Art, history, food, fashion, and culture; Italy has something for everyone. I’ve written about my experiences in Venice and Florence and will undoubtedly go into further detail about the Vatican and Rome later. Below, I’ve chosen one representative photograph from each stop on my tour of Italy.
Category: London to Athens Trip
La Sagrada Família
Situated in Barcelona, and considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Sagrada Família (Holy Family) is one of the world’s most innovative places of worship. Construction began in 1882, though Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí revised the design a year later, infusing the Gothic basilica with art nouveau elements. Due to lack of funding and socio-political disruptions such as the Spanish Civil War, architects have worked intermittently on Sagrada Família for well over one hundred years.
European toilets astounded me. When I landed in London, the first thing I did was beeline to the bathroom. I crammed my suitcase into the stall, rigged up my duffel bag so that it was teetering on the suitcase by the grace of the tiny door hook, and turned around to see the cutest toilet I’ve ever seen in my life. This must be for children, I thought. In my sleepless, post-flight, full-bladder stupor, this was the only rational explanation for such a petite toilet. What if a child has to pee, and I’m in here? Children can’t wait; they wet themselves! Or worse.
So, logically, I had to go check the sizes of the other toilets. Of course. I squeezed past the baggage blockade, and awkwardly popped through the narrow opening, as though the stall had given birth to me. A woman washing her hands at a nearby sink squinted at me suspiciously, her eyes trailing down to the abandoned luggage. In a flash, my mind went to all those “If you see something, say something” posters plastered around New York. Sheepishly, I slid back through the crack in the wall.
Did you know that the first step toward immigrating to Monaco is to open a bank account with a minimum initial deposit between €300,000 and €1 million? With the intention of rubbing shoulders with the rich and the famous at the Monte Carlo Casino, we drove to Monaco one of the nights we were based in Antibes, France. Unfortunately, the traffic was so bad that by the time we arrived, there was only enough time to walk around and take a few pictures.
The French Spectrum
A visit to France is a fully saturated Technicolor experience. Cityscapes and countryside similarly pulse with the color and light that once inspired the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masters. Caught in Paris’s congested nighttime traffic, it was evident why the infamous Avenue des Champs-Élysées is sometimes called the street of diamonds and rubies. Juxtaposed against a black sky, the lanes of gleaming white headlights and scarlet break lights transformed the road into a conduit of glittering jewels.
When I look back on my time in France, I remember each experience as a color on the rainbow spectrum. I passed through the red-light district of Pigalle on my way to the Nouvelle Eve cabaret and vaudeville show in Montmartre. The neon glow emanating from the Moulin Rouge set the stage for a night of garish entertainment. From my seat directly in front of the Nouvelle Eve stage, I had an unimpeded view of bizarre dance routines, where the performers were clothed and then nude for seemingly no reason at all. Midway through the second act, a girl from my group propped her elbows up on the stage, rested her heavy head in her palms, and shouted drunken platitudes. I watched whirling, kicking legs come within inches of her face, as she continued to yell, “Awesome! Yeah!”
Evidently thirsty after dutifully cheering the dancers on, she turned back to the table to grab the champagne bottle nestled in the ice bucket. In her drunken haze, she forgot about the bottle next to her elbow, and accidentally knocked it to the floor. The bottle was half empty anyway, since she’d spilled most of its contents across the table during the previous act. Shocked by the calamitous loss of champagne, she then dropped the full bottle, as well. At first, I was annoyed that I’d paid for spilled alcohol, but I suppose the champagne glass half full perspective is that I paid for one show and inadvertently got two.
In general, France was a series of shifting expectations. When I first saw the Eiffel Tower, the sun was in the process of setting, and I remember being disappointed that we’d arrived so late. The thing is, it doesn’t even matter what time of day you arrive. The tower is gorgeous in any type of lighting, and in fact, it might be most alluring during those twilight hours when the sun is slowly sinking below the horizon. I watched the sky fade from blue to pale orange, and I thought about all the people around me coming from far-flung corners of the planet to see this one landmark. Later that night, I ate escargot for the first and probably last time in my life. Snails, as it turns out, are salty, with a gummy texture. Eating escargot is like chewing on a solidified chunk of seawater. Not bad, per se, but not something I’m clamoring to do again soon.
