Thursday, August 29, 2002

From the archives...Europe

In the summer/fall of 2001, I decided to go on a little European tour with a buddy of mine from college, Josh Johnson. Every couple weeks or so I'd send back an email update to friends and family. Below I've gather them all into one massive post. When you see !---!, that's the beginning of a new email. Enjoy!
!---! late July
What's up everyone! Just an update on how the Europeanvacation is going so far since I've got some time. So farI've had a great time seeing DC, Baltimore, Philly, andtoday I'll see Boston (and hopefully a game at FenwayPark). What's that you say? Aren't all those places in theUS? Right you are! Travel tip: never, ever, not for anyamount of money in the world, attempt to fly throughairhitch.org. They're supposed to work with airlines to getlast minute, standby type tickets. And for the last weekI've been emailing them per their instructions to get myflight options. They never gave us any flight options, andrather than simply say they didn't have any flightsavailable or whatever, they just sent a bunch of insultingreplies about how stupid I was to not be able to followdirections. Great customer service I thought. Finally wejust gave up and called Economy Travel (economytravel.com)and got tickets on 2 days notice to London for $350. So thelesson is...Airhitch=BAD, VERY BAD, Economy Travel=GOOD,VERY GOOD! In the meantime, like I said I've been touringthe east coast. I ran into a girl I knew in high schooltotally at random at a restaurant in DC. Very small world.Turns out she's going to Harvard Law School in the fall, afriend of hers from our class is about to get her PhD inastro-physics, and a few others are doing ridiculous thingslike that. We were part of the same clique of uncool smartpeople, I think I'm the only one not on my way to like aNobel Prize or something. Oh well, I'm taking my retirementnow, maybe when I'm in my 40's and can't beat up my bodylike I do now I'll think about doing the career thing. Sawa ballgame at Camden in Baltimore, the park's as beautifulas I remembered, and the whole harbor area around it hasgotten even better than when I was there last. DC's abeautiful area, you really wouldn't guess what a corrupt,disgusting pit it is beneath the surface :-) In Philly Ilearned that a bike is far and away the best way to travelaround the city. I made it all over the city and to a bunchof sites in just a few hours, no way that can be done bycar or on foot. Tomorrow we finally leave for London!Johnson just looked up the temperature there and it'ssupposed to be in the 70's all week...perfect! Hopeeveryone else is doing well. Love to hear from everybody,I'll be doing my best to check it every few days or so. Au revoir, Devin
!---! early Aug
Hallo, We've spent the last 3 days in Holland andAmsterdan. Surprisingly, there's a lot more to amsterdamthan just lots of sex and drugs...and when I get tired ofthe sex and drugs I'll go find out what those other thingsare. Seriously, Amsterdam's a pretty nice city, a lot ofcool architecture, the canal system that runs all throughit is neat, and it's pretty easy to get around. You canrent bikes for about $4 (US) and get all over the city inminutes. Visited the Anne Frank house this morning whichwas interesting. Probably my favorite part was at the endwhere they were doing a poll of freedom of expression vs.freedom from hate speech. They'd show a video featuringsome hate group, and how certain people who shared theviews of that group committed horrible acts of violence,then ask if that form of hate speech should be banned. Iwas surprised, given the one sided nature of thepresentation, and the fact that I wasn't in America, thatmost people (sometimes it was an even split) still favoredfreedom of expression like I did. Before Holland, we did a6 day tour of Ireland. Our guide sucked. We had a GREATtime! I didn't learn nearly as much about Ireland as I hadhoped. I learned a lot more about New Zealand than Iexpected. Don't be surprised if my return to the states isjust a stopover for a few months before I land a job downunder. Our guide was an unhappy man in his 40's who didn'tknow what he wanted to do and was getting bored with hisjob. He got better by the last couple days, but the first 4days he'd hardly tell us anything about Ireland. Hiscommentary was basically limited to comments like, "nowwe're at Trim Castle", "we've just entered the town ofGalway". Oh well, the tour group we in had about a dozenpeople in it, and most nights we'd just all go outtogether--and one night stayed in and made our own dinnertogether--and learned alot about each other'scountries...New Zealand, Australia, Denmark, Poland,surprisingly Johnson and I were the only Americans. We tooka lot of crap, but we gave it to and it was all in fun. Wedid a tour of a cave with about 50 people, and todemonstrate the acoustics of one cavern, the guide askedall the Americans to stand on the "stage" and sing thenational anthem. Surprise, surprise, Johnson and I turnedout to be "all the Americans". Aside from starting outoff-key and then cracking on a few high notes, we actuallydid pretty well and got a lot of compliments afterwards. Sowe represented the old Star-Spangled Banner pretty well.Scotland is far and away the best place in northern Europe,and by the end of this trip I may declare it the best placein all of Europe. The history is fascinating...WilliamWallace & Braveheart (who are two different people), Kings,Queens & highlanders all the way up to brilliant scientistsand writers of recent times ("recent" now means to Johnsonand