Thursday, June 30, 2011

Breaking off [a piece of that KitKat bar]

It's 5 am and I'm eating a KitKat bar so you know what that means - a traveling day! This morning I fly from Belgrade to Rome and take the train on to Florence. Last night was the first night I couldn't sleep because I was so excited/nervous. Plus I had 4 caffeinated drinks yesterday, which if you were in a 5 mile radius of me, you know was too many.

Moreso than any of the other countries thus far, Italy is where I've dreamed and talked about traveling forever. While I may have imagined showing up at the doorstep of the DiMarino's and being welcomed with open arms and meatballs, I still hope to get a small taste of how some of my ancestors lived. And mostly what they ate. Hopefully the thought of fitting into a bridesmaid's dress when I get back will curb my appetite somewhat but I do foresee lots of pasta, gelato and pizza in the coming week.

My stomach is also a little queasy (maybe the KitKat was a bad idea) because this will be the first part of the trip where I'm on my own. Rebecca left last night to continue on her own trip to Pristina before returning to London. While it may seem a little strange that I started with Eastern Europe and am now proceeding to the Western countries, I do think starting out with a guide/partner was a good warm-up for the solo portion. The country order followed that schedule.

I had a nice reminder of home this morning when my cabdriver chatted up a storm (luckily in English) about his 23 year old daughter who had just gotten her Masters in computer science. He made me think of my Dad and how he's constantly talking to his colleagues and customers about my brother and I. Of course the cabbie brought up Chelsea Handler because EVERYONE in Serbia is talking about her comments following the disaster known as Amy Winehouse. Chelsea, if you're reading this (and I know you are) don't come to Serbia. Ever.

Style alert! Being the cutting edge fashionista that I am, I try to keep up to date everywhere I go and in the case of Europe the hottest new trend is...drumroll...MC HAMMER PANTS. You didn't see that one coming, did you? Neither did I and I've done a double-take about 50 times thinking, is that girl wearing pajamas? Oh wait, no, they severely taper at the bottom, they're just your standard, run of the mill MC Hammer pants. Totes normal.

Off to Italia!

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPhone

Monday, June 27, 2011

Vacation from my vacation

Last Friday, just a couple hours after arriving in Belgrade, I was given the opportunity to head out to the countryside for the weekend and I jumped on it. A friend of Rebecca's was venturing out to the Iron Gates on the Danube River. Of course I'd never heard of this place but the Wikipedia photos alone would've convinced you to join, too. The invitation was extended to Rebecca and myself but she had work to do and people to see in the city. I felt a bit intrusive by asking to go on my own with someone I'd met that night and someone I'd never met before but my desire to get a bit of peaceful nature outweighed any shyness.

And I'm so glad it did! The majority of the trip was made up of absolutely breathtaking views of mountain cliffs, enormous expanses of river and simple rural beauty. At times we encountered the less-than-beautiful, like desolate towns or reminders of a not-so-distant socialist past but I was equally grateful for both. I never would've gotten such a complete view of Serbia if I'd stayed in the city.

And I never would've had the opportunity to see any of it without my travel companions, Heleen and Selbi. Though we stuck out like 3 crayons in a box of number 2 pencils, their language skills and travel experience were absolutely indispensable to a trip outside the main city. Seriously. For some reason people don't take to me staring and expecting them to read my mind. And/or just speaking in English.

We leisurely wound through backroads and stumbled upon a gorgeous monastery that was home to 3 nuns and 7 German shepherds (love that nun:dog ratio), a very peaceful open air gallery atop a mountain, ruins from a 14th century castle and of course many places to bask in the views of the Danube.

We elected not to stay in the depressing 1980's hotel in town and instead opted to rent a room in a private home. We awoke to the sounds of goats, chickens, pigs and puppies and this was the view from our room, all for about $10 per person.

Just across the river lies Romania and I seriously contemplated making the swim simply so I could add another country to my list. I'm slowly becoming one of those greedy passport stamp hoarders.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Mamma No Mia

You know how they say if you write something down you can manifest it into existence? I think the exact opposite applies to me. Every time I write an email about a plan or enter an event into my calendar it ends up not happening. As such were the mopeds and thus the Mamma Mia sites. Apparently they won't rent mopeds to you if you don't have any experience on them which begs the do you get experience if you can't rent one? So we spent another day on the beach, shopping and watching The Hangover 2 in an open air cinema. I can't say a gorgeous white theater filled with vines and flowers was a fitting venue for such a fine cinematic production but it was fun nonetheless.

I can't believe it's our last night in Greece already. Tomorrow we take nearly every mode of transport known to woman (ferry, bus, subway, plane and taxi) to eventually arrive in Belgrade, Serbia. Why Serbia you ask? The simple answer is that my friend and travel guide, Rebecca, lived there for awhile on assignment from her DC based NGO. This will be the second country on the trip where I not only don't speak the native tongue but also have no idea what the city or culture are like.

