Tuesday, March 31, 2009

7:40 PM: Why the heck am I blogging?!?!?

I have a ton of work to do, and I'm trying to get it all done before MY PARENTS COME ON FRIDAY MORNING!!!!!!!!! Did I mention that I was excited about that?

So, I should be writing entries to my Cont. Brit. Fict. portfolio, completely homework for Scriptwriting, and writing a first draft of a script. But that would be logical. Instead, I have my iTunes on shuffle, and I'm blogging while chewing on a Starburst. Starburst is my favorite candy. Well, Swedish Fish is more favorite. But they don't sell Swedish Fish in the refectory. So, Starburst is my favorite. For now.

I had dinner with my high school's senior class and some of my old teachers last night at a Pizza Express near Leicester Square. They're on their annual class trip to London and Scotland. It was so incredibly good to see them--they're the first people I've seen that I know from home. The assistant principle and his wife, Harry and Judy Robertson, were both there, and so were my favorite English teacher ever and his wife, Terry and Cheryl Klempner. I saw many of Bonnie's friends and kids that I had done theatre with years ago... too bad Bonnie wasn't there.

But we won't talk about that.

I can't wait until my parents get here. Could time PLEASE go faster??? I'm picking them up from the aiport ("picking up" in the loosest terms... basically, I'm just meeting them and ushering their wearied, sleep-deprived bodies to their hotel) at 7:30 AM, and we're spending four days together before they fly off to Paris for a few days. Then I'll see them when I fly to Edinburgh next Thursday and spend Easter weekend with them... and then I'll see them the following Tuesday afternoon when they get back into London from Bath. They will fly home the next morning. But THEN, a mere three weeks after that, I'll fly home and see them again.

I cannot believe how fast time has gone this semester. I feel that I've been here forever, but, at the same time, I feel I've hardly been here for any time at all. I've seen so much, but there's still so much I want to see. I miss home, but I'll be sad to leave London. The paradoxes are unending.

I spent this last weekend in the Lake District. I'll have to blog about that amazing experience when I have more time... like, not now. I have to write papers and scripts. Bah. Until later, then...

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

3:48 PM: The two-minute blip.

I'm in the middle of writing entries for my Cont Brit Fict portfolio, and I had a bit of writer's block. Then I figured out that it wasn't writer's block: I just didn't want to be writing about that particular topic. I had no real idea where I was going, and it was crap. I'll probably delete it all and start again. Or maybe not.

Anyway, I had two minutes between stopping my portfolio writing and going to my 4 pm class. So I thought I'd say hi. So... hello!

I miss everyone at home. Very, very much. My parents are coming to London in a week and a half, so that will make it a bit easier. I'm so excited to see them!

And now I have to go to class. Maybe the professor will actually show up today... :)

Sunday, March 22, 2009

12:57 PM: Greece/Italy '09... Nafplio and the end.

Getting there was a bit sticky. Caris and I had researched where the bus terminal was, how we could get there, and then which bus to take to Nafplio, but you never really know in Greece. It was all guesswork. But we were pretty confident. Who cared if we got lost? We’d ask directions. So… we got on the metro in the direction of Aghios Antonios (don’t ask me how to pronounce it) and got off at the last stop. According to the map—which we’d accidentally left at the hotel, but had memorized in our heads—we needed to find and follow this main highway until we hit the bus terminal before the big bridge. Easy enough, right? Right. We took a guess on a road when we exited the metro station, and, amazingly enough, we found in the big highway. Problem was, it was actually a really big highway. Lots of cars. Moving very fast. Kind of difficult to walk on the side of the road. But we did. I felt fearless as I led our little band past racing cars and very large trucks that almost took up the whole road. It was thrilling. We followed the highway for a long time and came to the big bridge. We stopped, looked around—no bus terminal. You have got to be kidding. So we asked this fatherly-looking, nice Greek man who spoke very good English.

“Bus terminal,” says Allison. He smiles and his eyes squint. He points across the road.

“It’s right there,” he says. “Just take the footpath across. Two minutes.” We thank him. He asks where we’re from.

“Canada.” Bah. Stupid Canada. I was sick of saying Canada.

So, two minutes later, we made it to the bus terminal, which looked vaguely similar to the Victoria coach station in London. We easily bought round-trip day tickets to Nafplio, boarded the bus, and were on our way. So easy. The countryside was amazing, from what I saw (yes, I slept quite a bit… something about buses and the jostling rhythm), and in about two and a half hours, we were in Nafplio, a.k.a. heaven. If I ever go back to Greece, I’ll only go if I can stay in Nafplio. The water is ridiculously blue, the sun is warm, and the sea breeze sweeps you away beyond this world. I’m serious. It’s so relaxing and peaceful. We walked by the water for a bit on the marina, took lots of pictures, and settled down to eat lunch at this outdoor cafĂ© restaurant. It was warm, but not hot because the wind from the water kept sweeping over us. Gah. So great. We walked around for a long while, taking it really slow, ambling through alleyways and peering into shops. Then we decided that we wanted to climb this hill-mountain thing (what now, Lycabettus?) to the medieval Greek fortress that was part of the “old city” of Nafplio. And so we did. We found this random path that led toward the mountain, but we veered off to discover these random ancient caves and overgrown paths and lots of other interesting things (I took pictures, I promise). We eventually found the path leading to our fortress, and we started to climb.