I "since the founding of the US"). The castles aregreat...Edinborough and Stirling are two of the biggest andmost impressive, plus they have a lot of history aroundthem; Dunbarton is huge, has great views, and is so off thebeaten path that when Johnson and I went on an afternoon inlight rain, we were the ONLY visitors at the castle. Andthe scenery is absolutely beautiful. The highest mountainsare about 5000', which starting from sea level is a lotmore impressive than it sounds. Vail Mountain rises littlemore that 3000' from the Vail Valley just for comparison.And everything is so green except for where there's allkinds of colorful flowers and plants. If you ever get toScotland, go from Edinburgh (pronounce 'burgh' like you'dpronounce 'burrow') to Isle of Skye passing throughStirling, Callandar and the Trossochs, and Glen Coe, and ifyou can, go a little out of the way to see Ben Nevis, thetallest mountain in Scotland. We saw Scotland travelling onour own for 4 days, and on a tour for 3 days. Either wayworks great because most of the stuff to see has lots ofguides, or at least liturature to read, so you know whatyou're seeing. Our guide for the 3 day trip was hilariousthough. Within an hour of starting, he told a dirty joke,then said "I hope you liked that cause that's the cleanestjoke I know." He proved himself right over the next 3 days.Before Scotland was London. We had three days there whichI'm convinced is the perfect amount of time. We arrived at6am from our overnight flight, partially conscious andtotally clueless. We got a train into the city and got outnear Buckingham Palace. We fell asleep on the lawn acrossthe street from it. We were awakened by the changing of theguard. Welcome to London! The best stuff to see in Londonwould be the Tower of London (1000 year old castle thatcontains the crown jewels), changing of the guard, andprobably Westminster Abbey. I just remembered a great storythat has more to do with Scotland, but it also relates toWestminster Abbey. Scotland has this Destiny Stone thatevery king since the first one in 1066 has been crownedwhile sitting on. When England finally put down Scotland inthe 18th century (English bastards, sorry Dave), they tookthe Destiny Stone back to London and put it in WestminsterAbbey. It stayed there until 1950 when a history major fromScotland decided to return it to it's rightful place. So heand some buddies stole the (6-7 ton) stone from London anddrove it back to Scotland (don't ask me how). The Englishmanaged to get it back in time for Elizabeth's coronationin 1952, but on the condition the return it to EdinburghCastle in Scotland, where it remains to this day. Rumor hasit, the stone that was returned to England isn't the realDestiny Stone. Several supposed members of the Masons haveclaimed they have the real stone, a fake was cut and givento England, and the real stone will be returned to theworld when Scotland regains its indepence. Scotland's socool. But back to London...the best stuff for free to do inLondon would be the Tate modern art museum (remember thismoment in history, I recommended seeing a modern artmuseum) and the British Museum. The British museum actuallyhas a really cool wing devoted to modern architecture andfeats of engineering in bridge and building construction.Very cool. What else does everyone need to know?... ohyeah, my miss-list--places to miss cause they screwed usover in some way great or small: airhitch.org (but youshould know that from last time), National Express inEngland ("Oh yeah, this pass is good all over GreatBritain"--except for Scotland...you know, the good part),easyEverything internet cafes, that's all I can come upwith off the top of my head, I'm sure I could come up withmore if I wanted to dwell on it, but I don't. Two generaltravel tips when in Europe. People in the service(especially travelling & tourism) industries in Europe areeither clueless or liars. I'm not sure which it is, butdon't believe anything you read in a brochure or hear fromanyone behind a counter until you've confirmed it with anunaffiliated third party. Second tip--I think those packagetravel and unlimited travel deals are a ripoff. HopefullyI'll be proven wrong now that we're starting to use ourEurailpasses. So far, though, all-inclusive tickets aregenerally an expensive way to get everywhere except whereyou want to go, and to settle for somewhere else after asmuch hassle and confusion as they can possibly hit youwith. Just decide where you want to go and buy a ticketthere, that way you don't feel like you should go placesyou don't want to go or miss places you want to go just toget "your money's worth" from the pass. Well that's aboutall for now. If you were expecting a call from me, I'veeither repeatedly gotten your answering machine, or simplycouldn't figure out the dang phone system up here when Iactually had a chance to call and it wasn't 2am where youare. Oh yeah, the supposedly highly-sophisticated Europeanphone system is a myth. If you're going somewhere and wantto use the phone, you should take coins, a credit card, aninternational calling card, and a phone card specific tothe country or region you're in. Some combination of these4 items will allow you to make a call, but you'll neverknow until you've tried unsuccessfully several times. I'lltake the tried-and-true simple American phone systemanytime...whenever you add computers to something, youeither break it or increase it's complexity 1000%. Well,I'm about out of time at the internet cafe, and I want togo find out more about Mike Sweeney decking somepitcher...sounds like fun!
