Andy Steves Blogs Europe
Note from Rick: One of the most gratifying things for me as both a dad and a travel teacher is to see our kids enjoying Europe sans parents. While our annual family vacations to Europe were often not the kids' first choice (and I had no idea if they'd end up enjoying traveling), both Andy and Jackie have picked up the bug from their parents — a particularly virulent strain I might add. Join me and stow away with Andy Steves in Europe!
Hey everybody, I just wanted to say a few things before we roll this epic blog off the front page. Sharing with you all the fun and adventures my friends and I had during our semester in Rome has been enjoyable. Thanks so much for following my travels through this blog. I hope you enjoyed it.
I'm getting ready to head back to South Bend, Indiana for the second semester of my fourth year at Notre Dame. I'd so much rather be going back to Europe like I was almost exactly a year ago.
As I review the entries in this blog, it's clear how independent travel on a budget opened up an entire new continent to me. Like my dad likes to say, “traveling close to the ground” gives you a more vivid and valuable experience than any comfortable stay in a 5-star hotel. Traveling like a student (regardless of your age) allows you to meet the real people of a country, not just the tuxedo'd bell boys that jump to your every need.
My experience and making this blog as given birth to a new passion for me. It's called andysteves.com. I am building a web site designed to help other college kids enjoy their weekend travel adventures. As my dad has been passionate about this kind of travel his whole life, I feel the same enthusiasm creeping in to mine. While abroad, I thoroughly enjoyed taking my friends to my favorite places across the continent. I also did some exploration of my own to Prague, Istanbul, Greece and delved into previously uncharted territories in Northern Ireland. My time abroad was a non-stop learning experience where I learned just as much or more about life outside the classroom as in it.
Each year more American students are studying abroad who've never used their passports before. And I saw a need for a resource devoted specifically to these students for everything from tips on reserving hostels to which mode of transportation is best to what cities are best for nightlife. That's when I began to develop my idea to create a collaborative website where college students can go to decide and discuss where to study, plan their trips ahead of time, and share about them after. Andysteves.com was launched back in October to do just this. Since then, I've been actively uploading recommended itineraries based on my own, and those of my friends' travels. So far, I've uploaded London, Barcelona, Rome, Milan, Cefalu, Venice, Prague, Gimmelwald, the 5 Terre, Dublin, and Paris with many more in the works. Each of these itineraries are linked to my photo albums and blog entries on the destination to give students a more complete understanding of what the city has to offer as their time is infinitely valuable and limited at the same time. They only have a given number of weekends to travel, and I want to help them make the most of it. I'm working with my father's web designer to create a forum for students to sign in and discuss any number of travel-related topics. In time, I hope to develop a relationship with the study abroad departments of colleges across the nation where I'll pursue any opportunities to get the word out about this valuable and completely free resource.
While it'll be fun to see where andysteves.com goes, my studies are taking me to a career in industrial design. Just this week I've been searching for an internship in that field. (You can check out my online portfolio here at www.coroflot.com/asteves to get a better idea of what my major actually is.)
I'm sure I'll be putting my passport to good use in the near future. It's great to be able to share my experiences for younger travelers on my dad's website. I want to say thanks again for reading and I hope we can blog-travel together again in the future. Happy travels! Andy
Posted by Andy Steves on January 07, 2009
I'm back home now thinking of the last seven months of my life. I realize I'm just sitting here in my chair thinking “whoa.” Looking back, I now see that travel is all about learning. Every day was a new experience in dealing with and befriending people from different cultures and speaking different languages. My friends and I were living in the real world for one of the first times in our life. We were living on our own, getting food at the local market, and budgeting our time and money the most efficient way possible. I've been so blessed to have the opportunities to travel to all sorts of places already in my short life. I hope you've enjoyed reading about my adventures. Maybe they've taught you something yourself. Maybe they've inspired you to see what's over there on the other side of the Atlantic. Travel puts a face on humanity. We may not understand different cultures. We may think they're strange. But they deserve respect in their own right, and understanding that makes travel a force for peace. It's so clear to me that each country is made up of real people, real families, real mothers, brothers, and sisters. If we simply understood that simple, almost trite, truth, I believe that we'd have a government that got along more constructively with the family of nations.
Now, my attention has turned back to Notre Dame and my fourth year out of five there in my quest for a BFA in Product Design and a BA in Italian. Hope you can catch a football game or two this fall, and be sure to watch for the guys in the kilts marching out in front of the band. I'll be on the 10 yard line with the rest of them. Go Irish!
Posted by Andy Steves on December 29, 2008
The “graduation” reception at the Domus Academy for our two weeks of school felt like a high school dance but with an open bar. The crowd chilled and socialized until word got out to the local gang of mosquitoes that there was plenty of flesh and blood to be had on the terrace in the Nuova Accademia delle Belle Arte Milano. When that gang arrived, the crowd migrated to a bar in the trendy Navigli neighborhood.
I called for a taxi at 4:30, but when I checked to be sure I had my passport, I realized I couldn't find it. The cabbie was downstairs waiting, and I was tearing my room apart frantically looking for it, flipping over mattresses, double-checking my backpack. By 4:45, I had to go down and pay €24 to him for his time and he took off. I knew my passport had to be in my bags because it definitely wasn't in my room. But I just couldn't leave the hostel without it. Thirty seconds after the taxi left, I found the passport among my folders in my big bag. So I got in the next taxi and he took me to the station where I had just missed the 5:03 shuttle train that went direct to the airport for €13. The next one wasn't for an hour and that would be cutting it pretty short. I wasn't about to miss my first of three legs back to the US. Getting back to my family: priceless. So I sprung for another taxi ride. I practiced my Italian with the cabbie in the semi-sober ride to the airport. In Italy, you always get the wide-eyed look after a few phrases of Italian. “Why do you speak Italian?” and “Why would you want to speak Italian?”
My two weeks in Milan flew by and I enjoyed them thoroughly. It showed me I definitely do want to come back and do my masters in northern Italy, but probably not at the Domus Accademy. Even in industrialized Milan, you can still see the “casino” of the Italian culture. In a busy intersection right in front of a train station there will be pedestrians, mopeds, motorcycles, buses, trams, cars, and trucks all negotiating the scene without a traffic light in sight. More than once, I was riding in a tram and flew through a bright red light. But to me, that's what makes Italy fun and always exciting.
Posted by Andy Steves on December 26, 2008
I went out hard that Friday night with a short, talkative Aussie and got back at 6 o'clock the next morning. It was a club called Old Fashion. In Italy, people have to assert themselves just in order to get into a place where they'll drop €40 or more through the course of the night. While that's what one does at clubs, I still think it's a bit strange. Why don't clubs compete to have me come there instead? On the walk from the metro to the club, we tried to converse with groups of girls to help us get in the club. After a series of cold shoulders, three girls with broken accents approached us. Turns out they were Russian. They asked, “Will you aide us in finding the entrance?” We did gladly. If you don't have a few babes hanging off your arms, it's much harder to get into the clubs.
This Aussie turned out to be one of the most confrontational drunks I've ever seen after he spent over €100 on drinks. We met a group of Italian dudes who would take turns buying “rounds” — which were a single €10 cocktail for the entire group. They would come back with one drink and five straws and we would greedily huddle up and sip it down in three or four seconds. At the end of the evening, when it became clear the Aussie wasn't taking home a girl that night, he switched into a belligerent drunk and I had to practically wrestle him into a taxi.
I spent the next day painfully hung over, watching MTV picking out funny mistranslations in the subtitles and wondered how everybody else at the club last night was feeling today.
That night I ended up going out again. I went to the same place as the night before, but this time I met the four Turkish students in my class. I had a conversation through writing messages on a cell phone screen with one because the music was too loud. The girl started with “Doesn't this all seem meaningless?” I responded “What need of meaning is there in a discoteca?” She was quite a philosophical one and I elected to leave her and enjoy my time there. I stayed out again until 6:00 a.m. When I got back to the hostel, I had a lengthy discussion on the Italian female species with the Albanian night desk guy.
Over the last couple months, I had kept in touch with Andrea, a guy I met several months ago back in the Cinque Terre. He invited me to a “grigliata” on Sunday afternoon with a few friends to his house in the suburbs of Milano, so I went there and hung out for the afternoon. While zoning out for a bit in a comfortable lawn chair, I realized my friends were having a bit of a debate. It turned out to be over whether or not there's a “gun shooting” merit badge for American Boy Scouts and the reason as to why there would be one in the first place. I told them I think there is, and I guessed it was just part of our culture, something that astounded them. They have their own version of scouts but would never think to have a badge for gun shooting. A few minutes later, I was told someone there could lick their elbow, something I've never ever seen. So after some pushing, I got him to perform his talent, and now I can die happy.
The Italian I met in the cigar lounge back in London said I should check out the “fumatori” in the Milano Westin. A friend and I got dressed up and had a cigar and cognac in the well-air-conditioned room. Here I can understand the economists' cries about people living beyond their means. Here I am, a poor student, spending an evening in the nicest hotel in Milan drinking fine cognac and smoking a Cuban cigar. But hey, I skimped on my food budget for the last three weeks so I figured why not.
