Wanna hear something obscene? In the past 14 days, I’ve visited 6 cities in 4 countries. It sounds so ridiculous to me that I almost cringe to admit it. In fact, it brings to mind a scene from the end of Dirty Dancing: Hotel Owner Max, commenting on how vacation attitudes are changing, laments, “You think kids want to come with their parents and take fox-trot lessons? Trips to Europe, that’s what the kids want! Twenty-two countries in three days.” All cynicism and nostalgia for the good ol’ days aside, the sights, sounds, and smells of the past two weeks have been so enjoyable and have left me feeling so inordinately lucky that I can’t help but gush about my experience. Fearful that any trip report I might write would fall woefully short of expectations and bore you to tears, I’ll share a few of my treasured moments and desperately hope that they convey the essence of my sojourn.
– With volcanic ash spewing and French rail workers striking, I wait to board an early train to Nice the day after my canceled night train was scheduled to depart. After arriving early, I watch hordes of travelers wait frantically for the platform number to be announced on the departures board. The woman directly behind me is the first to shout, “Treize!” and a stampede of running passengers and flailing luggage takes off. I am still waiting for the rest of my friends to get to the train station. I look around and notice that I am standing right next to platform 13, then obnoxiously roll my eyes before reminding myself that there’s no point in going to Nice alone. When my group appears with five minutes to go, we look for an empty car and immediately see four empty seats somewhat close together. Six hours later – spent racking my brain for the best French to explain my situation and trying unsuccessfully to sleep through my anxiety – we arrive in Nice. No one claimed our seats, no ticket controller ever came through our car, and our canceled tickets were reimbursed. I got to Nice for free! As my Art History professor told me today, I must be a true French citizen if I found a way to make la grève work in my favor.
– Over breakfast in our monastery-turned-hoppin’-hostel, we befriend a girl traveling by herself. She has been WWOOF-ing; i.e., working on an organic farm in the south of France milking goats and eating cheese in exchange for lodging and 3 days a week to explore. Our new friend agrees to come with us to Cannes for the day, and I hear all about her latest goat injuries and her upcoming summer job in Oregon building hiking trails. And I thought I was being adventurous!
– Somewhat tucked away between the Royal Apartments and the Casino lies St. Nicholas Cathedral, where Princess Grace Kelly is buried. Seeing as Rear Window was the first movie I ever rented from Blockbuster and that it remains one of my favorites to this day, it was touching to happen upon the tomb for “Gratia Patricia,” adorned with flowers from other loving fans.
– I’ve never been much of a racing fan, but I couldn’t help but marvel as The Principality of Monaco geared up for its annual Grand Prix event, which takes place this week. Grandstands have been built along all the major roads, while pimped-out Ferrari’s and the like cruise what will become the track for the event. We pass a smaller set of bleachers directly opposite the Monte Carlo Casino and I nearly swoon calculating what spectators will pay for prime real estate while watching cars zoom by so fast you can barely make out their colors.
– Everyone entering the casino must present a passport or driver’s license. After handing mine over, it gets scanned and a ticket for valid entry is printed out. Despite the fact that the ticket vendor never touched a keyboard, the stub in my hand has my full name printed on it. Figures. That’s just how they roll in Monte Carlo.
– In a gondola, loving life, our gondaleer prepares to turn right on the upcoming canal. After singing/shouting in the ancient Venetian dialect used for signaling directions, I look up to see two locals on a balcony across from us. With the ability to see that another boat is coming down the canal, they serve as traffic cops until we safely negotiate the turn and shout back a hearty, “Grazie!” Who needs traffic lights?
– As I perfect my skills at steering clear of tourist traps, we find a pizza place for dinner that looks promising. Sitting outside under a canopy of fully bloomed wisteria, I embrace my Italian side and suddenly feel like my Pizza Napoli is inedible without some olive oil. France has the best bread, but Italy’s food wins me over every time.
– High tide at night (especially in the spring) means that the canals barely stink. However, it also affords us one of those surreal moments as we cross the Rialto Bridge and notice the water slowly flooding the street. As the city sinks one millimeter a year, I’m thankful to have seen it without much flooding, mostly because I didn’t pack my rain boots.
– Our hostel is located in the middle of the city, amidst spectacular buildings and all of the city’s best offerings, but I’m drawn back to reality as I actually take a stroll down our street, which is lined with prostitutes. Spanish police rarely arrest anyone as long as the red light districts are contained to certain areas, and I use this policy to count my blessings and remember that prostitution is not an abstract concept to joke about, but something much more serious once standing (no pun intended) in front of me.
– On a quiet day at the Museo Reina Sofia, I stand (relatively alone) in front of Picasso’s Guerníca. All the smaller studies in the rooms leading up to this one have really conveyed a sense of despair and tortured suffering. I can’t help but notice the structure of the room: white walls, checkered marble floor and industrial, harsh lighting that leaves much of the room in shadow. The painting takes up a third of its otherwise empty wall and visitors are only separated from the masterpiece by two strips of black electrical tape on the floor. The minimalism is haunting and I admit to myself that it’s been a while since I’ve felt so struck by a painting’s deeper symbolism.
– In the equally enormous and gorgeous Parque del Retiro, we spot a beautiful man-made lake and unanimously decide that we must join the sun-worshippers who have rented rowboats on the water. With six of us, we need at least two boats, and fearing what Manhattan would charge for this much charm and sunshine, I approach the rental booth with trepidation. For forty-five minutes of bliss, hilarity, and occasional splashing, we pay 4 euros per boat. I officially love Madrid.
– At 10:30pm, we exit the metro to arrive for the first time on our hostel’s street. Out of nowhere, a bang like a gunshot erupts and for a split second I fear the worst as the noise becomes louder and thunderous. But then I realize what I’m hearing:
Cheers, banging pots, and general craziness celebrate Barcelona’s soccer team’s late-in-the-game goal against Inter Milan. Talk about a welcome to the city! Even though Barcelona won 1-0, they didn’t win by a large enough margin to advance to the Champions League final. All I can say is that I’m glad I was off the streets when the game ended…
– Sitting at the top of Parque Guëll on the serpentine benches and re-creating scenes from L’Auberge Espagnole in my head, the group of Spanish musicians nearby starts playing “Zorba the Greek.” All the Greek tourists in the area join hands and start dancing the traditional Greek dance, as I grin from ear to ear and say to myself (for what feels like the 18th time), ‘This can’t be real.’
- Gaudi’s masterpiece-in-progress, La Sagrada Familia
– At last on my flight back to Paris, I open my eyes to find an adorable French three-year old entertaining himself by playing peekaboo with the row in front of me. He flings his stuffed animal along the back of his seat, looks to us for a reaction, and then cackles devilishly like there was no possible funnier way for us to respond. Since we only have about 45 minutes left of the flight, I take out my headphones and enjoy the antics as a (mercifully) passive observer. Before having to prepare for landing and get buckled in, he says goodbye with a heartfelt ‘PIPI CACA!!’ (look it up, non-French speakers) and I am curiously pleased to once again understand the local language.