Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Europe and Back Again

For the past several days I've been standing by in Baghdad, waiting for a flight back to Baqubah to continue that glorious mission there. I'm already harking back to the days of leave, where for fifteen days I was in a foreign place with no direction or clue.

We got off the train at our destination and just simply wandered around for a hotel, with our ever present and ever heavy bags with us. We landed at the Frankfort Airport, and the first thing we did was exchange a few hundred dollars into euros. The next thing was Eurail tickets. But that would be my first roadblock. Immediately my bank saw a suspicious transaction when I used my card to get cash. They suspended my card by the time it took me to find the Eurail desk and buy a ticket. Luckily, I brought $400 in cash and paid for it that way, then called my bank to straighten it out. Success! I was nearly stranded. I thanked the nice bank lady and Steve and I were off to Amsterdam, a few hours away.

We found a cheap hotel, dropped our bags and started exploring. Armed with a free but terrible tourist map, we walked around the old town, wandering along canals that cut through the city. When night came we were vain in our efforts to find the famous Red Light District, but decided the next night would be ours. We awoke early, or at least I did. Our receipt proclaimed a free breakfast included in the price, so I made my way downstairs, daydreaming of eggs, bacon and donuts the size of sewer lids. To my absolute horror, I discovered the ingredients of a European breakfast: a piece of bread, a slide of cheese, jelly, butter, orange juice and coffee or tea (your choice!). Realizing my Grand Slam breakfast will never be realized, I finished the snack and climbed into what was to become the most spacious shower on the continent. Out the door, we walked in the direction of Anne Frank's house. And we found it, along with a huge group of school kids on a field trip. After an hour we made it in, and in a few words, it was bigger than I thought. It was a nice tour though. From Anne Frank's house to the Pancake House, where we discovered a new kind of pancake. Very thin, very cooked, very good. And more tea! Next was the Van Gogh Museum, which featured not only his works but those of his contemporaries. I can't appreciate paintings on the scale of some people, but it was pleasant to walk through. Next to the museum was a large, large park where kids wondered around holding hands, playing soccer and kicking back. We decided to sit down on a rolling green hill. I quickly decided that Amsterdam was the most liberal, relaxed, don't-give-a-shit place I've ever been. It made Seattle look like a 1920s Southern Baptist potluck. It was definitely refreshing. We stayed there a good hour until we decided to head back. We detoured to find the Holland Casino, since me and Steve are gamblers in our own right. We decided it was worth a shot to hustle some Europeans in some blackjack. This was our first of many problems we encountered due a lack of passport. They wouldn't let us in without one. There wasn't a way to get one in Iraq, and we were told our military IDs would be good enough everywhere. But alas, that wasn't the case.

Nighttime fell! We were tipped off on the location of the Red Light District and headed that way. A few blocks from our hotel, it became so obvious: red lights, literally, throwing a crimson glow on several city blocks. Approaching, we saw several prostitutes in the windows like they were designer handbags. Some surprisingly good looking, some vaguely mannish. As you walk by, they'll tap the glass to get your attention. If you ignore some, they will slam it hard in defiance. Looking down the street, you can see several customers walking into the rooms behind the glass, which simply contain a bed, chair and sink. Not very romantic. On the strip, we stopped in a locally famous bar called The Bulldog, where I had my first beer as a twenty one year old. It was a Heineken on tap. We bounced around the district for a little more, heading back to the hotel late. We decided to leave for Paris the next day. Goodbye Holland, you were good to us!

Immediately, Paris was not agreeable. We found out on our way that some trains required reservations to ride on them, on top of the cost we already paid on the ticket. So we were hit with a twenty one euro penalty for not reserving a seat. No matter, onto The City of Lights.

We got off the train in the late afternoon, with a terribly complex map. It took us awhile to get the hang of this place. We started to find hotels on our walk away from the station, but they were all too expensive. Farther still, there were no hotels left. My dad told me that the only thing a Parisian hated more than an American talking to them in English was an American trying to talk to them in French. Quickly, I found that out. Hoping locals would be just as helpful as the Dutch, I asked a lady passing by if she knew of a close hotel. I said "madam, pardon, si vou plait" but she stared straight ahead as if I were a ghost. Or worse, and American tourist! We decided to press on for another half hour. Soon, I found out what it was like to be John Cusack. Out of nowhere it started to pour rain. So far you suck, France! I walked into a police station, pleading with them to point me in the direction of a hotel, any hotel. Around the corner we were led to a place. 95 euro a night? We'll take it! By the way, the euro is stronger than the U.S. dollar. Argh.

