Monday, June 16, 2008

I deboard the train in Frankfurt, and am surprised to find pay phones at the station. I thought this species went extinct with the typewriter and VHS tape. I toss in a few euros and call my Couchsurfing host, Christian, who says he´s standing in front of the nearest McDonalds.

Like most Europeans, he´s neatly presented, with a long navy wool coat, neatly ironed shirt and polished shoes. He greets me with a smile and a kiss on each cheek, tells me about his job as a pharmaceutical sales rep. Then he says he has a surprise for me. Would I like to be on television?

We go to a Chinese restaurant around the corner, where a Spanish news crew is interviewing couchsurfers and their hosts. I´m approached by a journalist about my age. She asks if I´d be able to do the interview in Spanish. I took a clue from the fact that she was asking this question in English, and said probably not. She insisted that I try.

Speaking Spanish into a videocamera, it turns out, is like playing piano in front of an audience: suddenly, you can´t hit half the notes that you could in rehearsal. I sputter through the interview, telling her that I´ve traveled for the last 10 weeks -- 6 in Spain, 2 in Portugal, 2 in Italy, half a week in Austria, and today in Germany -- and that I built a couchsurfing page with my photo and information on it; I tell her finding a host is sometimes easy and sometimes hard, depending on the country, and that my friend Kim has stayed with my current host, Christian, and reports he´s a wonderful guy.

Christian takes the pressure off with a joke; he tells the news crews that meeting Kim and I has convinced him that not all Americans own guns.

We wrap up the interview, return to the train station and pick up a Taiwanese couchsurfer. On our way home, it occurs to me that no one laughed at his "gun" comment, and I realize it wasn´t a joke. I mention this to him, and within minutes, find myself describing how an M-16 has the same barely-there kickback as a 22-caliber. I surprise myself with my own gun knowledge.

The grocery stores are closed on Sundays, so we drive to the airport to buy broculi and fish. "It´s international," Christian explains. "Its the only place that´s open."

Saturday, June 14, 2008

"I thought Italy would be the highlight of the trip," Kim said, "and Austria would just be some place we pass through. But wow."

We exited Italy in our usual, less-than-graceful style, buying train tickets that departed Florence at 2 a.m. instead of at a more reasonable hour, for the sake of saving 10 euro. (We promptly spent that 10 euro on a wine tasting held in the cellar where Machiavelli was imprisoned, which turned out to be less of a "wine tasting" than a party in prison.)

Around 1:30 a.m. we grabbed our bags from our storage locker and scrurried across town, but when we arrived at the train station, the gates were locked and the guard told us to go home.

We huffed for an hour, up a huge hill, to our former campsite, but the gates there, too, were locked.

We pitched a tent in front of the gates, grumpy again.

The next day we learned that red-eye trains depart from a different station. Apparently this was written in Italian on our ticket, and was so glaringly obvious to native Italian speakers that they wouldn´t consider giving us a refund.

We re-purchased a ticket for 10 p.m., which landed us in Venice at 2 a.m., for a 7 hour layover.

The train station in Venice was empty except for sketchy men, crazy bag ladies and the occasional prostitute. We knocked on the door to the windowless police station, where the cops welcomed us but offered no help. We then boarded an all-night bus and rode it in circles around the city, figuring we´d be safer under the watchful gaze of the bus driver. We slept for an hour, then decided, "Hey, while we´re here, might as well see Venice!" We stolled by the canals at 4 a.m., Kim clutching a can of bear spray (├╝ber-mace) in her right hand. By 5 a.m., we re-boarded the bus for some more shut-eye.

In our daze, we then boarded the wrong train at 9 in the morning, but caught our mistake quickly. The conductor personally helped us de-board the train and explained how to transfer to the correct one. Five hours later, we were in an Austrian town we´d never heard of.

Villach, Austria is the home of Karen Haar, a woman whom I met while walking around in Thailand last December looking for a place to eat dinner. Karin had been studying menus, and I suggested we eat dinner together. Though we only met one that one occasion, we kept in touch on Facebook, and she had offered to host us during our Austria visit.

We had no idea what Villach would be like -- we thought it might be a nondescript town, maybe the Austrian equivalent of Columbus, Ohio -- but we couldn´t have been more wrong. Villach is BEAUTIFUL. Nestled in the Alps (which are still snow-capped, even in June), this town boasts crystal clear lakes, towering green mountains, and a quirky pedestrian mall that puts Boulder´s Pearl Street to shame. Twenty or thirty kilometers from both the Italian and Slovenian border, Villach is where the Austrians keep their summer cottages and winter chalets.

We spent a day in Villach eating schnitzel and making sense of German. The following day we headed to Vienna with Karin.

Only one problem: the European soccer championships, held every four years, are happening in Austria as we speak, and all the hostels are booked. A cramp in the Vienna visit, right? Not at all.

