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whirlwind europe.

May 28, 2012

Thirty days, five planes & two trains, a thousand [plus] photographs, four countries & nine cities, and a whole lot of wine and gelato later, I’m back in Murcia geared up for a summer-like springtime with a brand new smile on my freshly bronzed face.

It’s mid-May and I’m happy to report that with 30+-degree days [and nights], I’m back to being the [somewhat] tan, sweaty girl I love being. Winter was rough for me, as I’m sure my more recent posts indicated, but as life would have it, the good and bad come in cycles, and I’d like to think that myself and perhaps many others have finished the climb through the cold and are now cruising down the mountain, hair flapping in the wind and enjoying the warm breeze that comes with the arrival of skirt season—Oooooh lala!—and Memorial Day.

Along with feelings of rejuvenation, however, come anxiety and excitement as the butterflies in my stomach take flight in anticipation of my next move. Since saying goodbye to my parents and sister, I’ve tried to fall back into the daily grind of teaching and tutoring, but with more or less only one other “t” on my mind: traveling.

After a few sluggish months leading me to question my motives in staying abroad, “Whirlwind Europe”, which I have come to use in referencing my recent travels has re-inspired me to quite literally get back on the train [if only it could look more like a boat?] and keep moving forward in meeting new people and experiencing new places, and has again reminded me why I left home in the first place.

paris, france

From the Eiffel Tower to the Opera House to the quintessential old European skyline, this city is packed with indoor and outdoor eye candy that is definitely worth stopping to ogle over. Even with five days there, I stood no chance of seeing it all, though made a spirited effort trekking back and forth across the city, mastering the Parisian metro and hopping on the back of scooters for authentic, even if unorganized, city tours.

sat under the eiffel for two hours…just staring.

Despite the architectural beauty in Paris, one of my favorite parts of this leg of the trip was the people. Fresh out of Spain after three and a half months planted in Murcia, I was eager for social interaction with new opinions, ideas, and interests.

My first nights were spent with Lily, one of my favorite travelers who came through Casa Verde last summer in Panama, who was finishing up her year at the University the weekend I arrived. Mutual interest in Ron Abuelo and dancing until sunrise [among other things!] catalyzed a fast friendship that was reestablished almost immediately. Although she was on her way to the South of France, before departing she did have time to introduce me to the wonderful world of French breakfasts as we walked along the Seine River taking photos of Notre Dame.

spending the morning with croissants, coffee, and notre dame.

outside the louvre.

the city of love…apparently.

The rest of my week was spent Couchsurfing with Thibault, who turned out to be a French gem. He emailed me a remarkably detailed set of handmade maps [that I will happily send you on request], which allowed me all the independence I needed to navigate the sites alone while he was in class. When available and free of a hangover, he accompanied me on many of my wanderings, guiding me to Montmartre and through the Père Lachaise Cemetery on my quest for Jim Morrison’s and Oscar Wilde’s graves. He let me tagalong to a student party, which included musically themed rooms of jazz, brass, rock, electronic, and probably a couple more that I’ve since forgotten. I met Frenchmen, Spaniards, and even a student from Georgetown University, which was almost a little too close to home for being thousands of miles away from D.C. I think there was even some handholding with a boy named Adrián as we wandered from room to room sipping plastic cup cocktails and seeking something booty shake-able. I knew Paris was supposed to be romantic!

a little dc-esque, no?

spending the afternoon with one of rock’s legends.

left my heart…and some saliva too.

“big party.”

The following night we unexpectedly found ourselves at a party of afriendofafriendofaco-workerofafriend’sfriend…[OR SOMETHING]…which I can only really describe as Gossip Girl-esque. On a first floor apartment directly below the Panthéon I felt entirely out of place among the expensive alcohols, tiny hors d’oeuvres and refined French-speaking upper-Eastsiders. While it’s always exciting to see how the other side lives, my lack of French and hippie-Spanish hybrid look had me feeling a little bit like the thumb on a hand of fingers. But I quickly returned to my element as we departed for beers at more Brooklyn-style bars. Retrospectively, of course, I wish I had been the strange American tourist taking photos from the balcony, but for fear of embarrassing our connection’s connection’s connection to the party, I kept my English comments to myself and Sony Point and Shoot burning a hole in my purse.

