Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Two Posts in Two Days, What Am I Thinking?

Since I apparently think I have some form of spare time (which I absolutely do not, when I think about the amount of class work I have to do at some point soon including a French exam tomorrow morning), I figured I should continue with the updates of my travels.

So here I am, jamming to the new Strokes album, eating Nutella, and trying to remember things I did in February.

After being so surprised by how much I loved Germany, I was ready to try things out in Italy. Elliot, Ellen, and I rented a car

Why yes, I would like to cruise through the mountains in a BMW.
that just so happened to be a Bimmer. Totally, totally fine. When a BMW is the cheapest rental car you can get in Switzerland, I think that really encapsulates how ungodly expensive it is to live here. Zoom in on my empty wallet.

We began our journey to Locarno, Switzerland, which is a very very southern Swiss town that is essentially Italian. And to those who say that getting there is half the fun, they might change that to 3/4 of the fun if they drove through the Swiss Alps. Absolutely incredible.

The weather was perfect, making it literally stunning to look at the white-capped mountains against the clear blue sky. At one point, high in the mountains, we opened the car windows. I have never, ever breathed such fresh air in my life. I will never forget how wonderful I felt in that moment.

We stopped in this tiny town called Trient, just for fun. It was the sleepiest town I've ever seen, and according to Wikipedia, that makes sense with a population of 147. We shoe-skated on their frozen basketball court, visited the church, and were generally in awe of how people live in such gorgeous surroundings.

Tiny town.


Ice rink!
After our detour, we got back on the road but made a few more stops along the way to take pictures and to go into the Sanctuary of the Madonna del Sangue in Re, Italy. Because it only makes sense that in order to get to a Swiss town we had to travel through Italy first?

The Madonna del Sangue, where a painting literally bled in the 15th century. Right.

Finally, after a memorable and treacherous journey along the most narrow road I have ever seen in my life (that just so happened to be perched approximately 4 inches from the cliffs of the mountainside), we reached Locarno. Located in Canton Ticino, I'm pretty sure it is one of the most underrated cities of all time. We stayed at a hotel right on the Piazza Grande, which is home to the Locarno International Film Festival in the summer.

Anything you could ever think about a quintessential northern Italian town, Locarno certainly had to offer. Although we found the nightlife to be a bit lacking (everything closed at 1 a.m.), the beauty and history of the city made up for it. And the food was incredible. We spent the night there and woke up early to explore. We ended up walking around the town for a while and then deciding to climb the mountain to get to the sanctuary of the Madonna del Sasso, a large pilgrimage site.

View of the sanctuary from about halfway there...
View from the sanctuary. Gorgeous.
We also stopped by the Castello Visconteo, a 12th century castle.

Pretty sweet I'd say.
The city itself was basically picture-perfect.

But the lake and the mountains in the background? Breathtaking.

After sunning ourselves by the lake (and doing a massive amount of people watching during which we decided that residents of Locarno are the most chill people ever), we picked up some lunch and got back in the car. The night before, we had decided that we might as well drive down to Milan for the day. I mean, why the hell not?

Lunch: Coke Zero, bread, strawberries, an orange, and Pellegrino. Perfect.
Once in Milan, there were several occasions in which we should have died. Italian drivers truly are insane. But we survived, and stumbled upon a blocks-long Italian street market. We spent most of the day there, but only after we had acquired the best gelato in Milan. My favorite flavor was the chocolate with hot pepper spice: so, so good.

Flower stand at the street market
Mmm foods!

We spent the rest of the day walking around the city, including through the most ridiculous collection of streets in the world: the quadrilatero della moda (the fashion quadrilateral). We walked into Burberry, and it was possibly the most uncomfortable I have ever been. The sharply dressed, hawk-like employees alternated between staring at us and staring at their Burberry-issued iPads, probably keeping track of something like what brands we weren't wearing. After that experience, I stuck to laughing at the absurd prices for shoes and slacks as we window shopped.

Finally, we ended up in the Piazza del Duomo, and of course, the Milan Cathedral. It's the fourth largest cathedral in the world, and the second-largest Catholic cathedral (after St. Peter's Basilica, which I'll get to later on).