We slept off our frustration, and in the morning, saw it was still raining. We went down to breakfast, and my lowered expectations found a not-so-bad meal. We checked back into the room, and they asked us if we had breakfast. Well, of course we did. And shockingly that was extra. Eight euro extra to be exact. Ugh. It continued to rain and rain into the afternoon. We almost decided to blow France off completely and go to Belgium, but some time after three, the rain cleared up. Looks like France got another shot. We walked briskly toward Notre Dame in the light drizzle and decided it was wise to get a jacket. We stopped in a store and I bought a nice black one for a good price. We got to Notre Dame and saw the outside but neglected the tour. On to the Pantheon, which we did tour. Slowly we made our way to the Eiffel Tower but stopped at a skyscraper about a mile from it.

They allowed tourists to go to the top of the building, which offered a very nice panoramic view of the city. It was getting dark, so we walked toward the Eiffel Tower, wondering how different the city would look at night. Of course, there was a huge mob of a line that took an hour or two. Finally, we began to go up. There's really no way to describe it. It's high. And it was dark. I really wanted to find where Hitler stood when he took that famous picture in front of the tower. Around midnight, we began our long walk back to the hotel. We decided two days of Paris was enough. We chanced upon the Lourve, which was really close to the hotel. Oh well, we missed you, Mona Lisa.

Caen was our next stop, a nice city in Normandy. I was a WWII history buff in my past life, and Caen was a famous city that saw huge battles. The mood in Normandy was great compared to Paris. Another rumor come true. We spent a few days there, walking around the Chateau Decal. We enjoyed the city long enough for me to find out how to make it to the Normandy beaches, some miles away. We booked a tour guide to meet us the next day. They'd take us from the Caen Memorial Museum straight there for a five hour tour for seventy euro! A steal really.

Starting in the afternoon, we arrived at the partial gun batteries on the very east side of the coast. Huge artillery pieces were still left, somewhat intact. On the shore lay a few scattered strips of the harbor that was constructed early in the invasion, becoming the busiest port in the world in a matter of days! We moved down the beach to Omaha, the bloodiest of them all. I pocketed a rock left in the sand as a memento. We drove farther still to Point Du Hoc, where the Rangers scaled the cliffs to destroy guns there. It was almost too much for a history nerd like myself. The tour ended there. The nice guide offered to drop us off near our hotel. That was our last night in Caen, and in France. A bittersweet country.

We were at about our halfway point when we decided, shit, we might as well spend the rest of our time in Rome. In our hotel room in Caen, we planned for hours the schedule we'd take for the remainder of our trip. Our best bet was to head to Geneva for a night, then Milano, Italy and spend the night there, going to Rome the next day.

The Swiss were not as friendly as we hoped.

We had to get through customs to stay in Geneva, and we were stopped and questioned. They were unhappy about our lack of passports and told us we couldn't get into Switzerland without one. Sorry, go back to France (a place that started to look friendly by comparison!). We pleaded our case, telling them we were just passign through to Italy, and that we were on vacation from Iraq. Their hearts grew ten sizes that day, and they let us in. Here is what I learned about their country: they use Swiss Francs, not euros! Silly Swiss! And they sell beer at McDonalds! We left the next morning, and on the way I stopped by a post office to mail my first round of postcards.
As a thank you, they gave me a piece of complimentary Swiss cheese, which happens to be my favorite kind. Way to go, Switzerland. You're now better than France. But goodbye, onto Italy!

Like Paris, Milano was not a good city to start the longest part of our stay, Italy. It was a lot hotter there, and even harder than Paris at hotel locating. When we found one at a decent price, they politely asked for passports. We didn't have any, we explained. Oh no, that is not good enough, said the mean lady. I wanted to tell her my ID was good enough to get into her country, but she spoke little English. We decided it was a hostile city and had an idea: get an overnight train to Rome. It'd cost us, though. About as much as a decent hotel. But oh, better than staying in Mean Milano. It was four in the afternoon, and the overnight train left at 11pm. Oh, what to do? We went to the train station and found a bookstore with a slim English book section. If you think pickins are slim at an American airport, try an Italian train station. I bought a mystery thriller about the death of Edgar Allen Poe that kept me occupied until our train left. Eight hours and we'd be in Rome.

We learned our lesson and checked ahead for places to stay while in Milano, and found some places we couldn't before: hostels. We went to one upon arriving in Rome but it was full. But they pointed us in the direction of a laundromat that rented out dorm rooms. Enchanting. We got there and booked for five nights in a coed dorm. Free Indian food dinner every night, the ticket proclaimed! We passed up the kebab and tried authentic Italian pasta. Weirdly, it was difficult to find a real, sit down restaurant in Europe. It's all about tiny, hip cafes. Luckily we found a nice place with cheap prices. Quickly, our dorm filled up. There were three rooms with five or six beds apiece and they were nearly all taken. We had some Canadians, some locals, Dutch girls, a trio from Ecuador and an Irishman. We were joined by an American girl living in Spain and her German friend she met in Barcelona. They were kind enough to invite us on a trip to Vatican City the next day.

