March 23, 2015

#44 - Back to Dubrovnik!

 Dear Dubrovnik,

This post is true to the name as I finally got back for a weekend! Just as the Marin Drzic statue 'promised' I made it back, and much quicker than I thought I would! I also was lucky enough to rejoin a member from my study abroad group two years ago, Monika! She's the first person from our group I've gotten to see and of all places it was right back where it all started!

Getting back to Dubrovnik was quite a trek though. Thursday I said farewells to my students in Castino as I won't see them again before leaving Europe, and waited for the bus. The man seemed a bit flustered as I couldn't dictate well where I wanted to go at first, but he soon understood I spoke English and got excited. He couldn't speak well but he was more than willing to give it a go. When we got to Alba be dropped me off at the train station and I searched for the ticket machine. After finding it I waited for the train and headed off for Torino.
His spine must be shaped like a macaroni elbow!
Too much swagger in one photo.
I had a stop over halfway through in a town that literally tasted of sh*t because there was so much being spread of the fields adjacent to the tracks. In addition the only monitor with the train locations was outside of the station so I had to run around to find out where I had to go. An hour or so later I was in Torino and I set out for the hostel. It was right where it said though I always have some doubts with directions as they often seem too simple. 

I then went and got beer and pizza with another person staying at the hostel named Killian who was from Germany there on business. I turned in for the night to repack my suitcase as I'd forgotten about airlines and what you can't have on a plane. I was lucky enough to have a four person room all to myself so I could easily get ready for the next day. 

I woke up at 5am and began my walk to the bus station, to get to the airport. After buying my ticket I asked the woman where the stop was and she said in Italian, "outside, over there." Perhaps I don't understand Italian well enough but I don't think people could be more vague if they tried.

At the airport I had some worries as the man was speaking with another attendant in Italian about my passport saying it was too old and was broken and I could understand everything which was the worse part. He then looked at me and asked when I was returning and I said Monday, and he handed it to me and said 'Have a nice trip.' Reassuring! Then I got a wonderful pat-down in security even after telling the woman that I was 100% sure it was my underwire that she was seeing. The best part of airports - being groped by sweaty, annoyed TSA's - said NO ONE EVER. 

After that I waited for my first plane of the day and was happy to find that on the decent my Earplanes (they help with the pressure of the air on your ears) worked like a charm and my head felt great! I stopped in Germany (oddly enough the same gate area where I left for the US from Croatia two years prior.) Then I took another flight to Zagreb, and another to Dubrovnik. When en route I had a weird thought while looking out the window. I have never seen a plane in the air while flying. I understand they cannot be in close proximity, but with thousands of planes flying everyday, aren't they bound to even pass at a distance but within sight? 

The Dolomites from above peaking through the clouds!
View of the old city from the plane!
Anyway, an hour or so later we landed! Phew! I then took a bus to the city and had finally arrived! I was earlier than planned to meet Monika so I headed into the city. I saw two former teachers within a minute just walking down the stradun, Iva and Ivana. It was so nice to see them and one of them didn't know I was coming so she was quite excited! Shortly after I found Monika and we went to our apartment. It was tiny - all in one room, but we only paid 11 euro a night so we thought it was fine. Additionally, the apartment we booked was listed at 55 euro on the company site and only 11 on the site I booked through so we were quite happy.

We got some burek and pizza and went to Buza to watch the sunset. It was a bit too far around the city to see well but it was nice to be at the ocean again, in Dubrovnik! We were both exhausted from our travels (she had a long bus ride) so after getting a nescafe and catching up at Karaka we headed to get some pyramid fries and the guy was a bit rude to me as I was confused about who he was serving, but it didn't bother me much as I just wanted to the fries...haha
Safe return as promised!
Then we went back to the apartment to watch some American tv shows in english no less! We both fell asleep around 10PM and slept quite well. 

