Sunday, March 30, 2008

On my horizon:

Grand Bahama Island: next week [for work]

Cozumel, Mexico: April 29 - May 3 [for play]

...where should I go next?

Family Fiascos: Germany - Part III



I arrived in Germany with a VERY limited, VERY rusty German vocabulary learned at the Stoll residence over the years. Their family used to speak in German with the Au Pair du jour at the dinner table and I'd picked up a couple of key phrases over the years. However, I quickly learned that almost everyone in Germany speaks English.

[And when in doubt...throw in a "Prost!"]

After three hours reading about technology and science at the bland Deutsches Museum, Craig and I decided it was time to check out the world-famous beer hall, Hofbrauhaus.







Over the course of our time in the beer hall, we sat with Germans from Colon (who, despite a severe language barrier, taught us their national anthem and declared that I was destined to marry their son), two ladies from Southern Spain who told me I spoke flawless Castillian Spanish (!!!) and a spirited group of American backpackers who invited us back to their hostel bar for after-hours.



Apparently, I caught the eye of an older gentleman from Istanbul who asked me to dance. He spun me around to the cheers of the band and the bar patrons, then sat me back down, providing me with an "open invitation to visit Istanbul."


The following night, we asked a local waitress for nightlife recommendations. After some thinking, she gave us directions to Milchbar in Kunstpark Ost (an open park, formerly a factory ground, in the middle of nowhere that is home to about 30 different nightclubs). This dance club was seriously embracing the 80's, and I felt right at home. We danced until dawn and then enjoyed some freshly-baked bavarian pretzels in the market near our hotel.

Always smart to ask the locals.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Family Fiascos: Germany - Part II

We ran across the airport, [politely] cut the entire line at security and delivered ourselves to the terminal with two minutes to spare...only to find out that the flight was delayed by an hour. Well, at least we got a workout.

And what does one do with an hour to kill at 6am in Barajas Airport? Duty-free shopping, of course. I decided I wanted a new perfume. Totally reasonable thought for a Friday morning at dawn. Craig and I ran around the store, testing out each and every scent they had to offer (the employees must have loved us). Around 6:25 a.m., I settled on a classic: Prada. I pretended that the numbers shown were U.S. dollars, not Euros, and handed over my American Express.

Finally, we boarded the plane and arrived in Munich just a couple of hours later -- famished and in need of a serious nap. We collapsed into chairs at a cafe across from our hotel and I inhaled a rich bowl of cream of asparagus soup and half a basket of Bavarian pretzels with mustard.


After lunch and a quick power nap, we left the hotel to wander around Munich.

[of course, more to come...]

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Family Fiascos: Germany - Part I

Our family did not joke around with vacations. Over the years, we had an eclectic mix of adventures (one of the many bi-products of having parents who are artists). When my friends were heading to the Jersey Shore or Disney World, we took off to St. Johns, Newfoundland to go whale-watching or to trace our family history in Brixham, England (plenty of stories to come about these National Lampoon-style family vacations).

When I was studying abroad in Madrid, my brother gave me the best birthday gift I've ever recieved - a week-long trip to Germany. This time is was just the two of us - no strict itineraries to follow, no wake-up calls, just a couple of guidebooks and some pre-set hotel reservations.

Craig was planning to fly into Madrid in the afternoon, and we'd leave for Munich bright and early the next morning. "So when you get here, we'll just go out to dinner and get a good night's sleep before we fly. My friends are going out, but I don't think that's a good idea for us," I warned him.

Famous last words. At 5 a.m., he approaches me at the dance club and tells me, "Okay, it's time to go!"

The guy I'm talking to turns and asks him, "Oh, where are you going?"

"Germany."

We ran out of the club and flagged separate taxis. Craig rushed back to his hotel on Gran Via and completed the fastest check-out in the history of the property, practically throwing his room key across the desk - while I flew back to my Senora's apartment, grabbed my bags, took a seat on the park bench outside her building and waited for my brother to arrive. Suddenly, a yellow taxi came to a screeching halt in front of me and Craig jumped out of the car, and practically threw both me and my bag into the vehicle. We sped towards the airport, holding our breath as the sun rose outside.

The ticket agent asked if we spoke Spanish. I nodded vigorously and she told me with wide eyes, "Your plane is boarding in 15 minutes." We grabbed our bags and sprinted across the airport towards security.

[to be continued...]

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Flamenco!


I studied ballet for 13 years and yet Flamenco impresses me tremendously. It's just such a sultry, passionate, rhythmic art form. Many people consider Flamenco to be all about the dancing [baile]-- when in reality, it's just as much (if not more) about the Flamenco guitar [toque] and song [cante]. We attended an intimate cave performance in the mountains of Andalucia, Spain and sat in awe, sipping our sangria, as the dancers performed their intricate moves.




One of the dancers picked me out of the crowd to participate (surprise, surprise - my red hair stood out). And lets just say that I have profound respect for these dancers. The hand and footwork is much more difficult than they make it appear to be.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Slum Tourism

According to the New York Times:

"Slum Tourism, or 'poorism,' as some call it, is catching on. From the favelas of Rio de Janiero to the townships of Johannesburg to the garbage dumps of Mexico, tourists are forsaking, at least for a while, beaches and museums for crowded, dirty--and in many ways--surprising--slums."


