Monday, April 25, 2011

Éire, a.k.a. My Island

"God created alcohol to keep the Irish from taking over the world" - Yeah, that's about right.

First off, I have to apologize for this taking so long to post. When I got back from Ireland I had a 2500 word paper due for philosophy and left for Italy soon after. After that I was just kind of lazy lol. But I'm listening to Galway Girl now and it is inspiring me to write.

Alright lets see, I went to Ireland with three of my roommates, Nate, Dalton (middle left), and Ledge (far left), and stayed mostly in Galway with my friend and fraternity brother Reilly (middle right), who also goes to SLU. I had a great time in Ireland (like someone couldn't), and was able to celebrate my 21st birthday in Dublin. Ireland is a three way tie for my favorite place in Europe (France and Italy being the others).

Nate and I went to Galway right away so we could hang out with Reilly, which worked great since I have already been to Dublin. There really isn't much to talk about except that when we got to the bus station we learned that Irish girls are extremely forward and later at a local pub that Ireland has crafted the world's greatest beer - Guinness. As much as we wanted to celebrate our reunion, we had to wake up really early the next morning for the Aran Islands (one of the last places in Ireland that speaks Gaelic), so we kept our reunion celebration to a pint...or two.

The last time I was in Ireland we didn't get to go to the Aran Islands (I don't even think we knew they existed), so it was really neat to see a new side or Ireland I hadn't before. Essentially, we rode bikes everywhere, discovered the reason there are so many rock walls in Ireland is due to the land being infested with rocks, keeping the animals from grazing, we skipped rocks on the Atlantic, saw some sea lions (I totally forgot they have seals in Ireland - thank you Waking Ned Devine for that), climbed up an abandoned lighthouse (which was really cool, especially since in America you could never do something like that for fear of a lawsuit), climbed the nearby manor house, and pretty much just caught up on life. Other than that, the only thing really is that Nate found out the hard way that you shouldn't drink the sink water because it has a different bacteria than what we are use to. So don't drink the sink water, ok? It's hard to explain how cool this little island with its 800 inhabitants was, because like so many things in life, it has to be experienced. If you have time around Galway, definitely give it a look.

Now skip a few events of that night's festivities and we find ourselves on a bus tour of Galway. Feeling GREAT we cruise around the country side and listen to our Irish tour guide talk about flowers and what not. The real fun comes when we get to the Cliffs of Moher, which is by far my favorite spot in Europe. Now, before I continue, I must insist that if you are my Mom, a Grandma, or any other concerned family member, skip this section as you might be slightly disappointed with my inability to follow directions; the next :) you can keep reading. So now that they are gone let me continue with my story. As we are leaving the bus our driver tells us for the 5th time that we should STAY AWAY FROM THE EDGE seeing that someone died that previous Sunday. I went to Ireland six years ago and didn't die when I hung out by the edge, so basically all his warnings went in one ear and left the other. Well, it turns out that I was a lot cooler six years ago than I am today because when I got to the edge, I wasn't feeling nearly as, err, fearless. Thankfully that lasted a whole three minutes before I got back to 8th grade Brent and started exploring the edge as such:

Hanging out on the edges of the Cliffs of Moher is by far one of the best memories I have in Europe. If you go to Ireland, you gotta go.

:) - you can read again.

The Group (it was a tad windy)

After another successful night which we will skip over (gin bucket), we found ourselves the next day on another bus to Dublin to send Nate off. After saying our goodbyes, we made our way into the city. We started off by going to the Jameson Whisky Factory (I was able to do the whisky tasting since it was my "birthday"), and then we went to the Guinness factory where the real fun starts. The factory was neat and everything but it was at the "Pour your own Pint", that things really took off. It all starts at our seats after we have poured the perfect pint, minding our own business, that a man comes over and offers us two pints barely drunk. The way he sees it, we are college students, and of course we will not let a good Guinness go to waste. Somehow this becomes a trend with the other people, and before we know it, we all have 3-5 extra pints of Guinness. God I love being a college student :). The next part of the story starts with me asking one of the workers - Seamus - about the whereabouts of Michael Collins grave. We get to talking and it turns out we both really like history (Dalton says Seamus is my Irish equivalent, and he's probably right). We then meet his friend/coworker Chris who lets us pour another pint since it's almost my birthday, and we all start talking. By this time, it is way past closing and the place is deserted. Instead of letting the party die however, we all decided to go get a bite to eat and hit up a real Irish pub. We go to a really good fish and chips place (I really wish I could remember the name of the place, but I was a few Guinness' deep and all I could think about was how good the fish was), and then hit up an Irish bar.

In a nutshell, we celebrated my birthday the only way one can in Ireland on his 21st birthday, and had a least I think it was... Seamus and Chris turned out to be cool as hell (Chris if your band tours in the states you gotta let me know), and my trip to Ireland was exactly what I expected, a big blur thanks to Guinness. Just kidding, it was great.

I am in the midst of finals right now, but I PROMISE I will have Italy done before I'm state side. Hope you all are doing well. I can't believe this is almost all over.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

"The Most Interesting Ginger in the World Drinks Casablanca Beer" - Morocco

I am proud to say, that out of my 3 (soon to be 4) parents, 2 siblings, 7 grandparents, 21 aunts and uncles, 30+ cousins (guesstimate, I stopped counting after a while), and all their children and spouses, I am the first, let me repeat that, the FIRST, to touch the continent of Africa! HA, take that overachieving family! I am numero uno, the champion, the boss hoss, and every other name that goes with being first.