French roads, however, are fantastic. As I mentioned above, the Champs-Élysées is beautiful, and the roundabout circling the Arc de Triomphe should be classified as an amusement park ride, but it’s the highways I truly remember. Afraid I’d miss out on seeing something amazing, I rarely slept on the bus. We were driving along one particular stretch of road, and I was so focused on what was happening outside my window that I didn’t notice the field ahead. In the middle of nowhere, the grass lining the road abruptly transitioned from green to yellow. Without warning, we had passed through some invisible portal to an alien planet. There were tall, lithe sunflowers as far as the eye could see. Millions of them crowded around each other with their brown, cyclopic eyes staring blankly back at me. Though ordinary moments ago, the field sprung to life with these anthropomorphic flowers, these gangly, rooted strangers. How can anything be so bright, yet so melancholic? It was a surreal experience, made especially dreamlike by the presence of all the sleeping people around me. I wanted to shake the girl beside me, and tell her to look, but I stayed quiet as I marveled at the unexpected visitors.
In 1889, Vincent van Gogh wrote a letter to Paul Gauguin, stating, “For if Jeannin can claim the peony, and Quost the hollyhock, then surely I, above all others, can lay claim to the sunflower.” Van Gogh relentlessly attempted to lure Gauguin to Arles, where he thought an artist colony would flourish, but it never worked out the way he wanted. In many ways, Van Gogh is so much like the sunflowers he revered, bright and melancholic. With those sunflowers in mind, I swept through Arles, looking for that famed yellow awning outside Le Café Van Gogh. I think I was hoping to find a connection to the artist, since I missed out on seeing his works at the Musée d’Orsay.
I took a few architecture classes in college, but French architecture baffled me. Every building we studied was a chateau! I could recall the minutest details about unimportant English structures, but every French chateau looked the same to me. So, when they said we were staying in a chateau in the Beaujolais Wine Region, I had mixed emotions. On the one hand, I was like, “Yay, fancy!” On the other hand, it was like finally meeting a nemesis face to face. I was amazed when we pulled up in front of this stately, white manor on the outskirts of Lyon, surrounded by picturesque green rolling hills. I set out on a hike one morning, intent on combing through the parcels of land carved out by row upon row of grapevines. After a while, I realized everything looked the same, and I felt my pulse start to quicken with panic. Completely alone and lost, I stumbled into a ghost town with brightly painted shutters. Seeing no one, I turned and left. Around the next corner, I found a lonely horse standing in a field. He stared at me expectantly, and I felt the crazy, heat stricken side of my brain whinny, “Feed me!” So, of course, I told the horse to wait a moment, and I ran off to fetch him some grapes. I was still lost, but at least I’d made a horsey friend. Eventually, I spotted the resident chateau dog taking a leisurely stroll through the fields, and I followed him back to base camp.
Nice was, without a doubt, my favorite city in France. The electric blue water along the Côte d’Azur more than made up for the pebble beaches. Being from New Jersey, I know a thing or two about going down the shore, and there’s something categorically wrong about a beach without sand. Due to the sharp incline of the rocks, you have to awkwardly climb out of the ocean like a primordial organism, venturing onto land for the first time. The pebbles can be a bit uncomfortable to lay or walk on, so there are cordoned off segments of the beach with umbrellas and chaise lounges, presumably only for the elite? I was amazed by the amount of bronzed, leathery skin I saw, while I tripped my way across the pebbles.
My French adventure started the moment our ferry from Dover, England docked in Calais. On the drive to Paris, we navigated flash flood conditions, so it was only fitting that on the way out of France and into Italy, the sky opened up once more. I experience true awe and terror as I stared out across the violent purple-grey skies. We counted at least four waterspouts along the coast. It was incredible, like a movie scene come to life, as we watched those vortexes raging from sky to sea.
