Munich – The City of Monks and its strangely beautiful ways

Hello dear readers,

I have been in Munich for a few days now and am enjoying myself. There is something about Munich that is very regal and refreshing and altogether welcoming to me. It is not like Italy, or Spain, or Ireland, or any other country where I have been. I like how neat and tidy Germany is. I enjoy being in a city where the standard of living is high and yet the people will leave you completely alone to do your own thing. I also enjoy that it has everything I could want in a city: international airport and bus/train lines, luxury stores and a world class ballet theatre, high fashion shops, cobble-stone streets, and beautiful architecture and lots of history. It is a fairy-tale city and truly in Munich, dreams come true.

I don’t really enjoy list posts, so I won’t write it out in numbers. But I do count my blessings. I can say this much.
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In Munich, I have really learned the importance of caring for one’s appearance. It makes a difference how people look at you because it is how you look at yourself.

Love can blossom wherever there is spring.

If you give something, never expect a single thing in return. That is true love.

Do not be afraid of having fun and being childlike. Not throwing tantrums or something like that. But childlike. Innocent and kind and imaginative, the way we all are as children before the hurt comes. It doesn’t have to split our souls when we become adults when we heal from traumatic experiences. Everyone has their own private pain, no matter how great or small. What is important is that it informs us, but doesn’t deform us.

The best thing in the world is having someone on your side who you can trust.

It is not about the money, but about the intention behind it.

Live with the purpose of having all your dreams fulfilled. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. The universe will fulfil all our requests.

There is nothing better than being kind.

Be the person you say you are.

Now, time for the photos. As always, all opinions are my own.

Staatsoper Munich
Staatsoper Munich
Near Marienplatz
Near Marienplatz
Blooming tulips near Marienplatz
Blooming tulips near Marienplatz
Rathaus in Marienplatz
Rathaus in Marienplatz
Rainy day with sunshine streaks in Munich
Rainy day with sunshine streaks in Munich
Karlsplatz gate
Karlsplatz gate

Munich, Germany

Hello!

Okay, so first I shall admit, this wasn’t part of my plan. At least, not on paper. On paper, I was supposed to go from Stockholm, Sweden directly to Warsaw, Poland, and continue on to Budapest after a day or two.

But even when I was planning my 10-country-Europe-hop, I knew I would come back to Munich after Stockholm to see my best friend Raphael.

And, as circumstance happened, the events turned out just so that could happen.

Call it coincidence, call it feelings, call it intuition, call it rebelling against your limits of control, call it whatever you want: I just had a bad feeling about going to Warsaw. Not that I have anything against Warsaw. It’s just one of those things you should listen to in your gut, when you have a voice telling you in your mind ‘do this. Your soul will be happy later.’

Dear readers of this blog, I had chosen earlier not to go to Munich because Warsaw was the cheaper option. However, I can say that this ‘mistake’ was probably one of the best ones in my life. I got to see my best friend at exactly the right time, at exactly the right hour. Listen to your heart when it tells you to do something, because that is your soul telling you it is exactly the choice you need to make to be truly, utterly happy!

So, here’s what happened that led to this mishap:

I stayed in Acco Hostel, in Stockholm.

I do not recommend this hostel. The reason is because while the photos on the website look amazing, with lots of white light and wide-angle camera shots, it is in reality quite small, crowded, cramped, and most importantly to me, it was not so clean.

Cleanliness in a hostel is really important to me. I don’t like taking showers in places that are dirty, for example, or going into a toilet/Water Closet/bathroom that is not spick-and-span. Who does?

Especially if you are paying for somewhere to rest your tired body and find some refreshing sleep and peace of mind. It’s hard to love anything that makes you go ‘ew.’ Cleanliness is extremely important. And unfortunately, I was disappointed by Acco Hostel. It cost $26 for one night in a 6-bed all-girl dorm, and while the people there were absolutely friendly and polite, and I was able to rest for a while in a warm, clean room without bad smells in a cozy bed, it was the lack of staff who was cleaning the place that made me feel unsettled.

I was told once when I was in Venice that there is a hostel on the island that has 150 beds when there is a permit of only 45 or so. That places a huge strain on the bathrooms, because the bathrooms only have one toilet and one shower for all those people. Imagine 150 people using only 6 bathrooms every day and night! It’s incredible.

I sometimes wonder if hostels elsewhere do the same thing as the one in Venice: take advantage of their permits. I can understand cutting costs and hiring less staff. But quality of service suffers, and that, dear readers, means loss of reputation and future guests! And no business wants that if it wants to survive!

So, as it turned out, I had a 2 hour journey ahead of me to get back to Skavsta airport, about 56 miles outside of Stockholm. Relying on the train and bus, I managed to get there right in time to still have a chance at catching my plane to Warsaw.

But it was not to be. As soon as I got to the security checkpoint, I was denied access because the ‘gate was closed’ even though they were clearly doing a ‘final call’ right in front of me at the gate. So, not really worried, I went back to the service counter and after some deliberation, bought a relatively cheap ($70ish) flight to Venice Treviso, from where I would catch a Flixbus back to Munich.