We got up the next day not quite sure what to do, but it turned out to be easier to decide than we thought as about 90% of all the stores were closed - including all of the ones I'd hoped to visit! So it was easy to decide what to do! ;) We got some snacks and headed to the beach and relaxed for a couple hours in the sun. Then we got another coffee, and checked out some of the stores the were open. I looked for a shirt and it didn't appear to be in my size and immediately the guy said "no sorry we don't have it bye." haha So we didn't do any more searching there. We went to the grocery store and walked up to the cable car stop to check the bus times and walked past my old street. It was so strange to see Lukse Beretica again! We then headed off for the cave beach where we all spent many weekends lounging about. 

What a beautiful place!
The old apartment! 
Can't believe I walked those everyday! 
Beethoven and the not so little kitty are both right where
they were two years ago! Napping away.
We watched a wonderful sunset there with the company of two little dogs who kept darting about ignoring their owners.
Dog enjoying the sunset near the cave.

That hotel you can see, The Belvedere, the one I wanted to
buy if I ever got rich, has been bought and someone is
working hard to rebuild it! Perhaps my next visit I'll stay there! 
Such a photogenic place

The old city at night

We then headed back to make some dinner and get ready for a night out. We stopped at the store to get some food and an older man kept pushing past us as though every place we were is were he was entitled to be. In fact the cashier came to ask him how he was and in Croatian he replied "fine except for these two who are here," referring to Monika and myself. I don't think he knew Monika's first language was Croatian! We then had dinner and went to Karaka's to meet up with some other old classmates. It was awesome and strange because we were meeting them in the same place, it was as though nothing changed. We then went to Skybar which is now a disco not just a lounge bar and got a bucket as it's what you have to do at Skybar.

The dj was pretty bad at playing music at a consistent tempo so it was hard to dance, and neither Monika or I smoke (but everyone else does) so around 2:30AM we headed back for the night. Lungs burning from second hand smoke I took a shower to scrub off the stench and then went to sleep. 

Sunday we went to the beach again and looked for sea glass and were visited by a pigeon who walked all the way from town. I say this because pigeons in Croatia are too lazy to fly. I mean every word of that.
Beach day!

We then went to get an ice cream which was graciously paid for us, and walked around Pile gate area for a while. We got another coffee which was also paid for, and watched a soccer match, Chelsea vs South Hampton. We saw a beautiful soccer player and determined that soccer ratings among women viewers must increase when Pelle plays soccer. (He's italian so that explains a lot.) 

After the game we went to the pier to people watch for a while.
A pigeon reflecting on things

A man wondering how he'll get to shore
without his dingy. 
School! No citron trees anymore ;( 
The Stradun!
Yeah, it's cold enough for these to grow! haha

So glad I got to see this lady!

Why wouldn't there be a GOT store? 
We then headed up to the cliffs to watch the sunset. It was a hazy day so we didn't see much but the sky still looks quite beautiful. We headed back to the apartment and stopped to get some french fries and food for the next day as we both had early mornings. The french fry guy gave me a discount (I assume he recalled me from a few nights before when he was less than excited,) so that was a pleasant surprise! We then went back to pack and I got to sleep around 10 -11. 

I had to get up at 4AM to catch the bus to the airport to catch my cascade of flights back to Cortemilia, so we said so long for now and I was off!
4:30AM picture of the Stradun, quite beautiful.

Posdrav Dubrovnik!
Hopefully Monika and visit Maine one day! I think it would be very interesting and different from Croatia! My flights back went well and I made sure to not wear metal in an effort to avoid getting caught up in security. I had another thought about flying when I was waiting for my plane - ever since the invention of flying, from the moment passenger planes were up and running, and from that point forward, there will most likely never be one instance where all the humans of earth will have both feet on the ground at once. A far out thought I know, but it seems quite real as people will always have someplace to be. I got a pretzel in Germany because it seemed pretty normal and I read english text for the first time in a while!

Our last flight was a half-hour late and it put me quite close to being able to catch the last bus back to Cortemilia, and on top of that when we were descending in Torino the captain let us know that it was raining - and I had no umbrella/ rain coat as there was no rain forecasted five days prior. Alas, one confusing bus connection into the city, and I missed my preferred train by ten minutes. So I had to make the next train, the connection, and find the bus station in Alba before the bus left - challenge accepted! 