I don’t have as many pictures of France as I’d like because my travel converter died, but somehow that’s ok. I have every intention of returning, and when I do, I’ll take pictures then. To be perfectly honest, I did not expect to love France as much as I did. From the Tuileries outside the Louvre Museum, to the grounds beyond the Palace of Versailles, French gardens are verdant to the point of being magical. Even the food is colorful, from the pastel macarons to the ever-present ruby red tomatoes. Seriously, I’ve never eaten so many tomatoes in my life. In three words: France is beautiful.
Pickpockets! Purse-snatchers! Vagabonds abound! The travel sites I read before my trip painted a lurid European landscape plagued by criminal masterminds and Dickensian street urchins. Each story read was another pearl clutched, and they left me determined to cling to my bag as though it were a life vest. Then I found accounts of robberies gone wrong, where the thief would slash the victim’s arm or back in an attempt to cut the straps off a backpack. Though troublesome, those stories added perspective. Fortunately, I never crossed paths with a knife-wielding maniac, and I was prepared for the con artists I encountered.
It’s always best to be proactive rather than reactive, and in this instance a bit of research protected me from being scammed. The U.S. Department of State website is a great place to start before embarking on an international journey. A useful resource full of valuable travel advice, the site offers information on visa and vaccination requirements, local laws, transportation, embassies, and more. They’ve added a Safety and Security segment for each country, detailing the most prevalent methods of crime in each region.
Did you drop this?
Typically when someone asks you if you’ve dropped something, it’s because they’re trying to be a good Samaritan. Sometimes they’re simply trying to swindle you. As I sat on the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor, gazing out over the Seine, I noticed a woman approaching me. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her bend down and pretend to pick up an imaginary object a few inches above the surface of the bridge.
“Excuse me,” she began, in faltering English, “did you drop this?” She extended her hand slowly towards me to reveal a gold ring. Despite her young face, the slight hunch of her shoulders rendered her witchlike, and I recoiled from the ring as though it were a poisoned apple. Recognizing the scam, I told her no as firmly as possible. As I suspected, she continued by telling me that the ring must be at least 14 karat gold, and that she wouldn’t mind selling it to me for a bargain. The ring most likely came from a 25¢ vending machine, or it was stolen. Either way, I didn’t go to Paris to buy a suspect ring on a bridge. I repeated the word no, hoping she would think it was the only English I knew, and soon enough she gave up.
Beggars can be choosers
I was advised not to engage with anyone in Florence who asked for money. Despite the warning that these interactions could be aggressive, I was not prepared for the level of persistence I ultimately faced. As I mentioned in the Instagram post above, a woman chased me down the street, miming a curved belly with her hands, while screaming, “Bambino, bambino, bambino!” She was relentless in her anguish, and I began to notice people narrowing their eyes at me, wondering if I had done something to her baby. I darted into a camera shop to ditch her, and watched as she glared at me through the window. Perhaps she was pregnant and in desperate need, but I’m more inclined to believe she saw me as an easy mark. She didn’t turn to anyone else for help. After a moment, she slipped back into the crowd and disappeared.
Sign this petition!
Do you truly believe you’re going to enact social change by signing a piece of paper in a foreign city? If a random person standing outside a tourist landmark thrusts a clipboard into your hands, it’s not a petition. It’s a scam. I sidestepped a group of clipboard-wavers outside the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Later that day, I found out that a person on my tour decided to stop for them, and he wound up losing an AMEX Prepaid Card. After he signed the paper, the alleged petitioners informed him that he’d signed a legal document, agreeing to pay them €100. They threatened legal repercussions if he didn’t produce cash immediately. Attempting to deescalate the situation, he opened his wallet and showed them that he only had €10. In the ensuing confusion, they managed to slip the $500 AUD card from his wallet.
Much like the petition scam, this one is a bit of a bait and switch. Disarmed by the unexpected token of friendship, most people will not protest when a kind stranger offers a flimsy gift bracelet. In most cases, you generally are not even given a chance to decline. Once the braided strings are secured on your wrist, the deceiver will demand compensation for their wares. I met a Senegalese street vendor while I was sitting alone on a bench in Florence. Having abandoned the beggar lady earlier, I felt guilty for not being charitable. Otherwise, I probably would have feigned ignorance when he came up to ask me how my night was going. We spoke about his home country, and at the end of the conversation he pulled a rainbow friendship bracelet out of his basket of goods as he grabbed my wrist. Before he could tie a knot, I let him know that I didn’t have any cash on me, but he told me it was a gift. He said he enjoyed the conversation, and that not many people stopped to talk to him.