!---! late Aug
It's-a me-a! I'm-a in Rom-a! They really do-a talk-a likethis-a! But, hey, at least it's recognizable in English.Here's my entire Italian vocabulary: bonjourno, prego,excusee, ciao. And I thought my french was bad... Well,let's see, when we last left our heros they were attemptingto escape the perils of Amsterdam. ('No, really it's nottoo perilous. Why, I could take them single-handed.' 'Yes!Let him take us single-handed!' ...A genuine Europeansouvenir to the first person to email me with the moviereference.) We left Amsterdam on an overnight train andarrived on a sunny, saturday morning in Yverdon,Switzerland in the middle of some big parade and cheesemarket. And, yes, those Ricola guys with the big horns area genuine part of Swiss culture. They were at the paradeand we saw them many times all throughout Switzerland.Anyway, I tried to call Jean and tell him we'd arrived inYverdon; I emailed him earlier to let him know when toexpect us. However, for some reason hotmail decided myemail to him was spam (much like many of you have probablydecided) and deleted it. So Jean didn't know when we werecoming and was on vacation in France. Through my brokenfrench and his mother's broken english (though much betterthan my french), this message was communicated to me. Butthen his sister arrived at home while I was on the phoneand in way better english than my french explained that weshould come to their house anyway and stay until Jeanreturned the next day. So we hopped on the next bus andwere greeted by Jean's cute 20 year old sister Caroline.She and the family invited us to grandma's house (more likea wing of the same house) for a big family lunch with pastaand salad and vegetables fresh from the garden and dessert.Then Caroline took us to Lausanne on Lac Lemond (LakeGeneva to anglophones) and showed us around. We returned tothe Berneys' house for an incredible dinner with more ofthe family, then met up with several of Caroline's friendsin town and enjoyed some of the Yverdon nightlife--it's notexactly Dublin, but we sure weren't complaining! If you'reever going to be in Switzerland, I highly recommend a staywith the Berneys!!! Just give Jean an email atjean.berney@epf... just kidding, Jean ;-) The next few daysin Switzerland we decided to use our train passes to seesome of the rest of the country as Jean had a lot ofstudying to do for upcoming exams. We camped a night inMontreaux by Lake Geneva (and almost got eaten alive bymosquitoes--I thought I was in Minnesota!) For my birthdaythat night, I was treated to a dinner of authentic Italianpizza and wine by Josh. Sure, I would have preferred somebeautiful lady take me out to dinner, but you take what youcan get. And speaking of beautiful ladies, I didn't evenknow it was my birthday until that afternoon when I checkedmy email and had a birthday card from Darla. By severalhours, I came closer than ever before to totally forgettingmy own birthday...if you're reading this and ever beenupset with me because I forgot your birthday, now you knowI don't even remember my own without help. Anyway, we madeour way up to Interlocken, Switzerland, which is basicallythe adventure capital of Europe. I was right at home. Wetook a train up to near the top of Jungfrau mountain(thanks, Wayne & Dottie, for the great advice!). Jungfrau,Monch, and Eiger are 3 mountains about 14000' tall thatrise up from a valley that's less than 2000' above sealevel. Needless to say, it's pretty impressive. We got outof the train at the top in what we dubbed the moon basebecause it was all dug out of rock and to get outside youeither had to take an elevator way up or a long tunnelthrough solid rock. We followed some alpinists through thetunnel, emerged onto a glacier, and I (in wind pants and asleeveless Tshirt) proceeded to Nestea plunge into the snowand make several snow angels. I've got the pictures toprove it. I started running down a trail where a bunch ofalpinists were walking, had gone for 10-15 minutes, andasked one of the guys I was passing where this trail went.He said there was a hut about 10 minutes ahead, which meant5 minutes for me, so I ran on ahead, then waited forJohnson, and we found out they had room for us that night!!So for less than US$40, we got an all-you-can-eatmountaineers' dinner, all-you-can-eat breakfast, and wespent the night at 12000 feet!! And in the morning, thefirst train up didn't arrive until after 9am, and thealpinists' all started off for the next hut before 5am, sowe had the glacier, the moonbase, and the observatoryalmost to ourselves all morning! After the tourists startedarriving, we started making our way down the mountain. Wetook the train down to below glacial level, then walked agood portion before taking the train back to Interlocken.While we were walking, we watched a tremendous avalanchegoing over a cliff several thousand feet high...it was oneof the most incredible things I've seen! Thatafternoon/evening, we went canyoning, which is where youput on a rugged wet suit, a life vest, and a helmet, andwalk, jump, slide, and rappel your way down a river thatruns through a canyon. The trip we took would NEVER getinsured in the states. The first jump was only about 12'high, but it was into maybe 3' of water. The next jump wasprobably 25' high, and the water was deeper (about 5-6'),but the landing area was only about 5' wide with rocks oneither side. Obviously, I had a blast! Could have stayed inInterlocken for weeks... After we got back to the Berneys',we did a long hike in the mountains one day with Jean'sgirlfriend and her brother. We did a multi-pitch climb withJean. It was my first multi-pitch, my first lead climb, myfirst belay station setup, and my first barefoot climbbecause we didn't have the right shoes. I do NOT recommendthe barefoot part. And if you don't understand those lastfew sentences, I'll just have to show you sometime, it's alittle complicated. Then the last full day in Switzerland,Jean took me out and showed me why he could have been aprofessional biker. We did about 130km of road-riding toMouthe, France and back to Yverdon. We did a big climb thatkilled me because I'm used to mountain bikes and road bikesdon't have a granny gear. Normally Jean does it 2 or 3times faster than he did that day with me. Oh well, the USstill has LANCE ARMSTRONG! (sorry to rub that in, Jean) Andit was a great ride. In the evenings, the Berneys' treatedus to all kinds of great dinner like fondu and quiche andother great dishes that I can't spell any better. Most ofwhat we ate came from their garden. We ate one meal whereeverything was made from scratch from their garden--exceptfor the eggs that they bought from the farmer down thestreet. It's official, Switzerland is as cool as Scotland!After Switzerland, we went to Biarritz, France, located