Andy Steves Blogs Europe
Hitch an online ride with Andy this summer as he travels Europe!
That night we had a pasta dish with chicken. I'm not sure if it was the altitude...but it was really delicious. We hurried to finish our dinner to meet up with Olle for a “nice evening hike” at about 8pm. There were about 12 of us, all with sleds eager to find out what this hike might be.
Last summer (when I was here helping guide one of my Dad's “family tours”), Olle offered to take some tour members of mine on a “nice hike” which turned out to be eight hours long, so I had a feeling this was going to be an experience. We rode the gondola back up to Murren, where the ski shop and pool were located. Olle took a left out of the station, and we started up the same slopes we had been skiing down for the last two days. As I looked up to the distant lights of the snowcats grooming the distant slopes, I knew it was going to be a long night. We hiked straight up for the next two hours. Once we got up past the small town, I looked up to the stars and heard absolute silence. It was then when I realized how different of a place I was in from Rome. In Europe, you can change your location with a night train to a completely different culture, language, climate and country. This just isn't possible in the US. Once we got to our turn-around point, we looked out into the valley, the town of Murren far far below us. We could pick out the ice rink of the community center and the gondola station. Here, Olle distributed his two “lamps” (as he called his flashlights), and said “Ok then, here we go.” Now we got to reap the rewards of our efforts, and sled down the mountain. It was just us on this newly groomed, pitch black mountainside in the Swiss Alps.
Olle, a seasoned “sledger” had been sledging all his life. He pushed off and disappeared into the darkness and so began our hour-long odyssey back to Gimmelwald. I was the designated back-man with one of the lamps. Everybody else hurriedly pushed off and chased our Swiss friend down the mountainside. Since I was a bigger guy than the rest of the group, I tended to reach a higher cruising speed, and would pass my friends, leaving them in the dark to fend for themselves. Until, of course, I bit it. I quickly noticed a pattern to this chaos. I would slowly build my speed up over time until the track from the snowcat took a turn and I crashed, my sled going one way, and me going another. I still hadn't learned how to steer this thing. As I was pulling together my senses and tracking down the sled, my friends would pass me and I would begin my slow acceleration all over again. We were 12 unskilled drivers of these steel and wooden vessels carrying us at dangerous speeds through the dark and frozen night. I could hear crashes, screams, and laughs ahead of me, but couldn't see anything until it was too late and I ended up in the tangle of limbs, rope, and sleds. As I approached, my lamp revealed more of a cloud of snow than anything else.
About 30 minutes into our descent, the slopes turned steeper, and the turns got a bit tighter. My friend Joe was feeling skillful in negotiating the turns. I heard an “Oh no! Joe! TURN!” ahead of me. Ten seconds later, I came upon the place where the ski path took an abrupt left, and found only his tracks leading off a drop. I turned my lamp down the hill and saw him in a tangle of orange warning tape 30 feet down in powder next to a tree. He was laughing. It was more of an "I-just-escaped-death laugh," which is the best kind. He tossed his sled back up to where we were and struggled up the waist-deep snowbank for the next five minutes. When he got up and brushed himself off he said, “Alright, let's go,” and we continued on our journey.
Finally we arrived to Murren, which was a welcome sight, and passed right through it on our way down to Gimmewald. Usually people would take the gondola at this time of night, but we had these nice rides to do the job. We continued on with my little light. Call me selfish, but I wanted to go fast so I ended up leaving my friends again in the dark. We finally descended into Gimmewald, our final destination and slumped off our low sleds and laughed in the snow. I heard my friend say “For the last 45 minutes, I felt like I was eight again!”
We slept well that night and got up early to get full-day ski passes. It was another glorious day. I took more pictures and ate more bread and Swiss cheese like I'd been doing for the past few days for lunch. In the late afternoon, my friend hit a jump too hard and hurt his knee so he retired early and we followed shortly after.
Back at the hostel, we packed our bags and sadly said goodbye to our hosts. It was one of the best weekends of my life and I had such a great time. We capped it with eating a bacon cheeseburger at the Hooters down in Interlaken while we waited for our night train back to Rome and Monday morning classes. Good weekend.