Posted by Andy Steves on December 22, 2008
My study program in Milan was at the Domus Academy. Immediately I could feel it was a bit different than the London program I had just finished. The teachers were more lax. Nobody checked my student ID at the door. Our scheduled start was 10, but we hardly ever started before 10:30. We had a slew of professionals that came in and told us about their take on design and their respective fields each day of the first week. The next week, we developed and designed our idea. The Domus Academy seemed to be much more conceptual with ideas bordering on the impossible. One fellow summer-school student who was also studying at Domus Academy even said “I try not to think about technology. I don't let technology limit my designs. If I can think it, it can be done.” Which is all hunky-dory, but who's going to buy a camera that costs $12,000 to make, or a $2,000 pocket projector. It was clear that during this unit, rather than work on my drawing skills, I'd be picking up another international perspective on design.
After the concert, I lit up a mild Cuban and heard “Sei pazzo!” or “you're crazy.” I turned around and replied “Sono Americano, siamo tutti pazzi,” or "I'm American, we're all crazy." And immediately I had a group of new Italian friends. I asked them where the after party was, but being a Tuesday evening, they were just returning home for school or work the next morning.
The next afternoon after class, I walked through Milan's famous fashion district until I got tired of being looked up and down in each shop I went into. The street was lined with Porsches and Ferraris and even had a designer baby carriage store where each stroller was upholstered in the finest of Gucci and Fendi and Louis Vuitton. I walked past Virtu phones, which I learned about in London. One of those exclusive cell phones goes for several thousands of dollars and are fully customizable. Fed up with hyper-consumerism, I went back to my place kicked off my shoes and admired my blank walls.
My photo album of Milan :)
Posted by Andy Steves on December 19, 2008
After the lengthy parade was over, we strolled down the route, empty beer cans and bottles lining the street. It looked as if this could have been the result of a week-long festival in what in reality took a single day. We continued down the street into a dangerously Protestant neighborhood called Sandy Row. Stephen explained there was a song with the line in it “…We're from Sandy Row where the Catholics never dare to go…” It was a bit of a rush to feel like you were in the enemy's home turf. Of course I never even dared think a subversive thought among a street full of skinheads and tattooed thugs looking for a fight.
My photos from the Marches
Posted by Andy Steves on December 17, 2008
I capped this year's travels with another study program — this time, in London. Throughout last fall I applied for an internship to over 30 design firms in Seattle, Portland, Omaha, Chicago, Dublin, Milan, Rome, Naples, Stockholm, and Paris. Nothing worked out. I didn't get a single positive response. So I decided instead of sitting on my hands design-wise, I would do some summer school and found a program that consisted of two weeks in London and then two more in Milan with a five-day break in-between for independent travel. This sounded like a perfect combination of international design experiences and more practice on my Italian.
My first day, I poked around the complex to check out the “bar” and workout room. There was a girl on the stationary bike in the tiny gym room and we struck up a short conversation. I would come to learn she was one of those girls who never, ever, shuts her mouth. No matter what. Period.
My days at school flew by. The unit involved the redesigning of a disposable camera. We sought to take the stigma away from disposable cameras through a restyling which would bring a comeback of these single-use devices. Our teaching duo consisted of two young guys heavily involved in the trends-and-design lifestyle of London. They were on top of everything having to do with design, reminding me I still have a long way to go. In my class, there was a Greek girl, a Turkish girl, a Korean girl and a Brazilian guy. None of my classmates spoke English well. In fact, all but one struggled with basic responses to questions, which put me in the awkward position of having to answer all the teacher's questions, something I'm sure to usually stay away from.
That Wednesday night, after going back out to research a neighborhood for my project, I had an interesting drunken experience. Except I was mostly sober. Me and the girl who wouldn't shut her mouth were outside waiting for the bus and trying to eat a couple giant kebabs. We were approached by two punk, pop-looking British guys in tight jeans and layered shirts. One carried a tray and on that tray…a batch of homemade cupcakes. The one with the tray came up to us and stood there without saying a word. Assume it was to see if we were interested in buying a cupcake. His friend reached around him to grab one of my French fries. Then he grabbed my fork, filled it up with kebab goodness, and ate it—right in front of me. He said, “That's rancid.” I grabbed one of his cupcakes. And with that, the two continued down the road, his friend never saying a word. I hoped the cupcake wasn't spiked as I ate it and I don't think it was. Looking back, where else would something like that happen except at one o'clock in the morning in a trendy, underground sub-neighborhood of the London Eastside? My friend and I just looked at each other to make sure that really just happened.
On Thursday afternoon, I ate a sandwich, and went home to work out, eat dinner, and take a nap. It was 9:00 p.m. when I woke up, got dressed, and headed out. I felt like heading downtown. Until now, I haven't really had much of a sense of the city of London, always busy in class and with homework. I took the metro to Oxford Circus and wandered down the street until I found Selfridges and decided to go in. While walking through the multitude of designer fashions I got to thinking. Why do we pay hundreds of dollars for a T-shirt or thousands of dollars for a suit? We think it's cool…that it's fashionable. And it's never us that decide fashions or trends, but rather the high-design society, and there are designer shops that never have in-store sales because their customers, envied by all, don't ever want to pay less than they can for a pair of pants. The cheaper pairs are carted off to their lower-end branch. To me, it feels like the top of society is supported by the rest of the world trying to someday achieve this exuberant excessiveness. But the thing is, everyone will always buy into this system as long as it's around. But I guess that's our material world for you.
On Saturday, I went to Vinopolis, London's wine-and-liquor-tasting wonderland. I bought the “Spirit of Vinopolis” ticket, which included six wine, two premium wine, two beer, one gin, two absinth, and two whiskey tastings. By the last station, intelligent speech was a struggle. My friend and I ate at next door at Wagamama (a noodle restaurant chain) and then made our way over to the London Absolut Ice Bar. I had been in ice bars before both in Rome and in Stockholm the previous summer. They are always an experience where everything from the chair you sit on to the glass you're sipping out of is made of ice. I wouldn't call it a cheap place though.
On Wednesday, my dad came down from researching in Scotland and we met up for dinner and a walk around downtown. The weather left much to be desired, and we went to an appropriately underground Belgian restaurant where we ate prawns, mussels, and duck. Again, anytime you meet up with parents, you're in for a nice break from your budget. It was a short and sweet time together as I took off for Dublin the next afternoon.
My photo album from sunset at the London Eye
And my album from London
Posted by Andy Steves on December 15, 2008
Each night, immediately after dinner, the local kids would come and quite literally tug us out of our seats to go play soccer in the small courtyard of the school house. If you made an errant kick in this particular school yard, you had to run to catch up to the ball before it rolled down to the valley hundreds of yards below. Each night, there was a new crowd of hostelers and the same group of youngsters with them often being better than their international opponents.
On my last day, I organized a bike ride with a local kid who worked at the hostel. For years of visits to Gimmelwald, the opposite side of the valley had tempted me to explore it. That was my goal. So we met down in Lauterbrunnen, where I checked my bags into a locker in the train station and rented a bike and off we went. It was great as we took the tram up to Wengen where we rode up to Kleine Scheidigg and then all the way back down again. We said our goodbyes then I met up with Ben Cameron, a fellow tour guide and someone from my hometown for dinner. After dinner, I went to catch the last train back into Interlaken, but when I arrived, I realized the luggage storage was closed by that time, leaving me in my muddy athletic shorts and running jacket for the evening and night with a loaf of bread, a camera, an Ipod, and a bit of cash just in time to watch the last train ease out of the station.
Here's my album from Gimmelwald in the summer
Posted by Andy Steves on December 12, 2008
On Wednesday, a friend and I wandered through the modern part of Istanbul and came across what must have been a cultural dance show. We stayed for two groups until it was time to meet with Lale, a friend of my father's who was dropping off the latest copy of the Istanbul guidebook that she and her husband, Tan, and my dad wrote together. Once we met, she told me she had arranged a tour for us the following day that took us from the Blue Mosque to the Topkapi Palace, the underground reservoir, and through a number of other neighborhoods. She had to make sure my friend wasn't male, as the guide was female, a cultural taboo for two men to be with a lady I guess.
After dinner that night, a few friends went out to see the nightlife in the new part of town. There, I bought a small bottle of raki. I've noticed each European country has their own liquorice-flavored liquor with a unique name. In France it's pastis or anis, Italians drink Sambuca, it's ouzo in Greece and it happens to be raki here in Turkey. Definitely an old man drink.
On Saturday, I made my way over to the Modern Art Museum, which I could take or leave. I sought it out because of the “design” exhibit that really turned out to be nothing more than a sparse collection of furniture from the decades of the 20th century. At the end of the exhibit, however, there was a fun, interactive video camera that would put up a three-second clip of you on repeat until someone changed it. Regular, uncreative people would just wave into the camera, but I tried something different. Because it was on a loop, I turned 360 degrees in about as long as the clip was to make a perpetually spinning me. Next I walked into and out of the frame in the same time, making a never-ending line of Andys.
Visiting Turkey just made me want to go farther east. It showed me yet again that cultures are beautiful no matter where they happen to be in the world. It was a completely foreign land to me, but the kind and jovial people there made it a fun learning experience. I'll return someday I know, maybe en route to a place farther in the East.
Here's my photo album from my week in Istanbul
Posted by Andy Steves on December 10, 2008
Minutes into my time in Greece, the expression, “It's all Greek to me,” clicked and now it made sense. I hadn't been this illiterate in a country since the end of the second grade.