onthe Atlantic coast just north of Spain. In fact, sinceSpain was so close, I biked to it one day just to say I'dbeen there. It probably wouldn'd have been more than 30miles, but I kept taking wrong turns and it was probablycloser to 50. Funniest part was when I crossed the border,it was just like crossing the border into Mexico from theStates. Went from a very clean, laid back town into adirty, busy street market with hispanic guys selling cheapsouvenirs and big bottles of tequila from literallyhundreds of little shops all crowded right next to eachother. About fell off my bike laughing, I guess the Spanishand Mexicans are even closer cultures than I thought. InBiarritz, I attempted to learn to surf, but small waves, asmall board, and the lack of english speaking instructionprevented that from happening. Johnson took off for a fewdays to see Spain while I chilled on the beach for awhile,hoping to learn to surf. I got a decent tan (for me), butdecided to wait on surfing until this fall in Californiawhere I'll have someone to learn with. After Biarritz, Iarrived in Roma. The manager of the hostel I'm staying inis so stereotypically Italian it's scary. He was raised inCanada and speaks very good english, in fact he sounds andacts a lot like a mafia guy or bookie. His name is Guido.He seems really gruff and even rude at first. But he'sactually a really nice guy and helped me find everything Iwas looking for when I arrived in Rome and gave me a freemap--maps are absolutely essential in Roma! Today's myfirst day walking around Rome. It is very beautiful but ina strange way. Everything really shows it's age. Well,except the Vatican which seems to have no problem keepingeverything spotless and polished. I guess when you're therichest organization in the world you can do that. Walkingdown the street to toward Basilica de San Pietra was verysurreal. There were speakers everywhere broadcasting somesort of Papal (I assume) address in Italian, or possiblyLatin. Everything was perfectly ordered and very nicelooking. I guess it's suppose to inspire religious awe, butother than the street vendors selling religious trinkets,about all it reminded me of was Hitler's Germany with theneat rows of buildings, massive crowds neatly gathered atthe steps before a great platform, and propoganda blaringover loudspeakers. I saw the Colloseum (early in themorning before it was open to go in), the Trevi fountain,alot of fancy basilicas, fountains, and the big Capitolbuilding--twice, because I actually got lost and circledback to where I'd already been at one point. You know thestreet system is complicated when even I wind up going incircles. This afternoon I'll be going on a guided walkingtour that will actually explain what all this stuff is whenI see it the second (or third) time. One thing I meant tomention last time, this trip has definitely made me muchmore patriotic. Throughout the UK and Ireland, everyonehated the English (except of course for the actual English)and loved us (the States) because we were the first toreally kick England's butt and get them out of our country.Plus after singing the national anthem for a couple of tourgroups and explaining to several people the story behind it(good thing I went through Baltimore before leaving thestates and got my memory refreshed on that one), I'verealized that America's history is pretty dang cool. It maybe short, but not many countries can say their forefatherswere a small group of common men who fought off the mostpowerful army in the world, then set up a government moreempowering to the people than just about any other sinceRome almost 2000 years earlier, and that their countrybecame the world's most powerful nation in less than twocenturies--and did it without violently taking over anyexisting world powers. That's pretty cool. Plus we havenearly as much geographical and cultural diversity withinour borders as any *continent* in the world, yet we have acommon currency and language (and phone system!) that makeit easy to travel through it. Not to take anything awayfrom Europe...especially Scotland and Switzerland...but theUS is pretty dang awesome! I feel like bursting intoanother round of the national anthem :-) Sorry I haven'tbeen keeping the web page updated with pictures. Gettingthe pictures from my camera into a computer, thencompressed into a more web-friendly size, and finally ontomy web server in html, has proven a little bit morecomplicated then I thought once internet cafes came intothe picture. Oh well, just something to do after I get backto the States. Maybe get a few hundred of the best printedout into a photo album or something. Well, that's about allfrom the Europe front. When I get back to the US in earlyOctober, I'll be embarking on a cross-country trip over thenext month, so hopefully I'll be seeing most of you soon.
!---! late Sep/early OctI
've never been so happy to be home, sweet home, inthe US! It's been awhile since one of my Europeanupdates, which means, of course, this one will beINCREDIBLY LONG. If you were wondering what took solong when you checked your email, this message is it! First of all, I saw this on a T-shirt in the Vatican;and if you see it in the Vatican, it must be true:
Heaven is where:
-all the police are British
-all the cooks are French
-all the mechanics are German
-all the lovers are Italian
-and everything is organized by the Swiss
Hell is where:
-all the police are German
-all the cooks are British
-all the mechanics are French
-all the lovers are Swiss
-and everything is organized by the Italians
And now for my own list of top 10 things I love aboutbeing back in the States:1) Visa machines work -my bank was bought while I was in Europe, which mademy ATM card no good. This wouldn't have been as big aproblem in the States, where everyone takes creditcards. But in Europe, most places don't take creditcards...and even the ones that do, often don't. Atleast a half dozen times a place that said they tookcredit cards wouldn't because their machines werebroke. Grrr...2) Milkshake machines work -only once did I eat a meal at McDonald's in Europe(the Big Macs were really cheap and I was hungry,ok???), however on many occasions I really wanted astrawberry milkshake. Well on over half thoseoccasions, the shake machine was broke.3) No need for mass transit -the so-called efficient European rail system is amyth (except in Switzerland; there it's justincredibly expensive). In France, it was incrediblyconfusing and seriously lacking in signs, and when Itried to get to the airport, the rail workers were onstrike ("oh well, this happens all the time" said theAmerican living in Paris that I shared a cab with). In Austria, we had to spend a whole day of travel togo about 150 miles because it was SO SLOW andconnections