All in all, the deviation from my carefully planned trip cost about $200, for the flight, the Flixbus ($50 for an 11 hour ride through the beautiful Swiss alps), the bus shuttle from the airport ($12), food at the airport ($6) and a night in a hostel ($26) and another Flixbus to get to Budapest from Munich to resume my travel plans ($40).

But, what is $200 in the face of love?

There are times when you must make those decisions that your heart tells you to make. There are the decisions that are important, like ‘get a job’ and ‘pay your bills’ and so on. But then there are also the choices, such as ‘seeing this person is important to me at this time.’

Sometimes, you simply have to deviate from the ‘plan.’ Having once been a solider following strict orders, I have since become someone who is slowly learning how to balance the tightrope of following what I have to do, and what I want to do.

I told myself when planning for this trip that I would never deviate my course again for anyone, like I have done in trips past. A few more days in one place. A week in another. A few months in another. Staying for years for friends.

Yes, there is a time and a place to follow the plan that you make. But I have to say, sometimes, when your heart tells you it is right to deviate, you should pay the money and deviate. The reason why? Because for me, what matters most in the end is not how well I followed orders, but how well I can live with my soul. And that, my dear readers, is a life-long journey of self-discovery.

And, you know what? I am so glad I took the bus back to Munich. The 8 hours that we spent winding along on the road through the Italian mountains into the Swiss alps into the beautiful flowering plains of southern Germany is one of the most precious and beautiful experiences of my life. And leading up to seeing my best friend one more time, it is a combination I would never regret. For moments like that, it is truly priceless.

Just don’t look at the credit card bill immediately afterwards :-)! (But pay it on time).

Now, time for the photos. The pictures of the alps are not so good because I took them on my cell phone, but you can see why it was truly a magical experience.

I was glad I was able to spend a couple days refreshing my soul in Munich. Sometimes, after all the stress and worry that comes with the joy and happiness of travelling, we all need somewhere that we can call home. A home away from home. If you can find one of those, then travelling all over the world will never be so hard, because after all that time spent out in the distant lands soaking up the ideas and culture of change and curiosity, there will always be a road back home.

Italian mountains!
Italian mountains!
Swiss alps!
Swiss alps!
Swiss alps!
Swiss alps!

Stockholm, Sweden

Hello dear readers,

I am thoroughly enjoying being in Stockholm, Sweden. If you are looking for a place to visit that has high class living standards for everyone, beautiful architecture, well dressed people, arts and culture, and a very ‘Harry Potter feel,’ then Stockholm is just the ticket.

I honestly cannot recommend anything in Stockholm that isn’t absolutely wonderful. It is simply a world city where anywhere you go will be nice. I thoroughly enjoyed walking around on the promenade in the island, where the Old Town section is, going in and out of the shops and looking at the different things in the windows. There is even a pub called The Hairy Pig Pub. For me, that is simply delightful!

Stockholm is like one giant IKEA store. There is in fact the first original IKEA store nearby where I am staying (I am staying in a great house in Huddinge, which is a small town right next to Stockholm). There are gardens in Stockholm to walk around and explore the natural beauty, like Djurgarden, for example, mixed into the city.

Stockholm is a delightful mix of old and new in a very seamless fashion. Everything is a bit expensive in Stockholm, but that means the standard of living is very high for everyone, also. The commuter trains are clean and comfortable, and the buses run on time.

If you fly into one of the airports surrounding Stockholm, you have to pay about $17-20 for a bus to take you into Stockholm. From there, you can take any commuter train or bus, you just have to buy a ticket. A single journey ticket costs about $4.

I am staying in a great Airbnb in Huddinge, which is 5 stops by train away from Stockholm. The roommates are great, they play games, watch movies together, go on excursions to the forests and lakes, and basically welcome you like a good friend. Here is the link: Room in Huddinge with awesome roommates

So far, it seems to be a very ideal society.

Now for the photos. As always, all opinions are my own.

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Sofia, Bulgaria

Hello!

After Athens, Greece, what could be better than going back to the country right next to Romania, Bulgaria? It’s not a real question. It’s a rhetorical question, and I asked it because I was just in Athens, where Socratic methods of thought were born. The point is, I didn’t expect to like Sofia at all, from anything I have read or heard (which is not much). However, I was totally surprised.

Sofia is an excellent city! I love nature, as you all know, and Sofia’s huge green parks with blooming tulips and trees, real old trees, made me feel very much at home after the concrete jungle that was poor Athens, Greece.

Now, it might occur to you if you follow me, that I have a very simplistic mind. The fact is, when I am travelling, I do have a very simplistic mind. Food, nature, art, music, shelter, warmth — I am thoroughly reminded how life is not so easy out in the wild where I would be helplessly lost if I tried to survive away from civilisation.

The thing is, young kids these days (in general, and I have been told never to generalise) are kind of mad at the ‘state of things.’ Lots of economic hardship around the world, lack of internet privacy, feeling disillusioned, hopeless, etc. about global climate change and overpopulation and pollution — you know, the big picture. It all sounds pretty depressing and let’s face it, watching the destruction of our home is never easy. I mean, hey everyone, where are we going to find another habitable planet anywhere near our galaxy?