A friend and I hopped out of the taxi from the airport and met the boss, Ioannis, and our skipper-to-be Tomek. Tomek was a young, short Polish man with beady, deep-set eyes who got into sailing after his father signed him up for a course when he was 14. Ever since, he's been on a boat for at least a couple months each year. Now, he comes down to Greece to skipper for Ioannis from May to September. He liked to rub his pointy chin when thinking, and has his well-practiced horizon gaze down to a T.
Within hours, the rest of our gang of student friends arrived. The first night on the boat found us trading traumatic childhood stories on the bow over grocery store wine while still in port. By the time we signed all the paperwork and bought the provisions, it was too late to get to the next port. So we chilled and discussed our long-lasting emotional scars from childhood. One from our group has always been scared of the oil stains on the ground around grocery stores because once, her mom told her they used to be children who disobeyed their parents. What a traumatic childhood that must have been, seeing the stains of your peers in every parking lot you went into. For me, I still vividly remember a wedding my mother forced me to go to saying all my cousins would be there. Not a one showed up, and we came to find out they were all having a pizza party back at the hotel.
Here's my photo album from the week in Greece
Day 1: Athens-Sunyo
For the next week, our days were filled with long days at sea, some worse than others. This morning we left port early and went out into the open water and started 11 hours of sailing. There was a fifty percent sickness rate, with me coming in third after watching two girls heaving over the sinks. The six-foot swells got to me, and the coconut I had just eaten wasn't sitting right. With boats, the regular movement is up and down on each wave. Add 12-knot winds, and a full sail, and it turns that motion to a 45-degree angle. If you don't have a rock-solid stomach, you'll feel it for sure and we all kissed the ground as soon as we got into port.
Greek Salad Count: 1, Gyro Count: 0
Day 2: Sunyo-Mykanos
Today we made the shorter, four-hour trip into Mykonos, which is known for its clubbing opportunities. So we made it to the “Scandinavian” which didn't have horned war helmets or long boats adorning the ceilings. In fact, there was nothing Scandinavian about it but its name. One could care less when that's where the party is though, and we took full part in it.
Later that night, we headed back to the boat where I smoked my first Cuban, a Romeo y Julietta. Not bad, I must say. We finished them and crashed about 3:30 a.m.
Greek Salad Count: 1, Gyro Count: 2
We woke up late the next morning and figured it would be a good idea to rent mopeds. For the day, we toured around the small island and found “Paradise Beach.” The name is not too far off from the truth, but there was a rumored “super Paradise Beach” that we just had to find. About five miles down the road, we discovered it, set deep into some steep hills that we were barely able to maneuver our mopeds down as well as back up. I could have spent all day and all night there, where the beach chairs were catered from the bar-that-would-turn-disco at night. Unfortunately, the prices were almost exclusive and our poor budgets just couldn't afford a snack, let alone a cocktail. So we kept moving, leaving the two girls behind who decided to stay. They would end up finding their way home on a couple local boys' scooters. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring until one of us crashed a moped on a wet part of a hill, breaking off a side-view mirror. Crashing sucks because it's not like it's fun, in fact, it hurts and then you have to drop a couple hundred euros just to fix it.
That night we returned to the Scandinavian, this time bringing Tomek. We crunked the night away with our skipper, who bought five double rounds of beers for himself and matched us with shots without us ever really noticing. By the end of the night, he was passed out on the deck of our boat after spewing for a while into the water. One of the girls disappeared at some point in the night only to meet up with us again back at the boat. Turns out she had traded a makeout session for a ride back to the marina from a local boy.
Greek Salad Count: 2, Gyro Count: 2
Day 4: Mykanos-Sunyo
Today we were supposed to leave at about 8:30, but my friends shook me awake at half past 10. Tomek our skipper, was still passed out from the previous night's activities, and resumed his sailorman language as soon as Connor woke him up. The day was long and boring on a thankfully calm sea where we motored away at seven or so knots till the evening.
Greek Salad Count: 2, Gyro Count: 2
Day 5: Sunyo-Grammata-Syros
Greek Salad Count: 1, Gyro Count: 1
Day 6: Syros-Athens
Today we got back into port. All my friends elected to stay on the boat, while I was itchy to get off and see the city of Athens. I asked Thomek how to get to downtown, where I finally made it after catching a tram “partly financed by the EU.” Without a map or guidebook, I got off the tram and found a fancy hotel. I chose the Westin on the main square sharing it with the city hall. Any of these fancy hotels will have English speakers as well as free maps to hand out. So I asked them where a bookstore was, where I went to read up a bit on Athens. With some knowledge of the city finally acquired, I was free to walk around and check it out. I made it up to the Acropolis, had a Greek salad at a little café, and found my hostel where I was going to be staying for the next few nights.
Greek Salad Count: 1, Gyro Count: 4
Day 7: Athens
On Saturday, Connor and I just did the tourist thing, hitting up a few museums and eating more gyros. We went up to the Acropolis again, and made it to the National Art Gallery and the archeological museum.
Greek Salad Count: 1, Gyro Count: 3
On Sunday night, we were drinking some beers in the square. All the benches were pretty much full. So we chose two benches to split up and share. Well, Connor sat next to two Americans who got up and left a minute after he sat down. I sat next to what turned out to be a couple Romanians. On the bench, there were the two of them, and their accordions. They were just taking a smoke break in between playing for the various restaurants surrounding the square. Instead of getting up, they scooted over and made room. Over the next beer, we had a conversation through sign language as we didn't share a single common word. As I got up, I said “buona sera” which actually turned out to mean the same thing in Romanian. It just stuck with me how often, Europeans are warmer and more friendly than even our own compatriots. And if you sit down next to them and try out a little sign language, you'll probably end up with a couple new friends.
Greek Salad Count: 1, Gyro Count: 1
Day 9: Athens
Greek Salad Count: 0, Gyro Count: 2
Total salad and gyro count in nine days: Greek Salad: 10, Gyros: 17
Here's my photo album from the week in Greece
Posted by Andy Steves on December 08, 2008
People talk about senioritis at the end of high school as a lack of motivation due to collegiate-acceptance goals already being achieved. There's no sense in killing yourself for a 4.0 when you're already decided where you're heading for college. For me, entering my fourth year of University, I've noticed I never really found a cure for my senioritis. It goes into remission every year in late August only to come back again the next February or so. What I'm trying to say is I was impressed with my blogging diligence through my semester in Rome, but as soon as school was out for summer, that diligence went right out the window. I have, however, made a shorter, more anecdotal type of journal for the month of free time I had in Europe after our school time was over. I hope you've enjoyed reading the chronicles of my times during 2008 in Europe. But it's not over yet!
Five months ago, when I landed in Rome for my semester abroad, I figured since I was over in Europe already, why end the experience when school did? Why not stay over for as long as possible. So I stayed on and enjoyed an extra month to do whatever I wished…and whatever my budget could handle. Here's how it broke down: a week in Greece, a week in Istanbul, and a week in Switzerland. I capped my year's travels with a two-week program to study industrial design (my major) split between London and Milano. Read on…
Posted by Andy Steves on December 05, 2008
In the end, the cool factor of having an invitation into the interior of Vatican City far outweighed the event itself. I felt so important carrying around a yellow ticket asking directions from officials to St. whoever's gate. I finally found it and made my way up the stairs with the small well-dressed crowd and my new haircut and my own new Italian suit. We were permitted to enter a courtyard where my special yellow ticket got me farther than others' green ones. It got me an actual seat.
Promptly at 5 o'clock, the ceremony began. On the inside of the Vatican, you're closer to being in Switzerland than Italy. It reminded me of a middle-school band recital, complete with a token intercultural bongo-and-accordion song. After the march in, each of the 20 or so inductees marched slowly up to a flag, gripped it and barked an oath either in Italian or German.
The ceremony lasted exactly 45 minutes and afterwards there was a reception in another, smaller courtyard where they were serving boxed wine and Peronis. I thought this interesting. All the new inductees were there with their proud families and chatting with medal-adorned military generals from various countries. I chatted with the guard I sat next to in a mix of French and Italian but his accent in both was very difficult to understand. He was about my age and I wondered what it would be like to be a guard here at the headquarters of a billion Roman Catholics. I left semi-sober and contemplated swiping one of the giant pikes that lined the exit hallway. It would have just been too awkward to run with.
Here's the ceremony's photo album
Posted by Andy Steves on December 03, 2008
It was Sunday, and I was heading to a final at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. I had put on my chill playlist to calm the pre-final nerves, and a Sunday Mass had just gotten out and I was walking through what felt like humanity itself. I was walking upstream through nationalities from the six continents, each person consumed in his own conversation, and immediate and individual reality. It's a surreal experience when you take away your sense of hearing. You then rely solely on your vision to interpret expressions, gestures, and body language. Add the particular song I was listening to and it's an enthralling experience.
To celebrate our semester, all the students in our program got together and organized a progressive dinner. We were supposed to pool some money and go in on the entire dinner together, but its tough scrounging together some cash from 30 stingy college students looking forward to the days of free meals at home just a week away. So people ended up getting together by apartment and pooling money for each course that way. This worked fine except for me. I was the designated antipasti course, seeing as I had only two burners for a stove and no oven. I ended up throwing together a Caprese salad, one for each person with tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar. Mine went off great with everybody enjoying their small appetizers on my small deck and access to the roof in our best Sunday clothes.