Biggest sandcastle in the world?
Exhausted, we began the trek home, which included an extremely expensive trip through the Mont Blanc Tunnel which may or may not have been due to Elliot receiving speeding tickets in both Italy and France... But Ellen and I did make friends with some Italian and French policemen.

One of my favorite weekends thus far. Great company, gorgeous places, delicious coffee at the police station. What more could I ask for?

This Life is Absurd

So. There is really no excuse for my not having posted in over two months.

Oh wait, yes there is.

Since my last post, I have visited 12 different cities in Europe, including but not limited to: Berlin, Milan, London, Rome, Munich, Dublin, and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

It is absolutely not real life to be traversing Europe like this. It's incredible. And mind-blowingly expensive, but I generally just chalk it up to this being the best learning experience of my life so far.

I do not even know where to begin. It seems most logical to begin this update by talking about Berlin. Not only was it the first real trip I took since being in Geneva, it has been my favorite place in Europe so far, by far.

I ventured to Deutschland with Riley, a good friend from the program. He has a friend (Dino) who lives in Berlin, and it made such a difference to be shown around the city by a true Berliner. Although the weather was less than pleasant, I had the time of my life. I fell in love with German food, German beer, and the German people. Although it's hard to pick my favorite part of Berlin, it was incredible to be in a city with such recent, hugely important history. We spent most of our time in the old East Berlin, walking around for hours and hours. Walking under the Brandenburger Tor, especially in the context of taking several classes here about European history, was extraordinary.

Brandenburger Tor at night!
Riley and me in front of Brandenburger on a rainy day. Not sure about the American flag?
I could go on and on and on about Berlin. If I had a chance to live there someday, I would absolutely consider it. But first I have to learn German, which has replaced Mandarin as the next language I want to tackle (after I magically become fluent in French, that is). After hearing German spoken throughout the streets of Berlin, I think it may be my favorite language. There's something so undeniably smart and sharp about it.

Naturally (or as the Germans always say, natürlich), we visited the East Side Gallery, one of the last remaining stretches of the Berlin Wall. Pretty insane to walk along it and think that, less than 25 years ago, people were literally forced to stay within the confines of a 12-foot high wall. People walked to work every day alongside the wall, knowing that life a few feet away was entirely different. I am so proud to have a piece of this wall at the Freedom Center in Cincinnati, and I would encourage anyone to go see it.

Famous Honecker-Brezhnev kiss, famous graffiti.

"Many small people who in many small places do many small things that can alter the face of the world."
So now, almost two months later, Berlin is still easily my favorite city. There’s just too much to love about it. And it’s exponentially more affordable than Genf (the German word for Geneva).

How could anyone not love Berlin with street art like this?
Stay tuned for the next post, which will hopefully come around soon and will probably include some talk about my first adventures into Italia!

For now, I’d just like to end with some current goings-on. At this moment I am kicking myself for not updating on a daily or near-daily basis. Because now, everything is going to be strangely out of order and possibly nonsensical to read. Apologies!

In a few days, I will have been in Geneva (and elsewhere in Europe) for three entire months. It is so hard to believe. Although people said this to me countless times before I left, it truly flies by. As I am closing in on the last month of this study abroad experience, I am missing home (and UC especially!) so much. It’s strange how being in some of the most beautiful, incredible places in the world can make you appreciate how good it is to be home.

But there’s no doubt that I am about to make this last month unforgettable. Although several term papers and exams threaten to put a damper on things, I’m confident I’ll have an absolute blast. I also have major plans to catch up on the rest of my travels and life experiences in the next few days.

As for tomorrow, my International Organizations class is catching the bus over to the World Trade Organization to hear a talk by Dr. Patrick Low, the Chief Economist of the WTO. Dr. Low just so happens to be the professor of another course I am taking here, European Economic Systems. No big deal, right? To be taught by such qualified and prominent people in the realm of international relations is pretty unimaginable. But here I am, living this crazy life.

And absolutely loving it.