And climb. And climb. And climb. And climb. And climb.

It got hot, really hot. I was wearing two layers because it had been chilly in Athens. Bad choices. The view was unbelievable, but the wind couldn’t quite reach where we were on the mountain. But we kept climbing, stair after stair after stair. The view really did make it worth it. We stopped in this little shaded alcove with a stone bench and rested at about the half-way point. And then we kept climbing. I felt so sticky hot but so invigorated. We’d made it about three-fourths of the way up when we began really looking—really looking—at what was to our right. Water. Blue, sparkling, Mediterranean seawater. We made up our minds. When we got back down, we were going swimming.

So we made it to the top, but in order to get into the fortress, you had to pay 4 Euro, and it was 30 minutes until closing time. So, after all that, we decided not to go in. People we met on the way down said that the fortress wasn’t really worth it, but the view was. We sat at the top in the full sun and just stared. The peninsula of Nafplion stretched out in front of us, covered with tall, bushy Greek trees, and an expanse of blue, both above and below, lay to our left and to our right. A water fortress castle-thing stood in the middle of the water to our left. It was like heaven.

“This is Greece,” we said.

And so we made our way down, which was considerably easier than going up. We craved the water, and talked about how cool it would be to say that we had swum in the Mediterranean Ocean. Awesome! But we had a problem. None of us had brought bathing suits, and the beach we had spotted wasn’t exactly private. And we didn’t want to walk around in wet clothes all day, especially on the bus ride back to Athens. So we discussed our problem. I had an idea. We could find those Greek dresses, the ones I had seen in Athens, that were like big T-shirts. They’d cover enough, and we might actually wear them again. So, down in Nafplio, we hunted. It was around 3 pm. And I began to notice. All the stores were closed. Some of the tourist shops and restaurants were still open, but everything else was closed, lights off and doors locked. It was afternoon siesta time, the lull in the day where the sun is highest, and no one does any work.

We couldn’t find dresses. We’d walked everywhere around Nafplio. It was hot. We were grumpy from the futile search, and we were getting desperate. We looked at each other, eyes squinted in the sun, and just resolved ourselves. We were getting in that water. Period.

Without any plan in mind, we headed for the beach. The area was very park-like. There were woods with walking paths, picnicking tables, and even a little bathroom/beach-house thing. The beach itself was mostly rock that just sloped into the waves. We made our way a good distance from the main group of sunbathers—I noticed that there weren’t many in the water—and picked out a good piece of rock near a ladder descending into the clear blue water. And we kind of looked at each other. This was it. We were getting in that water. Period.

Shoes came off. Layers came off. I won’t go into details—you can use your imagination. I wouldn’t exactly call it skinny-dipping, but it was about as close as you can get. The water was soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo flipping cold. But after your body got over the initial shock of it, you got pretty numb and didn’t feel the cold as much. We floated near the ladder for a long time, and then swam out a bit farther. There was a rock we found we could stand on so we didn’t have to keep treading water. Each wave brought more cold. Our teeth were chattering, but the experience was exhilarating. We were swimming in the Mediterranean Ocean in Nafplio, Greece. It was the best day ever.

I learned a lot about myself. I’ve never been that spontaneous in my life. I don’t care if people make fun of me as they boast about things they’ve done that were way wilder and crazier than what I did—that day in Nafplio was a big milestone for me. I got out of my comfort zone, far out of my comfort zone, even if it was in a seemingly small way. It didn’t seem small to me. I liked not caring what people thought. I liked being spontaneous. I liked defying the person I’ve always thought I was, that people have told me I am—“lady-like, proper Amber.” It felt good to move in that other skin, that other side of me that I’ve discovered since studying abroad. I’m still me, of course, but that day in Nafplio proved that I’ve changed. And I loved every second of it.

We spent a long time sitting and lying on the rocks in the sun, trying to dry off without towels. People passed—we didn’t care. We’d been in the Mediterranean. Eventually, the sun began to dip down, and we got a bit chilly. Laughing our heads off at ourselves, we strategically maneuvered into dry clothes and walked away from our lovely beach. We ate gyros for dinner (these pita-breaded meat wraps with things like French fries in them… they’re very, very good), walked around some more, still exhilarated from our spontaneous swim, and then headed to the bus stop. We slept most of the way back to Athens and fell into bed at the hotel. Such a great day.

The next morning, all three of us checked out of the hotel. We walked around the flea market again because Allison hadn’t been there yet, and later we found another part of the park Caris and I had visited a couple days earlier. We sat on a bench talking for a really long time. Eventually, Caris and I decided to head on to the airport. Allison’s flight back to London was later that evening, so she hung around Syntagma Square in Athens for a while. Caris and I sat and talked at the airport, munched on some snacks for “lunch,” and waited for our flight to board. We flew Aegean Airlines to Rome. Fancy-schmancey (at least compared to EasyJet or RyanAir). They actually served us dinner and drinks free of charge! Whoa! It was really nice. Two hours later, we landed in Rome, Italy.