Now was the time to reflect on our semester. We had come in as strangers. I still remember the first awkward orientation meetings when we went around in circles doing the customary “Hi, my name is _____ and I'm from _____.” But we quickly got beyond that--and the rest is history. I made 30 new friendships with kids from all over the US, and we've cooked and ate together, went to school together, got denied into bars and kicked out of clubs together. All in all I had a growing experience that I'll never forget. And when I go back to campus this fall, the Notre Dame campus will be dotted with friends from our semester in Rome. That's what I'm looking forward to.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 26, 2008
With a deep breath and a last glance at my old bike being carried away, I went to catch up with my friends who were buying regional train tickets to Riomaggiore. The place was absolutely packed. I had never seen it this crowded before. This weekend, I guess, was the Italian equivalent of the 4th of July. Over the next three days, we ate foccaccia and pesto, and hiked, cliff-jumped, and just lived the good--if rustic--Italian Riviera life.
I was with Clif, the same friend who had climbed the Duomo with me. I told him “Man, we did the Duomo, why can't we do this? We really don't have a choice. It's not up to us, we have to do it.” I had climbed over the railing, but then didn't trust my rappelling skills so much so had climbed back over. We went farther down the paved path to hang out and catch some sun. We had all but given up when we saw a loose rope used for kayak rentals. It was about eight or ten yards long and looked like it could support a dude's weight. So we “borrowed” it and went back to the spot. Clif tied the rope to the railing and I climbed over and tried to get down. No go for me. One mistake here and you would bounce off the sharp rocks all the way down 15 yards to the water. I could see myself losing my nerves and letting go of the rope to reach out for a grip on the rocks which would be the wrong move. Clif took the rope and made it down just fine and jumped. After swimming out and back, he coached me down and I got up the nerve to jump. In the end, more than anything else, I jumped because I was tired of being scared. After us, four or five more friends jumped. Each of us drew crowds of hikers stopping to watch the show or the possible carnage. Every time we heard “pazzi americani” (crazy Americans) muttered under the breath of the Italians.
That night we cooked dinner in one of the apartments and made our way to the only bar in town. I wanted to take it easy, but we ended up staying until closing time and then even later-- heading down to the beach to avoid any noise complaints and police calls. In the bar I met a group of five Milanese, two guys and three girls. One had a video camera and as soon as I said “forza obama, non mi piace Bush,” we were immediate friends. It means “go Obama, down with Bush.” We talked about everything again, politics, the Mafia, the University of Milano, accents, Italian fashion, the Cinque Terre, and why Italian girls don't talk to me.
On Sunday I got a little impatient, and decided to try to catch the four o'clock train back to Rome instead of the six o'clock. Well, I got to La Spezia and they said the train was full so they put me on an intercity train all the way back to Rome with a layover in Pisa. In the end, I left two hours early to get home about 30 minutes earlier than otherwise. Boo. Looking back, it was a great trip, but I think the crowds got to me. It's sad seeing a gem of culture worn down and trampled by tourism. I guess I can blame my dad for that, but it's just the way it is. I think traveling is most enjoyable when it's a unique experience that is hard to duplicate by anyone else, or by yourself for that matter. Well, this weekend, there were thousands upon thousands on these little trails lacing those dreamy seaside villages together. No body else went cliff jumping that weekend at our spot though. Everybody else is probably smarter.
Waiting for the last metro back to my apartment under the train station I watched the two Caribinieri standing near me. I had to laugh to myself because the way they strut around with their hands held behind their backs reminds me of the way horny pigeons puff out their necks to attract a mate. Both had their caps on, and one tipped forward so low you could barely make out his eyes from under the bill and it was past 10 o'clock at night. They know they're being checked out by all around them, and they like it. It's just another example of Italian style. They are sexy uniforms though.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 24, 2008
Back in February, I sent out a short message to the other kids in my program saying I knew a guy who could get us rooms in the Cinque Terre if anyone was interested. Initially I expected eight or ten or twelve positive responses. Well, that turned into 16, then 19, then 24, and finally 27. So this weekend I unwittingly organized a trip for a group bigger than the ones my dad puts together.
When I travel, I kind of make it up as I go and if I make a mistake, no biggie. When there's that many people following you, each mistake of mine is multiplied by 27, and that comes with some pressure. My friends could have done it on their own, but for convenience I went ahead and reserved the rooms.
On Thursday night, we weren't feeling like staying out very late. I hadn't gotten much sleep the previous week, and we had an early train to catch. I had heard about an ice bar somewhere in Rome, and figured this would be an opportune time to check it out. If nothing else, I couldn't afford multiple drinks there, so making it an early night fit the situation. So a few friends and I made our way over to near the Cavour metro stop. There, we first stopped in for a pint at the Irish bar across the street to wait for another friend. When she arrived, we tried to burn the warmth of a normal bar into our memories and headed to the blue door of Ice Club Roma. I have been to the Absolut Ice Bars in Stockholm and Copenhagen, but this one is privately owned. You hand over your €15 entrance fee, and they give you a drink ticket, a jacket, and a pair of gloves. Then they lead you into the middle chamber that keeps the cold in, where they shut the door behind you. Then, with a click of a button on the wall, you step into sub-zero temperatures, space-age trance techno and a morphing rainbow of lights matching the tempo of the throbbing music.
Inside, we enjoyed a variety of cocktails and drank them out of a martini-shaped glass made out of ice which by the end of a drink, molds to your mouth. It was a quieter night so my three friends and I just chatted with the owner for the next hour. We talked about politics, electricity bills, Italian bureaucracy, other ice bars around Europe, and the history of his business.
Originally he intended to open another Absolut Ice Bar in Rome, a franchise, but when looking into it, he became fed up by the strict brand regulations. The shape of the Absolut bottle has to be everywhere all over, and he wanted more freedom to do exactly what he wanted in his winter wonderland. At times, he brings in ice carvers from around Europe and has them do various sculptures and competitions. We ordered vodka and amaretto, vodka and blueberry, some kind of red fruit and vodka, a coffee liquor and vodka, and a licorice vodka. All with inspiring names, all escaping me now, and all were delicious, but by the end of your second drink, it's tough to hold up your glass and take a sip because you're shivering so bad. When the shivering got bad enough, we downed the last of our drinks and said goodnight to Matteo, the owner.
Taking the bus home, I had a decision to make, wait for the connection night bus, or crash at my friend's apartment and set my alarm early enough to make it back and finish packing for my trip the next morning. Well I was feeling lazy and made probably the worse of two choices and decided to occupy my friend's couch for the night. I set my alarm before I fell asleep for 6:00. The next thing I knew, my friend was shaking me awake telling me it was 6:50. I had slept through my alarm and had a total of 45 minutes to throw my shirt and shoes back on, sprint back to my apartment, finish packing in a total of four minutes and grab my now-sold bike, run down to the metro stop, catch it to Termini, run up the three flights of stairs through the morning crowds of the main train station to the platform and finally jump through the closing doors of my train at 7:35. I made it. But I could smell the vodka in my sweat, as I stood there, hunched and heaving over my bike box looking at the Roma Termini station slowly fading into the distance.
Missing the train with two dozen friends expecting me to be their tour guide would have been horrible. I found my friends in car 9 and collapsed into a seat after I shoved my bike box up into the ceiling racks. Four hours later, I called the dude who bought my bike. I told him we'd be twenty minutes late, and he said he'd be there. “Saro con scatalone,” I said, “I'll be the one with the big box.”
We rolled into the La Spezia station and I met Christian at the top of the stairs. He was a nervous and a bit awkward guy in his late twenties. I think anybody would be though, in this situation. I asked him if he had been involved in the sport before, and he said no. I opened up the box, showed him the bike—reviewed all the parts--and he handed over the €550. With a handshake and a pat on the back, I was done with my blue-and-white 2007 Pinarello. All over Italy, it had served me very well.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 21, 2008
Last Tuesday, I was able to tag along on a class field trip with a friend. Their teacher, Monsignor Wells had some connections in the Vatican and was able to get permission to take three groups over a couple weeks down into the excavations, or scavi, under St. Peter's Basilica. I had heard about them but didn't realize their extent. During World War II, the pope ordered the excavations and they found ancient tomb after ancient tomb.
The monsignor explained that the small door we walked in was ancient, and told us to imagine the following: Back in 300 something A.D., Constantine wanted to build a cathedral over St. Peter's tomb. A huge one. So he had to rip off the roofs of the ancient mausoleums and fill them in with dirt to make the foundations of this mammoth structure. He gave families time to take out their dead. This was primarily a pagan burial ground and they wanted to take their ancestors out. At the same time, Christians took this opportunity to move their bodies closer to the grave of St, Peter. So they would have been passing each other through the same low door we went through.
We continued on deeper and farther. Each room had a space-age Star Trek-type door, that opened and closed without warning exactly as we approached and passed. Next, we found a street that was made by the rows upon rows of families' mausoleums. Each one had an ancient title plaque above the door explaining the family history. In this corridor, our priest explained the different brickwork, ancient vs. medieval vs. modern, and he explained how the ancient brickwork was the best, as it was still intact and had lasted this many centuries on soft ground without collapsing.