We woke up early to beat the crowd, taking a bus cross-city. We walked around St. Peter's Square and into the church, which housed plenty of art and statues of all the past popes. After a quick walkthrough, we decided to swing around to the Sistine Chapel. It was eight in the morning when I saw the biggest line of my life, one that spanned four blocks. It was so big we couldn't see the end because it took several turns around corners. Steve tried to find the beginning of it but came back without seeing it. I decided on the brave notion of seeing the start, so I timed myself to see how long it took. Nine minutes and thirty-six seconds later, I returned. The line was longer than we thought. It was four hours until we made it in. The chapel is actually at the end of the tour, with countless paintings, murals and statues before it. When we finally got to the famous room Michaelangelo painted, there is forced silence and rules against picture taking. Scoff! In the crowd, I found the scene of God reaching out to Adam, knelt down to where the guards couldn't see, and took a picture. I'm sure it was a common practice. I took a few more and shuffled out with Steve (we had lost our two new friends near the entrance, but found them outside). They were meeting some friends outside Vatican City, so we excused ourselves and headed back to the hostel and rested after a long day.

The next day started with the Pantheon, the original building the one in Paris was modeled after. It is said the builders of the Paris Pantheon never saw the real deal, they just had sketches. Impressive I thought. It was Easter, so a lot of things were closed. So we merely passed by a lot of momuments and made it back early. Even though it was called rest and relaxation, we hardly rested or relaxed on our whole trip. We rarely took a bus or subway, walked for miles, and spent all day out. So we took a day to chill out and sleep in. Our last day, we were to see the most famous of Roman attractions, the Colosseum and Roman Forum. Surely the highlight of any slightseeing for the whole trip. The Forum is where I snapped my last picture, the 378th of the trip. Back to the hostel, for a rest before our dreaded return to Frankfurt. Shortly after arriving, two Canadian girls showed up and proved to be the most friendly yet. They had planned to go out on a pub crawl that night. As we found out, a pub crawl is where you go to a bar as a group, drink a lot, then walk to another bar. Repeat as necessary. I've never been a big drinker but I decided to give it a shot. We started at nine at night and began a hazy walk back at three in the morning, staggering along as the most drunk I've ever been. It's probably understood that navigating at night with a map while drunk is difficult to do, but we managed to get back in one piece. Our train left at seven, so we had a few hours to rest. Beer soaked, we ventured to the train station with Frankfurt as our final destination.

It was a trip of highs and a trip of lows. A trip of firsts and lasts.

  • The friendy, carefree, English speaking Dutch
  • The Normandy coast
  • European women
  • Nearly hastle free train travel
  • Hostels
  • The entire city of Rome

Not Sweet:
  • Asshole Parisians
  • European women
  • European breakfasts
  • Pay toliets (everywhere)
  • Hidden costs of ketchup and breakfasts
  • Small showers
  • Homeless people (everywhere)

I regret spending too little time in Holland, too much time in France, and no time in Germany. France was beautiful when the people weren't. Italy was my favorite, but not at first. And fuck, I spent a lot of money.

At the Frankfurt airport, I found out everyone in Iraq was getting extended at least three months. I was glad the announcement came at the end of my trip and not the beginning. But I did feel a little regret. I felt that home could have been a better choice over Europe. I haven't been home, in Texas, since mid April of 2006. A year. With the extention, I won't see it for another six months at least. I think in the future, though, I will appreciate the fact I traveled Europe when I had the chance.



Jeff said...

Quoting someone without attribution, eh? Shame on you!

It's cool how you got to see some of the same sights I saw in Rome during my little break from my Navy cruise to the Middle East, off Lebanon in '82-83.



Bluesflower said...

Money, what's money compared to memories that will be with you for a life time.

I'm glad you had a good vacation.

Looking forward to seeing some photos from the trip.

Love and respect,
Sandy said...

From my 3 years living in Vilseck, Germany...I have to agree that Holland is the place to be!

Brodie said...

Somehow I had the exact opposite experiences in Paris and Rome that you did. Parisians seemed wonderful so long as you were polite while in Italy I began pretending to be French to not get ripped off (or worse). I loved asking for a sandwich in a little shop that was clearly labeled as 2.30 Euros only to be charged 4.75 (a Polish friend I'd made in Nice was traveling with me and was charged 2.30 for the same sandwich. It was her idea that I begin pretending to be French).

In Paris it seemed like you only had to be polite. In Rome you only had to be anything but American (the graffiti declared as much). I might, though, have been there at the wrong time. I went to Rome right before and stayed during Rumsfeld's trip to the city so anti-American sentiment may have been running at an unusual high.

There was one upside to Rome, though. The hostel had a full bar.