Okay, I strayed away from Sofia. The point is, Sofia was once under communist rule, but it is not any longer, and while I don’t know the state of its economy or government rule, it is a very nice place to be, from my vantage point. The streets are wide, there are buses, street trams, the metro, public parks to play in, and promenades to walk and shop.

Despite the fact that citizens of Bulgaria find it really hard (or impossible) to get a visa to the United States, their way of life doesn’t seem so bad at all, unlike Romania, its neighbouring country. Of course, good and bad quality of life is entirely based on our own point of view, but from my line of sight, these people are doing just fine. At least, on the surface. What do I know? I am just an observer from a different place.

I walked from Vasil Levski Stadium to Sofia University, up around the magnificent old monuments and buildings, stopped in the National Museum of Art, which had a kind of black and white screen printing exhibition which none of the people there understood but thought it was ‘interesting,’ and down to the old Roman city remains of Serdika, by the mosque, and then through the shopping street Vitosha to the Bulgaria Square, which has a lot of fountains leading down from what I think was the National Palace of Culture (according to my paper map).

Food: the pastries are excellent. As for anything else, I cannot say. I know I am the bastion of healthy living in all other areas, but when it comes to travelling, these cheap pasties and croissant shops that line the streets always capture my money. We don’t have them in the United States. They are an excellent (carbohydrate only) food!

Getting around: You can use the Metro, which is very cheap, about 1.40 Lva per single ride, or you can take the bus or street tram. I had a lot of time, and I like to walk, so I walked. I like to see the sights that way.

Also, did I mention there is a giant mountain right beside the city? Beautiful.

Time for the photos. As always, all opinions are my own!
NOTE: Until I can get back to Munich HQ, my photos are not yet operational. These are not my own, but they show you what Sofia looks like.

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Athens, Greece

Hello!

Athens, Greece. Who hasn’t heard of the Greek Gods and the ancient history surrounding the Greeks? And, who hasn’t heard of the catastrophic economic struggles of the modern day Greeks?

It was a little strange to see these two dynamics standing side by side. When I visited Athens, I stayed in an Airbnb a few hundred meters walk down to the sea, in Paleo Faliro. It was nice to be so close to the beach, and walk along the water’s edge watching the mountains stretching out on the horizon of the water, and the expanse of white-walled abodes surrounding Athens. What surprised me most, however, was walking to the ‘ancient part’ of Athens.

It was simply nothing like I had pictured in my imagination. There were the ruins, yes, tall columns of pillars from stone that somehow lasted hundreds of years.

But it wasn’t mesmerising and mystical anymore.

The pillars, the sites of ancient history, were understandably closed off in gated areas, but you had to pay between 30 – 45 Euros to walk inside and tour around and take pictures. Then, outside of these small islands of ancient history, there was the constant barrage of modernity: buses, electric buses, cars, motorcycles, street hawkers, and row after row of shops selling an array of food and sex.

That was what surprised me the most. I had always imagined ancient Hellenic Greece to be the most indestructible of all places in the world, given its history and the fact that gods are supposed to be, well, invincible. I was unprepared for the harsh reality that the world was stuck in the now, and the now consisted of a massive economic fallout for the Greeks. I was shocked and saddened, to be quite honest.

What to do in Athens:
If you tour around Athens, you will find that there are touristy places that are ‘must-sees’ marked on any map: like Hadrian’s Gate, the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and so on. For me, just going near the site and taking photographs was enough — once I had lost that magical feeling upon seeing it turned into a tourist attraction, my interest was largely gone. It was still incredibly cool to be there, in Athens, steps away from the remains of an ancient world…but maybe you know what I mean.

There are also beautiful beaches in Athens, and in Paleo Faliro, where I was, there was a nice stretch of sand leading a few hundred meters along the coast. It had a pleasant view of the setting sun and I especially liked seeing the mountains rising out of the horizon.

As for food, I am a vegetarian, and I don’t really eat all that much. At least, not in Athens. I wasn’t really hungry after my shock of the state of things, so I can’t recommend much. I was very surprised to see Lidl, Dominos, McDonald’s, and other familiar global food chains around my streets. Somehow, I had thought that Athens would be different and more closed off.

Transportation: I flew into the Athens airport and took the bus X96 into Athens city. It cost 6 Euros and you have to buy it from a little bus ticket stall. Then you have to stamp verify it on the bus in case any police man asks.

You can buy single ride tickets for 1.40 Euros from mini markets. Unfortunately, you can’t buy them from the bus driver. I think it is because the buses are too crowded and the drivers don’t have the time. Anyway, Greece is going through some hard times, so don’t expect the bus fleet to be clean and new all the time. It’s a bit worn, but it will get you where you need to go.

Anyway. Time for the photos!

As always, all opinions are my own.