As the tour went on, it was an indescribable feeling as we walked closer and closer to the tomb of St. Peter. His grave first had a small temple over it, then a supporting wall was built to keep it from collapsing. Over the years, an altar had been placed around it. Then another. And a marble box was placed around that. Then St. Peter's Basilica was placed over that, with the modern altar being about 30 feet directly over the bones of St. Peter. Keep in mind, all that is all well below ground level today.
As excavators came upon St. Peter's tomb, they attempted to dig under it. That was unsuccessful, so they dug around to the other side, where they were able to get the smallest one of them to reach up into the tomb and he pulled out a bone. They continued to excavate, and a doctor friend of the pope verified these were truly the bones of one man from about the first century AD. The problem was, he was an eye doctor--and they turned out to be the bones of two men, a woman, and several animals. So, the question remained, where were the real bones of St. Peter? A woman, an expert in ancient languages and scripts, continued studying the markings on the wall for the next couple of years. Finally, she decoded the meaning, and discovered the bones in the supporting wall of the original temple, placed in a small compartment lined with expensive marble and “Petras is here” scrawled into the wall. They went through the identification process over the next several months, and professionals determined they were the bones of an older, well-built man, from the first century A.D. whose bones showed evidence of torture and crucifixion. These bones were replaced, and we could catch glimpses of them through the hole in the wall. We exited through the intimate chapel located directly under the huge altar, and came out into the crypts of the popes which the public can access.
Thinking back at the sight of those bones as I walked back to class, it occurred to me that faith isn't based on evidence, but it is always nice to have real-world hints.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 19, 2008
On this Friday morning, I boxed up my bike again and headed to the station for what is sure to be an awesome weekend. I had to get up at the ungodly hour of 6:45. To me, there are times when I'm tired--and then there's being painfully tired. Well I'm the latter right now, as I type this up on the train. A bunch of my friends were going to Sorrento for the week, but I had been there already and wanted to stay on the real Costa d'Amalfi. I wrestled my bike box into the storage place on the train and had to use my packing tape to make sure it didn't fall out.
On the train, I listened to two young Italian girls singing rhymes in Italian, and tried to catch their meaning. At Naples, a small family got on and sat next to me. Their young son wanted to eat his panino, but apparently they had just eaten so I listened to the kid beg for twenty minutes until the parents gave in. The train finally arrived in Salerno at about 10:00 a.m. and I hopped off the train and started to orient myself. This place just felt like Southern Italy; dirty streets, clearly no one paying attention to emission laws, beautiful women, strolling grandmas, and so on. I asked at the TI where to buy tickets, and hopped on the bus to Amalfi town. Fifty minutes later, I grabbed my bike out of the belly of the bus and made my way to Atrani where my hostel was, bike box under my arm.
After I checked in, I threw my bike together and headed out on a ride. I turned around about 20 miles out, a little past Positano. On the way a car labeled “Amalfi Driving School” passed the other way. I had to laugh. If you learn to drive there in Amalfi, you can drive anywhere in the world. I wonder if they have "I-drove-off-the-cliff" insurance. The next day, I got back on my bike and headed all the way into Sorrento. This is where I stayed with my friend back in 2005. We thought we were on the Amalfi Coast, but really hadn't touched it, and had no idea that this magical coastline was just around the bend.
On Sunday, a friend and I rented a moped and toured the same craggy cliffs over the stunning blue waterscapes that I had biked the day before. From our vantage point, we could make out the smothering smog cloud over Naples. I would not want to live in that city. Before long, we had to make our way back to our Amalfi hometown in order to make the bus connection back to the Sorrento train station. There, we experienced the worst traffic ever, causing an hour delay, and putting us into town too late to catch the train. So we missed our train and had to wait for the next one. That was okay except for an obnoxious Italian who was never silent the entire two hours we waited. I can still hear his lispy accent, high voice, and endless stream of vulgar jokes. Here, I see truth in the saying “those who talk the most have the least to say.” Besides the crummy end of the trip, it was great to be immersed in the pure beauty of the Amalfi Coast.
Here's the photo album
Posted by Andy Steves on November 17, 2008
Hey all, just wanted to thank everyone for keeping up with the blog. This is coming to you, realtime, November 15 from Notre Dame. A couple weeks ago, I made an entry on my new website and it's newly-launched status at www.andysteves.com. This site will serve college students with free travel tips and ideas. But primarily, it will be to provide supplementary itineraries to their travel plans, available for download. Well I just uploaded the first few itineraries along with a bunch of new photo albums. Check em out! Here's the . If there are any graphic designer out there, how does this read? And to the English teachers, any grammatical errors? Cartographers, let me know if I'm off in any spots. Thanks a ton, and we're only about half way through my semester, so keep checking back!
Posted by Andy Steves on November 15, 2008
The problem was that my bike was nicer than anything else in these second-hand shops. So no shops were interested. I then put the bike up on Craigslist. The next day, on Ebay.it. That is a nerve-wracking experience--you have to make sure you read everything on each page and that the right boxes are checked. Otherwise, you could sell a €1000 bike accidentally for €20. It's scary enough when the site's in English. I made a bit of a mistake setting up the timing of the auction because it's ending right now as I'm writing this on a plane coming back to Rome from Dublin. Hope it's going well.
Right before I made the auction, I climbed up onto my roof to take some glamour shots. Imagine that, me coming out onto my little porch with the large frame of my dear bicycle over one shoulder. Clambering up onto the travertine railing I can see the street six floors below. I do a tightrope turn and slowly walk up the incline part to step over the ridge of the roof of the apartment. I make it up without any tragic accidents and am able to take my pictures with the shining dome of St. Peter's Basilica in the background. After my photo shoot, I sling the bike back over my shoulder and repeat the process in reverse order.
My first auction ended with the price at €300, so I contacted the buyer and told him I couldn't sell it for a price that low, and that my minimum is €500. I've explained my situation to a few Italians here in Rome, and they've all told me I wouldn't have trouble selling a bike up north in Milan, or Torino, but Rome and the South is a different story. It's strange to think that in the capital of the nation, they really don't have much expendable income. As Italians don't see any possibility of buying real estate due to the exorbitant prices, they wear their paycheck--they don't think twice about spending the equivalent of $200 on a pair of pants.
I decided to redo my auction so I took some more detailed pictures, expanded my description and ticked the “ship anywhere” option. This time my auction started at €475 with a buy-it-now at €750, and I set the length of the auction for seven days. Several days later, I received a message asking if I would sell it for €500. I responded yes. We talked over the phone a couple times and it became clear he was from where I was headed the next weekend, the Cinque Terre. He could meet me at the station and we'd make the transaction right there.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 14, 2008
The day after landing in Ireland, I met up with Sean at his country house about an hour outside of Dublin. That was an experience. As he welcomed me inside he said “Be careful, this place isn't built to common human elevation.” It wasn't. He had built it on his father's property ten years ago as a project and learning experience. The ceilings were built to his stature and weren't any taller than 6'4”. That being said, I've never been in a cozier place. It was heated with a peat stove, and the house came with Mary, his mother, who was a classic pint-size grandmother. She peered out from her bright Irish eyes set deep in her weathered face. She was wearing a white-and-pink jumpsuit and sported it well for a 75-year-old. She carried herself like a teenager in the way she walked and interacted with the world around her. She never spoke above a whisper, and with her accent and the random subjects she discussed, I understood about maybe half of what she said. Her astounding hearing was matched by Sean's who would laugh at what sounded like mumbles to me. Her relationship with Sean was more like a beautiful friendship complete with teasing and bantering. Sean told me stories about how he would send her into the butcher's shop asking for hammers and nails.
Sean took me on a tour of the Wicklow Mountains, the region where his little house was with Mary. On this tour, I looked down on the Guinness' family's property with a lake where they imported white sand for their private beach. We continued up and over into the next valley where it was hailing and looked absolutely uninhabitable. Occasionally we would pull over and get out for a photo op. Asking Mary if she wanted to get out, she'd respond “I've seen these mountains my whole life” opting to stay inside the car. Each time, Sean would tell her, “Okay mom, keep quiet, and don't cause any trouble.”
We passed a burnt-out shell of an old English fort once built to control the people in these IRA-stronghold valleys. The rebels waited and watched while the fort was built. The night after it was completed and the garrison was installed, they came down and locked all the soldiers inside and burnt it to the ground with a couple of hundred British inside. Count one for the Irish. At the entrance of each valley was a large, car-sized stone on end with the area's predominant families' names and dates. We passed one with 1774 chiseled into the rock. The history of the island is engrossing. Throughout the day, Mary explained her family history, traditional Irish songs, and hatred for organized tours, her soft voice broken up with frequent napping. She would fall asleep mid-sentence, and wake up ten minutes later and either finish the thought or switch to a completely different topic. Her rambling style is the reason I don't remember much of what she said. I was concentrating more on following her in the moment.
We stopped at a pub for a burger and a pint. Sean had come into this particular pub years back dressed as a priest. To this day, the man behind the bar still greets him as “Father.” After our snack, Sean let me drive back down the country roads to his house. It messes with your head to drive on the left, shift with your left hand and look right first. But I made it without incident. Along the way we stopped at a small organic grocery store to pick up jelly for his mother. Inside, Sean saw some honey that was supposed to be especially good for you and asked why to the clerk. “Probably because it's organic” he responded. It's sad how you can find slices of Southern California across the globe these days.
