Monday, December 04, 2006

Week 6/7 - Part II.

The saga continues...

Sunday, May 25: After exploring Milan, Simone took us to Borgo del Tempo Perso, an outdoor discoteque with three stages and a BUFFET. I love buffets in much fresh food and pasta. We were in the gay half of the club, and it was very refreshing not to have lecherous Italian men staring as we danced. We drove back to Simone's house at an ungodly hour, and I was delighted to actually find myself feeling a bit chilly in the night air.

The next morning (Happy Birthday, Ma!) we said goodbye to Simone and Mama Bregni, and boarded the train for Venice. It was a long train ride, but provided a great opportunity for a much-needed rest. When we finally got to Venice, our jaws collectively dropped. It really is as beautiful as the pictures, and even though I know I was there, I still cannot wrap my mind around the fact that it exists.
We stayed in a hostel that was just a short traghetto (water bus) ride away from St. Mark's Square. Despite our fatigue, we hopped on board and found a quaint trattoria (well--as quaint as you can get in that neighborhood) in which to eat dinner, and then walked around the square. It was magnificent at night, and I'm so glad we decided to make the trek. There were puddles littering the square that caught the light beautifully, and canals that were so picture-perfect, I had to restrain myself from diving in to see if they were real. The next morning we got up, checked our bags at the train station, and searched for a gondola. Because we were so far away from the center, there were not many to go around, and we finally had to settle on one that was120 euro--which was twice what we had been led to expect to pay from our travel books. But, still, it was a gondola ride. In Venice. It might have not been the most economic decision I've ever made, but I don't regret it.
The Schulz sisters wanted to take it easy and have lunch before catching our early afternoon train, but Megan and I were eager to get more of Venice, so we walked almost all the way from the station to St. Mark's Square, where we explored the Doge's Palace. We made it back to the station with about 20 minutes to spare, and the satisfaction of having gotten a better gander at the city. We said goodbye to Jen, who had to head back Stateside for a wedding. I probably will not get a chance to see her for another couple of years, as she is leaving soon to do Peace Corps-things in Niger.

Becky, Megan and I returned to Florence, where I was finally able to live out my fantasy of watching the sunset from the Ponte Santa Trinita with some friends and a bottle of wine. Everything finally felt like the Italian experience I had been dreaming about for so long. The next morning we went to the market, procured the goods for a Tuscan picnic, and made our way to Boboli Gardens, where I was able to live out yet another Florentine fantasy. We took an evening train to Pisa and stayed long enough for Becky to get the requisite photos, and then rushed back to Florence to make our overnight train bound for Switzerland. It was after we boarded this train that I discovered that I had lost my beloved Moleskine journal, which contained pages upon pages of personal writings, recollections, lists--and my passport. I had taken it out on the train to Pisa to write (in Italian!) a bit while the other girls napped. I swore I had put it back in my bag, but apparently I was mistaken, because when the conductor asked for my passport, I could find nothing to give him.

I prepared myself for the worst and started getting my bags together, holding back tears of frustration. Megan had remarked earlier that the trip had been going "too perfectly," because there had been no significant problems yet. She was right. Becky had been pick-pocketed in Rome, but ever since I had joined them, the trip was sailing along smoothly. In a few moments, I saw all our grand plans dashed, and myself spending another week alone in Florence.
"Ha niente? Non altra ID?" I feebly pulled out a photocopy of my passport that I still had in my messenger bag--and much to my surprise, the conductor said it was fine. Now it took all I had not to cry tears of relief. I leaned back on my cramped sleeper bunk and tried to relax. It was ok, for now. The train was already moving. I would figure out how to get back into Italy in the morning.

The morning: When I awoke, I saw mountains outside my window, and Megan, transfixed on the view and popping Pringles--the Breakfast of Champions, or at least backpackers. We spent the rest of the train ride gushing over the view. I love Italy, but Switzerland took my breath away like nothing else has before. Megan and I kept turning to eachother and saying (because it never ceased to amaze us): "Hey. We're in Switzerland." From our window we saw waterfalls, lakes, sheep, fog, rustic villages. You could just tell by looking that it was going to be cooler outside, so we eagerly changed into warmer clothing. We dismounted for good (for a while) in Chur, the oldest city in Switzerland. Megan was determined that we go to Lichtenstein that day, so we barely had time to breathe between getting our hotel room and catching yet another train that would take us to the 62 square mile-big constitutional monarchy. We walked around a bit, snapped a few photos and then headed back...there's not much to do in Lichtenstein, unless you're looking for a tax haven. It is pretty, of course, but you really can't distinguish its terrain from that of Switzerland.
Megan's other big thing was going to a spa. We stopped in a tiny town called Bad Ragaz and found a reasonable "wellness center," where we all received massages. We told ourselves we would make up for the expense by having a frugal, grocery store-bought dinner, but when we returned to Chur, there was no grocery store to be found, so we settled on the European version of fast-food: kebabs and falafel.
My program advisors had instructed me to go to Bern the next day and get an emergency passport at the embassy, so in the morning, I bid a temporary adieu to the other girls, who were headed to Zermatt. The plan was to meet up with them that night in Germany. When I arrived at the embassy at 11:38, I was informed that the embassy had closed. At 11:30.

