Sunday, October 18, 2009

Trains in Europe beat the crap out of trains in the US, most of the time.

Trains are the veins and arteries of Europe. They crisscross cities, suburbs, and countryside. David and I didn't have to take a taxi, or ride a bus the entire time. We hopped on streetcars, subways, high speed, and low speed trains. I put so much trust in this immense, impressive train system that I made a stupid mistake. We were in Stuttgart, and wanted to take an overnight to Rome. I booked it, or so I thought, and David and I got onboard at 9pm that night.

The train was raucous and full; high school students crowded the halls. I imagined drunks, stoners, body odor and smelly feet. I imagined laughter into the depths of the night.

"Good thing we have a reservation," David said, as we warily eyed the packed cattle cars. "Sometimes if you don't, conductors will just throw you off the train at some remote city in the middle of Austria. I've seen passengeres beg to stay onboard."

"Good thing," I agreed.

I pushed and picked my way to our couchette to find a couple already sitting on our beds. We compared tickets, each had reservations for that car. Perplexed, David and I went to find a conductor.

"Someone's in our car," we told the slender, stony faced German. He pursed his lips, furrowed his eyebrows, and read the fine print. The print I should have read to begin with.

"Wrong date." He pointed, raised his eyebrows, and walked away. David and I spend the next hour and a half hunting down conductors. We found them in the hallways, near the bathrooms, in a cramped office in the front of a car. Each said the same thing in halting English.

"Train's full. Sorry. You're out of luck."

The aisles, even the car with bicycles were already full. People slept on the ground with their backpacks as pillows. David and I went to the back of the train and found a spot to sleep. On the ground. Near the restroom. Then we went and bought beer: life's elixir.

We stayed on that lonely floor for two hours as Germany, Austria, and Italy rushed by. I cracked the large window, and breathed in the cold mountain air. Tiny towns peppered the hillside, mountains were lumbering beasts in the silvery moonlight. I wondered how people here lived, if they could see the Alps during the daytime. David and I almost got off the train in the middle of Austria, but waited it out.

I was still peeking out that window when Italy rolled into view. David was laying on the ground, listening to his audiobook. I thought about all the grime and dust beneath our clean clothes.

"David," I whispered. "Welcome to Italy."

It was then that I saw the conductor, walking briskly down the hall toward us. Images flashed through my head: David and I sleeping on hard, cold cement. David and I wandering around for 6 hours until morning. Shoot, I thought, he's going to kick us off the train.

"I have a room for you," he said. It was the same stony-faced German, but this time, he was smiling.

I'd never heard such beautiful, pure, luxuriant words. We have a room for you.

We followed the German, dazed, into our tiny couchette. REAL BEDS! REAL SHEETS. It was past midnight, and David and I couldn't stop grinning as we folded our bodies onto the tiny bunks. It was the best sleep of my life, and I woke up in Rome refreshed and happy.

The moral to the story: read the fine print.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The loss of summer

When the vivid greens and blues burn ito the firey oranges and reds of fall, I always feel a sense of loss. Gone are the long summer days sitting by the barbecue. Gone are the deep earthy smells of freshly cut lawns. Gone is the morning sunlight that makes shapes on the floor. I can feel a touch of sadness during this time, as the geese fly in formation, as trees turn inward to hibernate. I wish I could hibernate as well. A long winter of darkness looms on the horizon. Darkness will swallow days whole, and rain will pittar patter on my roof, turning the sky the same gray as Puget Sound.

I think fall this year is hitting me doubly hard because I just got back from vacation. The landscape seemed to morph while I was gone, reminding me of what's to come. I know this is just a phase, that soon I will relish wearing warm sweaters and watching rain draw lines down the ferry windows. I will enjoy the Christmas lights and hot butter rum. I will bundle up in the cold to celebrate New Years Eve.

But all that time, I will wait for the renewal of spring, my favorite season. I love when the trees awaken, curling their buds toward the light. I just have to remember that life, and the world, all have seasons, and rolling with these changes is necessary. I will mourn the loss of summer, then move onto the joys and beauty of fall.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

When in Rome....

Do like the Romans do. I spent the entire trip in Italy with this saying bouncing in my head. I didn't know what it meant, or where it came from, only that it seemed to make sense. Rome is unlike any other place in the world, and to survive it, you better do like the Romans do. You dart across traffic, you sit in Piazzas drinking wine, you walk down hidden alleyways to browse in antique stores. You push your way through hordes of tourists. Those poor Romans, dealing with all us tourists every year.

When I first imagined Rome, I pictured calm city streets, sprawling piazzas, fountains on every corner. I didn't imagine the motorcycles, the noise, the crowds. We started off early in the morning after sleeping on a night train from Munich. The first ruins I saw blew me away, every column a reminder of the ancient empire that dominated this region of the world.

I could have stared at them forever, imagining the bustling Romans going about their day, shopping in the Roman Forum, wandering the gardens and fountains, watching their leaders speak amid white stacked columns. This place was so charged with energy, that I could percieve it. Thousands of people lived and died here. I had a special enchantment with the trees, recognizing them from depictions I'd seen of the Roman empire.The most stunning to me was the Coliseum, perched in the distance from the Roman Forum and Palantine Hill.
We waited about 20 minutes to get inside, and then were blown away by its beauty and architecture. People used to fight brutally on this stage, with wild animals, and each other. There were complex elevator systems to lift animals as big as hippos up there. The Romans used to put criminals out with the wild animals so people could see them get ripped apart as punishment.
They installed a stage so tourists could imagine what it was like. 70-thousand people could fill this space. I tried to imagine the bleachers full of screaming and cheering Romans. Everyone had to a place to sit, depending on where they were in the social structure.

The artchitecture in Rome is phenomenal, and huge. We saw a white marble monument towering over the brown buildings, called the Monument to Vittorio Emanuele. While the French go more with romantic buildings, the Romans go with stature. This building was built in the 1800's, which makes it relatively new, compared to the ruins that were built thousands of years ago.
Next we went onto the Vatican, which was another large structure in Rome. You can see its dome from a distance, and it's incredible to visualize all the power stemming from this small cluster of buildings. Vatican City is run by it's own team and government separate from Italy.
You have to go through a security line to get into the Vatican. The women have to be very mindful of what they wear. No tank tops, no short skirts.

My favorite part of Rome was to be Piazza Navona. It's a slender Piazza lined with restaurants, with an obelisk in the center, and a marble fountain. When we went, it was full of art and flowers. We sat at a restaurant and drank wine, and ate.There must have been an Egyptian obelisk in every major Piazza in Rome, including at the Vatican. I think this is interesting, because it's not a Christian symbol. The obelisk at the Vatican was created 13-hundred years before Jesus was born. There was also an incredible obelisk in Piazza Popolo.

The Pantheon is also an amazing sight. This has been around over 2,000 years, and is what the Jefferson Monument in Washington, DC. So much of our architecture we know today was modeled after the Romans and the Greeks.

It was quite the rush seeing all these sights in just a day and a half, but David and I had to get out of there. The tourists crammed every major sight like it was a ride at Disneyland, and after awhile, I couldn't handle it. We took an hour and a half high speed train up to Florence, which was equally packed, but calmed down during the course of our trip. Italy was overall incredible, with delicious food, amazing architecture, and so much history. Plus I love listening to the Italian.
And I learned that When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do, is a hundreds year old saying. It referred to religion. I can't wait to go back.