The next day Sean and I went to Kilkenny. On the drive, he explained that the legal trouble he had referred to earlier had to do with his house. He had built it ignoring all rules and regulations. It was built to his standards and nobody else's. He didn't build it for money or an investment but for himself and his mother. Well, he was found out by the county council, and they were threatening to tear it down for numerous code violations and he was knee-deep in wading through the legal system. He had been talking to all his contacts in the area to try and get past the paperwork. The law in that part of Ireland states no one can build unless you were born there. Sean wasn't but built anyway on his own land. The other day, he had gone to the priest to explain his situation and see if he could do anything. The priest didn't like the council so immediately wrote up a page saying Sean was a native. From there, Sean may be able to keep the house. Sean laughed, “And I thought priests were good for nothing.” Through my travel I've come to learn it's really about whom you know. With contacts you can get into, around, or past anything whether it be nightclubs or county ordinances.
At Kilkenny, we wandered through the small streets and Sean said he knew nothing about the place. So we went into a pub and had a few pints, grabbed some chicken curry and got back in the car to return to Dublin.
On Sunday morning, Sean took me on a short tour of Howth, where I bought a €15 hamburger at a pub for lunch. Howth is the peninsula you fly over when coming into the Dublin airport. It would have been simpler and cheaper to just drink a few pints. We had good timing, showing up on the morning of the monthly market. There, they had all sorts of honey, meats, vegetables, and fresh fruits. They also had a creperie van there with “Probably the best crepes you've ever tasted” painted in bold letters across the top. Well, we waited in the line, and once we got to the front, they had run out of cheese and chicken. I had wanted a savory crepe for lunch, obviously, but they were missing half the ingredients I wanted. I swear, that region of Ireland was having a dairy shortage that day--the hamburger stand next door was out as well. That's when we tried to find some cheap (but not pub) grub. The next morning I caught my flight back to Rome in time for class that afternoon.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 12, 2008
On Thursday, I sat fidgeting through my Italian class because I couldn't get my upcoming trip out of my head. I was returning to the Emerald Isle again this evening. After class, I bolted to catch the bus home and finish packing. My Ryanair flight only allowed 10 kilos for my carry-on so I did without a second pair of pants and my nice shoes. My flight was leaving out of Ciampino, Rome's secondary airport, so I took the metro to Termini and hopped on the connection bus that took me straight there. I was originally supposed to meet up with my Irish friend Sean until he told me he had to cancel a few minutes before my flight, and was coming back to Rome at the same time I was leaving.
A little bummed and confused as to what I was going to do for the weekend, my mind was busy with coming up with a new plan on the three-hour Rome-to-Dublin flight. The perpetually crying two-year-old English boy in the row behind me that already had a full vocabulary of swear words didn't help. Earlier in the terminal, he had been running around just having fun. I feel old when I say this, but when kids run around like that they're just bound to crash and hurt themselves.
Well, there I was reading a trashy English newspaper just relaxing and I see him out of the corner of my eye running on a course to just barely miss me. His foot catches mine and he goes sprawling, landing on elbow and knee. A moment before he started crying, I got the surprised and pain-filled look that just screamed “why did you do that to me” through his eyes. I felt terrible. Kind of. And said sorry to him and his mom and went back to reading my paper.
Turning on my cell phone is the first thing I do when my plane lands. Immediately it signaled a new text message, which was from Sean. It read “Legal trouble. Staying for the weekend. We'll meet up for a pint.”
Posted by Andy Steves on November 10, 2008
Saturday I woke up and cooked myself an extra egg. I had a feeling I was going to go on a long bike ride that day. I picked a town in the interior of the island about two and a half inches away from Cefalu. Well that town turned out to be 38 miles away with about 30 being uphill, but I'm a very goal-oriented person so if I tell myself I'm going somewhere, I have to get there. I made a point to stop in each town along the way to pick up something to eat or drink.
Out of Cefalu, I headed towards Messina for a couple miles until I took a right and headed up hill. The next town I hit was Castelbuono, where I grabbed a banana and a blood orange and ate them outside a café. There an old man recognized me from the day before and asked me where I was headed. I asked him where I should go and where the best roads were. He proceeded to tell me everything about the roads in the surrounding area. This was interesting because back in my freshman theology seminar I wrote a research paper about the Sicilian Mafia and how it has crossed paths with the Vatican over the years. In my research I learned that from childhood, Sicilians were taught never to give directions to strangers for fear that the stranger may be a hit man searching for his victim. In Sicily, revenge would extend all the way to the direction-giver and his family. I asked him about the town I had previously picked out and he said the roads were good so that's where I headed.
I continued on for another 15 miles to Geraci, where I had a cheese-and-spicy-salami panino. The interior of Sicily is absolutely stunning. Its majestic mountains and dramatic landscapes seem to say “Don't mess with me, I'll hurt you,” reflecting the dark undertones of Sicilian culture. Continuing uphill, I rode past the first real-life shepherd I've ever seen in my life, with a cane and all dressed in wool. I've seen little eight-year-old ones at Christmas Mass every year, and I was probably even one once, but this was the first shepherd I've seen really doing his thing. A little later I saw huge chunks of dung and wondered if a goat could have done the job. On my way back I almost hit some cows hanging out in the middle of the road and then it made sense.
On long rides you have a lot of thinking time. Well, this time I got to thinking about how all these small hill towns that I was riding through got started. They're 20 miles away from anything else. Initially, I'm guessing all the towns in Sicily, and around the world in general tend to line the coast. Over time, they spread inwards and the founders of these towns would have had to carry all belongings on their backs and with mules. And today, nobody moves into these towns, which means everyone who lives there has family roots a long ways back, probably close to a thousand years. It's amazing to think about such continuous life, generation after generation in these small towns perched on the top of mountains: weddings and funerals, births and baptisms, schooling and working all there in these little towns, carried out in lifetime after lifetime. Along with that, each town, as close as six miles from the next, has a distinct dialect and people have to concentrate to understand another. It just goes to show how isolated these towns really have been throughout history.
Seven hours after I left, I made it back to Cefalu and struggled up the stairs with shaky knees to the apartment where I immediately put on some water to make pasta. It was a great day.
That night was Frank's 21st birthday party. Except it wasn't really much of a party. There were just six of us who went out to dinner, then only four wanted to go find the rumored discoteca that was only open on Saturdays. Again, one does not discuss the details of 21st birthdays, but Frank was having a good time. I decided to give him a unique gift. On the way over to the club, I gave him the gift of drunk driving. This is the only safe kind though: bumper cars. There was a small carnival park on the side of the road and I figured why not. It was a great time. We never made it to the disco. Instead, we just tucked Frank into bed and crashed ourselves.
On Sunday I went on a very short recovery ride and spent most of the afternoon cleaning up the apartment inside, which broke my heart because it was such a beautiful day. I packed up my bike and realized I had misplaced my train ticket to return back to Rome. In the end, it turned out to be nothing more than a headache and an extra €40. I said goodbye and thanks to Carlo and headed off to the station with my classmates that evening to catch my 7:30 train. It was a good spring break.
I thought I wasn't going to have anything more to say; just another night train and probably another awkward encounter with a middle-aged Italian. The train ride was relatively uneventful: I got my bike up on the baggage holders, we had some people peeking into our room, and I tried to fall asleep. I was having a hard time until about 2 or 3 in the morning, then the next thing I knew I was shaken awake by my friend. “Andy, we're here.” But we weren't here. It was broad daylight and there was no train station around. My friend and I and another Italian all had overslept the Roma Termini stop, and they had moved the train to the outskirts of Rome to the train depository. So here we were, at 8:30 in the morning, pretty much stranded in the middle of nowhere. Why hadn't anybody woken us up? Where was the conductor? He hadn't had a problem waking us up while we were sleeping to check our tickets for the second time. But I guess he was too lazy to do the same when it really mattered. It wouldn't have been as much of a pain except I was still carrying around my bike in a box and really didn't feel like carting it the three miles back to the station.
Eventually, we found somebody to ask for directions to the exit, and we caught a tram heading in the right direction. While the man was telling us how to get there, another person came up, and both told us to keep an eye on our wallets. That was the first time ever I've had Italians tell me to watch out. A bit daunting, but in the end, nothing happened on the tram. Once we saw the red metro “M,” we were home free. And that's where the story ends. It was a good spring break.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 07, 2008
Friday was the day we decided to rent mopeds. It looked clear until the moment after we signed the paperwork and it started pouring. I almost passed on the day but then figured why not and went with it. I knew it was going to be a long day when my friend, right off the bat, rode his scooter into the wall. He wasn't hurt and the scooter still worked so we kept going. The place only had four scooters to rent, two 50cc's and two 125cc's, so one of the 125s always had two people on it and we set up a rotation. We headed to Castelbuono, where I had ridden to on Tuesday. On the way there, it was all uphill so there wasn't really much danger of sliding out. I was driving a 125 and my friend was clutching on and we were shivering like Lloyd and Harry from Dumb and Dumber on their way to Aspen.