I'm not really sure why, but I decided to keep going north after that, and did not stop until I got off in Heidelberg,Germany--where Grammy lived about 50 years ago. I knew it was a bit risky without a passport, but I figured if a photocopy had sufficed from Italy to Switzerland, the worst they could do was tell me to go home. No one did, though. I found an Internet cafe and confirmed my suspicion that none of the embassies (in Germany, Switzerland, or Italy) would be open until Monday. One more night of travel couldn't hurt. I scribbled some directions to Grammy's old house, and plopped down in front of tourist information, asking them to find me a hotel room as close as possible to Schloss Wolfsbrunninweg. When I arrived in the historic center of town, I marveled at how quaint and charming it was. I had not expected to be impressed by Germany.
I dropped my bags off and began the trek up to the hills above town, admiring the numerous art noveau mini-mansions, and then the Heidelberger Schloss, a medieval castle that contains a 58,124 gallon wine barrel. (Apparently Italy and France aren't the only ones with an affinity for grapes.) I pushed on a bit further, and finally found what I believe to be a renovated of the Bavarian-style house that Gram had described. As I descended back into town, I heard pots being banged, joyous singing, and horns--Germany had beat Argentina in a football match. When I reached the historic center again, everyone was wearing the red, yellow, and black flags and celebrating. I opted for dinner at a Thai restaurant right outside the University square, where I could see all the action and satisfy my craving for some Eastern food.

Late that evening, I heard from Megan and Becky, who were stranded for the night at the train station in Basel (Switzerland). They joined me the next morning, and we returned to the castle for a stroll through the gardens before having a farewell lunch at a lovely biergarten. I had already realized that I would not be able to continue on with them toward Belgium, where I had looked forward to spending my birthday with them and checking out the places recommended by Liz, who had spent the previous semester there. I had originally planned to take a flight back from Brussels to Italy, but without my passport, I was ground-bound. It was not easy to say goodbye to these ladies...travelling with them that past week had made all the difference in my experience of Europe. I had ended up spending more money than I was planning to, but I wouldn't have traded that week for anything. Despite the passport chaos and the occasional minor disagreement, it was the perfect adventure.

The return journey (Saturday, July 1): I spent most of the day on the train, filling as many pages as possible in my replacement journal. I made it over the border from Germany to Switzerland without a hitch and caught a train that went straight from Basel to Chiasso, which is right on the Italian border. The clock struck midnight, and I turned 21 shortly while I was still on the train. Katie Bordner called me a few minutes before, so I did not, in fact, spend my birthday alone. Yay, Katie!
Once in Chiasso, I checked the time tables--the next train for Milan would not leave until 5 am. I had already adjusted myself to the idea of sleeping in the train the time I got in, all the hotels would have already closed their doors for the night. One night--less than five hours, in fact--would not be so very trying.

As the night wore on, though, I began to feel a little bit anxious. Train stations attract some interesting characters in the wee hours. I sat, reading Flannery O'Connor and trying to stay on my guard, until a man in uniform came by. We conversed a bit, and when he learned I was waiting for the 5 am train, he told me that he had somewhere safer I could wait. It turns out that this man worked for customs, and that my refuge was, rather ironically, a waiting room near passport control. Still passportless, I passed out on a wooden bench, figuring I would deal with the passport issue when I got on the train.
Luck must have been on my side, because neither the man nor his colleague, who escorted me out to the train, asked for my passport. Before I knew it, I was in Italy again. Home safe. Or at least as close to home as one can get on another continent.

I know this is looking more like an epic than an email, so I'll try to wrap up briefly.
I got home to Florence in the early afternoon, had brunch with two or my new roommates, and walked around Florence a bit, feeling as if I was re-acquainting myself with an old friend. Later that night, two of my other roommates made me dinner. It was a quiet birthday, but pleasant. I got to talk to most of my family, so I was content.

So, classes. New friends. New stories. But that can all wait until next week.
Congratulations if you've made it this far!

Your lady abroad,
Grace A. Woodard

P.S. I will have a new and fully functional passport two weeks from today. Until then, I do not plan to set foot outside Florence.


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