Special shout out to my cousin Alex, who is officially on the continent as of a few days ago serving our country. You're the man, Alex.

Now that being said, I will acknowledge the fact that Morocco isn't necessarily the "Africa" we all think of with the monkeys jumping in the trees, and the constant fear of being eaten by Mufasa. Instead, it is much more of a modern Islamic/Middle Eastern country. None the less, it was a whole new world...and in Africa.

For this trip, I traveled with my roommates Johnny and Matt, and Matt's high school friend Kellen. Johnny and I arrived in Casablanca a day before Matt and Kellen because there was another friend of Matt's who was suppose to come, and thus made them come on Friday instead of Thursday, only to bail on them last minute because of the non-existent riots. When Johnny and I got into Casablanca, the scene from The Wizard of Oz popped into my brain, "Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas any more". Morocco was unlike any other country I've been to before. At least in the other countries I've been visiting, I can recognize the letters, Morocco on the other hand was complete gibberish. Good news for us though, Johnny can speak French (some signs were in French), so we, as in Johnny, was able to get us around. As for Arabic though, whew, way over my head.

Once in Casablanca with our wallets full of Durham's (roughly the same exchange rate for dollars to the peso), we met up with our taxi driver/tour guide/Philadelphia Eagles fan, Yusef. While with Yusef, we saw:

Rick's Cafe from the movie Casablanca

The Hassan II Mosque. Pretty cool considering it was my first Mosque.

The Lighthouse, a gift from Portugal conveniently located next to the "Harlem" of Casablanca.

Black Magic Island, located on the public sector of the beach. There, Johnny, Yusef, and I got mint tea (a.k.a. the best tea in the world), and something similar to flat bread with French cheese (you know, the kind with the cow on it). Black Magic Island is where women go to curse their husbands if they have been unfaithful. They then live there for as long as they like with the "Witch Doctor". While we were eating, we had a lady and an elderly women (maybe her mother?) sit with us. Yusef informed us she was one of these ladies he was speaking of earlier. Little did Yusef know, hell, little did any of us know, she actually spoke perfect english. Naturally, she joined our conversation when we were speaking about her. Lucky for us though, she was in high spirits and didn't seem to mind.

Our gypsy cook.

Downtown Casablanca and Mohammed V Square

In Morocco, it is rather frowned upon to drink at night. Kind of like it's frowned upon to...well, if you've seen The Hangover, you know where I am going with this. So with not much of a nightlife to explore, Johnny and I decided to finally try this "amazing" Moroccan food we've been hearing all about. Well, they were right, it's amazing. We ended up at a main stream restaurant that made us special orders of both couscous and tajine all for 6 euros! Not to mention, they also gave us Moroccan salad, pizza flat like bread, and mint tea, all for free. Gota love that Moroccan hospitality. Before I end the day, I have to mention our hotel. Johnny picked it out, and it turned out to be one of those Aladdin, old school, kind of places. Our room was awesome, not only because it felt like we were staying in a place Indiana Jones would have in Raiders of the Lost Arc, but also because we were able to drink some Casablanca beer (thank God for mini-fridges). The next morning the hotel served us one of the most tasty breakfast I've had in a long time. Shout out to Johnny for picking out a sweet deal.

The next day Johnny and I decided to do some exploring while waiting for Matt and Kellen to get in town. Let me tell you, if there are two people who stick out in Casablanca, it was definitely Johnny and I. Two Americans, one insanely tall, and the other with flaming red hair, don't really go unnoticed in a town of people who are not plentiful in the "tallness gene", and have probably never even seen someone with red hair. We started off walking towards, or what we thought was towards, the downtown area, and ended up in a sketchy neighborhood where we decided to take a taxi ride that only cost 1 euro. Not because we didn't go far, but because it was literally 1 euro to go 10 minutes down the road. From there we bought some items from a local store (I forgot that we could haggle....), and then started walking towards the Mosque which lead us to a sketchy part of town where our story begins........

Sweating profusely and walking down a cracked sidewalk adjacent to an even more sketch park, a Moroccan man began to make his way towards us. Now, this didn't bother me in the slightest seeing as he seemed to be of no harm, but it was still unnerving. Later I would dub him the "killer painter/rug/drug dealer...guy". He was very kind when approaching us and told us how much he loved America. After asking me if I wanted to have Johnny and I's picture taken (I still like to wonder if he honestly thought I was born yesterday), he asked us to check out his paintings.

---Before I continue this story, you must know that I am very pessimistic when it comes to these kind of things, and Johnny, is very optimistic. Thus, we balance each other out.---

I told the man he could bring his paintings out to us in the OPEN, because truth be told, I did have a problem walking down the dark side street where our screams could be muffled and our bodies mutilated. Not to mention, it didn't help that he kept telling us to "trust" him. If you keep telling me to trust you, guess what, I'm not going to trust you. Johnny however talked me into just checking them out real quick, and in his defense, the guy did end up being harmless. So, we go with the guy to see his "paintings". Instead of taking us into a painting shop though, he takes us into a store full of carpets made by the Berber people. Here, we are greeted by a total sketch ball who takes us to the back room (full of carpets), and begins to enlighten us on Berber history. In my mind, he is biding time for someone else to come in and take all our crap. About 2 minutes into this guys "spiel", I lose my shit and told the guy thanks for everything, but we need to catch our train and we want to see the Mosque before we go. Upon leaving the store, we are confronted by the "killer painter/rug/drug dealer guy" AGAIN, who, I don't know how (Johnny cough cough), convinces us again to check out his paintings. This time we really did see some paintings. The man inside this store tried giving us tea (I figured it was drugged or something, and really didn't want to wake up hours later in some alley with all my possessions gone, and my bum hurting, so I said "no"), although he was probably just trying to be nice. Eventually, Johnny ended up buying a few post cards, so we were able to leave the store to much relief on my part. As we exited, we were approached by "killer painter/rug/drug dealer guy" one last time. On his last pitch he tried convincing us to buy some hashish before we left. A firm "Nope!" and we were home free, or so we thought...