We got to Castelbuono and sloshed into a café where we had some of the thickest hot chocolate ever, and tried to dry ourselves out. After that, we asked where we could get some pasta, and the woman there sent us over to her friend's around the corner. Once we sat down and took off our jackets, the owner rolled in a space heater and turned it on to help with the drying process. I was so glad I put on my thin, wool long underwear that morning so I could lose my cotton T-shirt. It's kind of sad though, having to wear long underwear on a spring break trip in the Mediterranean. We ate well and apprehensively put back on our semi-dried jackets and helmets and returned back to our motorinos.
We decided we had had enough and started back to Cefalu to return our scooters. Now it was time to head downhill and it was still raining hard. The four of us would spread out along about 200 meters of road so we'd lose sight of each other around every turn of the windy road. And around one of these I came upon Mark getting up off the ground and picking up his moped. He had slid out around a turn, but because the roads were as wet as they were, he wasn't hurt and his ride only picked up a small scratch or two. We continued along until we found a turn out and scoped out the damage. We didn't see anything so we kept going, and pulled over to wait for everyone at the very bottom of the hill. We were missing Frank this time. We waited for a few minutes then sent Mark back up the hill. He came back a minute later with Frank who had gotten too close to the wall and fell into it on the right side, hurting both his pinky and right side of the moped. All our hands were numb from the cold rain and he couldn't tell if his pinky was broken or not. So he got on the back with Mark on the 125 and I switched to Frank's 50cc that now had a newly broken mirror and stiffer steering. That accident would end up costing Frank €172.
Now we were going along flatter ground along the coastline, and we could see Cefalu in the distance. I was careful never to let myself get too comfortable with my motorino skills but I think others weren't as careful. A quarter mile after we turned off on the Cefalu exit, we pulled over again to wait for everyone to catch up. This time Joe was missing. We waited some more, then I doubled back to find him. I came across him at the turnoff wincing in pain. He had slid out on the main road at about 40 kph and slid into the other lane. Luckily there was no oncoming traffic, but he said three or four cars had pulled over ready to take him to the hospital. Again, because the roads were wet he wasn't seriously hurt, so he passed on that, but he had skinned his wrist, ankle, knee, and thigh as well as grinding away his mirror and the right side fairing. That accident would cost him €145. He didn't feel like driving anymore so Frank got back on my ride, and I switched to the 125cc that Joe had been driving.
Once we were back in town, we picked up some groceries, then headed to the gas pump to fill up before we returned the mopeds. Once we got back, the owner did the routine check on all the mopeds: We had crashed three of the four he had rented to us and he knew it. A fork was shot, two mirrors were broken, and there was some serious cosmetic damage. He wasn't too happy. He went back inside and wrote up the bill for Frank and Joe who had to pay immediately. It would have been awesome any other day with better weather--and cheaper. I'd definitely recommend renting, just don't do it on a rainy day. Or you can be like me and just not crash at all. That night we compared bruises, abrasions and stories over beer pong late into the night.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 05, 2008
On Tuesday I decided to ride inland and uphill to Castelbuono. It was a beautiful day, and the views were amazing. People have asked me if I saw evidence of Mafia activity during the time I've spent in Sicily. The Mafia is careful not to attract any attention to itself so as an outsider, it is very hard to notice anything. That day though, as I was tooling around through this little hill town, a brand new Mercedes passed me and turned around the next corner. I thought it was strange because all other cars were the kinds you'd expect in a poor rural town with not much of an economy except agriculture. I didn't really think anything of it until I caught up to the silver Mercedes in the narrow back alleys of the town. At each storefront, the car would stop, and shop owners came out and passed an envelope to the driver. They'd then chat for a bit asking about each other's family and friends. The shopkeeper would then thank the driver profusely and return back inside and the car would continue on. Of course I don't know exactly what was going on, but one could make an educated guess.
That night we had dinner at the girls' apartment on the other side of town. As far as cuisine goes, Italy is definitely the place to study abroad. Each of my friends have picked up a different recipe to add to their repertoire, and it feels like every night is a feast. That night we had Chicken Marsala and a simple, spiced whole-wheat pasta.
On Wednesday, I picked a town called Geraci to ride to. On a map, when the road gets squiggly, it means the road is steep. I kind of knew that from before, but now I have a true sense. Distance-wise, I didn't go very far, about 15 or 16 miles. But in that time I climbed over 3,000 feet, most of them near the end. I bought a €3 panino in the local and only grocery store of this mountain town and ate in the town's only piazza. I sat next to a couple old men who were shooting the breeze like they always do and I tried to listen in on their conversation, but I could only pick out maybe 10 percent of what they said. They were speaking in such a strong dialect that it seemed like another language to me. After a while I interrupted them and began a conversation in Florentine Italian about life in Sicily and how they've liked their life in the town. Only several hundred live there now and it was fun hearing them talk like they knew the life stories of each inhabitant. I bet they did too.
Nothing really worth noting happened on Thursday except for that evening's dinner and post-dinner activities. That afternoon, we invited Carlo over for dinner. He brought a raw artichoke salad and a pack of sardines. Neither was very good, but it was great having him there. He was born in Sicily but was raised in Milan. His wife is Milanese and they've spent most of their life up there until now. He's retired and involves himself in the marine equivalent of Italian boy scouts. I didn't really catch it all, but he told me about it, and showed me pictures of teaching kids how to sail. After dinner, we roped him in for a game of beer pong. His wind up and toss, I could tell, were derived from a lifetime of bocce ball. His team was way behind until Carlo found his groove and sunk three in a row to win the game. With all of us standing stunned, Carlo said one game was enough for him and went to bed.
Posted by Andy Steves on November 03, 2008
We got into Cefalu at about 8:30 in the morning. The day after a night train is always horrible. You're painfully tired and your eyes ache all day. It's kind of like jet lag all over again. On top of that, it was drizzling, and Carlo, the landlord gave me a funny-looking phone number that I wasn't sure would work. Well I called it a few times and finally he picked up and gave me some directions. There's one street that goes from the train station and continues all the way through the small town until it makes a "T" just before the water. We had to get to that T and that's where he would be waiting. So the eight of us started our hike in that direction, me with a huge bike box. Of course, Sicilian eyes are expert stare-ers and they were performing just fine that morning. In the early morning, there were already dozens doing their work—staring at the new arrivals in town.
We got there and that's when we first met Carlo. Carlo was a smiley, short, balding, white-haired man with a small potbelly who liked to talk through his rotten teeth. His breath reeked of something indescribable that morning. That afternoon, I would find out why.
I took the direction to Palermo and enjoyed the new pavement, which was "partly financed by the EU." It wasn't an especially warm day, but my layers were adequate and I felt like I was riding through a cyclist's paradise. I made it about 20 miles out before the rain clouds came up on me and started dumping. That's where I turned around and began the second half of my ride.
On the way back I was heading down the same two-lane highway where I came upon two cars turning left. The first one pulled out a little bit in front of me but wouldn't have been a problem. But the second misjudged my speed and followed the first. The driver saw me coming and instead of doing anything, failed to make a decision and just stopped, blocking my entire lane. I had already clutched my brakes and was sliding at an angle on course to hit him. Somehow I made a flying leap out of my clipless pedals and managed to stay on my feet while my bike hit the deck hard. I put my street Italian to use and the driver sheepishly climbed out of his car as I looked over my bike. There was no serious damage except for my bent handlebars that I could fix with a multitool. I went through the regular hand gestures while fixing my bike and kept going. I made it back to the apartments and showered off, thankful my bike and I were both still in one piece.
Posted by Andy Steves on October 31, 2008
Posted by Andy Steves on October 29, 2008
I was supposed to fly back to Rome at 2 in the afternoon on Monday but on Saturday I asked myself how many times do I have the opportunity to be in Dublin for St. Padd'y day and bumped my flight back to Wednesday for €35. Not bad.
I was really anticipating the Irish activities to follow later that night so I wasn't too bummed. But first, I wanted to check out an advertised party on the other side of town. I was going to head over with some friends from Notre Dame studying in Dublin for the semester who I met up with randomly while watching the parade but quickly lost in the crowds. Never saw them again. After an hour en route, I came across this huge block party on the other side of St. Stephen's Green where cultural music was blasting in Gaelic.
At first there was plenty of room, then by the time I left, it was packed. There were moshing teenagers up close to the stage and little girls farther back putting their Irish step-dancing skills on display. It's the cutest thing ever to watch two of them go around in circles with their heads bobbing in syncopated rhythms, laughing and spinning up a storm. I was standing up on a raised area with small trees just enjoying the scene and pack after pack of freebie chewy candy. When I had my fill of both I made my way back to the hotel to rest up for what was sure to be a long night ahead of me.
Stephen told me to meet him and Vicki across town for dinner, but I slept through it in my nap and did without a meal that night. Not to worry, Guinness is like a loaf of rye bread. To the poor student, drinking in Dublin is not a particularly affordable activity as you may have guessed by my thievery the previous day. So I bought a small bottle of vodka at a convenience store before the real party started that night. And I brought it into the dance bar where the party was. After a legitimately paid-for pint, I got a cranberry with ice and headed to the dude's bathroom with the vodka in my jacket. I returned with a suspicious-looking pink drink in my Guinness pint glass and got back to the business of socializing. Twenty minutes later I saw some interesting flailing of arms and swirling of colors so I headed towards it. I met a group of French girls teaching French to Ryanair flight attendants. So I started dancing with them, green beanie with white foam horns and all. I ended up crashing on their couch at their house 20 minutes outside of Dublin later that night. I don't really know why but that's just what happened.