I've become very proud of how calm I can stay in really awful travel predicaments because even Italian's hate how messy and non-intuitive anything related to travel is, and I've come to accept that sometimes the next train will still get you there, and maybe you'll have time to learn something in the meantime! On a different note, on my train ride I thought about sitting on the beach and how we were talking about how small each grain of sand is, and to think of how much sand there is on earth. I've had a similar thought while standing on a grate overhanging the slopes on the Matterhorn. I was changing my camera handle and my family said 'be careful not to drop it!' and I realized how easy it would be to loose something in all the snow. And that's just ten square feet below me, on that mountain, in that country. But to some degree we do this often with friends and family. It's easy to loose touch with people, even those who we care about because there is always some security in the belief you can see then again. But why choose to live hoping you'll see people again when you could try to keep those connections thriving? I have a few friends who I admire dearly for their capacity to check in often, and see how things are. It's not that I don't want to, I forget. It's easy, but it's something that we all can work on as nothing in life is certain (except death and taxes.)

As for my last bus, I made it but only with the help of my ever expanding Italian vocab which helped me to explain that I was lost and couldn't find the station. A woman in a pharmacy was happy to help re-route me and probably was sympathetic as I was soaked and carrying a backpack and suite case. 

It's quite un-real that I got back to Dubrovnik and it already feels like it was so long ago! I will always keep that place close to my heart as it helped me to become more independent and true to who I am. 

I am currently packing for another trip with my students, and actually had a trip a couple days ago but I'm working hard to get the info together for that post! When contemplating writing or sleep I always choose sleep! ;)

Ciao for now!

March 10, 2015

#43 - Pisa, Cinque Terre and Genoa!

Dear Dubrovnik,

I just made dinner for my family (tuna noodle casserole,) and it was a success! My little host brother didn't say he liked it, but he said it was better than spinach, and he had three servings sooo...! I'm actually on my a-game and will have this post finished before I begin my next journey - which is actually really soon! I had an amazing weekend as a solo traveller and I certainly learned a lot about my preferred preparation methods and comfortability levels! I also re-confirmed that Adam Levine himself could ask for my hand in marriage, and if he was a "open-mouth snorer" I'd have to decline. I don't think I've found something so petty that drives me to plot small revenge on someone I don't know in the slightest - such as snoring. 

Aside from the snoring, my trip was on the contrary, quite lively! Even before departing for my trip I had some interesting incidents. My original plan was to train to Pisa, walk around and train to one of the towns in Cinque Terre for the night. However, the hostel I wanted was full, and the only one with available room had a good rating, but a very sassy owner. So much so that after correspondence with him I cancelled and got a hostel in Pisa for the night. And fate would have it that I stayed at a wonderful place. Aspetta - (wait) I must start at the beginning.

My travels started on Friday, where I explained the wonders of the game of Quidditch to my 7th grade students early in the morning. They didn't understand how people play it because they said to me, "people can't fly" and I said to them "ah Italians' cannot fly - but Americans' can - that's why we travel so much." Whether lost in translation or complete awe I had a captive audience for an otherwise average day. I then left for my next school which was rather vacant due to the Giant of the Land book festival which 75% of them were at - but after my classes in Saliceto the lovely secretary from the elementary school drove me to the nearest train station (about 15 mins from Saliceto.) 

I then waited in what I can only describe as broad-sketchy daylight. There were a group of men leaning against the ticket machine (that I needed to use) and I contemplated paying the fine of not having a ticket versus approaching the group. The men were eventually lured away by a pack of cigarettes and I was able to get my ticket and how risque of me - I walked across the TRACKS! (Because there are literally two sets at the whole station, which is essentially just a platform and not a station at all. 

Once on board the ticket man approached to punch my card and he truly was a character from a book. Hair piled on his head in lofty black and grey curls shifted slightly to once side. His jacket was silky and long, a dark navy color. He looked as though he belonged on the Polar Express, or conducting an opera, but not on my train which contained maybe seven people. Alas, things got interesting when we were one stop away from my transfer in Savona. My next train was departing in fifteen minutes and we were 13 minutes behind schedule as the station we were waiting at had only one set of tracks both ways, and the arriving train was late, so we had to wait for it to pass. To my luck as always another woman on the train was trying to make the same transfer and told the ticket man who phoned to the next train and had them wait. (I didn't know this until I got off the train with one minute to my next departing, sprinting, and seeing it on another platform and barely making it. I then saw the same woman and connected all the points I'd seen. So to the floppy haired man, many thanks though at the time I was sure I was down for the count! 