12:55 PM: Greece/Italy '09... More Greece.

So, sometime on Friday amongst our many escapades, some of our group (minus me and Caris… what were we doing? Oh yeah, that’s right. Wandering. Our favorite pastime. I love wandering!) managed to find this smallish travel agency that offered one-day cruises of the Greek islands. Looking back, I shouldn’t have done it. I won’t say how much I spent on it. Too much, definitely. And, like I suspected, the travel agent lied to us. At least two hours on each island that we visited? Um, no. The cruise departed Sunday morning from Piraeus port, stopped at three of the islands—Poros, Hydra (which I had wanted to visit anyway), and Aegena—served us lunch, and was to give us a minimum of two hours on each island to explore. That was my main concern. Two hours, I repeated to our travel agent, a wrinkly, jolly Greek man with kind eyes. He looked trustworthy. Two hours, he assured me. Okay, I said, and signed my life away. Ugh. It was way too much. I think the only reason I did it was because everyone else was. Oh, peer pressure!

Enough lamenting. The cruise really was fun, but we didn’t spend two hours on each island, and the included lunch wasn’t great. BUT, I did get to see three lovely Greek islands, take some beautiful pictures, and explore a bit. Caris and I usually just headed up. We took the first alleyway/road we found and kept climbing stairs until we hit the top of the city, which looked out across all the colorful buildings, the glorious blue water, and the (slightly) cloudy sky. Everything was very quiet and peaceful from there. I felt very foreign but also very comforted, as if I was a bit closer to home. Hydra was lovely, but still not what I imagined as “Greece.” I had imagined white stone buildings with blue shutters and roofs and people milling about speaking rapid Greek… all from what I’d seen in movies (yay “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”!) But that wasn’t it at all. I was surprised yet pleased.

Enough about the cruise. We got back late and crashed, though we had really only lain on the boat all day and wandered slowly around islands. On Monday, we all checked out of our little sketch hostel (which we did truly love, though there were no walls or curtains for the shower, thus causing water to go everywhere and get on everything). Caris and I found our next hotel and checked in—the rest of the group had opted to fly out on Monday to Italy and spend more time there. Caris and I wanted more time in Greece, so we decided to stay until Wednesday night. I forget what we did that morning. Wait, no, I don’t. We went to the big flea market at Monastiraki Square. So cool. Lines and lines of shops and vendors of all kinds of random stuff. It was sort of like an outdoor mall up and down random little streets. I found Greek sandals (more like flip-flops, but different… they were really comfortable), made of real leather, for a decent price. And then it was time for our friends to leave. We watched them get on a bus for the airport and drive away. It was sad.

We wandered (as we always do) around the square for a bit, and then stumbled upon this park. The weather was unbelievably beautiful. We sat on a park bench on this wide path lined with overhanging trees to shade the sun and talked for a long, long while. This would be a good time to mention the dogs. Dogs are everywhere in Greece. Some don’t have owners, but most do, as shown by their collars. It’s normal in Greece to get a dog, stick a collar on him (or not, if you prefer), and let him run loose all over Athens or wherever. They’re all very, very sweet and will follow you around whether or not you feed them. They always go back to their owners for food, anyway. And these are big dogs, like Labs and Huskies and some random mixes… they’re all really big, though. Caris was telling me that she’d heard from a good friend (who had traveled to Athens) that most of them had been given rabies shots because of the Olympic games being held there five years earlier (lots of people, lots of foreigners, need for safety, blah, blah, blah), and that these dogs can be very valuable, especially if you’re a woman and/or you’re traveling alone. If you can get one to follow you around and get used to you (which isn’t hard… if you get it to come to you once through a little call, it’ll follow you for a long while, especially if you scratch its ears or show it that you like it), they can be very protective. Caris’ friend said that she was in Athens with two other women, and that they were walking back to their hotel from dinner one night, and this dog was with them, had been following them around for a few hours. I promise you, these dogs will lay outside the restaurant if you go in to eat, and they’ll still be there when you get out—they’re very faithful, especially if they think they’ll get food because of it. Anyway, so they’re walking back at night with this dog, and a man comes up to them and demands their purses. They don’t know what to do, if the man has a weapon, if they should refuse and draw attention to themselves, etc. No need. The dog approaches the man, growling, all its hair sticking up, and begins to bark at him. And the man turns and runs away. Cool, huh? I have to admit, the dogs did make me feel safer. And they’re everywhere. They’ll come up to you randomly and will nuzzle your hand. While we were sitting on the park bench, a pack of five dogs trotted down the street, and two of them came over to us to say hello. One left to join its fellows, but the one I’d petted flopped down next to my feet and rested. It’s so random, but so cool. I was sad to leave the sweet big, protective Greek dogs.