We ended up walking into an entirely new ghetto. If we had stuck out in the downtown, we radiated here. For the most part we walked fast and didn't stop for any chats. We actually witnessed a street fight between two kids. You know, the kind where one guy rips his shirt off before the battle begins, that kind of fight. In the end though, we made it out scratch free. Although, a little boy did show me his wiener when I took a picture of the ghetto behind us. I guess he didn't like having his picture taken....

After that we made it to the Mosque (thank you Allah), where we picked up a cab to the train station and met up with Matt and Kellen. We were very surprised when we got on the train to find there was absolutely NO seating. I guess train rides to Marrakech are a hot commodity. So we stood...and stood...and stood some more...and then eventually got to sit on little plank like benches in the hallway....then sat... and say... and then finally were able to get in a compartment with some seats. Here, we met three muslim girls who we talked with for the remainder of the journey. It was very interesting listening to their perspectives on life. When we pulled up to the train station, it was pouring rain. Something you really don't expect in the "Gateway to the Desert". We decided to head over to the market that is renowned for their food. Let me affirm that for you all, the food is simply brilliant. Plus, it was like 10 euros a piece, a steal for the amount to food we ate.

The next day we went on an excursion to the desert where we got to drive through the mountains (the first time I got to see mountains being a Illinoisan so I was pretty pumped). Moreover, we got to see the desert and a berber village, a famous town known for shooting movies like Gladiator (where a guy got pissed at us since we wouldn't pay him money to take us on a tour of "downtown"), and my personal favorite, ride some camels.

From there, the rest is pretty much history. We survived the ride back (our driver was crazy), made some friends in our van, and discovered I have a severe addiction to freshly squeezed orange juice at the Marrakech market (if you ever go to the market go to stall 42, mention the red head, trust me, the owner will know what's up). If you ever get the chance, go to Morocco. It will be unlike any other country you have been to, it's in Africa.

I hope everyone is doing well and enjoying some spring weather. Again family, I beat you all =).


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Vive la Résistance! - France

When talking about my trip to France, I like to point out that it was just that, a trip to France. I saw Paris, Normany (Caen), and Burgundy (Dijon and Beaune). I can't put in words how much I enjoyed it. I definitely understand why my cousin Chuck studied here for a year.

It all begins in Pear-e. The city of love, crepes, and incredibly confusing streets. Although rather dirty, I loved Paris. If I had one complaint, it is definitely how confusing it is to get around. My first night in "la ville lumiere", attests to this...My roommate Mike Johnson and I left Thursday night from Madrid, and got into Charles de Gaulle Airport around 10ish. We got into the actual city around 11, and then spent the remaining time wandering the streets until we finally found our hostel at 2 am... Paris definitely fails in the "easy to get around" department...

The next day at noon we were to meet Mike's freshman roommate, Chris, at the Eiffel Tower. Being up at the crack of dawn however, we decided to visit the Sacre-Coeur Cathedral by our hostel first. The Cathedral was great, but the real story involves myself and an African man trying to sell me a piece of yarn; no joke, a piece of yarn. On the way out of the Cathedral, he approached me with a boisterous "Good morning!!!", in which I responded in an equal "Hola!!!". After already being bombarded on the way into the cathedral, I knew I wanted nothing to do with his yarn business. He proceeded to tell me "Good day" and block me from continuing on my way, all while trying to shake my hand. I gave him a fair "Buenos dias" in return and dodged his further attempts to block my progress. At this point, he informed me that it was impolite to ignore others, and asked where I was from. "Espana" I replied, to which he stopped in mid tracks and replied in a confused tone "Why do you lie to me....?" I guess even he knows that there are no gingers from Spain, oh well, I got away =).

From there, Mike and I proceeded to the Arc de Triumph, which was great for a history dork like me. It was originally commissioned by Napoleon in honor of his invincible army; he never got to see it completed however. Later, it became site to a different "invincible army"; Hitler's German one.

After that, we proceeded down the Avenue des Champs-Elysees - a famous street in Paris - where we came across a Louis Vuitton store that used Zebras instead of mannequins, definitely a new look to the eye. Eventually, we made our way to The Eiffel Tower where we met up with Chris. The Eiffel Tower was simply brilliant. We had plans to go up, but it was to foggy, so we decided to get the other "typical" Eiffel Tower pictures (like the one above). Another amusing aspect about the Eiffel Tower was that there were lots of illegals (like the guys who were trying to sell me yarn), selling little Eiffel Towers in the vicinity, and every time the police would show up, they would scatter like mice; definitely an amusing site to see. By the time we had done all of this, it was going on to 1 o'clock and we were all starving. Thus, it was time to try some falafels. If ever in Paris, you must try a falafel. And why not do the thing right, and go to the most famous of falafel distributors, L'as du Fallafel. Essentially, a falafel is a meat ball comprised of chickpeas with pita bread and lots and lots of other delicious ingredients. Definitely get one if you have the chance!