were so infrequent. In Great Britain, wewere lied to about where our pass was valid and woundup stuck in Glasgow. In Italy, well, it's Italy,refer to the T-shirt. Give me a car and cheap gas anyday. I'll let the Europeans live their lives by masstransit schedules.4) Restrooms are free -I believe right up there with the freedom of speechis the freedom to use the restroom of any business youpatronize (or even consider patronizing) without having topay. Once we take care of this terrorismthing, US diplomats really need to work with Europeannations on amending their constitutions.5) Payphones are simple -another European myth...the highly sophisticatedphone system. When I arrived back in the States, Idropped a couple coins in a payphone and called thepeople I was staying with to let them know to comepick me up. Simple. Arrive in a European country,and all the pay phones are computer-operated, which aswe all know, especially those of us who are supposedto make computers work as a living, this adds unendingcomplication. On maybe 10% of the phones can you usecoins (incidentally, on these phones you have to usecoins for ALL calls, even "toll free" calls, gofigure), on all other phones, you can either slideyour credit card (on some of them) and get charged avery expensive surcharge, or else you have to find avendor that sells phone cards (and they must be open,a big problem when you arrive early or late in theday, or on sundays--see next item), and buy at least a50 minute phone card even though you only need to makea 2 minute call. Sure, those computer screens lookslick and sophisticated, but I'll take usability andconvenience and day.6) Businesses are open on Sundays -If it had anything to do with their religiouspractices, I would have some respect for thispractice, in spite of its inconvenience. But we'retalking about countries where less than 5% of thepopulation attends a church most sundays. Don't planon doing anything in Europe on sundays, it's probablyclosed...unless you were planning to visit famouschurches.7) Non-smoking sections -I don't if more people really smoke in Europe, orjust the fact that smokers generally have noconsideration for non-smokers. Always sit outside atEuropean restaurants if you don't smoke. It's moreexpensive to sit outside, but sometimes the only wayyou'll be able to taste your food instead of cigarettesmoke. The trains were the only places non-smokingsections existed, and sometimes "non-smoking" I thinkmeant only "less smoking"--after lighting up andtaking a few drags, people would generally stepoutside of the compartment...thanks for yourconsideration.8) One currency -Next time I'm in Europe, it thrills me to know theEuro will be in effect and I won't have to deal with anew currency in every country...this isn't a big dealuntil you realize European countries are about thesize of American states, imagine having to change yourmoney (and of course lose some in the exchange) everytime you're in another state.9) Water is free -Another constitutional amendment European countriesshould consider...any patron of a restaurant has theinalienable right to unlimited free water with theirmeal. And the concept of a drinking fountain iscompletely foreign to European countries. Rome hasfountains flowing all throughout it's streets, and thewater is drinkable, and France and Switzerland had anumber of fountains in the region Jean and I bikedthrough. Other than that, I think I saw two publicfountains in all the rest of Europe.10) One post office -Not something I expected to be an issue, but I hadthe hardest time in several post offices that wereorganized nothing like what I expected...certain typesof shipments could only be done at certain windows,and of course none of the windows were labeled withthis info in any way. Plus I have a bunch of"souvenir" stamps that I bought in packets in onecountry and didn't have the chance to use them all.BONUS Reason) FREE INTERNET! -I'll probably spend a couple hours on this superlong email...and not pay a dime for it because I'm ata library. What a country!And now, for your culinary pleasure, here's a fewrestaurants you might want to try in Europe. Surprisingly, France only has one entry, though I onlyhad two nights in Paris so it was slightlyhandicapped.-The Berneys' house; Yverdon, Switzerland: Ourgracious hosts in Switzerland. Not only was the foodhome-made and delicious, but the price was right andthe company was great!-Le Florentin; Bayeaux, France; when looking at thefront of the HUGE church in the middle of town, turnleft and go two blocks, it's on a corner on yourright: Bayeux is the base for most Normandy tours(which I HIGHLY recommend), and home to some greatcuisine. At Le Florentin, order the blanquette desaumon (salmon stew--but it's not a stew). Best dishI had in Europe. Salmon and steamed vegetables in adelicious creamy sauce.-Le Colonnade; Florence, Italy; about 3-4 blocks northfrom the eastern-most bridge in town: If you're reallyhungry, order the Paella for 2. Seafood, vegetables,and rice with a tasty sauce in a BIG skillet.-Ciak Restaurant; Rome, Italy; in the old JewishGrotto (south side of the Tiber River): Very good,very Tuscan cuisine. Tuscany is the only place in allEurope that knows how to make a steak. The steakshere are three inches thick. I'm not exaggerating. And they are GOOD. Even if you order it well done,expect the middle to be totally raw...don't thinkabout that as you eat it, just enjoy it.-And for ice cream...Italy has all kinds of great icecream, but forget about the ultra-trendy places you'llfind in the guide books. They're good, but not great,and very expensive. The absolute best ice cream I hadin Europe was from the super-touristy ice cream shoplocated right across the street from Trevi Fountain(right side as you're looking at the fountain) inRome.And one restaurant you definitely want to AVOID:-Can't remember the name--tried to block the wholeexperience from memory--but it's a pasta place almostright across the street from a Burger King in Venice,Italy (BK should have been my first clue to avoid thisplace): Not only did they bring me the wrong dish, itwas quite obvious everything was MICROWAVED...especially once I got to the ice cold center of mypasta.Wow, just think, you've already been reading this forten minutes, and I haven't even begun to recap mytravels yet...scary, eh? I think Canadians feel acivic duty to use the phrase "eh?". We took a tourwith a Canadian girl and pointed out how Canadians areknown for always saying "eh?" and we hadn't heard hersay "eh?" in several days. Over the next 2 or 3 days,she said "eh?" no less than 50 times, and "claiming"that she wasn't even trying to do it. And on thesubject of Canadians, next time I travel overseas, I'mwearing a big patch of the US flag on my backpack,I'll