Wow, that was a lot about dogs. Anyway, we chilled the rest of the day, grabbed dinner, and went back early to the hotel to crash. We were so wiped already. We were expecting Allison, a girl from Regent’s who had worked out ahead of time to meet and stay with us in Athens for a couple days, but she didn’t get in until much later that night, when Caris and I were sleeping. The next morning, the three of us got up early to head to Nafplio, a coastal city on the “other half” of Greece’s mainland. Little did I know that I was to have my best study abroad day yet.

12:45 PM: Greece/Italy '09... the first few days.

Okay, I left off with us making it to our hostel in the sketch, red-light district of Athens. Cool. No, really, it wasn't that bad. We were told to keep our bags/purses in front of us at all times to discourage pick-pockets, and to tell anyone who asked that we were Canadian or Australian, for safety's sake. I gotta admit, that made my skin prickle a little. Why could I not just say I was American? Are we that despised all over the world? Makes you think.

The next day we hit the big stuff, almost by accident. We headed off early to see the Acropolis, but we ended up wandering around (as usual, because, though we like maps, we tend to like our own instincts better, and they usually lead us into adventures) and stumbled upon Hadrian's Gate and the Temple of Olympian Zeus, where supposedly the first Olympic games were held. The weather was a tad chilly, but any degree warmer was better than London! The grounds of the temple were so rustic and deserted, covered with lush green and these tiny daisy-like flowers that seemed to give their blessing upon the site. In a strange way, the vastness and the quiet, open air made it very spiritual. I circled the temple with its towering, crumbling columns and felt so peaceful.

We moved in the general direction of the Acropolis, stopping into random shops along the way. We finally found it, and, on that day, it was free admission! We saw the Theatre of Dionysus, the Parthenon, and the other temples whose names escape me that also are on the Acropolis hill. The view was beautiful, but the wind was brutal. There was a Greek flag waving on the topmost part of the hill—I got some good pictures of it as the wind held it straight out. Eventually, our stomachs growled, and we hurried down the hill to search for a place to eat that wasn't too expensive. In the process, we learned something very interesting about Greece (and Italy, for that matter). Restaurant waiters/managers will stand outside their establishments and will vocally try to entice you inside for "just a cup of coffee and dessert, special price just for you!" So when they spot you glancing at their menu to get an idea of prices, they pounce. Our little group got snagged into eating at a pricey sit-down restaurant, but Emily and I blatantly got up from the table (after scouring the menu for anything cheap, and finding nothing) and declared that we were walking down the road to a little creperie I saw earler. It tasted better and was cheaper. We had to wait for the other group to finish eating, so we wandered into a little jewelry shop next door to the creperie. And that's when we met George.

George owned the jewelry shop, and he claimed to have made by hand all the jewelry. I was skeptical, and later I saw some of the same pieces in other shops. His prices were better, though. Emily and I, still green to the tactics of shop owners, fell into conversation with them. He spoke very good English and was very genial. He asked us where we were from. Before I even thought, I spouted off, "Canada." Where in Canada? I don't answer. Emily blurts, "Montreal," the first thing she thought of.

George starts speaking French.

Crap. We should have done our Canada homework.

We laugh it off, and Emily says she's from the part of Montreal that doesn't speak French. I don't think he really believed we were from Canada. Pretty much everyone in Canada speaks or understands French. I could feel my neck getting hot, but the conversation moved on quickly, as we talked of studying in London, being on holiday in Greece, blah, blah, blah. George talked of how great Canada was, and how bad the U.S. was (it was just a sales tactic), and he constantly pulled out piece after piece of jewelry for us to examine. I wasn't really going to buy anything, though he had some nice stuff, but then he asks us if we want something to drink. ??? Another sales tactic I've never had pulled on me. We say no, he moves on, comes back to it. "No," we say. "We're totally fine."

He waves his hands at us and furrows his brow. "I don't like this 'no'," he says. That was it. No room for argument. I said Coke, and Emily said Sprite. Get this--he leaves the shop, goes next door to the creperie we were just in, and buys us both drinks. And that sealed it. We both felt so bad that he bought us drinks that we felt compelled to buy something. Never again will I fall for that.

We talked a bit more (it was actually a really long conversation), and Emily and I both bought inexpensive pieces out of courtesy (but I really did like mine, and it was truly a good price). We tore ourselves away with the excuse that our friends were waiting for us and we had to get going. We practically ran from the shop and died laughing. We'd learned a lesson. No more Georges.

We met up with our group (who had long finished eating) and did a bit of shopping before we headed back to the hostel. Emily, Caris, and I found a small grocery store and bought stuff to make spaghetti (of sorts) in the hostel’s kitchen. We thought we were buying ground beef for the sauce, but it was really like ham, or bacon, as the English would say. We chopped it up into small pieces, added tomato sauce and some random spices we found in the kitchen, boiled noodles, topped it with fresh Parmesan (I swear, there is nothing better), and paired it with this really crispy Greek bread. It was surprisingly really good. I was proud of us.