Next, we went to the famous home of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, Notre Dame ;). The
church was absolutely beautiful and they didn't even make us pay, which makes it a million times better already. Inside the Cathedral they had choir music going which gave an atmosphere unlike any other I've experienced in a church. I don't know if it was live or recorded, but it was awesomeeee. Moreover, Saint Louis had a monument inside the church! Again, I don't know if it was a monument, or where he was buried, but it was neat to see. Lastly, we got to see the gargoyles on the outside of the Cathedral, which definitely brought to life Gothic architecture. Right around this time we discovered one of the true "delicacies" of Paris, the crepe. More or less, it is a thin pancake filled with nutella and my favorite additive, bananas :). If you don't have crepes while in Paris, you're crazy.

The last of our adventure in Pare-e before departing for Normandy was a visit to The Louvre. The Louvre was very impressive with its grand architecture and famous pyramids (I couldn't help but thinking Da Vinci Code the whole time). I really wish I had an entire day to just walk around and see all the art. I especially liked that they don't mind if you take pictures of the art. For some reason, the big museum in Madrid - The Prado - won't get down from their "high horse" and let visitors take pictures. They flat out refuse to let one take pictures of the art, as I have found out on multiple occasions. As I once tried explaining to them, the most famous art museum in the world lets people take pictures, why don't they? I really don't get it. Let me get off that tangent though or I will never finish this blog. The real story comes with being denied free entry into this famous museum. The Louvre has a deal that if you are an EU student, then you gain free entrance. And being students in the EU, we were not about to pay the 10 or so euros to get in. All of us had our student IDs, but the guy wanted to see our student visas, which obviously we didn't have because who carries their passport around Paris??? After 10 minutes of explaining that legally we could not be students in the EU without a visa, we (as in Mike and Chris) demanded to see a manager. The man wouldn't give us the managers name, but instead told us to talk with the information desk. Fifteen minutes later, and a quick surprise visit with my roommate Matt and his friend Ellen, we were strutting into the exhibit with the manager; cheers to Mike and Chris for being un-relentless arguers! From there, the rest is history: we saw the Mona Lisa, a picture depicting baby Jesus with a mohawk, and lots and lots of other great paintings.

One last quick tidbit on Paris - we learned at the WWII museum in Caen that we did the exact same tour Hitler did in 1940 when he visited Paris for a day. We even took an identical picture in front of the Eiffel Tower...I guess he had good taste?

The next morning we jumped onto a train to Caen. Mike and Chris had purchased their tickets at a different time, thus I was sitting in a different car. While walking down the many aisles, I finally came to my assigned car and realized I would be sitting in a compartment like those in Harry Potter, completely making my day. Once I finally found my specific compartment, I noticed it was just myself and an older Frenchman whose name I would later learn was Michel (equivalent to Michael in english). Michel didn't speak much english, but we talked the whole way to Caen about everything from WWII to The Count of Monte Cristo.

Once in Caen, we began our walk to the hotel where we were staying. We saw an old cathedral (everyone in Europe seems to have a cathedral), and a golden statue of Joan of Arc who was from Normandy. As we walked, we stumbled upon a tourist office where we were informed that we could take a train to the beaches of Normandy (in which we would have to leave right now if we wanted to make it), rent a car, or take a taxi. The lady seemed really nice, but the way she explained everything you could definitely tell she was obliged to "suggest" certain transportation groups over others. For example, we could rent a car for 100 euros, or take a taxi for 200? So naturally, we decided on the train.

On the train, we struck up a conversation with three girls from the US who were studying abroad in Dijon. One of them even went to Mike's rival high school in Chicago. When we said goodbye to them later that night at the WWII museum, Mike joked "Have a good life" because the chances of running into them again was nil. The real reason I mention this however is because two weekends ago, Mike and Chris were in Barcelona and actually ran into one of them! Just goes to show, you never really do know!

In no way can I do justice in describing the beaches of Normandy. It is simply something you need to experience. I'm going to try my best though - bear in mind I'm a history dork, so actually getting to see the beaches was something of a dream come true.

We decided to visit the part of beach christened Omaha. Some of you might know of it because of how bad American losses were there. The reason being, the D-D tanks that were suppose to provide armor and cover for the ground troops, actually sank in the English Channel on the way; the only ones to do so. I can elaborate more, but for everyones sake, I'm going to leave it at that. Near the beach there is the American museum, memorial, and cemetery. We decided to start at the museum, where they had an incredible amount of artifacts and information regarding the invasion of Normandy. It
was here that we discovered the story of the 4 brothers which the movie Saving Private Ryan was based. --- A quick special shout out to my awesome, awesome Aunt Maggie, who watched it with me on a portable DVD player all those years ago :) --- From there, we went outside to the Memorial which was phenomenal. I know I keep saying this, but I can't describe it. One must simply experience it. The atmosphere is impossible to recreate. If you have ever looked at something and gotten goosebumps, that is what it was like. From there, we walked to the cemetery where over 9,000 American troops are buried. Again, you simply have to experience it. If you ever have been to Arlington Cemetery in Washington, then you have an idea of what it was like. Looking out on the thousands of crosses, I realized just how many graves there were. Upon further inspection, I recognized that most of these departed were younger than me when they died...really makes you think, huh? It was weird to think I was standing in the midst of all these American soldiers, in France. We were told that the families were given the option to have their sons sent home, but many wanted them to stay with their brothers in arms. If you ever go to France, going to the beaches of Normandy is a definite must see.