have a US flag on my keychain, and I'll have USflags anywhere else I can decorate with them(assuming, of course, my next trip isn't to Iraq). And if I meet an American travelling with a Candianflag on his backpack, I think I will become physicallyviolent. Nothing against Canada, I have no problemwith Canadians proudly displaying their flag...butthis cowardly advice I heard so often, that says notto display a US flag or anything that demonstratesyou're American on your clothing or travel gear, isabsolutely pathetic. The world wasn't freed from Nazioppression by a bunch of pansies afraid someone wouldcall them a mean name because of where they're from. No country has stood up more for freedom worldwide, orat a greater cost, than the States. Sure, we've madeour mistakes, plenty of them, but for the most partonly because we've tried too hard to defend freedom,even when it's not our own. And if someone doesn'tlike me because of where I'm from, first of allthey're a fool to judge someone on such broad terms,and secondly I'm proud of where I'm from and I'm sorryfor them that they can't appreciate that. Well, thereI go on another patriotic rampage.Ok, now to my European travels. When we last left ourzeros...er, I mean, heros...they were battling theirway through Rome. (And I do mean battling, Italiantraffic...refer to the T-shirt again.) Vaticanmuseum, impressive. The Sistine Chapel is one of themost amazing things I've ever seen. I am not anappreciator of art, but Michaelangelo is absolutelybrilliant. I saw stuff by Leonardo, Raphael (youknow, all the ninja turtles) and countless other greatpainters. They're good. Michaelangelo, particularlythe Sistine Chapel, but other works of his I saw aswell, is incredible! As I stared at the ceiling, Iknew perfectly well I was staring at a flat painting,but I simply couldn't believe it. I would haveabsolutely sworn I was looking at actual people, attrue, 3-d reality. All other artists should simplygive up. As for the rest of Rome, the colloseum is sofriggin' cool. Johnson and I stood in the middle andacted out a gladiator battle, and got another touristto take some pictures. The thing held 70-80 thousandspectators and could be emptied in ten minutes. Forthe opening games, millions of gallons of water werepumped in from the Tiber to fill the gladiator arenawith water for naval games. All done without anymotorized equipment over 2000 years ago, veryimpressive. Even more amazing, the Pantheon. Builtas a temple, it's a concrete dome 92 meters across atit's base--where the concrete is over 20 meters thick. Over 2000 years old and still in flawlesscondition...somehow I don't think Skydome or any ofthe other sports domes will still be standing in 2000years. The designer of the St. Peter's cathedral domeat the Vatican was so awed by it's design that he notonly copied it for the cathedral, but made the one atthe Vatican 1 meter shorter across the base so thePantheon would remain the biggest dome in Rome. Wedid a walking tour of the Jewish grotto, whichincluded a visit to the "original" colosseum, atheatre about 1/10 the size of THE colosseum whichserved as the model for the big one. The theatrestill stands, and is privately owned by a very wealthyfamily who has built their home on the top and intoone side of the top floor. The best of modern Romanarchicture and design is definitely the monument toVittorio Emmanuel (he united northern and southernItaly a little over 100 years ago). It looks like oneof the ancient senate buildings might have looked andis absolutely huge. It houses the flame of Rome,which is carefully guarded by two machine-gun wieldingsoldiers...and several Fascist police-women who willrun at you and scream at you for any number of"offenses" such as sitting on the steps of themonument, or bringing a water bottle up the stairswithout the cap on. Fascism lives, and it wears theface of old women. Also at the monument, a giantstatue of the general Emmanuel on his horse...a horseso huge that the designers of the statue, all 25 ofthem, sat down for a celebratory dinner inside thestomach of the horse.After Rome, Naples, the Detroit of Italy. Veryindustrial, crowded, and dirty. And the only place inthe world you'll see 4 (or more) people riding on onesmall motorcycle. Kid in the front; dad next,driving; kid(s) behind dad; and mom completing thesandwich in back. The end result is a motorcycle thatgets worse gas mileage than an SUV. In Naples, Taxidrivers will be IN YOUR FACE demanding you ride withthem ("Careful! Bandits!" is the only english theyknow) from the moment you get off the train, as youcall the hostel for directions, while you look at thebus schedule, AFTER YOU'VE BOUGHT YOUR BUS TICKET,until you get on the bus. Fortunately, everyone elsewas much more helpful...sometimes too helpful. Atfirst it was very nice, a gentleman helped us buy theright ticket from the machine that dispensed bustickets. The next time, we knew how the machineworked and wanted to buy a package of tickets, ratherthan just one. A lady insisted on punching all theselections for us for a single ticket even as weprotested repeatedly "no, grazia" over and over. Finally it was ready to take our money and dispensethe ticket..and we cancelled everything she did, said"grazia" again, and started over. But Naples is thebase for exploring Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius. Interestingly, Naples is about as close to Vesuvius asPompeii, which makes me think it's only a matter oftime before Naples is buried by an eruption. Butthen, it was put there by the Italians...refer to theT-shirt. Pompeii is very large, I had no idea beforeI visited; at least a square mile in size, and all ofit buried in moments by the eruption. However, otherthan the roofs, all of it was preserved very well bythe eruption, too. Many of the paintings on the wallsremain, which is particularly amusing in the oldbrothel, where the paintings are basically a menu ofservices offered at the brothel. Vesuvius probablywould have been very cool, except it was shrouded in arain cloud when we went. It never actually rained onus, but we were soaked from the water in the cloudcondensing on us. It was impossible to see more thanabout 10 yards. And, naturally, the moment our busstarted to leave, the clouds broke and it wasbeautiful and clear. On the way down, we took somevolcanic rock, and I'm convinced the clear skies werethe beginning of the "Curse of Vesuvius" that wouldplague the rest of the trip.After Naples was Venice, which thankfully we onlydevoted a day to. Probably the biggest disappointmentof our trip. After all the talk we'd heard aboutVenice maybe we were expecting too much. Or maybe toomany people had heard great things like we had. Theplace was incredibly confusing...I have pictures ofsigns