a sappy romantic, I can try to hide it behind this resting bitch face and monotone voice but just one solitary walk along a cobblestone river bank and I turn into fricking William Blake.

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And trust me, Strasbourg has a lot of rivers.

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And they don’t kid around when they say Christmas Capital of the world. Throughout the city center, there were probably five or six huge Christmas markets spread out and all with a specific theme. In my opinion, the theme of Christmas markets is food. I cannot tell you if I tried how many bretzels and manalas I ate over a three day period. This is what a manala/mannele (an Alsatian brioche in the shape of St. Nicolas) looks like:

Yes, raisins for eyes and buttons!! History and recipe here.

I definitely plan on traveling solo again but ecoutez, if you want a fun, social time choose your hostel wisely. The hostel I stayed in was not really geared towards youth as much as for group tours of retired elderly couples… Nonetheless, still met a Canadian woman I shared the room with who traveled alone in Europe for three months at the age of seventy. So all you wanderlust kids scared of being alone in a strange new world: if she can do it, you can too.