The train ride to Pisa was about 3 or 4 hours - I can't really recall as after 13 I start to jumble the hours. I'd heard in the news about strong winds in the area and it's quite evident that trees aren't made of the same stuff as they are in the North East! Hundreds of trees littered the grounds outside the train windows, and all the roofs had been stripped clean of their orange arched tiled which were crushed all over the roads. I can't imagine all that would have to take place to fix that! In addition we passed many massive stone yards with thousands of minivan sized pieces of marble, and granite all different colors; pink, black, blue, green etc. They were quite spectacular! 

Also, we rode past the biggest European grave yard I've ever seen! They are very different here as peoples caskets are above ground, or in a kind of locker that is stacked on others in small house-like buildings. I'll have to walk to the nearest one and take some photos.

Anyway, I arrive in Pisa at around 6 (I think) and it is almost sunset. I followed the signs to the city center as I knew my hostel was near and all of the sudden I happened upon the Leaning Tower! All of the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles) was very clean, with beautifully green grass. It was quite empty probably due to the sun setting but I found it to be very breath-taking. It was very evident that people who live there appreciate and respect their buildings and it makes it all the more humbling to visit. After walking around and reading a bit about the buildings I learned that the tower itself is the bell tower for the church even though they are not connected as with a common church set up. In addition, the whole square it not located in the town center, or near it at all which is attributed to various sieges throughout history. 

You can see how angled the tower is here, 5°!

The Church
The Leaning Tower!
From the back it doesn't appear to lean at all!
After some walking I found my hostel and was delighted to meet the owner (in his 60's or 70's) and his son, (40's- 50's) who owned the hostel together. They both spoke english enough to express their love for the city and it's beauty. They also had many suggestions and were very kind and helpful. I got a six person suit to myself, and I would really call it a detached apartment as it had it's own full bathroom etc for like 14 euro? So needless to say I was very content. I also had a short talk with a fellow traveller from Argentina who was departing for Florence that night and we talked about some sights and travel plans. 

For all of my travels it has seemed that I've had many 'mis-connections' where I have a great opportunity to meet new people but the factor of the meeting is in their control and it doesn't seem to work as they are departing etc. I was bummed as this happened through January, and February and into March where I find myself now, though I guess I have been seeing it as a personal challenge to learn a bit more about myself before settling down for a bit. 

I wanted to go to sleep early, but that never happens so around 11:30PM I laid down to sleep but didn't sleep well as I had to wake at 5:00AM to catch my 6AM train. It was a brisk, cool, dark walk, but as my hostel hosts boasted, the city was very safe and open, and I felt fine to walk to the station. However, I ran into my first printed train error.  
I could see the tower from my hostel!
Sunrise from the platform

My train was suppose to arrive at 6:27, and because the station is small, trains have no numbers, and there are no digital boards. So you read off paper. The list said platform 1. And that was it. So I sat at platform 1. At 6:25, a train pulled into platform 3. I thought that it was funny that two trains would arrive so early in close proximity but didn't think of it. Until I got that lump in my stomach as the train started to pull away. I got up and went to the schedule near that platform and it said instead platform 3. I still do not understand what happened but the next train wasn't for two hours, so I instead caught one to my transfer station to have the wait time at a different place. I wrote some post cards, and had time to talk with a Cinque Terre guide which proved to be the best use of my time as she let me know that 3 or the 4 trails connecting the 5 cities were closed. I wasn't happy to hear this, but understood as the closers were due to land-sides, so essentially the trails were ripped off the mountains. 