Kim spotted a small family business boasting her same last name -- Ehardt -- and began talking to the owner. They suspected, but couldn´t confirm, that they might share a common great-grandmother. Or possibly a great- great-grandmother. Nonetheless, the Austrian Ehardts welcomed her as "family!" and offered us a place to stay in Vienna.

We spent an evening in the city center, watching soccer on an enormous flat-screen TV while surrounded by hooligans with the Austrian flag painted on their faces.

I came back to Villach with Karin the next day; Kim stayed in Vienna with her maybe-family-maybe-not. By now, she´s already boarded a flight to Frankfurt. She reaches Michigan on Sunday. I reach Denver on Tuesday. Our era is coming to an end. Or maybe its just beginning? Stay tuned.

Monday, June 9, 2008


Kim and I load our backpacks with everything we need for a 2-day hiking and camping trip; the dress shoes, books and shampoo find a storage locker. With packs on our backs and SPF 50 on our faces, we wander down roads, up roads, across roads, slowly winding south through Tuscany. Brick and stone give way to cyprus trees and grape vineyards. Soon we're walking along the narrow shoulder of a winding backroad, oceans of green spread in both directions.


Its night time, and we've pitched a tent in an olive grove off the side of the road. I characteristically worry that we'll get caught; Kim characteristically does not. We leave our belongings unattended and walk 2 kilometers into the nearest town. Its too small to offer a restaurant, but we find olives, feta, toast crackers, two tomatoes and a box of white wine at a grocery store. We talk about our favorite childhood games and imaginary plots while we walk. Its raining as we return to the grove, and we race each other up the muddy hill, pretending our tent is our super-stealth fort. We dive into it and giggle as we lay out our picnic. Kim sniffs the boxed wine, pronounces it exquisite.


We arrive in Siena and wander into a cafe for an Italian cappuchino. Kim's calves have the slighest twinge in them from our hours of walking. We feel good. We ask the barista if she knows of any cheap places to stay. She not only gives us the name of a cheap hostel, but she asks her associate, a Yugoslavian man named Ishmael, to walk us to the bus stop and make sure we get on the right bus. Ishmael wears a denim jacket over denim jeans. He is missing several front teeth, and those that remain are brown. Though he does not speak any English, he sees our reluctance in accepting the first hostel recommendation we're given. He walks us to an official tourist information stand so that we can independently confirm that everything the barista told us is valid. Then he walks us to the bus stop, and directs us to the Number Ten.


We befriend three brunettes, each with long unkempt wavy hair, who carry us back to Florence in their lime green VW bus, with its mantra, "l'amore," painted on the front passanger door.

Yellow and clay-colored handkerchiefs with frayed edges hang off the driver and front passanger seat. A cardboard rainbow, frayed blue scarf, dried lavendar and a Native American dreamcatcher hang from the twine behind the front seats the holds the curtain. Beads and a felt frog dangle from the sun visors.

Kim and I sit barefoot in the back, next to a woman in a tye-dyed dress who is breastfeeding her naked baby boy. Rainwater leaks through the plastic moonroof, falling onto our backpacks. The interior paint has chipped off the door, revealing what appears to be a thin layer of plywood. A half-eaton melon sits in a clay bowl inside a wicker basket on the floor.

The driver tells us of her trip to America: a stopover in the D.C. airport en route to Mexico City.

"They were very cold," she says, "and they had very large drinks. One liter cokes."

A beautiful girl with ink henna on her hands looks at us from the shotgun seat.

"I do not think you drink one liter cokes," she says. "You are not...." she motions with her hands to indicate a wide torso.

She unwraps a guitar from a hemp bag and begins to pluck. The three brunettes sing soft Italian songs through the rest of the ride.

Friday, June 6, 2008

When we arrived in Rome, it wasn't without characteristic mishap: us staying awake all night so we could catch a 3 a.m. cab ride to the airport; Kim getting sick as soon as we arrived at baggage claim, and spending the bus ride to the camp ground clutching a barf bag.

We arrived in Florence, however, without any significant adventure attached -- just a simple train ride from Rome.

Florence, Italy is a cute little city, a lot like Boulder without the mountains. Kim and I settled into a new campsite located walking distance from the city center. The walk is up a large hill, and from the top you can get a beautiful birds-eye view of Florence. On Day One here, we flipped roles: this time Kim was the one venturing into the art musuems, while I stayed outdoors, wandered through the piazzas, browsed at a used bookstore (I bought The Kite Runner and finished it within 3 days).

That night I met a bunch of other travelers, mostly Brits and Americans, at the campsite's little cafeteria benches; they were all playing drinking games with an international twist. They were nice kids, and fun to hang out with for a night, but their mentality seemed rather silly. It wasn't the first time on this trip that I've felt older than the collegiate, study-abroad scene that many of the other travelers carry. Its amazing what a stark age difference lies between 21 and 24.