....Really?

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Travel Tip of the Week: Do NOT eat Mexican food in Ireland.


As the guard handed my passport back to me, I smiled and gave him my now-customary, "gracias," forgetting that we we'd arrived in an English-speaking country.

It'd been months since we'd been surrounded by our native tongue. And apparently at some point over the course of our first two days in lovely Dublin, we lost all rational thought -- and agreed when someone in the group suggested we eat dinner at Acapulco, a Mexican restaurant just down the street from our hostel.

"The last time I was in Acapulco, I got SO SICK," Jody commented as we walked into the restaurant. We all laughed and enjoyed our fajitas and burritos.

Long story short, Jody and I wound up subsisting on saltine crackers and seltzer water for the rest of the week, while our partners-in-crime explored the Irish countryside.

The two redheads at the Guinness Factory BEFORE
the Acapulco fiasco:
















And quarantined in the hostel AFTER (not our finest moment):

















"One's destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things." - Henry Miller





World's top 10 art museums

TripAdvisor recently named its list of the world's Top 10 art museums. I reviewed the list and discovered I've visited 7 of the 10 so far in my life. Not too shabby!

1) Musee du Louvre (Paris, France)

2) Vatican Museums (Vatican City, Rome, Italy)

3) Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY)

4) J. Paul Getty Center (Los Angeles, CA)

5) Musee d'Orsee (Paris, France)

6) Uffizi Gallery (Florence, Italy)

7) Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago, Illinois)

8) Tate Modern (London, England)

9) Prado Museum (Madrid, Spain)

10) National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)

My personal opinion: Great list, but could also see the British Museum, MoMA, and Guggenheim(s) as other possible contenders.

A LA CARTE: Maoz Vegetarian

My first delicious Maoz experience was in Amsterdam, Holland -- at their flagship shop. Next, I stumbled across branches in both Barcelona and Madrid. Finally, last spring, I got the good news: they opened a U.S. branch right in Union Square!


Their official promise: "At Maoz, we understand that today’s lifestyle is more demanding than ever, leaving almost no time to take care of the fundamentals such as maintaining a healthy and balanced lifestyle, including a nutritious diet. We at Maoz provide our customers with the highest quality of products and services at a reasonable price and in minimum time, fitting into each and everybody’s busy day and night…"

I think they get it.

**A healthy, inexpensive, fast-food menu featuring crisp falafel, flavorful hummous, warm whole wheat pita, and a salad bar where I can choose my own fresh veggies? Yes, please.

More than a fairweather fan

Watching Six Nations Rugby is our favorite new Saturday afternoon pastime. Each weekend, teams from Ireland, England, Wales, Scotland, Italy and France suit up to compete for the coveted championship trophy.


Photo by √Čamonn 

Yes, being a loyal fan requires hanging out with British men for several hours and partaking in a pint or two of Guinness. A tough job...but somebody's gotta do it.

Next Matches: Saturday, March 15
Italy v. Scotland (1:00pm)
England v. Ireland (3:00pm)

[Note: I recommend watching at the Red Lion on Bleecker St. or at Mulligans in Hoboken]




Friday, March 7, 2008

Bit by the travel bug


My first international trip was a family vacation to London when I was 11.

Afternoon tea, where I sampled clotted cream for the first time... Shopping in Harrod's world-famous Food Hall, browsing the shortbread and Cadbury chocolates...Long dinners followed by late-night theater excursions where I fell asleep in my velvet-lined chair...Concentrating on the high and low notes of the fabulous accent, then practicing it myself back in the hotel room.

I was in love.

Image: FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Azahar


For two weeks prior to settling in Madrid, we traveled around Spain as a group - known as "Azahar." Highlights included visits to Toledo, Cordoba, Granada and Sevilla. Each town was more beautiful than the next (and led to more crazy adventures -- many, many more humorous stories to come!).


Each day, we visited historic sites and took diligent notes at lectures about Spain's history. We learned all about Convivencia -- Spain's period of religious tolerance, when the Muslims, Jews, and Christians all lived together in harmony. It was so interesting to wander through Cathedrals that were full of Moorish architecture and Jewish influences.

On Spanish Time



Azahar: [AH-za-har]; verb; 1) to be inefficient;
related forms: azahamas [we are inefficient]

Very soon into our journey, we learned about Spain's schedule. NOBODY is in a rush.

"I'll meet you there at 3pm." [Spanish translation: I'll be there around 3:20. Maybe 3:15 if I'm wearing comfortable shoes.]




The Original Departure

You will spend three weeks traveling around Spain before arriving in Madrid, your final destination for the next five months.
Five months in a country that I'd only visited once, on a family vacation when I was 14 and still thought that 'NSYNC was the greatest thing since my Strawberry Shortcake obsession in preschool. Five months in a city that I'd never visited. Five months speaking a language that I hadn't spoken since high school.

I picked my dear friend Cara up at a train station in Newark and spent the rest of the evening packing.