Here's my album from this weekend: Gimmelwald
Posted by Andy Steves on September 29, 2008
Swiss Alpine peaks on a sunny day is an incredible sight.
We decided to throw on our snow clothes and head up the mountain to rent gear and buy a half-day ski pass.
Fresh powder six inches deep and not a cloud in the sky.
My whole life I've skied at Steven's Pass two hours outside Seattle. Until now, that's all I've ever known, but now I know Steven's Pass is a sorry excuse for a ski resort. That day the slopes were a bit icey and they got slushy later but it was still the best skiing I've ever done. We caught our last run at about 5 and turned in our gear. We were staying at the Pension Gimmelwald with breakfast and dinner included in our room price. We requested cheese fondue for that night to get the cliché Swiss mountain-man meal experience. Delicious. That night we took it easy and massaged our sore muscles and had a few beers at the bar. Unfortunately the hostel in the town closes for the winter.
A storm was predicted for that night and we were worried that it would interfere with our plans for a big day of skiing the next day. Thankfully it cleared up by about 10 a.m., leaving us time to get up and get ready for another half-day of skiing through true beauty. These conditions were better than the day before. Fresh powder six inches deep and not a cloud in the sky. We were feeling a bit braver this day, so we took the lift all the way to the top of the mountain, the Schilthorn. Up there we had our lunch of bread and cheese and a bit of chocolate, the whole time thinking this could be our last meal. We had seen the slope of the Schilthorn from way down the mountainside on our previous runs. It looked like the embodiment of intimidation itself. When we finished eating and watching the 007 movie clips (from the James Bond thriller filmed on this peak in the 1970s) we clomped down the stairs and went out into the fresh and biting Swiss air. It is a bit nerve-wracking when you can't see where the run goes from the top, not because of clouds but because it is that steep. This was my first double diamond, or diamond for that matter. As far as I knew, the run looked like a cliff edge. We had a friend staying behind take a last picture of our smiling faces and we turned our tips downhill.
I felt like Warren Miller who comes out with those crazy extreme-skiing videos every year. I knew one wrong move had the potential to put me in a hospital bed at best and something much sadder at worst. But all of us made it down who attempted the feat. That memory and all the attached emotions like fear, elation, gratefulness, and finally triumph are still vividly in my head. We finished out our day of skiing and turned our gear in again at the ski shop but this time headed up to the sports center in Murren where we jumped into the hot tub. The Swiss really have things worked out. They have a fully equipped community center half way up the mountainside with an ice rink, pool, weight room, cardio room, and meeting rooms. We relaxed in the pool until it was time to catch the gondola back to Gimmelwald for dinner.
Posted by Andy Steves on September 26, 2008
On night trains, you tend to meet characters; strange and interesting characters.
On this train we shared a room with a Korean who spoke four or five words of English. His words: Sake, baseball, beer, military. And he got particularly excited when we mentioned Godzilla. With that, we asked him to watch our things and we joined our friends in a nearby compartment. On our way we met two old men, one a Turk, and the other a Sicilian. One of the things I enjoy most in life is communicating with people in a language different from English. (I can manage in French and Italian.) It shows them that no, you don't think America is the only country on the planet and yes, you are willing to invest your time and energy in learning the language and culture of countries in another part of the globe. This hits people a minute or two into a conversation and I can see it in their eyes as they cock their head to the side and realize, “Here's an American speaking someone else's language.” I like to do my part in breaking down this sadly true-ish perception of Americans. If you can't spend the time to learn a new language, just look up “I don't like Bush,” and you'll have a café-full, bar-full, train-full or wherever-you-are-full of new European friends. From my experience, it works every time…everywhere. In Italian it is “Bush mi fa schifo.” It's a stronger version, but that's OK, don't worry about it.