Now to the beach. It is a very long strip of sand that had an odd, yet peaceful feeling about it. Unlike most beaches, I did not feel a need to put on my swimsuit and jump in the ocean. Instead, everything was quiet, only to be disturbed by the sound of waves. Walking on the same sand so many American's had treaded before was an experience in itself. Sixty-seven odd years ago, this beach was lined with American troops charging the Nazi strongholds. It was crazy to realize I was finally on the same beaches that thousands of Americans gave their lives for, and because of them, I could walk down it in peace.

Perhaps my favorite quote from the invasion of Normandy goes something like this, "If ever proof were needed that we fought for a cause and not for conquest, it could be found in these cemeteries. Here was our only conquest: All we asked...was enough soil in which to bury our gallant dead" - General Clark.

As we walked down the beach, we came across some old German bunkers. Going inside them was unreal. We even found an old tunnel they used. It was weird to think that almost 70 years ago, how different this world was. How the people who once stood where I was standing had completely different mind sets. My biggest disappointment in Normandy was that both the bunker and tunnel were in dismal conditions. They were pretty bare to the bone, and you could tell that they were beginning to fall apart. Hopefully someone takes the initiative to fix them up before it's to late.

After the beaches, we went to the biggest WWII museum in the world. There isn't much to say apart that even for people who are not that big into history, this museum is still awesome. They had everything from Nazi uniforms, to pieces of wall from Stalingrad.

The next day we took a train back to Paris where we transferred to another train heading to Dijon. In Dijon, we departed for the quaint little French town of Beaune (pronounced like bone). If you ever want to escape the tourist traps, meet people who don't speak a lick of english, and eat great French food/drink even better French wine, Beaune is the place for you. It was very different from Normandy, and especially Paris.

The next day we had an appointment in Dijon with wine connoisseur, Nicholas. Nicholas was a middle-aged Frenchman who you could listen to for hours. He started off taking us through all the wine villages of Burgundy, while explaining all the different aspects of growing wine. From there we went to a medieval winery that is still used today! If my memory serves me correct, its from the 12th century. He then took us to an actual winery where we tried several different wines (the most expensive being around 100 euros a bottle). We learned how to truly drink wine: first you check its age by holding the glass on its side and looking at its reflection on the table, then you swirl it around, take a deep smell of its scent, and then drink (in which there are many ways to decipher how acidic it is). He later told us that you can only taste 6-7 times before it becomes hard to tell the distinctiveness between the different wines. I can assure you this is true, because after 6-7 half glasses of wine consumed in under 30 minutes, you are feeling pretty darn good.

The last of my adventure in France took me back to Paris, this time to the most famous Chateau in the world, Versailles.

I love reading about the French Revolution, or should I say, revolutions. So naturally, Versailles has been somewhere I have always wanted to visit. It was great, especially right off the bat with its free entrance for EU students, and this time I had my passport! The palace was HUGE, especially the grounds, which were my favorite part. I saw everything from the Hall of Mirrors (where the treaty of Versailles was signed - the famous one), the Chapel created by Louis XIV at the end of his life, the Kings chambers, the Queens chambers, Napoleon's chambers, various other "chambers", the never-ending grounds (which were AWESOME), Marie Antoinette's estates, and the huge fountains that are scattered all around. I definitely recommend checking my pictures on facebook to get a better idea of Versailles, although they don't do it justice.

Simply put, France was amazing. I can't wait to go back and visit southern France someday. I've decided if Sarah Palin ever becomes President of The United States, I'll move there; a good plan B in my opinion. Sorry this took so long to write, I promise my blog on Morocco is COMING SOON. PROMISE. I am putting the links to my facebook albums below. I recently discovered I can share these with you all even if we are not friends on facebook. I will upload the links to my other albums for the other blog post as well. Enjoy!


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Barcelona speaks Catalan?

Opinion: Running through an International Airport trying to catch your flight that leaves in less than 30 minutes is something that everyone should try.

Fact: You better run fast.

So how did this Home Alone moment come about? Well, it all started on a beautiful Madrid morning with Matt and I walking to the metro station from SLU-Madrid...........

It was then, that we both realized how stupid we had been for thinking we could make it to the airport with only an hour and fifteen minutes to spare...the running begins. By the time we finally got to the aeropuerto metro stop, we only had 40 minutes until the gate closed. No need to freet, we just needed to conquer about a half-mile (literally) of airport, get our tickets stamped by Ryanair, get through security (which is always quick and painless!), and then finally get to the correct gate. I have never ran through an airport before, but rest assured, it is quite exhilarating. You see, you make fantastic time, people have no problem getting out of your way, and it makes a fantastic story to write about if you just happen to have a blog =). All in all, to do everything I described above, it only took us 10 minutes; a miracle on ice. And in the end, we made the flight, a little sweaty granted, but never the less, we made it!

Once we arrived in Barcelona (which was beautiful), we went to my hostel (Matt was staying with his friend). If you have been keeping up with my blog, then you know that hostels bring in, well, interesting people, and this one was no exception. My favorite on this trip was dubbed "crazy girl". She was from California (but trust me, she wasn't from California) and she was going to be a nanny here in Spain. Ok cool, but what's crazy about her Brent? Well, she was very nice and all, but some of the crazy things she would say to me when I would talk about the weather are not writable. Hence, crazy girl :). Apart from that, my other roommates were fine apart from being really loud. The only other interesting thing to mention is one night I made a two, yes two, hour butt dial that used up all of my recently topped up minutes. Thanks prepaid phone!