When I woke up, three French girls had already gone to work, and another just told me what bus to take to get back to the center of town. I went back to the hotel where I was staying with Stephen and Vicki. Unfortunately, they had already left for Derry when I showed up. So I took a nap, showered, then checked out of the hotel to wander Dublin for the rest of the day. I went to a really interesting “History of the Irish Military: Domestic and Foreign Service” exhibit at the National Museum. I had a lunch of salami and cheese on a baguette, and then went over to St. Stephen's Green to take a nap. I called the French girls after five and took the bus back out for some dinner. We compared musical tastes over dinner sharing iPods and I tried to teach them the Soulja Boy dance. I'll be the first to tell you I'm terrible at it. But seeing these girls made me feel a bit better. We had a simple salad and pasta dinner. I was planning to detox that night until one of them busted out a bottle of anise and I couldn't say no. I just love how it turns from clear to cloudy once you drop some ice into it. Some chemist needs to explain that to me some day. Once it got late, and I was tired, I dismissed myself, cleared off my plate, and went back to the couch. Meeting these girls was clutch because once I got home to Rome the next day, I had €16 in my pocket and I had slept for the last two night for free at their place, and with Stephen the previous four. I don't know how I could have worked it any other way.
St. Paddy's Album
Posted by Andy Steves on October 27, 2008
We made our way down to Dublin on Saturday. On the way we took a detour through Belfast. Stephen wanted to show me where the real Troubles happened. In that city, it looked like there was another Berlin Wall running right down the middle separating the two parts of the population. Protestant churches had cages round the windows and even the doors, making them look more like fortresses than religious buildings. Along each side of the wall was a small No Man's Land. On the Protestant side was a wide road, but on the Catholic side, the houses went right up close to the wall. Each of the houses had ground-to-roof metal cages around the patios. This was to protect against bricks and bottles lobbed over the wall from the other side. This was so they could relax if they wanted to have a coffee or a smoke outside without worrying about being beaned by a stray brick.
Driving through this city felt like driving through an Irish version of South Central L.A. I think of Belfast as the physical example of human stubbornness. While I definitely side with one, I can see both sides to the story- but I feel like I would eventually get tired of the struggle. The Protestants were planted there by the British to Anglicanize the Irish. Today though, Belfast is all they have known, and it's where they've lived and grown up for many generations. And the Catholics had always been there but had their homes and rights taken away when the British showed up.
On Sunday afternoon we made it to the Guinness brewery. I had been there two years ago with my family at 10 a.m. and it just wasn't that cool. This time we showed up at 2 p.m. and didn't leave again until about 7 p.m. With your admission ticket, you get a free pint up at the Gravity Bar. The entire museum is shaped like a giant pint glass of Guinness, and you pass through seven floors of history before you enjoy your pint at the top. Usually. This time, Stephen, Vicki, and I went straight to the top where we used up our first ticket. It was then when I began practicing my pint-swiping skills. It sounded like Stephen was intending to stay a while, and I was thirsty, so there was no other option. When a pint of Guinness is poured at the bar, it is poured about three quarters of the way up and then it sits until it settles enough to fill it to the top. Well the bar tenders would put these mostly full pints out on the bar for the settling or for the taking. And so I took and took and took again. By 6 p.m., I thought I had it down to a science, smoother after each drink. I thought I was smooth, but I'm sure I was much less so in reality.
We left without ever being caught and enjoyed a delicious dinner at Luigi Malone's, an Italian restaurant just off Temple Bar. An Italian who works at Stephen's hostel up in Derry joined us and sighed “you're so American,” after I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich. When she ordered a plate of lasagna, I chose not to say anything.
Check it out! My album from Dublin Town
Posted by Andy Steves on October 24, 2008
This year for St. Paddy's day, I figured that since I was in Europe, why not go to Dublin. So I blew off school the Thursday beforehand to catch a Ryanair flight at noon. On the plane, I realized I forgot my ATM card back in my apartment and would have to subsist on the €220 cash I brought with me in my backpack. I knew I could make it. Once I arrived, I was supposed to meet up with Stephen McPhilemy, a guide who does tours in the summer in Ireland for my dad's company. He's from Derry, but was in Dublin doing some business with his partner, who runs his own tour company called Paddy Wagon Tours and a hostel in Dublin. This weekend, both the tours and the hostel were packed with a couple hundred Australians, a handful of South Africans, and a couple Canadians. When I met up with Stephen at the bus stop, he said “You now Andy, you're gonna kill me, but we're gonna head back to the airport after I run some errands and catch a flight back up to Derry for a couple days.” He explained that the government believes Irish citizens have a right to fly between cities, so flights are subsidized, making them cost the same as a bus ticket. Unfortunately, Stephen remembered a couple of minutes later that his passport was back at his house in Derry. So, we ended up taking a three-hour bus ride to Northern Ireland.
On Friday morning, I walked around with Vicki, going into the museum and taking a tour of where “Bloody Sunday” actually happened. It was disgusting to hear about the British occupation and the Trouble years that have only recently ended. I had heard about the segregation of Northern Irish cities but it never really hit me until I saw it with my own eyes. The British lived inside the Derry castle walls on the top of the hill looking down at their Catholic counterparts. For years, young Catholics would have skirmishes with the stationed British military. People were killed with plastic bullets the size of saltshakers. One Sunday, inspired by the civil rights movement going on in the US, the Catholics were having their own march. The peaceful demonstration turned into a massacre of 14 Irish civilians--most of them teenagers.
While Vicki and I were touring, Stephen was supposed to catch a flight to London to meet up with a tour group and bring them across the water on a ferry to Dublin for the weekend. Well, he ended up missing his flight and on the way home picked up some Domino's Pizza, my first American-style pizza in months. This was a pretty American-style night. After that, we headed down to the movie theater and caught a showing of In Bruges, a movie with two Irish actors where they just rag on the cute Belgian city for two hours.
After that we met up with a friend of Stephen's at the pub. His name was Roighry, the Gaelic spelling for Rory, and he was the first Irish person I've ever met who doesn't drink (he sipped on a nonalcoholic Beck's). That night, Roighry was headed to a small BYOB house party and offered to take me along. After a few, Stephen handed me a key to his hostel, told me a few rooms were vacant, and said I could crash there after the party and he went back with Vicki.
Before we left the pub, I met a man with intense eyes, and a strong jaw. We started chatting as Rory left to get another “beer.” Somehow, Cuba came up and we discussed Che, and other Cuban exports like rum and cigars. At that moment, he got really excited and started rubbing his thigh vigorously. When I finished what I was saying, he was like “Aye, aye Cuban cigars, rubbed on the thighs of fine young maidens.” Switching gears, I mentioned how I had visited the memorial and the museum, and had seen the murals of Derry. Immediately, excitement returned to his eyes, which then turned into a look of hatred as he made it clear he despised the “feckin' British.” He told me how he had carried the dead body of his friend in his arms, who had been shot in the head by a British bullet. Back in 1973, he was 23, his friend, 20. He continued to tell stories of that day until Rory came back. Just before I left, I shook his hand and whispered “F the British” into his ear, and the crazy look came back into his eyes again.
Once we got to the party a few blocks up the road, I found the fridge and deposited my beer contribution, keeping one to consume then. I tried hide the other cans among the fruit and vegetables and yoghurt, but in my gut, I knew that was a bad idea. When you're a poor student and someone takes your beer, it can ruin an evening. Well, the three beers I left in the fridge did get taken. Anyways, I got over it and started socializing. There were Germans, French, Japanese, Italians, and a Pole there--I think I was the only American. European house parties are different. They seem more intellectual, more mature. It's the kind of partying I want to be doing in 15 years. Not yet though, not yet.
Here's my album from Derry and Belfast
Posted by Andy Steves on October 22, 2008
Alright, so about half way through my semester I noticed something was missing from the study abroad experience. Every weekend, almost everybody would take off in groups ranging from 2 kids all the way up to 30 in every direction. In each group, there was usually somebody who went ahead and made the reservations for hostels, who did the research on flight or train information and basically went through the headache of taking care of all the logistics for going somewhere. For most people, it was their first time in Europe, and yeah they had guidebooks but they weren't geared specifically to them. Most had my dad's, and it's great for art history and orientation walking tours, let's admit it, he lacks a little on the nightlife and hostel listings in his book. Others had Let's Go which tends to be out of date and is packed with hostel and club listings that have shut down years ago.
That's when it occurred to me, there's nothing out there that is targeted specifically to this market, the college student abroad who has exactly from Thursday afternoon when classes get out, till Monday morning when classes resume. We all want to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime experience and to do so, we take advantage of the student discounts for trains and the budget airlines to go to as many different parts of the continent as possible every weekend. So I thought, why don't I start a one-stop all-encompassing free online resource for college students abroad. In it you'll find travel tips for transportation, trip planning, an online forum, itinerary ideas, my personal travel philosophy and my travel blog from the last 4 summers, exciting travel links and more. This site will be packed with the kind of tips and advice we need and can use.
While there's still many broken links and no uploaded itineraries, you should check it out. Let me know what you think along with any suggestions and pass the word along to any one currently abroad or considering it. I just launched it and guess what it's called? I got creative and went with AndySteves.com
Posted by Andy Steves on October 21, 2008