Knowledgable and ready I headed to the only trail that was open, which was the hardest train, with the steepest ascent, and it was also the greatest distance - 2 hours walking. It started in Moterosso al Mare, and climbed the mountain up and back down to the sea in the village of Vernazza. I was not able to visit Corniglia or Manarola as the ferries were not running, and the trains were not frequent to the two towns, and you can't drive to them, and you can't walk to them. But I ended my visit in the Cinque Terre by training to Riomaggiore for a well deserved pasta and mussels dish, with potato fries. And to the delight of my ears, in a restaurant of Italians, no one spoke a word... such a strange phenomena! 
Some folks swimming! (If I had brought stuff I would have!) 

The start of the hike! 
Felt quite hobbity 

Beautiful hand-laid bridge along the way 

Gotta love that blue
Monterosso in the distance! 
Vines adapt to walkers 
What a beautiful view 
Some giant aloe like Croatia! 

These stone walls are everywhere in Italy, even lining the highways! 

Can you see the walking trail hidden in the vineyards?

View from Riomaggiore on the closed trail to Corniglia.
A pano from Riomaggiore while waiting for my train.
I then hopped on a train to head off to Genoa. After leaving the station I had a heck of a time trying to find my hostel as the restaurant a ate at in Riomaggiore had 'free wifi' for customers, but I didn't get the password until 15 minutes before my train was arriving and the password was like : drii‡flfiY%^&$%^ but hand written so I didn't get to use it before leaving. AKA, I had the street address scrawled in my journal, and 3 minutes of phone battery, in a city with a population over 609,000 covering over 94 square miles. It was basically like being on 'Who Wants to be a Millionaire?' - Do you take the clue - phone a friend or just guess! As it was only 3 or so in the afternoon I walked towards the waterfront to try and think through my options. The street name would have no value to most people as it's a side street, which would be equivalent to a person's driveway having a street address in Maine.

I contemplated going to the Aquarium as I find I have a love/hate desire to go inside. Indeed the last aquarium I visited was in New Orleans, Louisiana back in 2009, (not including Burlington's "aquarium" that has one sea cucumber and like five star fish,) and on the whole they are very beautiful entertaining, and educating. But I find I am stuck between a deep fascination with underwater life (as I have never been able to swim very deep due to my ears,) and a very hollow feeling when I see sea creatures confined to a life in a glass bowl when they in the wild could have more places to call home than you or I ever would. How was that one animal so un-lucky to be plucked from their home and put inside on display? And then there is the learning aspect, how will people know about these animals without zoos and aquariums? / But what animals will there be to learn about if we don't protect the animals on this earth we call home? We are killing off these animals with our negligence to our natural environment, so that one day animals in zoos and aquariums may live a better life than the animals who could one roam the deepest oceans, and the most luscious jungles.

Alas, I didn't go in (largely due to the ticket price which was comparable to a ski pass in the Alps,) and it was a beautiful day outside, and I had to find my hostel by nightfall. ha ha That sounds like an adventure!
The port marina (well one of the many) 
The end of the aquarium - I think it was actually a mobile ship.
This interesting structure that provides a great view of the city 
A glimpse at the juxtaposing street art and frescos   
The biosphere on the bay is right next to the aquarium and it
has it's own weather climate able to produce clouds. It has
many species and plants and insects from all over the world.

I happened upon an info kiosk and through some broken Italian and english she explained that she knew most of the hostels and made a circle where she believed it to be. So, I set off in search for my hostel and passed many other hostels and hotels on my way and had a perplexing realization that most of them only had one star on their signs. But honestly, who boasts having a one star rating? What do you have to be lacking to have a one star rating? Isn't that kind of a deterrent? What do they smell like? All questions I really didn't want to know the answers to.

I kept glancing skyward to see the street signs which are located on the side of the buildings. They make it hard to casually be looking where you are, so it's obviously who is local, and who isn't. I also tried to keep my map stuffed away though I'm sure my tights, hiking boots and Champlain sweater didn't do much to hide my non-italian identity. After many turns and pauses I finally found the door, and buzzed in and climbed up the four flights to find a spectacular little hostel. 