There are two things you must see while in Barcelona, first is the Sangrada Familia, and the second is the beach. The Sangrada Familia (The Holy Family) is unreal. Matt and I probably waited about 25 minutes to get our tickets in, and it was absolutely worth it. While there are no holy relics, or famously departed souls buried there, it doesn't need them. There is something about the design, both outside and in, that is just...unique. I would go into greater detail, but truth be told, it's better if you just go see for yourself. Hopefully when you go however, they will be finished. Because very unlike most European cathedrals, this one is actually still under construction! Bear in mind however, they didn't start till the 19th century, so you can't be to mad at them.

If there is one thing I could change about Madrid, it would be to pick up its surrounding mountains, give them to France or something, and replace them with never ending beaches :).

As mentioned earlier, the beach in Barcelona is a must see. Our last day was beautiful (probably in the mid 60s), and Matt, Dan (Matt's friend) and I all rented bikes. The beach was alive with volleyball games, kids playing, and devoted runners and bicyclist. I must admit it was a bit of a nasty shocker seeing old men in speedos playing volleyball, but apart from that the beach was saweet!
Barcelona has a bar worth mentioning called the "Dow Jones". And like its much larger, more successful counterpart, the prices of its "goods" rise and fall with the demand of the market seems like a great idea, right? "I'll just
buy drinks when they are really cheap!!!" Well, if cheap is 5 euros a drink, then this is the place for you! But if you like most people have a budget and don't have a trust fund from daddy, then I recommend not spending to much time here. It is a really cool place though, and definitely worth the experience. Especially when the market crashes to two euros. I tried convincing them that it should be free since the market crashed, but they didn't seem to agree with me for some reason...
The last point of interest on my adventure in Barcelona was the Catalan Museum. The building was absolutely stunning. This didn't come to much of a surprise however since this region of Spain is fiercely proud of their Catalan roots, and actually speak it over spanish. They would be perfectly content with packing up their bags and seceding from Spain, no joke...The best part of this building was hanging out on the front steps watching the sunset, all while listening to a flute player perform a Kansas favorite, "Dust in the Wind". I'm sure the inside was very nice as well, but we didn't bother going in. The most memorable part of the night came while listening to the flute player. I was sitting on the steps, wishing that Will Ferrell was there to sing along, when I realized I was hanging out in Barcelona, listening to some dude shoot the shit with his music, all while watching the sun set. Not many people can say they have been able to do that...

As promised, I finished this by Wednesday! I'm leaving for France tomorrow, and won't be back till Tuesday, so be on the look out for another one soon!


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

English Hooligans and a Barber from Seville

Given my limited time in Europe, everyone said "go to London!", and being the huge Harry Potter/history fanatic that I am, it didn't take much to convince me. My only advice to you is if you decide to visit this lovely little island, go when it's warm, because when Weezer was singing about an island in the sun, they definitely weren't singing about England.

So apart from having bloody miserable weather, why was England so brilliant? Well, as I said, I am a huge history dork, so seeing Big Ben and Parliament was like a dream come true. Pictures simply don't do these icons justice. Not to mention, I was also able to see famous places like West Minister Abbey (home to 29 kings and queens alongside lots and lots of coffee mugs with Prince William and Kate’s adoring pictures for sale), St. Paul's Cathedral (which is the second largest cathedral in the world), The Tower of London (poor Lady Jane Grey…), Buckingham Palace (Everyone loves the Queen), Shakespeare’s Globe Theater (To be, or not to be. That is the question!), the infamous Abbey Road (BEATLESSSSS), and Tower Bridge.

West Minister Abbey - home to 29 kings and queens

Tower Bridge and St. Paul's Cathedral

In any great city, you have a great park. New York has Central, Madrid has Retiro, and London has Hyde. What I loved about Hyde was not the endless open fields of soccer players and wandering families, but the diverse atmospheres that came along with wandering the park. At one end of the park, you had people preaching – one lady "argued" politics, another man proclaimed the world of God, while another sang a song that I'm pretty sure only he understood - and then at another end you could completely escape the chaos of the city, and be immersed in trees and tranquility. A definite must visit.

If any of you have been to London, then undoubtedly you know of “The Tube”. For those of you who don’t, The Tube is essentially the subway and on any given business day has over 2 million people travel on it. Now I might be bias, not to mention I had some bad experiences, but while it is nice for getting around, compared to Madrid’s subway system it is cramped, dirty, and over crowded. The main reason I didn’t like it was due to price. In Madrid, it is one euro one way; in London, it is two pounds one way (mind you one pound is equivalent to approximately $1.60). Tube employees told us if we bought an “Oyster Card” (a pass we could use that caps off after 6 pounds of use everyday, but still allows you to continue traveling freely around the city would be our best bet). What they didn’t tell us was that you better make sure you properly “tap” out the card when you leave the station (you must tap in – charge of 1 pound, then when leaving tap out, another 1 pound). Because if you don’t do it properly– like myself and Matt did once – then they will charge you an extra 4 pounds and take away your cap, thus letting the slaughter begin on your money. In one day, we lost over 20 pounds…not to mention the additional money we paid then for day passes for the rest of the trip. In the end, thanks to the lovely system the city of London has established, I probably spent around $50-60 on transportation…needless to say, I was not a happy camper.