Saturday, we woke up with big plans to see the Olympic Stadium, climb Lycabettus (a big hill in the middle of Athens), and then find the coast and visit Poseidon’s Temple. I was navigating, and we got on the metro in the direction I thought the Olympic Stadium was, and I was right. But on the metro map, the five Olympic rings hovered over another stop waaaay down the line in the opposite direction. We argued for a bit, and I lost. So we went the long way, got a bit lost, jumped on a bus, and finally ended up not at the true Olympic Stadium (where the opening ceremony was held), but at the Olympic grounds, where the swimming pools, basketball courts, etc. were located. It was still pretty cool, though. First thing I noticed—it was completely deserted. Desolate. It looked as if we had fast-forwarded in time and come upon it fifty years later. The grass was dead, small bit of trash floated across the sidewalk. No one was there. For some reason, I expected more people would want to visit, and they’d keep the place up. All the buildings were locked and most of the windows blacked out. The swimming arena was still open and in use for younger swimmers and their coaches. We watched a youth swim meet for a while in the indoor pool. Otherwise, the whole place was quiet, eerie, lonely. It was saddening, really.

Afterward, we found lunch, and then tried to decide what to do. It was already later in the day, and I knew that getting to the coast would take hours at least. Kaytee wanted to see Poseidon’s Temple, and though it sounded interesting, climbing Lycabettus sounded more appealing to me. So we split up—Kevin and Kaytee headed toward the coast, and Emily, Kristen, Caris, and I hiked toward Lycabettus.

We could see it from the main street we were standing on, but we had no idea how to get to it. So, we just kind of walked toward it, through random little Athenian streets and up lots of stairs. We made sure we kept heading upwards, and we knew eventually we’d have to hit it. All of the sudden, we found some woods. A forest, growing in the middle of all these houses and buildings. Random? Yes. But we found it! So… we kept going up. We hiked path-less up through the random woods for a long while—so much fun! And then we stumbled on a path, or more like a worn place that looked like a path. So we followed it. I love being spontaneous and somewhat lost! And we found a paved path, so we followed that. We kept going up. And kept going up. Every time we looked out behind us, the view kept on getting better and better. It was unbelievable. We realized as we got to the top that there were two “peaks,” or top points, of Lycabettus, and we weren’t on the one we thought, but the view was amazing. See my pictures. There was this massive modern amphitheatre (that they still use apparently) built into the side of the hill. We saw the other “peak,” upon which rested this lovely white stone church, and decided to walk towards that. We’re walking down random paths, with fearless Caris leading, me right behind her. We round a bend, and she suddenly does a 180 and speeds back toward me saying quietly and hurriedly, “Turn around. Walk. Just turn around. Go.” Without question, I swing around in the opposite direction, gently prodding Kristen and Emily backwards down the path. I had been afraid of this, with the top of the hill being so quiet and isolated…

Caris had seen four or five young guys sitting on the peak shooting up. Good! Drugs! Just what we need! So we high-tailed it in the opposite direction for a while, found another path, and made a big circle around them. That could’ve been awkward and probably bad. God was really watching out for us—thank goodness for Caris’ alert eyes. Fun times in Greece, right?

We finally made it to the second peak. The hike had been so much fun and provided so many great pictures. By the time we made it, the sun was just starting to descend, and the air was getting cooler. We snapped a few pictures, congratulated ourselves for hiking all that way without any sort of direction, and laughed about our adventures before we headed down. Caris fell on the way down (it definitely hurt, but she was okay) and almost fell a second time. It was hilarious… but I guess you had to be there. HA! :)

I forget what we did the rest of the day. I think we went back to the hostel. That was such an amazing adventure.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

5:19 PM: Greece/Italy '09... define "adventure."

"An exciting or very unusual experience," according to Dictionary.com. Yeah, that was it. And I don't mean that in a sarcastic or bad way. My time in Greece and Italy was exciting and unusual. I loved every second of it.

(Oh, p.s. I'm going to try to blog about this in little sections, because knocking it out in one sitting requires a bit more energy than I have right now. I've been up since 3:00 am Italian time, 2:00 am London time. My eyelids are finding it a bit difficult to stay up... we'll see how I do.)

So, I did a bad thing and skipped my beloved Cont. Brit. Fict. class on Thursday to make the flight to Athens. Athens. That would be in Greece, mind you. Greece. Just saying it made me freak out in excitement! There were lots of us going--Caris and Kristen (my across-the-hall friends), Emily, Kaytee, Jessie, and Lilly (other Webster girls), and Julia (my roomie) and her friend Becky. Julia and Becky only stayed in Athens with the rest of us for a few days, until Monday, when they headed off on a cruise of the Greek islands. But the rest of us stayed together in Athens. . . . which was definitely different than I expected. Or at least at the beginning. The metro is really nice. And that was my impression of the first night--the metro is nice. HA.

Our little hostel was located in Omonia Square, which Athenians openly consider to be the "sketch" part of Athens. Pick-pocketing is huge in Athens, and we were kind of in the hub of it. So we clutched our bags as we walked in the general direction of our hostel. We finally found it, walked a million flights of stairs, died at the top, and checked in. The two guys who run it were hilarious, or I thought they were. Ben, an Asian man (definitely not Greek) who worked the front desk, was precious and loved to show us how everything worked. And Joey, who was the manager (I think), was awesome. He gave us tons of advice (for instance, keep your purses close, especially on the metro and on buses), and, that night, because it was late and we were starving, he took us (like, walked with us) to this amazing, fairly cheap restaurant that was open late. The hostel wasn't the Ritz, but we had a place to stay, shower, and cook if we wanted (it had a kitchen, so we made spaghetti one night to save money), and that was enough.