It was very clean, and modern with the juxtaposition of frescos decorating the high ceilings, and many original windows and balcony doors. The owner was a sweet young man in his late 20's who wanted to make a place that was affordable, clean, and accommodating.  I believe he had done just that, as his hostel didn't dismiss on age, (too old or young) as most hostels do. (Snorers, that should be an entry question. Do you snore? You can stay in the room with other snorers because there is a higher likelihood that you will be strangled or pummeled with boots in your sleep by other guests.) 

I didn't have exact payment on arrival as he could break my big bill (because I'm so loaded with $$) haha but he was very reasonable and said no problem, when you get smaller change just pay me then. And I forgot a lock which he lent me, and he also gave me the BEST food/sight suggestions which I tried to cram into one night and morning!

I first set out on a walking tour with the intent to arrive at his suggested dinner place, Cavour 21, at 17:00, when they first open. I passed some amazing, funky buildings, including the opera house, the national bank and fountain, churches, markets, and eventually I arrived at Cavour. It had a banner for a sign boasting their number one spot as the best pesto in the world (they won in a competition last year,) and they did not let me down. Though only the owner could speak to me (she didn't want to speak italian as she had the chance to speak english.) ((also sorry for the lowercase languages - it Italian, they are lowercased, so I am constantly switching back and forth and second guess myself.))
I loath Fedoras.  
The Opera!
The funky striped church! 

I said I would take any suggestions she had, and she suggested the pesto pasta with beans and potatos (their famous dish, and after learning I was from the East coast, where we fish and cook seafood, she suggested the rabbit instead of the fish. Both were phenomenal and that was perhaps my 3rd 'this is what death by overeating feels like' meal, but there wasn't a second when eating rabbit that I wasn't like 'well, this is a rabbit," because it looked like a rabbit. 
Pesto, peas, and potato pasta

Rabbit with olives
After dinner I did some touring by night continuing the tour as suggested. I went to the old city gates, and back through some squares which were packed with mopeds and hundreds of italian youth with well coifed hair and cigarettes. 
The old city gate 
A very special well but no plaques or descriptions! 
A bajillion mopeds. 
Very clean tiled sidewalks, NO GRAFFITI?!
The bank! Such an interesting combo of old and new
I also came to realize that I find many young men here much less threatening because about a solid 70 percent of guys wear argyll sweaters, and you can only be so thug in an argyll sweater. I can picture a confrontation being like: "Give me your watch, but don't get caught on the threads of my sweater! It could unravel...." 

 I found my way back to the hostel and called home for the first time in a while, and then tried to get some sleep. There was only one other man and he was going to sleep when I arrived which was perfect, but per usual some drifters rolled in at around 3 -4 am, and one was a snorer, and another was a 'set my alarm clock 2 hours before I want to get up, and let it go off every three minutes until I am fully awake. So, I got up after the first half-hour of 90's pop alarm clock music, and went and got some focaccia (it can't be any healthier than eating the crust of a Pizza Hut pan crust pizza) and a tea, and sat at the water front. I then explored Eataly (a very famous Italian Organic food store) It had the strongest odor of pretentious shopper, but it really was beautiful and amazing. 
Side street from my hostel 
More frescos
Ornate facades 
And bright colors! 
Note the glass hall way up there
A sundial on the wall of a small square 
Interesting name choice
I liked this photo as it captured the brightness of the day,
the green plants, and the ice skating rink to the right!
After walking back up to my square I took a weird elevator to the top of the city, for free and got an amazing final view. 

Can you spot the little old man walking from his house? Quite the entrance!
I then gathered my things and headed for the train station. Of course, I had to get another gelato, and this one was definitely made in house, as it had the real tart lemon taste, and non-fake strawberry color or sweetness. I waited for my train in the indoor terminal as the tracks were shaded and very chilly and noticed only after twenty or so minutes that there were a couple pigeons walking around the room. Also, more frescos on the ceiling! 

I then got my trains, and make it back to the station where my families aunt, uncle, and niece and nephew were waiting for me! I went back to their house for biscuits and italian coffee as I told them the highlights of the weekend. My host mom then joined us or a short tour of their home city, and they we headed back to Cortemilia! We got back in the early evening which was a nice change for me. 

Now I am prepping for my next big adventure (along with some of my class lessons) and trying to enjoy the brief moments of calm.

Ciao for now! ;)