Furthermore during my long weekend in France, I developed a food crush on crepes and macarons, and binged on green seedless grapes, which are absent from my life in Spain. I stared idly at restaurant menus, but couldn’t ever quite bring myself to sit down and drop twenty euro on a lunchtime salad at a chic café; I’ve yet to enjoy a six euro cup of tea, and wasn’t about to break stride in Paris. I felt a tinge of longing to learn French, though as it combines Spanish verbs and awkward English-like pronunciations, I think I had best master Spanish before taking on a third language. Finally, I decided that the Louvre was the most overwhelmingly underwhelming place I have ever visited.

favorite piece inside the louvre.

macarons at Ladurée.

couldn’t help but wander in each time i walked past.

when did abercrombie & fitch become cool again?

I ended my journey with an uncomfortable and intermittent chair nap in the Paris Orly airport alternated with befriending a small mouse and drawing my sleeping company, cursing as they shifted in the seats. While I dreamt, I manifested sunny days for my next week in Berlin…

berlin, germany

As far as cities go, Berlin gets a 24K gold star…because, well, it’s awesome. [Opinion influenced by the availability of Crispy M&Ms.]

However, in addition to achieving greatness in my memory, I also fully stand behind the consideration that this city presents itself as a potential black hole in my life. Much like Ocean City, Maryland and Richmond, Virginia, it’s one of those places that I found instant chemistry with, but I could never survive there for an extended period of time; not because I would tire of it, but because I would subsist on beer, cigarettes, and parties, a lifestyle which though rich in fun, provides little in terms of personal growth.

What most attracted me to Berlin as a traveler was that it’s not a city where you feel the need to “see” or “do” a whole lot. The biggest focus here is on experience: living like a Berliner and absorbing the German culture by drinking beers in the park, eating Currywurst [if you’re into that sort of thing], befriending the artists and squatters at Tacheles, and playing loads of ping-pong.

Granted, I did go on a free tour of the city, led by an extremely passionate British chick named Amy, and make it the East Side Gallery, the Tempelhof Airport, the Topography Museum, Tacheles [where I purchased a small plot of property in Kappaland], and the DDR Museum, which for recent German culture and history enthusiasts is definitely worth a stop-in.

purchasing property.

measuring out my plot of land.

smiling with…the mayor?

tacheles.

eastside gallery.

recycled putt-putt course.

checkpoint charlie’s border crossing.

authentic german dinner.

Beyond that, however, my days were spent wandering the streets with Jess and a small crew of boys from the Circus Hostel, window shopping, exploring, and more or less just familiarizing ourselves with the city, which has essentially been completely rebuilt since the devastation of World War II only half a century ago.

Most surprising about Berlin, was the affordability of life [and this from a girl living in Murcia] and the vegetarian presence there. Initially fearing I might find little aside from pretzels [yuck] and sauerkraut [super yuck] I was ecstatic at the selection of organic grocers and sushi, pizza, sandwiches, burgers, and even specialty doner kebab shops that catered to those of us who were traumatically affected by Babe.

My friend Bud, another one of my favorite finds from Panama, and his friend Alex acted as exceptional hosts, who, as respectable ones often do, made sure I experienced Berlin nightlife from all angles. I have vague recollections of bunny rabbits, machine guns, metal bars, gay dance clubs, and drinking on metro trains, all made hazy by Mate and vodka. Something tells me it was fun.

drinking on the metro.

madrid, murcia, & granada, spain

As my family’s arrival date in Europe approached I realized just how excited I was to see them. After almost seven months with only irregular gchat messages and the occasional Skype date, it was the longest period of time we had gone without any in-person contact.

However, as the date approached, I also realized how anxious I was about having them in Spain with me, considering [and stressing over] whether or not they would like the country, the people, and the cities we had selected to visit.

Living a completely independent life for the past year, since moving to Murcia in the fall I’ve spent months building a community and family here that is my own. And while I had always wanted to share this new life with those most significant to my home and past, I had never had the opportunity. For the first time I realized just how alien the experience of mixing these two separate existences after so much time might have been; wanting desperately for the past and present to mesh seamlessly, but also wondering how nearly a year apart with new surroundings might have affected me and how I might have changed.