And that's enough for right now. Until I have a bit more energy... you'll have to wait for adventures in Greece.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

10:50 AM: I leave in 1 hour and 10 minutes.

But I said that I was going to blog about Scotland before I left, so here I go blogging about Scotland.

Hoh. Lee. Mack'rel. Scotland has some of the most beautiful countryside I've ever seen in my entire life. So many mountains crowned with snowy peaks, deep gray lochs that seem to stretch on forever, and the trees. Even the trees are awesome--some look like the belong in the African savanna, with really long skinny trunks and wide branches that spread almost horizontally parallel to the ground, but most are these pine trees that look like perfect Christmas trees, and they grow all clumped together in massive groves, like they're trying to keep warm. I love the trees in Scotland.

Scotland is the United Kingdom's Deep South. People are incredibly friendly, will stop and give you directions without you having to ask, and will talk to you in the check-out line (i.e. on the last night, Caris and I went to a nearby grocery store and bought a few... okay, four... tubs of ice cream. We think of it as our form of alcohol. As we walked up to the counter, the dude at the register smiled really big and asked, "So is this your pint?" and then asked if we were having a girl's night in, which we were. You wouldn't find that kind of thing anywhere in London). The accent can be a bit hard to understand, but it's so beautifully rough. On Saturday, when we took our tour of Loch Ness, Glencoe, and the Highlands, our guide would said "loch" with this deep, guttural sound on the "ch," like "lokggghhh." It was amazing. We mimicked (not mocked) him for the rest of the day because we thought we sounded cool.

Getting to from the airport to the hostel was pretty easy. Sadly, Scotland decided to welcome us with rain (okay, a slight drizzle). Our hostel, the "Blue Sky Hostel," was okay... not the cleanest, but, hey, I had a place to sleep, and that was enough. We ate dinner at the pub literally next door because we didn't want to walk any further in the rain/drizzle. They had live music from a band called "Acoustic Butterfly," and they were actually really good (it was so "P.S. I Love You," but that was definitely in Ireland). I tried my first mixed drink ever with Caris--it was a raspberry-flavored vodka something with lemonade (which is like Sprite in the UK). It was really good.

Day Two, I woke up before everyone else and was just lying there for a bit, thinking. I pulled out the brochure for the tour we were going to do Saturday and was reading over it. I was looking at another tour, which was going to visit Stirling Castle... "home of the Stewart dynasty," it said. My eyes widened--Caris' last name is Stewart, she's Scottish, and she traces her line back to the royal Stewart dynasty (Mary, Queen of Scots... that sort of thing). It was her castle! So, when some of the girls were up, I proposed hopping on a train to see the castle for the day. And we did. We shopped in Glasgow for a bit, ate lunch, got on a train to Stirling, explored Stirling, and toured the castle. It was AMAZING! While we were there at the castle, which is up on a tall hill, we could see all the land around us. The sun decided at that moment to push its way through the clouds, and the whole valley sparkled. It was so gorgeous. The wind was blowing as I was standing on the outer battlements (or whatever they're actually called, the tall walls that protect the castle), and I felt very fiercely proud to be Scottish. Maybe it was something in the air.

Our tour the next day was so beautiful. Like I said about the mountains already, the countryside is very natural and rugged, completely untouched. Even the inhabited areas seem to blend right in to the landscape. I'll put up a video I took from the bus window--we passed huge lochs and towering mountains. We passed through Glencoe, where Ewan McGregor is from (every girl wanted to stop and look for him, but we were told that he spends most of his time in, TA-DA, London! Caris turned to me and said we'd go look for him when we got back). Loch Ness was a tad under-whelming... a lot like the other lochs we saw, except bigger. Still beautiful though. The touristy shops and stuff detracted from the mystery. They had big plastic statues of Nessie and crap. While the rest of the people on the tour went on a boat cruise around the loch that cost 10 pounds, Caris, Kristen, and I found this woodland path beside the gift shop. It led up these hills beside the loch, and we got the best views for pictures. There was no one around, so when we got to the top of the hill... we re-enacted Mel Gibson in Braveheart. Yes, I took a video of it, and, yes, I'll post it on Facebook.

I thought the tour was worth it--seeing the Highlands alone was enough for me--but I wish we could have stopped more often to get out, breathe Scottish air, and just take in the moment. Not for pictures, necessarily, but to just be there. It doesn't feel the same in a bus. On our way back, we stopped at a little restaurant for dinner, and Kaytee got haggis. She said it was awesome. I didn't try it because it was so expensive (at least at the restaurant we were at), but I hope to. One thing I've learned about myself since being here (among the many) is that I will eat pretty much anything. I will definitely try anything at least once. So I'll probably like haggis... as long as I don't think about what it's made of. If the Scottish like it, I have to like it, right? Right.

