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Andy Steves Blogs Abroad — Part 1

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!

Wrapping up this blog and looking ahead

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


That's All, Folks!

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


Graduation and Nearly Not Flying Home

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 didn't plan to stay out late that night. But I followed the group of kids to the Navigli bar and had a few drinks. It was getting late, but there was talk of a disco excursion, so I stayed on for that. It was two Brazilian girls and I, and the taxi ride turned out to be something like €20 each way. We got there a little before one in the morning. I made sure we left at about 3:00 a.m. because I hadn't even started packing yet.

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


Aiding the Russians

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


The Domus Academy and a Rihanna Concert

As my plane landed back in Milan from Dublin's airport, applause erupted in the cabin and I knew I was back in Italy. It was good to be back. Between the airport and my hostel, I could feel it was a bit more organized compared to Rome and the South, but there was still the subtle chaos of life that Italians thrive on.

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.

On Tuesday, I saw a flyer for a free concert that night put on by MTV Italia out in front of the Stazione Centrale, creating an interesting contrast between this modern party and the fascist architecture behind it. Rihanna was the headliner in the concert and I watched among the Italians in all their jean-shorts glory. Before the concert starter, I went down the street to get some beers. After each city block from the event, I noticed, the price per bottle drops about 50 cents. So I walked three and got three Heinekens for €3.50 each instead of the street vendor in the middle of the crowd selling for an even €5. The concert progressed through first an Italian rapper, and then an Italian pop/country singer who seemed to be quite popular, I realized that it's times like this when I'm glad I don't have epilepsy. The strobe lights and thumping bass were intense to say the least. Rihanna came on at 11:00 p.m. and rocked the show and everybody there with no shortage of hip gyrations and other fun gestures.

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.

 

Posted by Andy Steves on December 19, 2008


Derry, Belfast and the Orange Marches

I had four days off between my units in London and Milan, and I decided to go back to Dublin. There I met back up with Stephen McPhilemy, and we went up to Belfast for the Orange marches. In Northern Ireland, there's what's known as the marching season. It is where all the Protestants get together, bang drums and march down the street to commemorate a military victory hundreds of years ago (or intimidate the Catholics, depending how you look at it), and assert themselves as the best around, as Stephen explained to me on the train ride up. I had heard of the Troubles and seen the walls running through the neighborhoods in Derry and Belfast on my last visit, but during this visit the tension was palpable. When I told my dad where I was going that weekend, he said "you'll see parents teaching their kids how to hate." There was nothing happy about this long series of marching band after marching band that the northern Protestants claim will one day be a major tourist attraction.

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.

Shortly after we got back on the train, we heard about minor scuffles up in Belfast later that night. Witnessing the marches was something I wanted to do, and I'm glad I went, but it's not something I'd ever go back to or really find uplifting at all. It was more one of those experiences one would call educational or parents would call character-building.

 

Posted by Andy Steves on December 17, 2008


Central St. Germain's School of Design

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.

Over the past several years, I've avoided England in my independent travels based on the prohibitive cost of everything there. Everything from a sandwich and a coffee to a stay at a hostel seems to cost about double than it does anywhere else. I definitely skimped on food for the day, making sure to always eat the included breakfast and dinner at my hostel, edible but not quite delicious. At breakfast, there were always vegetarian sausages made by people who seem determined to make it just as unhealthy as its meaty counterpart.

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.

I kept wandering and hung out in Picadilly Circus for a bit, what seemed to me the Times Square of Britain. On my way back, I stumbled across a classy cigar lounge where I splurged and got a £13 (that's $20) Partagas No. 4 D. I decided to smoke-in and I chilled with two Londoners and an Italian. The conversation swirled around the Wimbledon tennis tournament, design and my strange combination of majors, and Cuba's main export.

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.

The only regret of my time in London (and I'm guessing the time you'll read about next in Milan) is my lack of time for sightseeing in this world-class city. Each day I would wake up early, eat a quick breakfast, hop on the public transit to school, spend all day there, and return back to my place after all the museums had closed. The evenings involved me eating dinner, maybe working out, and working on my homework, with an occasional pint or drink mixed in.

 

Posted by Andy Steves on December 15, 2008


Back to the Land of Cows and Chocolate

I decided to return to Gimmelwald to see the place where I skied in January. I stayed in Gimmelwald for four or five nights, which is a longer stay than most at this hostel. Most kids coming through would stay only about two nights. This allowed me to witness two rotations of guests during my stay, meeting and learning the stories of many fellow students with diverse backgrounds and interesting experiences to share. I prefer to stay under the radar as far as my last name is concerned when I travel. In a place like Gimmelwald, Switzerland, as in the Cinque Terre though, it is almost impossible to escape the all-consuming shadow of Rick Steves. I like to go out and meet people and have them meet me for who I am and not the son of someone else.

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.