The stories of what went on in the Tube don’t stop there however, here is a nice summary: I sat next beautiful women, I sat next to not so beautiful women, I watched hobos crack open beers, I watched couples way to into PDA, I sat in eager anticipation, and I sat falling asleep on peoples shoulders. One could almost say, it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. But if there is one memory that resonates in my head of the Tube, it was when Matt and I first stumbled upon Victoria Station (the main station in Central London). Being the simple “Madridians” we are, we were not ready for “London Speed!”. In Madrid you see, we like to move at a nice, healthy pace. One that everyone can enjoy. Not London though! Ques were out the door. People were rushing around like chickens with their heads cut off. You could hardly hear yourself think! We were completely side swiped walking into the station. Being the ‘Mericans we are though, we were able to adapt and kick ass! Woo ha! Which was a good thing for us, because otherwise we would never have gotten our new - wonderful! – oyster cards!!! Eventually we got onto our train, and while waiting to be delivered to our destination, we saw a paper with the heading “AVOID VICTORIA STATION DURING RUSH HOUR”. I guess we didn’t get the memo…oops!

Another memorable moment in London was that the one weekend we decided to visit, also happened to be the same weekend that thousands of pissed off college students decided to let the government know what’s what. And while hanging around Parliament watching the police assemble for the protest…a memory floated into my head of my study abroad advisor. I remember she was quite serious, telling us, no no yelling at us – DO. NOT. Partake. In. Protests! Don’t be around them, don’t talk to them, don’t even think about them. Oops again!

For any Beatles fanatic, you must visit Abbey Road. We unfortunately didn’t get to it until nighttime. Not to mention we only had 3 people. But we didn’t let that get us down. We still took the picture, and we still did the famous walk across. Now we did have to do some recruiting of randos: one to take the picture, and one to be our Ringo. Lucky for us, there were two very nice Eastern Europeans just hanging around to fulfill these rolls.

My last little schpeal on London is in my opinion, one of the most brilliant museums – The British Museum. You see, having an empire and depriving other nations of their treasures takes a lot of work, and eventually you have so much of it, you have to put it somewhere! Hence, the British Museum J. It is full of artifacts from all over. Most mentionable are Greece, Macedonia, and of course, ancient Egypt. I am a HUGE history dork for ancient Egypt. Ever since I learned about King Tut’s curse in Mrs. Haslips second grade class, I have been obsessed with the Egyptian culture. So seeing real life mummies that included the once lover of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, Queen Cleopatra, was about as giddy as anyone will ever see me. I was also able to see the Rosetta Stone who’s residing place in England is actually very controversial. Not to mention, I was also able to see head busts of some of the most famous Roman Emperors like Julius Caesar, my hero - Augustus, Hadrian, and Aurelius. When in London, go to the British Museum.

Now on the opposite spectrum of being miserably cold, there is Seville, or how the Spanish call it, Sevilla. The weather was in the mid 60s, sunny, and all without one cloud in the sky. There is not much to say about Sevilla because it is mostly known for being so beautiful (beautiful weather accompanied by hundreds of orange and lemon trees). But its two main attractions were great to see. The first being the Cathedral of Seville (Catedral de Sevilla). The Cathedral of Seville is the third largest in the world (which means by the time I am done with my European adventure, I will have seen the three biggest cathedrals in the world!). It was absolutely gigantic, full of overly ornate statues and altars, and the above tomb of my main man, Christopher Columbus. The Cathedral has a gigantic tower (35 flights up!) that gave a great view of the city. Secondly, there was the palace of Alcazar. It was originally a Moorish palace, but now it is the home of the royal family when they come to visit Sevilla. The palace was mostly barren since the royal family was hanging out somewhere else, so in itself it wasn’t all to crazy, but the gardens that encompassed it were made for the gods. Orange, Lemon, and palm trees everywhere, peacocks wondering around without a care, waterfalls every which way, yeah, definitely made for the gods. Apart from that, my last two cents on Sevilla are not to eat the oranges off the trees. My group was so perplexed to why no one was not eating these delicious looking oranges. Until one night while in a slightly inebriated state, we decided to try a few. Trust me, they might look beautiful on the outside, but they are incredibly sour on the inside. I feel like I’ve heard that before about something else...;)

Hope you all are doing well at home. Sorry again it took so long to post this. I’m in Barcelona now and I promise I’ll post it by Wednesday next.

Miss you all a lot,


Monday, January 24, 2011

Lisboa with a taste of some holy Toledo

If anyone is curious as to if they should visit Portugal, let me make it easy for you - yes, you absolutely should. It was by far one of the coolest places I have been so far. It is hard to write down in words why it is so great. I don't know if it was the people, the food, Lisboa, or what. But I do know that it was amazing.

Every story has to start somewhere, and for mine it starts in the Madrid 5 AM. This is where I learned that the passport that I was going to show off all my travels with, was in fact not going to be that passport. You see, due to the lovely new European Union, flying between EU counties is more or less like flying domestic in the US of A. At least I still have England to look forward to!

I went to Portugal with two of my roommates - Mike Johnson and Matt Guarino - and stayed at a great hostal called the Traveller's House . We learned several things while there:

Numero Uno - If you miss a certain critical trolly to get to Belem (a famous neighborhood), you have to wait 80 minutes for the next one. Don't be discouraged however! For you can always jump in a MERCEDES BENZ taxi, all for 6 euros :).

Numbero Dos - If you own a nice Blackberry, are staying in a nice hostal, with apparently nice people, DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT, charge said Blackberry at night. This is exactly what Johnson did. While in the shower the next morning, I heard Johnson's alarm go off several times (I recognized it since its beethoven, and thought it odd I could hear it in the shower). Needless to say, Johnson didn't wake until an hour later when Matt and I decided to bang on his door. The reason Johnson didn't wake up was because his phone was no longer on the charger, in fact, it was no where to be found. I, being the Holmes I am, remembered how I had heard the alarm in the shower. After doing some investigating in the bathroom, Johnson and I discovered his phone on the outside ledge of the window...wrapped several times over in toilet paper...playing beethoven. Upon further inspection, he realized that his sim card was missing. Perhaps you have already figured out what happened, but for us incredibly hungover college students, we only knew we didn't have the whole story yet. Why would anyone steal a sim card???