Anyways, the Turk was a successful fur trader and was on his way to Bern for some kind of business deal or convention. He was a bit shady and liked to talk about expensive prostitutes. The Sicilian was a smiley old man on his way to visit family in Germany. Due to his fear of flying, he was in his 18th hour of train travel out of 30. I could tell he was struggling to translate his dialect into common Italian, as Sicilian is practically its own language. Inevitably the conversation turned towards politics and we started discussing the 2008 presidential campaign. I told them I liked Obama and asked them which they would go for. The Turk would go for Hilary Clinton, but the Sicilian said he liked neither Democrat because one was black which was accompanied by a back-handed rubbing of his jaw line, and the other, a woman accompanied by a different gesture. He would go for McCain. Traditions run deep in Sicily, and new customs aren't easily introduced. We tried to get him to talk about “La Cosa Nostra” or the Mafia, but as most Sicilians will say, they don't know about it. Of course it is still around but good luck trying to get them to discuss it with a foreigner. And by foreigner I mean anyone not a native of their corner of Sicily, let alone the island.
After a while we took a picture and said goodbye to our new friends to join our American classmates in the next compartment. We packed ten in that one: eight sitting on the two lower beds, and two laying in the top ones. It was our friend's birthday that night. It's a sad thing to spend your 21st birthday on a night train but we made sure she had a good time. After several toasts, I returned to our compartmentt with the Korean and passed out.
In the morning, we had to transfer onto a commuter train to Interlaken. From Interlaken, we took a tram to Lauterbrunnen. From Lauterbrunnen, a bus to Schtechelberg. From Schtechelberg, a gondola up to Gimmelwald. Finally we reached our home for the next two nights and began what one of called “the best weekend ever.”
Posted by Andy Steves on September 25, 2008
In St. Mark's Square there were all sorts of characters. Again, this is an example of people taking a hobby a bit too seriously. Costumes were intricately detailed and in every color, shape, and form. There was a family decked out in red lipstick down to the husband, and red velvet all the way down to the stroller for the dog. The good costumes would attract such a crowd they couldn't move--but I think that's what they wanted. There were medieval-looking parades with huge throbbing drums you could hear a mile away. These parades were composed of matching costumes with colors that must have represented something or some neighborhood. You could tell these were somewhat independent and were just wandering through the crowd. After they passed, we killed some more time, and some more Italian youngsters.
Then all the sudden a huge parade, it must have been the main one, came out of nowhere. It was a giant procession that reminded me of a waltzing scene from Amadeus: men walking their women down the middle of the square to where there was a stage opposite St. Mark's Basilica. After that there was something like a procession of each Venetian neighborhoods' most beautiful women. There must have been a beauty pageant, and the winners were sitting in beautiful dresses on planks being carried on the shoulders of six young men. I claimed my spot in the crowd in front of a professional photographer. So I like to think I got some pretty good shots. There were beautiful costumes, strange ones, scary ones and weird ones. The most funky one was a guy dressed fully in a potato sack holding up his own noose with red paint splashed over him. There was no context or anything for this so I just stared along with the rest of the crowd. I also noticed there was a hierarchy of costumes. There were people dressed as knights, as a king or two, as nobles then as peasants. I remember thinking “come on, if you had a chance to be anybody, why the hell would you choose to be common folk?” The hobbies people have. Maybe it's like Civil War reenactments.
We spent the rest of the day chilling on St. Mark's eating out of the grocery store to save some money. Once it got dark, there was a semi-interesting acrobatics show/play on the stage with the actors bouncing off springy boards and climbing a pole to do some tricks. Once it was time, we bid adieu to the piazza and headed back to the station to catch our ride out.
On the night train back to Rome from Venice we skimped and went for shared seat compartments instead of beds. In the station we met three Slovaks headed back to their place outside Venice. Slovaks are interesting people. They are the only people I've met whose eyes light up when you say you're American. And the fact that they still need to ask what nationality an American is attests to how far east they really are. All other Europeans, whether they're French, Italian, or whatever can tell an American a mile off from their blue jeans and white sneakers and roll their eyes probably due possibly to their negative past experiences with American tourists or how offensive our sense of style may be. Slovaks want to learn more about us, and I guess consider us intriguing. We talked until we reached their stop outside of Venice and said goodbye.