One more alcohol story: I tried whisky for the first time. Scotland is famous for it. We got little sample bottles on our tour, and so Caris and I tried it for the first time in our hostel that night (and... I got a video of it). I really wasn't expecting the sweet taste, but I was expecting the burn. It wasn't as bad as beer (blech), but I probably won't drink it again. Afterwards, we ate the four tubs of ice cream to wash it down. HA!

I loved, loved, loved Scotland. My one souvenir was a big Scottish flag, which I will hang in my dorm. I'm so incredibly proud of my heritage! WAHOO SCOTLAND!

Next up, in less than an hour now, is Greece, and then Italy. Holy moly. I can't wait. Please pray for safe travel, non-sketchy hostels/hotels, no pick-pockets, and nice people to help us when, not if, we get lost. I'll take millions of pictures.

Onward to Athens!

Monday, March 2, 2009

10:32 AM: Little trip updates...

Okay, so, I've also been to West Malling in Kent, Hampton Court Palace, and Brighton.

West Malling: Caris and I went for a day to visit her stepfather's parents, Pam and Brian (her step-grandparents, I guess), in Kent. They are precious people, incredibly kind and generous, and possess so much wisdom. I loved them both. They drove us around the countryside, all the way to the amazing coast at Dungeness. We actually saw the ocean! It was wildly and ruggedly beautiful--the shore was made of rounded stones instead of sand, and the only people out on the beach were hardcore fisherman bundled up in coats and scarves. Oh my goodness, was it cold, but it was really the wind that made it bad. We stopped at a little place to get fish n' chips (which was excellent, the best I've had so far) and got back in the car to return home. At their little apartment, they served us really good tea (Brian can make a mean cup of tea) and little sandwiches before we drove over to see Pam's much younger sister and her husband. They were a lot of fun and asked Caris tons of questions about her--they're just getting to know her, really. It was wonderful that she was able to see them. They invited us back, and we plan to take them up on that.

Hampton Court: Amazing, as always. I've been before, but Caris hadn't. So, we went. It's about a 30 minute train ride from London, and the weather was soooooo gorgeous. We toured most of the rooms--some were blocked off for renovations for the celebration of Henry VIII's 500 year anniversary this year. Later in March, they'll put on jousting tournaments and big feasts for the celebration. The gardens were especially beautiful that day... look at my Facebook photos! We grabbed lunch at a crowded cafe that served incredible hot chocolate, and jumped on a train back to London. It was a relaxed but really fun day.

Brighton: Oh my goodness, what a fun weekend. We left on a Friday morning and arrived by bus around noon. We immediately bolted for the coast--so gorgeous! A long pier jutted out into the water and played host to a small amusement park, restaurants, and little cafes. We walked around for a long while, up and down the pier, up and down the coast, took tons of pictures, and found a restaurant for lunch. Afterwards, we headed for the Brighton Pavilion, a second Taj Mahal, to take a tour... but the cost was kind of ridiculous, so we opted to explore the outside instead. Wandering around, we found a free museum about Brighton's history, local artists, and world artists. We spent a lot of time there, playing with the interactive exhibits (just see my videos on Facebook), then we headed to the train station to meet Caris' friend Lissy, who we were staying with over the weekend. Her mom graciously made us dinner before we headed out with Lissy's youth group for a night of ice-skating. Being around 15-18-year-olds made me feel so incredibly old... but ice-skating was fun nonetheless. The next morning, we got up late and headed for "the Lanes," long, narrow streets of eclectic, one-of-a-kind shops. We bashed around there for a bit (but I didn't buy anything), and then turned back toward the coast to find Lissy's favorite ice-cream shop. We met her parents and their two little dogs there. That night, two of Lissy's/Caris' friends, Pete and Steve, came over for a fun night of games. We played Scattergories, Taboo, etc. and laughed our heads off. And Lissy, who is a hairdresser on the side of her singing career, cut both Caris' and my hair. Don't worry--it's not drastic. :) The next morning we went to Lissy's church, ate Sunday dinner with her family, Pete, and Lissy's other friend and singing partner Luke, and then caught a train home. Right before we left, Luke pulled out his acoustic guitar and sang for us... and it was amazing. Check him out on Facebook and MySpace: Luke Sital-Singh. Incredible. When we got back to London that night, we tuned in at 7 pm and heard him sing live on the radio.

I've done so many things, but I don't have any time to write about them. Sorry if these little blurbs are a bit below my usual excellent writing standard. I'm doing my best!

Look for updates about Scotland soon. Three words about that: Uh. Maze. Zing. I'll try to write about that before I leave for my spring break on Thursday to GREECE AND ITALY!!!!!!!!!!! AH! I can't wait! Pray for good weather!

Until later...