Needless to say, with the exception of a few catastrophes surrounding car rentals, city driving, cave dwellers, and missed flights, I’d say our time in Spain was a marked success. [And honestly, without a little tension and anxiety what is a family vacation anyway?] My family had the opportunity to explore not only Murcia, but also Abarán where they met the staff at my school and many of the students who I have spent the year teaching. We toured the Alhambra and despite the rainy weather that plagued our time in Spain [and Italy, for that matter!], wandered the streets of Granada where I introduced ¾ of the Thoms to tapas culture where my fish-hating father even opened his hearts to sardines [of all things]. They embraced the concept of a daily siesta, especially after learning that in Spain we walk just about everywhere, and unexpectedly fell for Madrid after only a few hours and a trip to the Mercado San Antón.

welcome to madrid!

nicest car i’ve ever driven.

wine with lunch? she could get used to life in spain.

holding hands <3.

streets of abarán.

my favorite co-workers!

sistahs <3.

thom family sin a few key members.

overlooking abarán.

granada. sweet rain coat.

mercado san antón.

Despite wishing for another week in Spain to take Dad to Toledo, Mom out shopping, and Jamie to the discotheques, after a week of playing tour guide, translator, and driver I was more than ready for a martini and to slip back into a few weeks of playing tourist in Italy.

rome, florence, & venice italy

Of all the places I visited in April, I most attached myself to Italy. Historical, charming, and romantic, with some of the best food and wine in the world, there is seemingly something for everyone.

history:

Apart from being a major tourist destination [and therefore being flooded with foreigners], Rome is a city that I found difficult to dislike. I’ve always found myself as one to form the strongest attachments to the “experience” based cities instead of to historical attraction based ones, preferring losing myself in culture to losing myself in an infinite museum. As I’ve recently become keen on world history, however, which I attribute to both recent travels and an extended obsession with Ken Follett novels, I was intrigued by Rome where history seems to pervade every inch of the city.

Jaw dropping and awe-inspiring, wandering there was like taking a visual tour of a textbook. City blocks are lined with statues of Roman leaders and historical monuments are as common as Beanie Baby collections were in 1997. Unlike what I would expect to find in heavily regulated areas, legendary sites such as the Colosseum or the Forum whose histories far-exceed that of the entire United States have not been sheltered from the elements or separated from the curiously wandering hands of the public. Buses and taxis weave around the Pantheon and tourists eat pizza next to Trajan’s Column. And exploring Pompeii without a tour guide or the fear of receiving a slap on the wrist for touching something off limits had me smiling even through the downpour. Before leaving my Mum and I made sure to throw coins [properly] into the Trevi Fountain ensuring our return visits to Rome. We threw in an extra few coins for Dad who was off somewhere buying umbrellas #s 8, 9, and 10 of the trip—always taking care of his girls!

dancing in the rain.

making wishes.

out in rome.

going for the wet rat look.

a day when i actually needed sunglasses?

gelato round…16?

unauthentic italian pizza.

dad found a friend.

mum and dad at the colosseum.

eating and drinking our way through italy.

american-italian classics. moonstruck soundtrack, anyone?

making rain gear look good.

vesuvius in the clouds. rainbow umbrellas block rain, but will they protect from volcanic ash?

putting down my favorite souvenir to cook dinner, pompeii-style.

st. peter’s.

visit to the vatican.

christmas eve organ.

when they say large, they mean large.

clark and ellen griswold waiting for a train.

clark and ellen onboard. off to florence.

charm:

Far and above my favorite place I have visited in Europe so far, Florence is a city that I fell for at first bite. Among the incredible meals—my personal restaurant recommendations include il Santo Bevitore and  il Munaciello [try the gnudi…they look like small dead turtles, but taste like heaven]—I happily indulged in perhaps ten scoops too many of cocco gelato and American-style bagels, satisfying a craving seven months in the making.

birthday/anniversary dinner at il santo bevitore.

il Munaciello.

mozzarella, caponata, red wine.

gnudi: worst looking, best tasting.

try not to drool.

Beyond sending my taste buds on a joyride, Florence was also a mental relief. Combining tourism, a University presence, and a bustling local atmosphere, the balanced cultural environment made so I never quite felt right at home, but also never felt completely out of place. There were young people, old people, locals, and foreigners; there were enough attractions and tours offered to fill the schedule of even the most active traveler, but also enough cafes and local offerings to keep content a more relaxed visitor.

cafe in florence.