Now was the time to “spread out, turn off the lights, take off your shirts and look as creepy as possible” I told my friends. It worked. Because nobody came into our compartment, we stretched out on all six seats all the way back to Rome and had a fine free night's sleep.
Here's my second album from the weekend: Venezia 2
Posted by Andy Steves on September 22, 2008
Enjoying Venice during Carnivale.
We dropped off our bags in our loft-like room and went off to explore the city. Immediately we found a pizzeria just down the street where we would end up eating four of the next five meals. That afternoon we wandered the streets. Everything seemed a little quiet, so we asked around and found out two dockworkers had died earlier that week in an accident so the city cancelled the first day of Carnivale, which was essentially half our weekend. In the end, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of a party scene on the island. I always go to Venice optimistically thinking “maybe I'll find something this time,” but usually never do.
On the other hand, this was the first time since I've been in Italy where the party happened in the daylight. On Saturday we did what you do in Venice: wander. Because the festival activities were cancelled, we just walked around all day. Street vendors were selling silly string and confetti. Having nothing else to do, my friends and I grabbed a few bottles and picked fights with young Venetians. We developed a baiting strategy to render our young opponent “dead” beyond a shadow of doubt. One of us would go out into the square and find some kids with the silly string in hand. He would sneak up behind and wait for an opportune time, then say “Raggazzi!!” and unleash the fury of the green and pink foam. The rest of us would wait on the steps of St. Mark's Square and watch. With victims baited, he would then run back to us where we had our ammunition ready, safety switch off. Once the kids realized they were trapped, outmanned and outgunned, it was already too late. Just check out the pictures.
On Sunday morning we went out to catch a Gregorian Mass out on the island of St. Giorgio Maggiore. We had to get up early, walk across the entire island, and then catch a ferry from St. Mark's. We followed the signs downstairs and into a backroom chapel where we found 20 Italians and a few priests. The one playing piano would fall asleep on it until the one next to him poked him when he was supposed to play. This was the first Italian Mass I'd been to. I could catch most of it, but I was definitely lost when it was the congregation's turn to say the creed and other things. The Gregorian part was pretty cool. I think that just means they sing everything? I don't know but that's what it seemed like. We left the Mass and paid a few euros to go up the bell tower where we had a panoramic view of the entire lagoon. From there, we could see that St. Mark's Square was absolutely packed, so after a few minutes we went back down to catch the boat to the party.
Click here to see my online photo album from Venice venice album
Posted by Andy Steves on September 19, 2008
This is Carnivale. And we're in Venice.
Behind masks, moral restrictions vanish and seem as distant as the Italian mainland is from this miraculously preserved medieval city.
The previous Thursday night, we boarded a night train. The whole trip was in peril for a few moments when we realized our train didn't leave from Termini, Rome's main station, but rather from Tiburtina, Rome's secondary station. We were planning to take the metro to the one, and could have taken it to the other station, but it was closed by 10:45 when we showed up at the Cipro metro stop. So here we were, nine semi-sober, American college kids who needed to get clear across to the other side of the city within 40 minutes in order to catch our night train to the party in Venice. There's the "Oh shit" feeling, then there's the drunk "Oh shit" feeling which is more like a tingling, tickling sensation instead of the stomach-dropping one that you should experience in moments like these. Our €80 tickets, already bought and in-hand, were worthless unless we could make the train. So we started walking down the road to find a taxi or two. In five minutes, one stopped next to us, but wouldn't let us in because he was reserved for someone else. We waved another one down a couple minutes later, but he would only take us in the direction of his house as he was on his way home. The seconds stretched into eternity and I felt the opportunity for a great weekend of fun and "cultural experience" slipping through my fingers. Finally, two empty taxis showed up. We didn't wait to discuss fare or destination before starting to load our luggage in the back. We caught our train with six minutes to spare.