Obviously, not all street vendors are alike. I was initially wary of the man in Florence because I’d seen belligerent street vendors in Paris and Pisa. Tourist locations are crawling with people peddling water bottles, lit up balls that go splat against the concrete, whistling toys, and other general knickknacks. One man in particular circled me like a hawk beneath the Eiffel Tower, as I watched the light show, constantly pushing his products on me. I think he assumed that I would eventually concede if only to get him to leave me alone, but I really don’t know what I would do with a glowing rubber ball. If you visit the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower of Pisa, la Sagrada Familia, or any tourist landmark of that ilk, prepare to chat with street vendors. Frequently.
I won’t go so far as to say that you can’t trust anybody, but you should be cautious when you travel. Another person on my tour lost all her money and her driver’s license when we crossed Ponte Vecchio in Florence. She peeked over the side of the bridge, and in the two seconds she took her eyes off her purse, a pickpocket grabbed her wallet. I avoid purses with magnetic closures in general, but they are especially risky in a crowded sightseeing spot. My best advice for travelers is not to look like a tourist. Travel light, look confident in your surroundings, and always listen to that little Mad-Eye voice in your head that counsels constant vigilance!
What England Means to Me
I started this blog in the middle of the story, as though it were some sort of Homeric epic. While I can hardly claim to have accomplished any heroic feats, my journey spanned several nations and exposed me to new cultural experiences. It was pretty epic in my book. Toward the end of the trip, on the ferry ride from Corfu to Athens, I watched the water trail behind the ship like white frothy fingers splaying across the surface of the Ionian Sea. I was transfixed by the way the water churned in the ferry’s wake, the way it was pushed away after being pulled in. It hit me then that I wasn’t like the water, I wasn’t violently crashing and quickly subduing. As I said, traveling isn’t a Herculean task, but I was on the cusp of completing a goal I’d had for years. I’d seen London, this remarkable city that had always felt a fingertip out of reach, and then I’d ventured even farther.
The Best-Laid Plans
Last year I quit my job to travel from London to Athens. In the weeks leading up to my trip, I scavenged travel blogs, seeking scraps of tourism enlightenment. Suitcase or backpack duffel, which burden would I choose? At what point does one have too much underwear? Could I walk a mile in those shoes? Packing loomed over me like an unanswerable kōan. I prayed for a Mean Girls moment in which the culmination of all my efforts would produce clarity. I would suddenly understand, “The limit does not exist!” Of course, the limit did exist in the form of a 29” x 20” x 10” suitcase size restriction. I micromanaged every aspect of my trip, but I was not prepared for the litany of unforeseen obstacles I encountered.
As I learned at Heathrow Airport, sometimes the unforeseen is just your own incompetence. Grinning like an idiot at 7:40 a.m., I handed my passport to the UK Border Force officer. I’d been to Canada a few times as a kid and I’d been to Jamaica, but I’d never needed a passport. There I was, waiting expectantly for my stamp, like a toddler with an autograph book at Disney World, and the Immigration officer was just staring back at me. When I opened my carryon bag to retrieve the information he asked for, the zipper snagged and I could hear everyone in “the queue” behind me groan in exasperation. In my haste at Newark Airport, I’d stuffed all my travel documentation into my checked bag, which was now waiting for me just past the apathetic gatekeeper. All I had on me was an itinerary listing all the places I would be staying during my trip. He actually stepped down from his podium to zip my bag and physically remove me from his life after reluctantly stamping my passport. Clearly I was too inept to be a threat to national security.