::le sigh::

duomo.

wines.

Additionally, much to my liking, the combination of the constituents—the Italian ethos, live music and art events, and the apertivo hours held at swanky, though not intimidating bars [my favorite was Santo Spirito’s Volume]—demonstrated an urbanity in youth culture; the perfect surrounding for me as a mid-20something growing tired of the average bar and club scene.

Introducing me to such social blisses though, and the highlight of my trip here was Katie B., one of my best girlfriends from high school who is currently living in Florence, perfecting her Italian and working at a new art school.

santo spirito.

reunited friends.

I would never say that we had a falling out, but as time and distance often have it we’ve found our impossibly conflicting schedules have always prevented a reunion for even so much as a cup of coffee. And, while Skype keeps us close, everyone knows that laughing through a computer screen will never replace a conversation over wine and chocolate.

After years of mere IMing, jumping back into friendship proved a simple task for Katie and I. We were both relieved to skip the small talk, reverting immediately to gushing and complaining without fear of the judgment that comes with making a first impression. In addition to comfort and empathy through recent trials, tribulations, and triumphs we provided one another with a source of support and reassurance for all questions that lacked clear answers—yes, it’s okay that at twenty-five you are not contributing to your retirement fund; yes, it’s okay to move-in with your foreign boyfriend if it’s financially beneficial even if the relationship is new; no, it’s not crazy that you want to hop on a sailboat and explore the world via ocean currents for a few months.

::sigh::

I promised myself I wouldn’t backtrack through cities, but I also hadn’t seen Florence when I made myself that promise.

goodbye for now, florence.

romance:

By Venice, I was tired [quite similarly to how I feel now after trying to recap a month in only a few pages]. I was released again to solo travel in Florence as my parents departed for Madrid for their connecting flight home to the states, but after two weeks of traveling in the company of others and with cloudy skies and two days of rain ahead, I lacked the personal motivation to see much in my limited time in The City of Water.

Despite skipping over most of the major attractions [with the exception of St. Mark’s, of course] I think I nailed the most important of the “10 Things to do in Venice” by getting myself completely and utterly lost, map-less, in its winding and picturesque streets.

st. mark’s in the rain.

st. mark’s in the sun.

rialto.

view from the rialto.

boats.

heart sigh.

gondolas.

square outside the hostel.

I will admit that overall Venice has an undeniably dirty feel to it. It reeks of age and dilapidation, and on cloudy, rainy days the tiny roads and alleyways can feel dark and constricting. Standing in doorways and ducking into cafes watching the water drip from rooftops and form puddles in the streets I couldn’t help but notice the melancholic aura of the city in the rain.

When the sun emerges, however, the grime is overlooked, counteracted by a unique romantic appeal. Substituting a series of interconnected waterways for ugly and busy streets, Venice replaces cars and buses with boats and increases human mobility between neighborhoods by countless footbridges of varying sizes. Perhaps not surprisingly, the lack of traffic and car horns had an intensely calming effect, even if the wafting smell of dirty water did not.

Though Venice was a particularly special city, when I return [and I will return!] it will be in the company of a boyfriend…or a girlfriend who loves red wine just as much as I do. It’s certainly a city that you can visit alone, but would probably be best approached in the company of others.

en route to alicante.

As I should have predicted, my flight home arrived late and I capped off the tour with a twelve-hour stint in the Alicante airport. What normally would cause me tears, I laughed off deliriously as I made base camp in a Burger King booth, scanning through all of my pictures, scribbling down memories, and waiting for the first bus home in the morning.

In closing, a million thanks to Lily, Thibault, Bud, Alex, Jess, Harry, Amir, Mom, Dad & Jamie, Katie, Dan, Angus and other A Venice Fish crew, my enablers along the way who have welcomed and inspired. See you down the road.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 30, 2012 6:25 pm

    Reading this, it makes me think how successful you would be at writing a travel book. Something like, “the young american’s guide to all the world has to offer.” 🙂 I like your insight, girl…do something with that talent!!

  2. Thibault permalink
    May 30, 2012 10:10 pm

    Big party and cool story !!!

    Loads of hugs Maddy,
    keep being awesome 🙂

  3. Cyrus permalink
    May 30, 2012 11:40 pm

    You are on quite the adventure, but I would expect no less from you. Thanks for sharing, I really enjoyed the read.

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