Our transfer at Bologna was at 5:08 in the morning and the train car's conductor usually makes the wake up call. While we were deep in slumber, the conductor burst into our cabin. "Rapido Rapido. Scendete subito! Siamo a Bologna. Veloce!" I had subconsciously felt the train stop in my sleep and immediately jumped out of my bunk fully alert. I landed on a friend of mine who had left her headphones in and was still asleep, and she thrashed like a writhing eel monster that was just rudely awoken. In the frenzy that ensued in our cramped compartment, I threw on my shoes and started tossing my things out the window onto the platform. I told my friends to do the same, and I'd catch their bags on the other side. As I ran out of the train, I caught a smirk in the corner of the conductor's smile. My friends tossed all their things and joined me on the platform. What a ragged group we must have looked like. I had on brown leather shoes, a pair of basketball shorts and an undershirt that was still around my neck.
We expected to see the train take off immediately once we got off. But it waited. And waited some more. It didn't move for another 20 minutes with the smiling conductor waving goodbye from his cabin window. He had done this on purpose. I guess that would be kind of funny to see six "Oh shit" faces in each cabin you had to wake up. It's not funny, however, to be on the receiving end. It was OK though because the party, we thought, would start later that day.
Posted by Andy Steves on September 17, 2008
View of St. Peter's Dome.
A year ago, I had applied to this program in the Notre Dame Study Abroad department. That next March, four months or so later, to my elation, I got my acceptance letter. Notre Dame sends students all over the globe to exchange programs for the semester, a year, or a summer. It's become tougher to get in for Spring semester because most students want to be in Indiana for the Fall semester because of our football program. In Rome, Notre Dame students studied at John Cabot University, located in Trastevere by Ponte Sisto. Our apartments were about a ten-minute walk behind the Vatican. On the taxi ride into Rome, I could already tell four months were going to be too short. I got into an argument with a girl who believed the Vittorio Emanuele monument was the capitol building. It isn't and I'm right and she owes me two drinks but I've never seen her since. Oh well.
Posted by Andy Steves on September 15, 2008
Prague still seems a bit grey, but the people bring color to it
Anyways, this club had techno on the first floor packed with Europeans, the second had more techno, and the third was blasting ‘80s music. Here I met a group of Americans teaching English in Prague who were really digging the Grease soundtrack. The fourth floor had hip-hop with non-Europeans, and there was a load of couches on the fifth. I liked the fourth floor but not too many people were dancing yet so I went up with the Brazilians to take a few rounds of absinthe. It's not hallucinogenic anymore but each shot feels like a smack in the mouth, then a kick in the throat, and then a punch in the chest and finally it just burns in your stomach. Good stuff.
As the night progressed I slowly lost track of the Brazilians until I was ready to take off. So I went back down to the coat check, then out to the bus stop where I had to wait a good 40 minutes before a night bus came. During that time, one of the Brazilians caught up with me and we got on. Our hostel was a little bit outside of downtown and this bus' route got there in a roundabout way. At one stop in the absolute middle of nowhere, another Brazilian hopped on. In an inebriated state, random reunions with friends on the way home is a great thing. Stories are shared and experiences recounted. Apparently he left with a girl, but I forget if there was a happy ending or not.
I spent my last couple nights in Prague back at Hansa's where I hung out and detoxed. I never really got over jet lag because I kept staying out until 4 or 5 each night. I left Prague with a new, at least partial, understanding of another culture. The Czech people have a violent history, they've had a communist economy, the actually reminisce about the communist times as a time where everyone had what they need. Now life is more rushed, more hectic and people are caught up in the rat race because they now see what they can have. My Czech friends tell me that they didn't used to be jealous of the West but instead just watched capitalism with a passive eye. Now, they can have the Lamborghinis and nice suits and high-tech cell phones. They just have to work for it. The city itself still seems a bit grey but the people bring color to it. People give their seats on the tram to old women but do so without a smile. I would love to have a good understanding of every culture in the world but I know it's impossible and I need to pick and choose and the Czech one goes deep. I'll be back I'm sure.
Check out my photo album here: Prague Album
Posted by Andy Steves on September 04, 2008
View of Prague.
The dirtiest ‘stache I've ever seen.