Overcome by the sheer power of my pink hair straightener, my travel converter clicked once and died on the first night in Paris. Unable to charge my camera or phone, I wasted valuable time racing up and down the Champs-Élysées, miming the act of plugging an electronic device into the wall. Each response was the same. Security guards and cashiers alike carelessly flicked their wrists towards the door, shooing me out with the single word, “Fnac.” In hindsight, I began to worry that I may have come across as an aggressive American threatening to stab employees with an imaginary knife. Then I stumbled upon Fnac – which happens to be an electronics store, not a French expletive. Seven days and several annoyed sales associates later, I found a replacement not in a shop but in the lobby of the Generator Hostel Barcelona.
I was so consumed by my mission that I failed to realize I was out of clean underwear until I settled into the small, Jack-and-Jill-style campground mobile home I slept in while in Antibes. There were only two washing machines, and one was broken. As a result the remaining one was constantly in use. I went back to the camper, determined to wash at least three pairs in the sink. My bunkmate found me rifling through dirty clothes, trying to find the laciest, most displayable underwear to line dry in the bathroom that connected our room to the other girls’. She asked me not to leave wet clothes laying around, citing her asthma as a concern. Ok, but you’ve left wet clothes hanging and a dry cycle costs €4. That’s more than a euro per panty, plus extra when you factor in the exchange rate. I didn’t bother getting into it; I bit my tongue. Since I only had detergent pods with me, I scrubbed my knickers with a mandarin guava shower gel I’d purchased at Target on a whim. When I returned to the laundry patio, a small child popped out of the lone available dryer, like a creepy human jack in the box, and that was a wrap for me. No way in hell was I going to spend €4 to subject my organic-mandarin-guava-infused intimates to a dryer that had just housed the filthy feet of a screaming child. Nope! I was back in France frittering away valuable time. I marched my way back to the bathroom and MacGyvered a clothesline out of a shelf, a length of cord, and two clips.
The minute I arrived in Venice, I sought out a washing machine. The laundry tides had turned, my clothes were clean, and all that was left was the dryer. How could things go wrong? Well, for starters, I could be €1 coin short, and have to walk a mile uphill to ask for change at the information desk. Oh, they don’t have change at the information desk, even though that’s where they sell Wi-Fi? I should go to the bar, you say? Ok. Oh, you don’t do change at the bar either? Well, fine, I’ll have a tequila sunrise, and can you please make sure I receive coins in change? I slid €4 into the dryer slot, pressed all the relevant buttons, and left. Little did I know, I would be back later only to spiral into a whirlwind of laundry despair. THE DRYER WAS BROKEN. It took my money – money that cost me a two-mile hike, an unwanted drink, a mosquito bite to the face, and a seat at dinner – and it didn’t do the only thing it was manufactured to do. You had one job, dryer! I lost it. I sank to the floor and sobbed until a kind tourist helped me up. Fortunately, one of the girls in my group came in to dry her bedbug-ridden clothes, so she offered to throw mine in with her load.
In the wake of my laundry struggle, I returned to the bar. All I wanted to do was get drunk, multiple U’s drunk, but it wasn’t in the cards for me. The person sitting beside me knocked into the table as he stood up, sending my drink into my lap. With nothing else to change into, I decided to go sit in front of the dryer and contemplate life as the clothes spun. Aren’t we all individual articles beaten down by the agitator of life? (Yeah. That’s where I was at, psychologically.) It was 1 a.m. before my clothes were clean, and as I set them down on my sleeping bag I realized I felt more homesick than tired. I needed someone to commiserate with me and I needed a laugh. Though I was nowhere near as intoxicated as my affected British accent suggested, I felt better after calling a friend.
I climbed the two wooden plank steps that led to the door of my cramped, mobile residence, moving gingerly to mitigate noise. As I bent down to open my suitcase, I heard a snore come from my bed. Assuming the roommate who walked past me as I was on the phone had accidentally gotten into my bed, I walked over to hers only to find her in it. I checked the third bed for our other roommate, and found her asleep as well. As much as I wanted a storybook vacation, I wasn’t expecting a Goldilocks experience. If they were in their beds, who was in mine?