I ended up finding a bed in the Valley Hostel. I asked for a beer as I checked in and they said, "This is a quiet hostel." Remember how I had a fun hostel in Istanbul? Well this is one of the ones where nobody talks to each other. In fact, it felt more like a morgue than anything else. The multitudes of unsmiling Asian passport pictures around the reception set the tone. In the dining room, you heard only the sound of forks hitting plates. A Korean couple stared at each other while slurping their noodles without saying a word, an American uploaded pictures, and another read an old Rick Steves guidebook. Silent. I went to the bathroom to wash my face, and when I opened the door to leave, I encountered an Asian girl trying to get in. She saw me, made a sound like a mouse squeak, and scampered off. It was terrible, and I couldn't sleep because I don't trust technology (my clock), and needed to make sure I got up early in the morning to catch my train out of Interlaken. I left the hostel at 6:30 a.m. hoping never to see it again.

 

Posted by Andy Steves on December 12, 2008


Istanbul: Where Europe Meets Asia

I got up early Tuesday and caught the underground out to Athens airport and caught my flight to Istanbul. It was a long day, and once I found the hostel, I crashed on the bed for the rest of the evening. I scoped out the hostel when I woke up. It turned out to be a labyrinth of different floors, where some staircases didn't lead to the same floors. There was a terrace on top with giant beanbags and many chairs with a bar serving drafts, kebabs, and nargilis (water pipes). You come across different types of hostels when you travel. There's ones where nobody leaves their room, and others where everybody hangs out together and meets people from around the world and share great experiences. Thankfully, this was the latter, and I was happy to have found this place.

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.

On Friday, we took a ferry up the Bosphorus Strait to the entrance of the Black Sea. I would never have guessed Turkey to be so green and vividly colorful. I think I was expecting something closer to a desert. But the ferry ride was an interesting and cheap way to sightsee. It dropped us off on the Asian side of the river for lunch.

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.

On Sunday, my last day in Istanbul, I made my way over to the Asian side to find the Red Bull Flugtag. All week I had been seeing flyers for this goofy event where people make crude "planes" out of cheap construction supplies like PVC, various fabrics, duct tape, and paper. They take these contraptions, set them up on wheels, and run them off a ramp to see how far they get. It's a call back to the first attempts at flight a hundred years ago. It was packed and it took a while to find a good viewpoint. I'm a bit taller than most Turkish people, but all the kids-on-shoulders made a veritable human forest to look through. After a few flights, it became clear this event was overrated and stretched out with actual action taking only a small fraction of the time, and the obnoxious MC taking up the rest.

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.

 

Posted by Andy Steves on December 10, 2008


To Greece!

Last night I couldn't sleep. I woke up at 2:40, 4:30, 5:30, and 7. I was not about to miss this flight to Greece and my distrust of technology evidenced itself this night. It was finally time, so I rolled myself out of bed and shoved the last of my things into my rucksack. I shut my door, rode the elevator down and handed in my keys for the last time. As soon as I left Rome for the last time, I felt my keen observatory and mental note-taking tendencies slipping away. It was summer and now it was time for the real vacation to start. All I really wanted to do over the next week was eat Greek salads and gyros, and try this fabled Ouzo. Oopha!

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

Day 3: Mykanos
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

Day 8: Athens
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

 

Posted by Andy Steves on December 08, 2008


One Ending and Another Beginning

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


Dinner at Mikki's and a Swiss-Guard Induction Ceremony

I knew I had to go back to Miscellania, the rustic little restaurant that became our student hangout, have dinner, and see its crazy owner, Mikki, one more time this semester before it was over. I saved my last meal at Mikki's for the last Sunday in Rome. I met up with a friend and his girlfriend from back in Seattle and showed them around Rome a little. For dinner, we ended up at Miscellania near the Pantheon. Mikki speaks in such a thick Roman dialect that I always have a hard time understanding him, and it makes me feel like I'm back in Italian 101. A typical conversation of ours switches back and forth between his broken English and my broken Italian many times. This guy is never without an inappropriate comment around your friends and family once you get to know him. This time he said "I see Andy, with three girls, in bathroom last week, here" through his trademark squinty smile. It's never too awkward because you're laughing too hard for any silence to follow. Anyways, he took me aside later and offered me two tickets to the induction of the latest class of Swiss Guards into the Vatican City to which I immediately RSVP'd yes.

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.

 

Posted by Andy Steves on December 03, 2008


Savoring Our Last Days in Rome: A Thoughtful Walk and a Progressive Dinner

At the start of the semester, it seemed it would last forever. Today it occurred to me that I wouldn't be making my long walk to school many more times. I walked listening to Scarborough Fair by Simon & Garfunkel. My route originates near the Cipro metro stop and I followed the wall of the Vatican City, cut through the Piazza di San Pietro, and continued through some back streets and south along the Tiber River the rest of the way to school.

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


The Cinque Terre: Another Way to Say "Paradise" in Italian

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.

On Saturday afternoon, after some delicious granitas at the Sicilian bar in Vernazza, a few friends and I returned to a spot we had scoped out the day before. We wanted to cliff-jump, but there was no way to get down to the good spot.

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


Rome's Ice Bar, Catching My Train, and the Bike Delivery

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


A Tour of the Excavations under St. Peter's

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