It wasn't until a couple hours later on the outbound train to Sintra that it finally hit me. There was no sim card because they wanted a sim card...there was no sim card because they didn't want us to be able to track the phone! Our hypothesis goes as follows: the thief took the phone in the night, discarded the sim card to God knows where, and then hid the phone where we couldn't find it. Then, later in the day when everything calmed down, he would be safe to retrieve the phone with no one being the wiser. Little did he know that sim card or not, an alarm set for 10 AM will go off :). BOOM case solved! Upon further investigation, we can only reason that he hid it, and didn't keep it, was in case the manager demanded to see their possessions. Anyways, another case solved by Holmes and Winston.

Numero Tres - Portugal has the worlds best pastry called the Pastel de Nata. It is absolutely amazing; not letting this delicacy touch your lips is a crime. Portugal also happens to have the best wine (so far). My favorite was a sweeter white wine called the Vinho Verde. Essentially it is a wine harvested earlier, but it tastes amazing! I highly recommend everyone to try both. While on the topic of alcohol, there is a famous cherry like shot called a ginjinha (pronounced like ging-ja), that was great. It is not an ordinary shot but it tastes delishhh. Lastly, they have an amazing chicken dish - I can't remember the name of the dish or the restaurant x-/ - but it was by far the best chicken I have ever had. Thank you Rick Steves for making such a great suggestion!

Numero Quatro - Never think you can't walk somewhere. While in Sintra, there is a famous palace at the top of a very, VERY large hill/mountain. Being the poor young travelers we are, we decided to snub the 10 euro bus ride to the top. Let me tell you, 45 minutes of walking uphill 2 miles does great things for the soul. I should note however that while your soul will be on cloud nine, your body will be dead.

Numero Cinco - The Portugese people are awesome; incredibly friendly and they all speak english. Not to mention, the younger people have a great way of partying. Instead of staying in the bars like every other culture, they all hang out on the streets. Literally a big BYOB block party, it - was - awesome. Although at one point we accidentally ended up in front of a gay bar, needless to say we were very perplexed why all the guys kept talking to us.

Lisboa is great, and I highly recommend that everyone goes there!


Here is my splash on Toledo.

It is completely surrounded by a castle wall while propped up on the top of a hill. It is very medieval esque with its narrow brick roads and medieval shops (literally almost every store I saw was selling some kind of sword). So why do I and everyone else know the phrase Holy Toledo? Well, it turns out it is a really holy place. Being very tolerant to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, it became a sort of hub of religion, hence: Holy Toledo. All in all, it was really cool and if you are ever looking for something to do near Madrid, I recommend going, but definitely go to Lisbon ;).

If everyone can say an extra prayer for me and my friends it would be greatly appreciated. Before writing I had been reading about the suicide bomber in Moscow's airport. Its so sad that people must resort to such terrible violence. Sometimes while riding the Madrid Metro I'm reminded of how terrorist used it in 2003... Hope everyone is doing well and enjoying the snow...In a weird way, I kind of miss it.


PS - If anyone wants a bag of crispy M&Ms let me know, they sell them at the Madrid airport! =)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Hey everyone! Sorry it has taken me so long to start this blog. I didn't expect I would be submitting my first post almost a week after I got to Madrid. Anyways, I got here safely and have been loving every minute. Madrid is unbelievable. The architecture is absolutely stunning, the food is great, and the sites are breath taking.

I am living right off of the Grand Via in Madrid which is right next to the Sol neighborhood and the Plaza de Espana. I'm about a 35 minute walk away from the university, but it is definitely worth it with all the people watching that goes on in between. I am starting to get good at using the metro and bus system (although, I did get off on the wrong bus stop once by myself which led to quite the adventure).

Madrid has a great art museum called the Prado which had some really great paintings (I would put up pictures if I had them, but they freaked out every time I would try to take one). I don't know if you have heard of Martin Rico, but I really liked some of his work (well at least a few pictures I saw). Apart from that, the coolest painting for me at least was one I had seen in my AP European history class of King Louis XVI of France (before he got his head cut off).

Madrid also has a great park called the Parque de Retiro. It use to be the private grounds of the royal family but now they let all of us lowly peasants use it. It is HUGE and no offense Chicago, better than Grant and Millennium combined. I haven't explored all of it yet but when Spring comes along, I will definitely put up some pictures. I also got to see the royal palace, yes Spain still does have a King and Queen, but I will talk about that more in another post.

I'm going to Toledo tomorrow and probably Lisbon next weekend (or Barcelona). As for trips off of the Iberian peninsula me and some other guys have booked flights for London at the end of the month. We are still working on plans for France in which we plan on taking a train through wine country, work our way up to Paris where we will stay a few days, and then do a day trip to the home of King William the Conquer (Normandy), where hopefully we can see the beaches of D-Day from WWII. It also looks like for our other long break we will go to Italy and see the cities of Roma, Firenze, and Venezia.

Obviously I can't talk about everything that has happened, but there have been so many stories it is almost a crime if they are not told. So I am going to make my own list that I will share with y'all when I get back state side; some stories just shouldn't be put in writing ;).

Hope everyone is well and enjoying all the snow I have been hearing of. It was a harsh 60 degrees here today.

With Love,

P.S. - I know I can't spell. Oh and the picture I put up was of the Banco de Espana.