The ancient Olympic site in Athens, Greece
The ancient Olympic site in Athens, Greece
Up at the Acropolis
Up at the Acropolis
The setting sun in Athens, Greece
The setting sun in Athens, Greece
The beach view of the sea in Athens, Greece
The beach view of the sea in Athens, Greece
Hadrian's Gate
Hadrian’s Gate
Site of the Olympics
Site of the Olympics
A building with columns in the park in Athens
A building with columns in the park in Athens
Statue in a park near the ancient part of Athens
Statue in a park near the ancient part of Athens
The Acropolis Museum
The Acropolis Museum
The Acropolis
The Acropolis
Athens
Athens
The Acropolis
The Acropolis
An open air theatre close to the Acropolis
An open air theatre close to the Acropolis
Another view of the Acropolis area
Another view of the Acropolis area

Bucharest, Romania — a fallen Empire

Hello!

I am currently in Bucharest, Romania, which if any of you have read or seen Dracula, is the spooky nation (well, more of the region of Transylvania) that inspired the story of that infamous, lifeless immortal.

Honestly, I don’t like Bucharest, but I have the feeling that were I to stay longer in this spooky city, I would fall madly in love. It is just so delightfully creepy! However, it is hard to adjust to, that is, it’s a really hard switch to make from the beautiful sun-and-sand locations I have spent nearly the last two weeks of my European country hop about. There are policemen dotting every few hundred meters and sirens of police cars going off about every hour or so. For some reason, there is a dark cloud over Bucharest that I highly suspect has a lot to do with the poverty of the country and the history of its transition from empire to communist country. Coming from the United States, it is a little hard for me to realize that I am in Romania, which is in eastern Europe and in a completely different historical story than the western world.

Living in the free world — I’ve gotten a lot of criticism from Russians, Ukrainians, Serbians, and anyone else who envies my visa. They say I come from a land of complete freedom and opportunity and I am not even aware of what I was born into. They say this because for them, visas are expensive and difficult to obtain, and America is still seen to be the country of opportunity.

While I do understand the resentment, it really has hurt my feelings over the last few years to hear this kind of commenting. I don’t tell them that it is bad in the United States, too, that lots of people in their twenties have massive student loans and high interest rates for college education, who can’t find jobs appropriate for their learning or for their desired career, and who live on pay check to pay check. It is not like Americans don’t have fear of poverty — it just looks less noticeable because we don’t really see it from the outside. But many Americans are cutting back on food and health care to have more money to spend elsewhere, and food insecurity is a problem that affects a high percentage of the population (meaning wondering where the next meal will come from).

I have not been alone in experiencing poverty, in fact, I have lived since turning 18 on a very modest income and lifestyle. It’s not because I don’t want to work, because I worked part-time all throughout college. It’s because afterwards, when I wanted to join the workforce, I was up against hundreds or thousands of applicants who had very similar credentials for the jobs I was applying for, jobs that suited my career field and degrees, and I was getting rejected everywhere.

Also, to be completely forthcoming, I did not want to join the corporate workforce and sit behind a desk like the rest of my Management and Finance majors went on to do in Big Four companies and well known firms. I wanted to be self-employed, make my own decisions, build my own lifestyle, have freedom to work when and where I wanted, and be happy doing what I loved.

That means you’re ‘freelancing’ or ‘working online’ and that really doesn’t make much money in the first few years (or at least, not for me, and I was working multiple part-time jobs most of the time). So basically, I was living just like they were, despite being in the land of the free and the land of the opportunists, and I was experiencing just like they were the hunger and the struggle and the often depressing facts that the ‘Great Recession’ had lent to my whole generation: that even though we had tried so, so hard to get ahead, things had become worse and worse each year, with opportunities shrinking and salaries dropping and hours increasing.

While this was all too much to say to these critical foreigners, I did take in their points of view and try to see it from their side. It really must be hard growing up in a country where there is no opportunity whatsoever to rise, no matter how hard you try. This is what Bucharest seems like to me. The once beautiful old city was largely demolished and turned into communist-style block buildings in 1965-89 under Nicolae Ceausescu’s leadership.

Bucharest may be in a critical place for standards of quality of life, but I can tell just in this short time of being here, that it was once a vibrant cultural centre in between the two World Wars and this undercurrent remains through all its instability and changes. I walked through the Old Town, stopped in one of the churches there and admired the frescoes on the ceilings, saw the Cismigiu Garden’s spring beauty, walked around and around seeing the remains of the old town’s architecture, the old palace that is now the National Museum of Art, the National Bank of Romania, and so on.

Prices are very low for the USD and Euro in Romania (about 4 to 5 to 1 Lei), and I was surprised how cheap I could buy things like food. I didn’t feel like changing my few Euros to Lei, so I stuck to using my credit card in markets and bought the pasties I have been seeing in shop windows everywhere. They taste amazing, and once again I am very thankful I can tolerate gluten! I really don’t drink alcohol, but it seems that lots of places exist for nice meaty dinners combined with wine or beer. I am not really a meat eater, though, so the pasties were enough for me.