It's one thing to travel in a place where you don't speak the language but another thing to do so where you can't even read the words. Super savvy traveler that I am, it somehow slipped my mind that Greek uses a different alphabet than we do. Of course I've seen decorations at Greek restaurants in the US that use these letters but I always figured these symbols were relics from an ancient time. Little did I know I'd soon be reading signs and saying, "Uh, I'm looking for a taxi to Zigzag line - tabletop thing - um, crossed out O? - tiny p......please." If you have any plans to visit a remote area of Greece, I'd recommend at least learning the alphabet so you can say the words aloud. And some standard greetings, "thank you" and "cheers" will get you pretty far. Before you leave for a trip, download some of the great free iPhone apps that will equip you with the basics of nearly every language. (I assume everyone has an iPhone these days. No?)

As I say farewell to Greece I'll leave you with my artistic rendering entitled "Skiathos at Dinnertime." (click through to actual blog if you're reading on facebook and there's no photos) They have a serious stray cat problem. But no mice!

Observation of the day: Visiting this island has afforded me an interesting, outside perspective on how much vacation destinations cater to tourists. I say outside because they're not catering to American taste, but rather that of Brits and mainland Greeks. So while I'm used to seeing generic American foods like hamburgers and pizza at say Caribbean and Mexican resorts, here they offer fish and chips, waffles and crepes. EVERYWHERE. And while I think, "why would I ever eat a waffle on the beach in Greece?" others are soothing their irritated bellies with the comforts of home. And of course feeding picky children.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Travelin' ain't easy

A long, hellish busride yesterday that ended with the sorest bum I've had in a long while (and I used to ride horses for hours on end!) had me about ready to throw in the towel on my whole trip. I was forced to sit in the bus's aisle because of a ticketing mistake and wasn't even able to make a case for a seat because I didn't speak their language. My mood eventually lightened given a few hours to wallow and plush leather ferryboat seats that effectively revived my bruised bottom. After the ferry pulled in and we began to wander the gorgeous white winding alleyways of Skiathos I wondered how I could ever dream of not continuing on this trip. This island is simply breathtaking in its easy beauty. The atmosphere is much more relaxed than busy Thessaloniki, more like a Caribbean island minus the crowds and plus lots of Greek restaurants. Long term foresight during emotional situations is not one of my strengths and I'm hoping the difficult times on this trip will help me improve that. Thank goodness I didn't make a rash decision and miss out on this. I hope to not forget how lucky I am to be doing this.

We spent today beachhopping, lounging, daydrinking and of course eating lots of Feta. Tomorrow we plan to rent mopeds to explore the island, a few more beaches and of course the church from Mamma Mia! The whole movie (I believe) was filmed here and I'm not ashamed (okay maybe a little) to say I saw it in theaters and dreamed of one day visiting a similar place. The fact that I came to the exact island is pure coincidence. I swear.

Observation of the day: Greeks smile much less than Americans do. If I smile as the waiter is approaching they will greet us in English. If not, it'll be Greek. I wouldn't say they're necessarily less happy, they just don't express it on their faces as often as Americans do.

Currently reading: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. I'm not enjoying it and not sure if I'll make it through. I finished Tina Fey's Bossypants a couple days ago and it was great. Book recommendations welcome!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Merry Departure's Eve!

It's the night before I leave for Europe for 6 weeks and it still hasn't quite sunk in. I'm staying with my parents in New York State so it mostly just feels like a summer during college or a long weekend away from DC. Maybe it'll hit me on the plane? Maybe it'll be 3 weeks before it really sinks in. Technology makes it so easy to check in these days that maybe it'll never feel like I'm really gone at all! I can even check on our dog via the webcam at her daycare. And yes, she's still adorable even on a low res webcam.

Everyone I've talked to has been so supportive of my choice to take this time off. I had been worried that people would judge me as young and fickle for quitting my job or naive for thinking I could travel alone and that's probably what's kept me from doing it for the past 3 years. That and the whole "finding a new job" thing but I had finally gotten to the point where I didn't care anymore. I didn't care what people thought and I didn't care how hard it was to find a new job, I just couldn't keep going the way things were anymore. Anyone who says, "I'd die to work from home!" has never done it for 2 years in a place where they have no roots (aka friends). But desperation can also be a really freeing place to be. Suddenly you can do anything in the world, free of judgment and pressure.

So here I am. Tomorrow starts a new adventure and a new chapter of my life in which I get to step out into the world, see places I've only dreamed about and interact with people I would never normally have the opportunity to meet. World, meet Shmoni.