You know that popular travel book, Eat Pray Love, in which the author says she learned to eat in Italy and learned to pray in India? Kim and I have been eating like its an art ever since we arrived. Gelato, Italian cappucino, pastas, pizza (which is fresh and premuim-quality here -- top-shelf mozzarella and fresh tomatoes and whole basil leaves). The other night, in the process of trying tiramisu, we met a few guys who told us that Florence is a horrible place for studying medicine or engineering. All the social and parental pressure, they said, is to encourage Florentines into studying art. What a strange reversal.

We went to Pisa yesterday for one reason: to take pictures of ourselves holding up the leaning tower. Okay, this was really MY idea, and Kim was generous enough to humor me, long after she was tired of taking photos. ("Just one more, really, I think I can get my hands perfectly aligned this time!") We have pics of us kicking down the Leaning Tower, dancing with the Leaning Tower, leaning against the Leaning Towner, you name it.

A couple of Spanish people now living in California thought this was very creative (in fact, its commonplace in Pisa, but we didn't correct them) and asked us to help them pose for photos, too. We spent a long time with them ("nope, kick your foot higher ... okay, flex your toes ....") and they took several group pictures of all of us, together.

Today we're going to start walking from Florence to Siena, through the wine region of Tuscany, called Chianti. We have a haphazard map, no real walking route to follow, and no idea where we'll sleep at night. It sounds like Bike Trip, Part Two, but this time at least we won't be burdened with bikes.

On a totally unrelated note, here's something I've been wanting to blog about for awhile: when I travel, some people want to insist that I'm not American. You know those street vendors trying to sell crap, like necklaces or souveniers, from sidewalk stands? They yell "hello, hello!" at passing tourists? Well, when they see me, they yell, "namaste!" or "India? India?"

Then when I actually talk to people and tell them I'm from America, they're unsatisfied with the answer. The conversation goes like this:
THEM: Where you from?
ME: America.
THEM: Where your family is from?
ME: America.
THEM: You no look like America.
ME: Oh? What does an American look like?

When I was in Lisbon, I met an Indian guy who is also traveling around the planet. After cursory introductions, he says:
HIM: Is your family from India?
ME: My parents came from Kathmandu.
HIM: Oh, in Nepal?
ME: Yes, Nepal.
HIM: Can you cook curry?
ME: No.
HIM: If you could cook curry, I'd propose.
ME: That's why I don't.
HIM: It isn't a feminism thing. I like curry.
ME: So learn to cook it yourself.
HIM: Men are too stupid to learn how to cook. You should feel pity for us, and cook us curry out of your pity.

I had no good response to that.

Someone once asked me why the name of my blog is American Girl Travel. I think the answer lies in what I've outlined above.

Monday, June 2, 2008

As the Romans do

I'm extremely impressed with Rome, more than I ever thought I"d be.

Rome is the tiny city that gave us the 26-letter alphabet, the January though December calendar, forums that developed the backbones of modern philosophy, and the Roman Catholic Church. Its ancient and bursting with well-preserved ruins and remnants of human history.

Matt flew here with Kim and I, but only stayed for two days, during which time we did a whirlwind tour. Vatican, Sistine Chapel, St. Peters Basilica, Coluisseum, and a dozen or more statues, fountains, ruins, etc. He left on Sunday, and now Kim and I are roaming through Rome at a much slower pace.

His departure was the end of an era -- and the start of a new era, the last two and a half weeks of our trip. In Era 1, Kim and I spent 6 weeks frugally camping and farming and biking in Spain (and, for me, Portugal) ..... in Era 2, we"re taking a 2.5 week "vacation" in Italy, Germany, and either Switzerland or Austria.

Kim and I are staying at a campground about an hour outside of the city center, although it is the most luxe campground I"ve ever seen, complete with jacuzzi, buffet and on-site disco. No soap or handtowels in the shared bathrooms, though -- hey, its a campground, after all, and we"re sleeping in a tent.

One man we met yesterday tried to flirt through the help of a translator. He was this dorky-looking Italian guy, with coke-bottle glasses and bright red pants, accompanied by a friend who had the muscles of a bodybuilder. Bright Red Pants Boy would say something in Italian to his friend, who would then turn to me and say, "where are you from?" I would reply, "America," and then Bright Red Pants Boy would wave his arms in truimph and display his liking for America. He would then say something else in Italian to his friend, who would turn to me and say, "how old are you?" And so forth.

Kim and I are leaving for Florence tomorrow, but one note on Rome for anyone thinking of coming here: the space outside St. Peters Basilica is one of the most beautiful places I"ve ever seen.
It has two rows of simple columns forming the edges of a three-quarter circle, with the basilica acting as the crowning point (similiar to the layout of Burning Man). Its design left me amazed at the geometric shape of a circle. Circles are so mathematical, so strange, so perfect, so beautiful. Its a wonder that the Romans were able to capture the essence of a circle so well, using so many columns across such a large space, with such rudimentary instruments. No wonder they gave rise to a great civilization.