By far my favourite cultural sight in Bucharest was the Cismigiu Gardens, which I was told are the oldest gardens in Bucharest. They were blooming with tulips and had leafy boulevards leading around a lake with a fountain in the middle, with lots of other blooms and lots of chirping birds. I thought this was a very necessary respite from the unhappy hustle and bustle of Bucharest. I say unhappy because it seems like the numerous amount of policemen are around to prevent any protests from springing up. When I was walking around Cismigiu Gardens, I saw and heard protesters crowded on one side of the street across from me. It simply feels like organised crime has gained a serious foothold in Bucharest due to changing governmental policies and a lack of public affairs attention to lifestyle standards.

Still, don’t be put off, I would recommend Bucharest to anyone who wants to come here. I went out again at night and was rewarded with a completely changed face of the city: there were strings of lights hanging over the main streets in a very festive way, and nearby the University, which is near to my Airbnb, an amazing funky jazz band was playing in a small tent near the Cismigiu gardens and street sellers. I caught most of their one hour performance and it was thrilling to hear. Despite the occasional rain and the cold (I am finally able to wear the winter jacket Raphael made me bring along), I managed to find a sight that was inspiring and original at last.

It really made coming to Bucharest worth it!

Now for the photos. As always, all opinions are my own.

Landmark near by Airbnb
Landmark near by Airbnb
Statue in front of the University square
Statue in front of the University square
Street view of Bucharest
Street view of Bucharest
Across from the Museum of National Art
Across from the Museum of National Art
Across from the Museum of National Art
Across from the Museum of National Art
Frail spring blooms in Cismigiu Gardens
Frail spring blooms in Cismigiu Gardens
Spring blooms in Cismigiu Gardens
Spring blooms in Cismigiu Gardens
Spring blooms in Cismigiu Gardens
Spring blooms in Cismigiu Gardens
A flowering tree in the Old Town district
A flowering tree in the Old Town district
A street leading to the National Bank of Romania
A street leading to the National Bank of Romania
The huge palace of Bucharest
The huge palace of Bucharest

Palermo – capital of Sicily, Italy

Hello!

A quick Google search will tell you that Palermo is the capital of Sicily, which is an autonomous region in southern Italy. It is also about 2,700 years old, and an important historical city to Italian history, lying on the coast of the island of Sicily on the Tyrrhenian Sea.

What Google can’t bring to life is experiencing the city on foot, for yourself. Though I spent only a short couple days in Palermo, I was astounded by the beauty of the old monuments that lie on the Quatro Canti, the Four Corners, quadrants. There are two large streets that are promenades during the day for pedestrians and bicyclists, which bisect each other like a giant +, thus the name, Four Corners. This outlines the Old Town, which is where the old monuments, the churches and theaters, some of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites, lie.

Near the Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Italy

This is what the promenade looks like during the morning. You can faintly see Mount Pellegrino at the end of the horizon guarding over Palermo.

I was lucky enough to find an Airbnb right in the heart of the Old Town, located in a small street right behind the Teatro Massimo, run by an Italian husband and wife, Nino and Maria. I was met by Maria and her small dog at Teatro Massimo at night, who walked me back to the apartment and made me feel very welcome. Maria showed me her house, which was a three (or four!) story building which she had turned into an Airbnb and decorated with colorful paintings and colorful accessories as if it came straight out a small town in South America (or maybe that is just how people decorate their residences in southern Italy, I do not know).

My room in Palermo, Italy IMG_0098

I was so used to getting crammed mercilessly into spaces full of other people, like the tiny airplanes, the crowded buses, the crowded metro cars, crowded street trams, crowded tourist areas, and crowded hostel dorm rooms, that having a whole room to myself was like getting a present for my birthday. I was so overjoyed I think I cried later that evening (at least, I think that was the reason, and not the chemical-induced cry I sometimes get from eating too many sugars…more on that later).

There was even a lilac bathrobe for me waiting in my dresser, a colorful towel (there was nothing NOT colorful in this Airbnb), and another colorful blanket should I get cold in the night. There was a full kitchen, equipped with utensils, pots, pans, and more colorful cups and decorations. What made me so happy was the Italian style breakfast Maria showed me tucked away inside a closed cupboard — inside there were little sweet cakes, buns, raisin bread, regular bread, cereals, jams, Nutella packets, toasted breads, a tea selection, a coffee selection, and more sweets. There were oranges in the kitchen, lemons, salt, spices, a toaster, a gas range, and inside the refrigerator, little cupcakes for her guests.

Maria is a real hospitalitist! She explained to me with pride how she had had the place for 14 years with her husband and was now the owner, as she took me up to the rooftop terrace and showed me, also with great pride, how close we were to the UNESCO monuments adorning the Quartro Canti. With a wave of her hand, she swept it over the mountain range that sheltered and guarded Palermo since its first settlement and said, ‘here we are, alora, we are here, how you can see, the Quatro Canti, here and here, and the churches, the San Cataldo’s church and the church of Saint Catherine, UNESCO World Heritage sites, monuments for all humanity.’