"I wonder what it's going to be like," I thought out loud as I stuffed each article of clothing into my enormous, new rolling suitcase.

Nothing could prepare us for the five chaotic, yet fabulous months ahead of us.



The first sign of the chaos was a transatlantic flight in which the airline ran out of liquor. "Happy hour in the back of the plane," someone announced. Suddenly, there was no vodka to be found. As soon as the seatbelt lights went off, people were running around the back of the coach-class cattle car as if it were a Friday night at Maggie's Tavern.

Cara sat next to our friend Devin, and immediately was at ease. Never the shy one, I too, found myself deep in conversation with my seat partner, a complete stranger. Perpetually known as "Nice Nick" from this point on, he was the greatest person to be sitting next to during an eight-hour flight from the familiar (New York) to the absolutely unknown (Madrid). We chatted about school, Spanish, and anything else that would distract me from the fact that I was suspended 36,000 feet in the air over the Atlantic Ocean, just hours from a final destination that would include a new "family" that didn't speak my language.

Eventually, we landed in Madrid, retrieved our suitcases (they'd survived the transatlantic journey, too!), and shuffled into lines to go through Customs. Little did I know then that the single, mindless act of moving from the longest to the shortest line would forever shape the rest of my life. Suddenly, I was surrounded by smiling strangers, and we laughed at the other, longer lines. Past Customs, the group of us followed the herd of students, yet gathered on the same bus to Toledo - unslept and full of a nervous energy.

These smiling faces would become my closest friends during my semester abroad, and would truly shape the rest of my college career.


Granada, Spain

A trip to Granada is truly a life-changing experience.


The second I set foot in the Alhambra, the famous Andalucian palace and fortress, I felt goosebumps creep up and down my arms. Yes, it was a chilly day in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, but these goosebumps could be blamed on something more abstract than the temperature in the room.

This impressive architectural structure has such a long, religious, tumultuous history.

It's like stepping into a world-class spa. The entire complex is filled with vast bodies of water, vibrant flowers and intricate tile mosaics.


Each room is more impressive than the next.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Spring Break: Italian Edition

Six days. Six women. Countless catastrophes.

During my semester abroad in Madrid, Spain, I traveled to European destinations ranging from Dublin to Amsterdam, where nothing ever went as planned and chaos became routine. While many of my classmates opted to take more of a “traditional” Spring Break to the beach, my friends and I decided to explore Italy.

Rome was an exciting first city and a great learning experience for the rest of our travels. In the Metro station, we watched multiple Italians stroll past the ticket machines and we confidently followed their lead, pleased to save the one-Euro fare. Halfway down the escalator, I noticed police barricading the platform. We turned around at the bottom and walked back up the stairs, but they had spotted us. It was difficult to miss six tall American girls, including a blonde and a redhead. Some of us tried to make a run for it but even our track star, nicknamed “the Bullet,” couldn’t outrun the Italian police.

We explained that we didn’t understand how the Italian Metro system worked. They demanded 50 Euros from each of us and received several reactions in return. One girl started crying. Another fumbled around in her purse for her bottle of Xanax. Another got in an officer’s face and tried to bargain him down to a lesser fine. The police wouldn’t budge and I sadly handed over the remains of my birthday money.

To conserve money but still be able to visit the Vatican, Coliseum, and other Roman highlights, we ate our hostel’s free breakfast (a piece of toast spread with Nutella) and dinner (a Styrofoam plate of pasta) and packed lunches of bread and peanut butter. Nothing but high class.

The chaos did not end in Rome. On the way to our hotel in Venice, we missed our stop and struggled to explain to the Italian driver that we needed to get off the bus. He hit the brakes, pulled to the side of the road, and opened the door. The locals laughed as they watched the six of us stumble across four lanes of traffic, dragging our rolling suitcases through the grass median and screaming in response to the vicious dog barking from behind a thin wire fence.

Our quality of life improved drastically in Venice. We stayed in a real hotel – even if it did have communal bathrooms. An impressive luxury. We spent time lost in the streets of the beautiful canal city, stumbling upon tiny boutiques with handcrafted jewelry and a little restaurant where the chef came out and personally recommended his world-class tiramisu.

In Florence, we were determined to navigate the city efficiently – and we succeeded. We located our hostel and just five minutes into checking in, we were handed 40 oz. beers and told that our stay included free breakfast, dinner, and…all-you-can drink wine and beer. That night, after a delicious pasta feast and several glasses of red wine, the hostel employees took us on a bar crawl around the city. And crawl we did.

Our final Italian destination was Milan, which may have been our most inefficient stop of them all. The painting, The Last Supper, was “on strike,” according to locals and the all of the famous clothing stores were closed for Holy Week. On Easter Sunday, we sat in the hotel lobby, devoured pizza from the only open local restaurant, and watched The Dead Poets Society dubbed in Italian.

As we prepared to board a flight back to Spain, one friend realized she had brought the wrong ticket. With just minutes before the flight boarded, she joined us, out of breath but with a one-way ticket back to Spain in hand. We landed in Madrid exhausted with pizza, pasta, and gelato in our stomachs and a jumbled mess of Spanish, English, and Italian in our minds.