9:48 AM: The Paris Blog, Part Deux

So, we left off at the Louvre, didn't we? Kristen and I were waiting around for Caris and Julia to return from finding Caris' sister-in-law, Julie, and we were occupied with the clear blue sky, the adamant sidewalk salesman trying to get us to buy Eiffel Tower keychains, and taking lots of pictures of the two big fountains around the Louvre. The three finally walked up, and we introduced ourselves to Julie, who instantly became one of our little group. We began walking down the Champs de Elysees toward the Arc du Triomphe, simply talking and taking in the beautiful atmosphere. Once we had made it to the main road of the city, we ducked into a Sephora for two minutes (by my request), and then headed to find an open cafe for a cup of something hot (my choice: hot chocolate. No coffee, thanks). When we headed back to the main road, we encountered a huge group of people surrounding three or four street performers dancing to electronic music. We're standing there watching them, and I happen to look over the faces in the crowd to see their reactions... and I see someone I know! Laura, a girl from my Cont. Brit. Fict. class, had told me she was going to Paris that weekend, but I never dreamed that I'd see her there, of all the great places in the city. I went over to talk to her, and she was just as surprised as I was. It really is a small world...

There was some more wandering and photo-taking and talking, and we finally made our way back to the Louvre, which was free for students on Fridays after 6 pm. We made our way inside, decided what we wanted to see the most, and took off in different directions. The one thing I wanted to see more than anything else was the marble white statue of Cupid and Psyche. I've done research on that myth in the past, but have only seen pictures of that glorious sculpture. To see it in person, to stand a mere foot away from it, was heaven. You're allowed to take pictures in the Louvre, but I just couldn't bring myself to do it. I felt that I'd be defiling it with modern technology. Is that weird? I simply took a mental picture--I stood there forever--and stored it away. I can look at it in my head whenever I like.

We saw the Mona Lisa (the most popular thing in the Museum), the statue of Aphrodite, amazing painted ceilings, more painting, more sculpture... tons of stuff, and we didn't even see all of it. Someone told us that it would take 365 days for you to really see everything in the Louvre, and we only stayed for 2 hours. Our feet ached from walking all day, so we opted to eat dinner and head back to the hotel for the night. We found a little restaurant that was still open, ate omelettes (which is what they were serving that was inexpensive, but still VERY good, as all French food is), and drank hot cups of tea. That night, we slept very, very soundly, all except Julie who had a pretty bad headcold.

The next day, Julia got up early to head for Disney World Paris for the day. The four of us--Julie, Caris, Kristen, and I--visited a little bakery for breakfast and jumped on the metro to head to Montmarte, the Sacre-Coeur Basilica, and the Moulin Rouge. The Sacre-Coeur, a huge church that looked remniscent of the Taj Mahal with its rounded tops that form little points, was gorgeous, but the weather outside was extremely cold, a big change from the day before. As we were walking down toward the city-center, trying to dodge the crafty salesmen who would bombard you with stupid, expensive gifts (no, really, they would come up to you and tie a bracelet, just a piece of colored string, around your wrist, but when you tried to refuse and walk away, they demanded that you paid for the bracelet around your wrist, which you took from them... and so you had to pay. Thankfully, Julie warned us about them, so we wrestled our way through them and emerged without the infamous bracelets), it started snowing. Really, snowing... in France. We thought we'd escaped it in England, but it found us in France! We walked down to see the Moulin Rouge--yeah, definitely anti-climactic. It looks nothing like I thought it would, but I wasn't expecting it to look like the movie... so I don't know what I was expecting.

Julie knew of this amazingly huge and cheap market near Montmarte, so we decided to find and explore it... in the snow. Bad idea. The stuff we found was awesome, at great prices too (like boots for 15 Euro), but it was so terribly cold and snowy that we couldn't even feel our fingers. Eventually, we got so cold that we ducked into the first restaurant we saw and stayed there for about 2 hours eating lunch and talking. A big Italian man with his wife and another Italian couple sat at the table next to us, and he struck up a very interesting conversation--he hardly spoke any English and even less French, and he was wonderfully loud and boisterous. I liked that he scared the French. He told us about his company, Ferlandia, and how we all should come stay with him in Italy and that his wife would cook for us (at this, she vigorously shook her head "No," laughed, and punched her husband in the shoulder). He gave us a little sticker with the name of the company and the website on it... we looked it up when we got back to London, and our Italian turned out to be a Nazi supporter. We thought it was weird when he mentioned Mussolini and how Obama being black was bad... yeah, we won't be staying with him.

We made our way back to Paris and the Tour Eiffel. Caris, Julie and I were wiped out, cold, and didn't want to climb up the stairs to the Tour Eiffel. So, we dropped off Kristen and met her two friends who are studying in Geneva, and went back to the hotel. Caris and Julie ventured out to find cold medicine for Julie but returned with five types of cheeses and a bottle of red wine--a truly French tradition! We didn't have a table in our room, so we sat on the floor and sampled the cheese and wine. It was so much fun! When Julie, Kristen, and her two friends joined us later, we headed back to the little creperie we visited our first night and celebrated our last night in Paris.

I was so sad to leave the next morning. I had loved every second of my time there, even the snowy days and the aching feet parts. Getting on the plane and flying back to London was very hard, but it was nice to relax that afternoon at Regent's and recover from the wonderful trip. I pray I get to go back sometime in my life to lovely Paris.

And that is the end.