When she said that, ‘for all humanity,’ I realized suddenly (yet another of those life-changing epiphany moments) just how close I was to the beginnings of civilization, standing a few hundred meters or so from churches that had been built hundreds of years ago in much different times. And they were still standing, in all their glory, in the midst of machinery and modernity, for all of humanity. The humanity of it made me want to cry, not out of sorrow, but because I was really there, on that rooftop with this amazing lady, who was telling me about UNECO sites that existed for all of humanity. The whole world.

She had founded a center for underprivileged children with her husband over 30 years ago, she said, when I asked her about the paintings. There are about 50 or so paintings, all of the same size, hanging on S-hooks from wires all around the apartment, a gallery of art. They were made by the children of my center, she said, adding that of course they were no longer children, but adults with children.

If you need me, Maria said, before turning to her own room, I am here. She was looking at me in a very kind way, as if she had X-rayed me the way a discerning mother can do to a child, when I told her I was traveling alone.

‘Please, Stephie,’ she said, before turning in, something about her posture reminding me very much of a nun, ‘eat something.’

It was her tone that struck me the most, a gentle admonishing and also a tender, almost motherly phrase to a wayward child, and also a welcoming entreaty into her home. In some cultures, people do not eat in the house of their enemies, and accepting food from someone is often considered an ultimate act of kindness and hospitality. I was struck because I have often been told to eat more, due to my tall, thin appearance, but from Maria, it almost seemed like she was telling one of her wayward children in her centre to take a pastry for the road. Maybe it was the missing patch of my left eyebrow that moved her, or the overall disgruntled appearance and airport smell of Traveller that was me, who knows. It was an interesting moment, one I shall not likely ever forget.

I gave a slight bow to her and said good night, and then did go to the Italian all-you-can-eat breakfast and helped myself to what was in store.

The next day, I wandered around Palermo, going down the promenade to the Quatro Canti, and looking about the Piazza Pretoria.

Piazza Pretoria, Palermo, Italy
Piazza Pretoria, Palermo, Italy

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I admired the San Cataldo’s Church from the outside, although I did not go inside (I looked through the picturesque coffee table book on it back at the apartment, however), contented just to see it. I know, I know, you might shout, ‘but you were THERE, right there, why didn’t you go inside and look at the history?’ And to that I must answer, because I was happy enough to simply be standing side by side these beautiful monuments. I didn’t need to go inside to appreciate their beauty. IMG_0028Instead, I felt very bothered by the constant hustle and bustle of the streets, so I headed down to find the plants, in the botanical garden. Here, I found a bench and listened to the twittering birds for a while, appreciating the sub-Mediterrean climate, the flowering trees, and the greenery. I like nature. I know many people who don’t like it as much as I, but to me, it’s my natural element. People exist in nature even if they are inside four walls. I like being of it, in it, and around it. It makes me feel calm and alive, like I am Eve in the Garden of Eden, or as my best friend Raphael would say, a wood rose.

So, there I was, sitting in this beautiful botanical garden, decompressing from the traveling I had been doing the past three weeks, and trying to wrap my head around the fact I was in Sicily, southern Italy, in Palermo, with UNESCO sites right outside my Airbnb. So far on my Europe trip, I have been to Warsaw, Munich, Prague, Munich, Nuremberg, Malta, Nuremberg, Milano, Venice, and now Palermo. It is a lot of traveling, and I really didn’t stop to think about how it was until now.

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To be honest, traveling made me very happy. I felt very free, away from worry, stress, anxiety, and any negative emotions. There was no one to yell at me, to tell me I was too fat or too thin, no one to apologize being late to, no one to tell me to act a certain way — I was finally free. The freest I had ever felt in my life, because I had planned the whole thing myself, and worked for it myself, and now I was enjoying how well I had planned it and budgeted the whole thing. Felt pretty good!

Lots of people, even those who love us, can say hurtful things and try to bring you down because they are feeling bad themselves or want you to be a certain way to save you from potential disaster. While it is nice to know we are loved and cared for, what I have valued the most about being in Europe is how kind the people have been to me when they have nothing to gain from my being there (besides my US Dollars, of course). No man has ever shouted at me yet, or approached me menacingly, or even molested me. Coming from ‘America’s number one college party town,’ where it is sad but true that hook up culture and alcohol and drugs are rampant, and strange attitudes about dating and sex exist where many young men treat teenage women like cheap prostitutes for the price of a few drinks, or make them think dating might lead to something but dump them after having had enough sex, I was so refreshed to not have to deal with any of that. For a few weeks, I was simply free.

 

The Tyrrhenian Sea
The Tyrrhenian Sea
Statue fountain
Statue fountain
Street guitarist
Street guitarist

Of course, I am a tourist for the time being, a traveler and mere observer. I cannot tell you intimately what life is like as a beautiful young woman growing up in Palermo or Nuremberg or Malta or anywhere else I have been. I can only relate my thin slice of observation, which is mostly: people are nice in Europe because space is so limited and history, so rich, with so many different ancient cultures allowed to blend together. It is not perfect, there is still poverty, there is still the struggle to live, and there is still heartbreak and loss mixed with love and happiness. However, I do have to tell you that as someone from two cultures growing up in America, I was very impressed with how nice Europeans are to each other, getting along, sharing space, and preserving their monuments for humanity. Although it may change (everything always changes), I hope others can experience Europe in the same way of appreciation I have. They may not be the richest country in the world financially, but I have to admit, the European way of life, on the surface, seems much more cultured and classy than the coarseness of American youth culture I have experienced to date.