I came over to Europe a week before school started in Rome. Destination: Prague, the land of cheap beer and absinthe and of course, a rich culture. After I picked up my bags at the airport, I headed outside to the bus stop to wait for the 71 express bus. A bus passed by me, and as my tired eyes focused on its back end, I saw “71 EXP.” So I went back inside for my first pint of Pilsner Urqell. I ended up paying the equivalent of $3 for it, for which I caught much grief from the friend I stayed with later that night). I caught the next bus and eventually made it out to my friend's house just outside of Prague. Hansa picked me up at the bus stop and walked me back in the frigid Czech air back to his house. He had been redoing the house for months, which was supposed to be done months ago. However, the illegal Slovakian immigrant workers would come and go and nothing was being done, so Hansa's father took over as contractor and things were finally starting to move along.
After a simple dinner, I went out to a bar with Hansa for a few drinks. Called The Old Well, the bar was built around the old well of the neighborhood. Over six beers (at $1 each), we discussed Czech culture and history, American politics, the weather, and other things until I came close to falling asleep on the table. We took the tram back and crashed.
I spent the third night in Sir Toby's Hostel, where I met a couple interesting Chileans who, from the moment I met them would not stop talking about having sex with goats. I'm not joking, but I'm 70% sure they were. One had the dirtiest ‘stache I've ever seen, he never smiled in any of my photos, and could creep out any girl with the slightest glance. His friend never put down the hood of his hoodie sweatshirt. That being said, I've never met a funnier pair of kids. They were on a tour of Europe for a couple of months before they planned on heading back to Chile. I asked to see their planner of where they were heading and the one with the mustache pulled out a matchbook, popped it open and said “you have to squint” as he passed it to me. It was a calendar on the inside of a match book with X's and O's on random dates apparently with meanings attached. I, an outsider to this code, could not interpret it and I handed it back.
The Chileans and I shared the same room in the hostel. There was another older American man in our room, and I couldn't stand him. He liked to talk like a British textbook. I don't like the British accent and I don't like listening to people who like to hear themselves talk.
With the Chileans, the first night we hit the tequila and beer hard and made our way to a discoteca near to our hostel. As we came closer, it became evident that the deep thumping we could hear was emanating from an old converted mansion. There was a rumor that there was a cover, so in my inebriation, I scaled the wall of the place and climbed into a window on the third floor. I'm not usually that acrobatic—it must have been the $2 tequila. I met up with my Chileans ten minutes later after wandering down the labyrinth of hallways and stairs that would have been scary if I was a girl. I went down and down to the basement where the walls were covered with what looked like old computer circuit boards lit up with LEDs and populated with swirling servos. I really liked this relatively small place. In the bar room, the ceilings were about 12 feet high with seats opposite the bar all the way down the wall. On the seating side though, a second floor was packed in so on the lower level, you took a step down into the booths or you could head up the staircase at the end and walk, hunched over, down the row to find some open seats. The next room was the dance floor where the music was deafening and any American would need as many drinks as I had had to dance to it. I did.
That night I met someone interesting. Occasionally you come across a person that takes certain things too seriously, but whether their passion is bowling or ice-skating or roller skating, it's great to see them in their element. Bowlers show up with an arsenal of balls for different scenarios. Roller skaters show up with shorts that would have been in style 30 years ago. And ice-skaters are well, ice-skaters. Well, that night I met a girl that took clubbing too seriously. I saw her come in fashionably late, wearing a bright red sport jacket, with bleached and dreadlocked hair. She made an appearance on the dance floor and headed to the bar to wait for all the horny guys to buy her drinks. I was at the point where I would talk to anybody so I approached her to see if she was as interesting as she looked. After two minutes, I learned she definitely wasn't. She was more interested in looking down her nose from the bar stool and having me buy her a drink. So I didn't and headed back to find the Chileans. They were still talking about goats.
Posted by Andy Steves on September 04, 2008
Andy and the Steves family pose for a photo at Notre Dame.
This is my collection of experiences, thoughts, conclusions, and insights into this beautiful continent where I spent five months of my life in 2008. I had no plans set in stone except my flight back to the states. Hope you enjoy reading the chronicles of my travel experiences during my semester abroad.
Posted by Andy Steves on September 02, 2008