Let me preface this by explaining that I am not a germaphobe. I’m non-confrontational. When you put your feet on my pillow, or touch my food when I know you don’t “believe” in hand washing – like, bro, it’s soap, not a unicorn – I might laugh along and agree that I’m neurotic, as I set the pillow aside to be torched or throw the food in the trash. Deep down I’m questioning your upbringing. So when I flicked the light switch in that little Venetian trailer home, and discovered a seemingly naked random dude curled up in my sleeping bag, it was too much for me.
“Hey. HEY,” I started clapping above his ear, “HEY, WAKE UP.” No response, except from my roommates. That’s when I noticed my clean laundry scattered across the floor. My. Clean. Laundry.
“Who is he? I thought that was you in bed,” ventured my soft-spoken British roommate. “I put the bin there by your bed because I thought you might be sick.”
I cap out at about 5’2 on a good day, whereas this dude was easily 6’ tall. No clue how she confused the two of us, but apparently she’d stood over the bed for a while in the dark, consoling this guy while he’d hacked up his lungs earlier. For a solid five minutes, the three of us stood there yelling at this possibly comatose stranger, while he continued to sleep off whatever had landed him in my sleeping bag. He looked like shit. If a sentient pile of excrement had a fairy godmother that could transform it into a nebulously human-adjacent creature, he would be the end result.
“Mate, you’ve got to get up,” she tried again. When he finally stood, ludicrously clutching my sleeping bag to his chest in an attempt to preserve his modesty, she asked, “Have you got any clothes on under there, mate?” He checked. He checked. As in, he was not sure and had to peek down into the sleeping bag to ascertain whether or not he was clothed. He offered a single drunken nod of confirmation. I stood there, quietly fuming, unable to speak. She continued to gently ask him where he came from, and if he wouldn’t mind please returning there. As if lulled by the suggestion, he turned to the door and carefully shuffled toward it, still wearing the sleeping bag. When she asked him to leave the sleeping bag, he became obstinate. No, he would not leave. Suddenly he didn’t know where he was, or where to go. I lost it.
“GIVE ME BACK MY SLEEPING BAG AND GET THE FUCK OUT.” I was beyond charity, the way my freshly laundered clothes were beyond the confines of my bed. He toppled out of the sleeping bag, and stood defiantly in his boxers. He seemed to believe that it was my civic duty to help him navigate his way home, though he hadn’t needed any assistance tearing through my belongings to crawl into my bed. “I don’t know where you came from, and I don’t care. Get out,” became my personal mantra, as I attempted to push his nasty sweat-slicked body over the threshold. All I could think about was the transmission of trichomoniasis through wet cloth, something I learned about in seventh grade health class. He clung to the doorframe, refusing to leave. In my mind, I was Chun Li seconds away from performing a Spinning Bird Kick. At nearly 3 a.m., the situation was too absurd. Tired, frustrated I’d have to spend €20 to wash my clothes and sleeping bag, and livid that my roommate hadn’t locked the door, I tried to comfort myself with the fact that the situation could hardly be more farcical. Then my roommate proved me wrong.
“Poor thing, he’ll be eaten by the mosquitos. Maybe we should let him stay? He could sleep just there on the floor,” she said, pointing to the tight space between our beds. For one infinitesimal moment, he slackened his grip on the doorframe to look longingly at the spot, like a dog invited in out of the rain. I seized my chance to get rid of him. Without a second thought, I shoved him out into the night like Uncle Phil evicting Jazz. Maybe they don’t teach stranger danger to children in the UK, but I was terrified by the notion that he could have forced himself on me had I chosen to go to sleep rather than call my friend. Personal safety is paramount; it blows my mind how negligent people are about locking doors at night. Aware of the bedbugs two trailers down, I chose to curl up at the foot of my roommate’s sleeping bag like a cat rather than risk sleeping on my exposed mattress.
I learned a few things about the world on this trip, but I also learned a lot about myself. While I am still objectively young, I am not carefree. 4,200 miles from home, with another 800 miles ahead of me, I finally understood that it doesn’t matter where you are in the world, you will always be yourself. Unless you’re clairvoyant, you won’t always be prepared for what happens, but I guess that’s part of what makes life interesting.