A few more pictures for you from Palermo and that wraps it up. As always, all opinions are my own.

The Theatro Massimo
The Theatro Massimo
Underneath the lion
Underneath the lion
Statue atop a roaring lion
Statue atop a roaring lion

Venice, Italy – City of Canals

Hello!

I realized I was in Venice when I tried to play Ms Pacman on Google Maps (Google did this as an April Fool’s Day joke that has lasted afterwards so far) and the error message said, ‘Sorry, there are not enough roads for Ms Pacman. Try a different part of the map!’

Okay, of course I realized I was in Venice the moment I stepped in Venice close to midnight, but honestly, if you have never been to Venice, it is a strange feeling. There really are no roads. People do take boats on the waterways to transport things and themselves. There really are tall, narrow old buildings from the 1400s and 1500s like you see in the popular video game Assasin’s Creed. I half-expected hooded figures in Venetian masks to appear around corners at night and hand rolled-up parchment to ladies in long gowns with complicated frills and lace fans.

I stayed at a wonderful Airbnb called Alle Botte, which was located a hundred meters or so from the Fish Market and Rialto water station. Due to property costs being very high in Venice (renting a 2 bedroom apartment in Venice costs about 2000 Euros per month, not including utilities), the two Italian guys, Alex and Sevag, who run this place split the two bedrooms into dorms, so there is one for girls, and one mixed room. You have your own bathroom per room, a large living room, and a kitchen which is larger than the bedrooms! Alex and Sevag are both extremely nice, helpful, friendly, and funny hosts, and they will go out of their way to make you feel special and welcomed. Definitely would stay here again.

One of the rooms in Alle Botte
One of the rooms in Alle Botte

Overall, it was a very nice, low cost option in Venice that I would recommend to any 20-30 year old on a budget looking for a great location to rest a night or two on the island of Venice (for everyone else, there are so many classy hotels to choose from in Venice, you have plenty of options). It is safe, very, very, clean, bright and well lit, lots of white walls and monochrome color schemes, and on the first floor, so it is not on the ground where the water in Venice sometimes overruns the streets. It costs about $35 per night and you can book on HostelWorld.com or through Booking.com or Airbnb.

As for Venice itself, I was thoroughly enjoying the beautiful canals, the picturesque views on every street, and the old palace and churches in the Castello district. Venice is shaped like two cupped hands one-inside-the other, with the Grand Canal running through the space between. It’s an easy way to remember where you are if you don’t want to consult a map. There are three main bridges connecting the two halves, and everything is in walking distance as Venice is small, only a few miles across.

To get to Venice island from Tronchetto bus stop, you have to take a 5 minute ride  (2 stops) on the People Mover Train, which costs 1.50 Euros. Then you are in Venice. From the bus station Santa Lucia, just start walking, you are already in Venice.

You can get around by water taxi, or by paying for a water bus/ferry ticket, which starts at 7 Euros. There are so many things to do and see in Venice, you will not be disappointed. Though Venice is expensive, it is very particular and a must-see in Europe, so a day-trip is worth the price.

What to do in Venice:

Honestly, Venice was like a beautiful historical theme park for me. There were lots of tourists with cameras taking photos of everything, and little shops selling everything from pizza to gelato to sandwiches to everyday goods like toothpaste and toilet paper, and of course, being Italy, lots of leather shoes, handbags, designer sunglasses, boater hats, and souvenirs.

I would recommend trying the large, tempting slices of pizza from any one of these small hole-in-the-wall vendors, as long as you can tolerate gluten, as well as the gelato. There are numerous small restaurants around the area in Venice, and you really can’t go wrong. Wine is cheap by the bottle, and so is food — it is just that there are a lot of tourist traps in Venice, so choose wisely.

I didn’t go on any gondola ride or inside any museum, to be honest. There were really long lines for the castle and the main historical attractions, and to me, waiting in line to go inside wasn’t worth it. The gondola rides are 80 Euros per boat for 35 minutes down the canals, or 100 Euros at night. This also seemed a little high for me to get a view of the canals from the water.

I spent hours upon hours walking around and around and around the streets of Venice. It is a bit maze-like, but I enjoyed the mystery. Each corner led to something surprising and beautiful, and my favorite areas were away from the main touristic spots and in the quieter residential areas near Rialto and the gardens near Santa Lucia (the bus stop). There, away from everyone, I really felt like I was experiencing the ‘real Venice.’

Time for the photos! Enjoy! As always, all opinions are my own.

Venice canals, Italy IMG_9748 IMG_9756

Milano, Italia

Hello!

Milano, Italia. I must confess I loved this city so much I wrote the name in Italian and not English. It deserves to be visited! That is all I can say in short.