to the same place that have two arrows on themin opposite directions. The canals were veryhaphazard, unlike Amsterdan where the canal system wasefficient and made sense. But basically the place wasoverrun with tourists, very tacky tourist shops, andvery bad tourist restaurants that microwaved thepasta. Maybe a gondola ride would have made ourimpression more positive, but for some reason Johnsonand I just weren't in the mood for a romantic gondolaride together. Nor were we in the mood to spend the$80+ for a 45 minute ride. On the plus side, we foundthe second best ice cream in Rome here; and if youcan't get to Pisa, there are leaning towers all overVenice as the ground sinks into the sea.Next stop, Florence. Home of more world-famous artthan anywhere else in the world. So much of it infact, that you can see plenty of it out on the streetsand don't even need to pay to go into the museums. Actually, I don't recommend the museums. In the worldfamous Uffizi, there was one Michaelangelo. Everything else is peanuts by comparison. Go to theAcademia museum, spend the $8 or whatever, seeMichaelangelo's David, and you can leave Florencesatisfied that you've seen the best art it has tooffer. More interesting than the museums, at least toa scientific type person like me, was an exhibit ofLeonardo's engineering sketches that included modelsof many of his sketches. There's so much more thatcould be done with his sketches, but it's a start, andit's remarkable to see that someone 500 years ago wasdesigning a bicycle and considering ways to build ahelicopter. Our campground was on a hillsideoverlooking the city, great view. However, thecampground was also the next event in the "curse ofVesuvius". My bank was bought while I was in Europe,invalidating my ATM card, so I had one rushed to Jeanin Switzerland. He then attempted to forward it to mein Florence, but the campground, even though I toldthem THREE times a VERY important package was comingfor me, refused to accept it and I never got a workingATM card after that because it entered shipping limboand still hasn't returned to my knowledge. Definitelya bummer not to be able to access any of my money forover a month in Europe. Oh well, Florence will alwaysbe remembered for a much bigger incident. Afterleaving one of the famous churches, Johnson and I werewalking down the street to the internet cafe. Inoticed a crowd of people standing just inside theentrance of a bar, and initially thought there wasprobably a soccer game on. As we passed, I heard theannouncer's voice seemed rather serious for a soccergame, but it was in Italian so I had no idea what hewas saying. But it made me glance back through thewindow at a TV, where I saw a picture of a building onfire. I stopped Johnson and said, "Hey, look at that! I wonder where that is." Then the camera zoomed outand Johnson was the first to realize it was the WTC. We went inside and asked if anyone spoke English. Thebartender spoke a little and said, "TwinTowers...flat...no more" and made the safe sign frombaseball with his hands. The TV was still showingshots from earlier when they were standing, so we boththought the guy just didn't realize what he was sayingin English, or was exaggerating. Then english updatesstarted appearing on the bottom of the screen. Thefirst one mentioned the collapse of part of thePentagon. The next one said the WTC towers hadcollapsed. We stood there stunned for about 10minutes until I finally said we should go to theinternet cafe where we could get info in english. Wegot there and there was only a handful of Americansalready there trying to find info; it was only acouple hours after the initial attack and very fewpeople had heard yet. Already, my dad had emailed mewarning of what was going on, saying to be carefulwherever I was, and urging me to get home as soon aspossible. My dad's fiance Susan works in a governmentbuilding just a few blocks from the White House, I wasfrankly a whole lot more concerned for her than myselfin some internet cafe in Florence, Italy. Of coursecnn.com, New York Times, and all the major news siteswere jammed. But then I went to the good ol' KC Starsite and was surprised to find it popping right upwith AP feeds being updated very regularly. I toldother Americans in the cafe to go there because othermajor papers and news sources were jammed. So the KCStar webmaster is probably gonna be curious why onSeptember 11 they all of a sudden got a surge intraffic from Florence, Italy. Anyway, that night wewere kind of in shock. We couldn't call anyone backhome, all international lines were jammed. I did getemail back from my dad saying he'd been in touch withSusan and she was fine, though scared of course. Other than that, all we could do was let ourimaginations run with who was behind it and what layahead. I actually guessed just after heard about thePA plane that passengers with cell phones had broughtit down. Johnson was convinced it was shot down,which I admitted was the more plausible theory. Wehad countless such conversations that night, playingwith theories based on our laughably limited knowledgeof the attack as well as middle Eastern affairs. Ohwell, I could write for hours and hours about theincident now, at the pace I'm going I'll be speakingArabic fluently and debating policy with foreigncorrespondants and diplomats in another month. Butthat's another story.After Florence was a quick stop in Pisa...yep, thetower leans...and then on to Austria. The sun nevershines in Austria. At least, that was the opinionformed after five days. Finally, on the sixth andalmost final day in Austria we got some sunshine. Ohwell, I finally, FINALLY got to do some real mountainbiking, something I'd been missing terribly while inEurope. We rented some decent bikes one day andheaded into the Austrian Alps. We were soaked, wewere freezing, we were caked in mud, I loved it!! Andeven better, that night we went back to our hostel,the nicest hostel we stayed at in Europe, and took hotshowers and wrapped up in these super-warm,super-thick comforters that were on every bed, andwent to sleep before 9pm. Austria was the leasttouristy part of our trip. I hiked, I biked, I rantrails, I watched cheesy movies while eating pizza. Basically, I felt like I was back home in Colorado. Iloved it!! And yes, I said home in Colorado. It feltgreat to get home to the US, but when I think of whereI feel most at home, where I want to actually live fora while, not just travel through, it's the Coloradohigh country. Just something I learned about myselfwhile in Europe.Our next stop was Germany, which basically consistedof a couple Disneyland-like castles and a littlefestival you may have heard of called Oktoberfest. But the library's about to close so I'll have to tellmy Oktoberfest story in another email.