As for what to do, the main tourist attractions like the Gothic Duomo di Milani cathedral, the Castello Sforzeca, San Carlo al Coso, and so on, really are worth seeing. Even if you don’t go inside (I didn’t), your soul will benefit from breathing in the beauty that is the ancient history and perfected architectural structuring that comprise the main tourist attractions. Milano is a centuries old world city of arts and culture, situated in the northern Lombardy region of Italy, and of course many famous painters, thinkers, and artists from the Renaissance period come from this region as well as fashion designers and luxury makers like Ducati.

So, when you are walking through the streets of Milano, you will see many fashion shops lining the streets of the old historical places like Gucci, H&M, Prada, and so on along the cobble-stone streets and classic European architecture. This is what makes Milano so attractive to tourists, the mix of old and new, the couture lines of fashion, and the wealth and power of its history and modernity. There is no shortage of pizza places, gelato shops, confectionaries, and so on lining the streets. All you need is Euros, a camera, sturdy shoes, and a little bit of time, and you will thoroughly enjoy being in Milano. I say sturdy shoes because even though it is tempting to wear fashionable shoes like heels, if you want to walk around, better to pick something you can feel good wearing after a few hours because Milano is a sight to enjoy.

Of course, as this is Europe and Milano is one of Europe’s most famous world cities, it can also be expensive. Everything costs money, from the Metro to the buses to the museums and the stores. The nice thing, is that stores are open on Sundays, like Carrefour (the supermarket), and some other well-known shops, so unlike in Germany, if you want to go buy food, you don’t have to go to the Hauptbahnhof on Sunday to buy it.

The worst thing about Milano, for me, was the circular maze of streets. They were clearly marked, which was very nice, however, in the first few hours, I had trouble getting used to the streets marked ‘via (Italian person’s name here)’ veering off from a circular roundabout. Once I got used to the layout, however, I found I had no problems getting around.

The Metro is easy to use, with a single ticket journey costing 1.50 Euros one way (you can transfer between lines until you exist the metro station). A day pass is 4.50 Euros, which I think is a little high, but I am used to Germany’s metro rates, for which I usually bought the week pass for 12 Euros or so for a couple zones.

Milano is by all accounts beautiful, but I was personally surprised how not-crowded it felt for me (there were tourists wandering about in the Piazza del Duomo, but that was to be expected and I did not even mind the people one bit), and also how small it was geographically. Since it is an ancient city of Europe, it was built compactly around the main village and castle and had a gate and fortifications and so on. Then it spread outwards as the population grew, which explains the circular layout, but for a world city, it really is not as big as I expected it to be. Perhaps it was the pleasant architecture lining the streets, and the overall feeling like being in Milano was a five-senses treat that made the distances feel shorter.

For my stay, I took a night in a hostel called New Generation Hostel, which you can find on Hostelworld.com or just use the link. It cost 13 Euros for a bed in a 6 person dorm room, which was surprisingly nice given the fact that it was a mixed dorm. By nice, I mean the other people were really kind, welcoming, pleasant, and under 30. It’s a youth hostel, in general, so at night there were lots of boys and a few girls from Canada, Serbia, Denmark, and even Italy drinking beers and playing chill out music in the dining room, sharing travel experiences and stories, a very pleasant atmosphere. I was treated to Italian pasta by one of the guys staying there, a very easy and tasty pasta dish, and entertaining conversation. Everyone was very chill, there was no stress, and you get a croissant and coffee in the morning. Very basic, no frills.

So, time for the photos. Here you go! I didn’t have so much time in Milano to explore everywhere, but you might be inspired to give this city a visit even after my short stay.

Trenitalia from Bergamo to Milano If you take the low cost way, which I did, and fly to Milan Bergamo, airport, you have to take a 30-45 minute train or bus from Bergamo to Milano Centrale or Milano Lambarde. It costs about 5 Euros and it was very pleasant.

The Duomo di Milani and I
The Duomo di Milani and I
The Castello Sforza
The Castello Sforza
Piazza del Duomo
Piazza del Duomo
A beautiful view of the Piazza del Duomo
A beautiful view of the Piazza del Duomo
Gelato shop in Milano
Gelato shop in Milano

As always, all opinions are my own.

 

Nuremberg, Germany

Hello!

Nuremberg was a short mid-point destination between Munich and my flights elsewhere, owing to the fact that Ryanair operates out of Nuremberg and not Munich. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant German city to walk around and enjoy the old churches in the promenade city square for a few hours.

Personally, Nuremberg had a bit of a chilly feeling for me in its city atmosphere. Perhaps it is because of my own scant knowledge of Nuremberg, other than its involvement in Nazi Germany and the Nuremberg Trials, or because the Metro lines have a kind of war time trench-tunnel feel with the brick walls and low, dark ceilings, but it was overall a creepy city for me. Not that that is a bad thing, per se. It has the vibe that it has seen a lot of sadness and dark days mixed in with its brighter future.

Here are some photos of Nuremberg during my journey around the pedestrian areas:

Nuremberg, GermanyNuremberg cafe, Germany Church in Nuremberg, GermayNuremberg cafe, Germany