!---! early Oct
OK, so I left you all with that "to be continued" endingalmost two weeks ago, and I'm sure the suspense has beenkilling you all since then...or like any normal person youstill haven't gotten through the 20 pages of my last email.Anyway, last time I'd gotten through Austria when thelibrary closed, leaving me in...Germany! Oktoberfest! Butfirst, let me set up Oktoberfest with what we did our firstcouple days in Germany. We arrived on thursday, Oktoberfestdidn't start until Saturday, so we headed down to Fussen tosee a couple of popular castles down there--apparently oneof them inspired the Disneyland castle. We arrive in Fussenat about 9pm with no place to stay. As we get off thetrain, we notice another backpacker getting off as well,and ask her if she has a place to stay. She does, and asfar as she knows everything's booked up, so we can sneakinto her room if we can't find anything else (I love thebackpacker mentality). So we go back to the hostel, findout they're full, but wind up finding a Bed and Breakfastthat's not too expensive and stay there. Saw the castlesthe next day, they were cool. Anyway, we wound up back atthat hostel the next night though, and had breakfast withKristie the next morning. We rode the train to Munich withher and figured we go get some beers together atOktoberfest. Once we got to Munich though, Kristie foundout her train to Italy she was taking late that night wasgoing to be delayed due to a strike, so she'd have to leavein the afternoon to get there in time to meet her friends.This gave us about an hour to find Oktoberfest, have a beertogether, and get her back to the train station. This weaccomplished. And we learned consuming a liter of Germanbeer on an empty stomach followed by a run to the trainstation is an easy way to brighten up your day. Shortlybefore we got to the train, Kristie gave us the sameinvitation Jean from Switzerland did..."You should comevisit Australia, you're welcome to stay with me as long asyou like!" Well, we all know what that invitation led to.Kristie, we'll see you in Australia. After getting Kristieon the train, Johnson and I decided to walk off our buzz abit. So we saw a bit of Munich, had dinner, then headedback to Oktoberfest for another beer. We managed to find atable in the crowd, and the other guys at the table werefrom Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. They spoke enoughenglish and I spoke enough french we were able tocommunicate. The coolest part was when we said we wereAmerican they gave us high fives and were totally in lovewith America. I told the guy from Switzerland that hiscountry was pretty dang cool too, and he said it was a niceplace to visit, but he wanted to live in America. Wecouldn't communicate much beyond that, but I was prettysurprised to hear that. Then the biggest surprise cameshortly before we had to leave to catch my train...theybought us another round of beers. Of course we couldn'tturn them down, so we had about 10 minutes to down anotherliter each of strong German beer (equivalent of 4 or 5American beers, we figured). Then I stumbled to my trainand literally collapsed into my seat. The only thing Icould think of before I fell asleep was that I hoped Ididn't throw up on the lady sitting next to me. The nextmorning (bright and early) I had the joy of figuring outthe Paris subway system and getting myself to Normandy.Normandy is way cool. I wound up having to choose betweenNormandy and the Louvre due to time. I do NOT regretpicking Normandy. You can't leave Normandy without feelingproud to be American, British, or Canadian. I'm sure SavingPrivate Ryan was no exaggeration after seeing how exposedthe beaches were and how buried the bunkers were off in thedistance. After Normandy, I finally saw a little bit ofParis before heading home. The Eiffel Tower wasunbelievably huge, I didn't realize it was well over athousand feet tall. I kept thinking as I was up there,though, if I see a plane coming, will I have time to slidedown the stairs? I wasn't really nervous, but it's funny how much your perspective can change in one day. I also bought a couple bottles of really nice Champagne while Iwas in Paris. Being an idiot, I left them sitting in theairport and walked off. When I realized what I'd done overan hour later, I figure the bag had already been blown upby security. I never did get to see the news that night tosee if there'd been a bomb scare at the airport. And that'smy trip in a nutshell, well, in several emails anyway. Ifyou haven't already been bored out of your mind, I couldprobably tell you plenty more. But right now, I'm going toMoab to bike all weekend. More than anything else, I missedmy mountain bike. Just ask Johnson. Life, Liberty,Happiness, and peace out! Devin

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