Saturday, May 15, 2010

Ketchup on my life...

[Attention readers: I've recently received a string of threatening emails warning me that I had better update this blog soon, OR ELSE. The clever culprit signed each message with a frustratingly indistinct epithet, but I think I have an idea of who it is. In any case, I've learned enough in this life to know not to cross anyone who closes a note with the words, "Love, Mom". You can thank my cyber bully for the long-overdue blog post to follow.]

My last post was published on Tuesday, March 23, six hours prior to the commencement of my second backpacking journey of this spring semester. It described in detail what I thought was a reasonably epic adventure- four different countries in ten days, little sleep and lots of new friends.

Prepare to be blown away. Since that day, I've explored 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 --> TEN DIFFERENT COUNTRIES. With NINE different languages and EIGHT different currencies. I've seen fire and I've seen rain, I've seen sunny days on volcanic islands that I wished would never end. I hiked in the snow-covered Balkan Mountains in Bulgaria, gazed at a blood-red sunset over the Mediterranean from the highest hill in Athens, harassed wild peacocks with an umbrella in Poland and came from behind to win a Herculean pillow battle in Budapest. And all this on a budget.

My trip started once again in Milan, where I caught my three-hour Easyjet flight to Athens and arrived at my conveniently located hostel in the Plaka neighborhood around 4pm. I checked in, took a quick nap and awoke to another big hug from a friend (Moroccan déjà vu?), which was once again better than an alarm. This time it was from my Harvard friend Jing, who brought along with her another Harvard girl named Jessica and a dude from the London School of Economics named Alex. A few minutes later two more of Jing's friends would join us, making us six in total. We left the hostel and walked around for a bit in search of both sustenance- which we found in the form of melitzanes moussaka, a delicious meat and eggplant casserole- and photo opportunities, which were plentiful given the bright nighttime lighting on the stunning Acropolis. We headed off to Lala Land relatively early that night so we'd have energy for our intense Athenian exploration the next day.

The next day, March 25, happened to be Greek Independence Day. We were treated to blue skies, sunshine and a festive military parade through the center of the city. Since this was a real opportunity to mingle with the Greek people, I put on my sunglasses and polished up on my pronunciation of "Καλημέρα!" ("Good morning!"). I got so good that more often than not my salutation would elicit a wordy response, in which case I would just smile and nod my head until they realized I was an ignorant tourist. But it's not that I didn't understand a word they were saying, like one might imagine. You know how people say, "It's all Greek to me"? Well, Greek wasn't all Greek to me. Greek shares a bunch of the same sounds as Castilian Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese and Italian (or rather, those languages ripped off some of their sounds from Greek). Most masculine nouns ending in -a in the Romance Languages come straight from Greek (el mapa, o planeta, il sistema, etc), which explains my ostensible familiarity with a language I was hearing aloud for the first time in my life. That said, I'm not claiming I can understand Greek- I'm just saying that I recognized certain sounds in an otherwise indecipherable linguistic garble. It felt cool nonetheless. After the parade finished our group of six walked down Ermou Street (shopper's paradise) to the Monastiraki neighborhood, where we devoured a lunch of souvaki pita (grilled meat and vegetables on a skewer served with pita bread) with tzatziki (a surprisingly scrumptious cucumber and garlic yogurt sauce). I would come to discover that Greek food is some of the best in the world, hands down. That afternoon we took some amazing pictures of the Ancient Agora and hiked up Lykavittos Hill to watch the sunset over the city and the sea. Breathtaking.

At 7am the next morning we were up and in the ferry on our way to the mystical island of Santorini. During the eight-hour ride I struck up a conversation with four American girls in the cabin who were studying abroad in Salamanca and Paris; turns out one of them knew Jessica, my Harvard friend and travel companion who was sitting at the front of the cabin! It took both of them a few minutes to place each other, but eventually they realized that they had met at some political conference in northern Virginia, something like that. Small world? Do I even have to say it anymore after all the coincidences I've experienced in my travels? Oh yeah, the day before while watching the sunset I met two girls who knew two of my Harvard friends, and one of the other girls in the ferry knew a different Harvard friend. No big deal.

Our maritime approach into the Santorini port felt like a movie scene- specifically the "Cliffs of Insanity" scene from The Princess Bride. The only difference was that these cliffs were frosted with luxury hotels and churches, all completely whitewashed except for their sparkling blue roofs. If you need a better image, or you can't wrap your mind around snow-covered cliffs that are not actually covered in snow but rather in white buildings, Google "Santorini" images and prepare to be amazed. From the port we each rented donkeys and rode up the sides of the cliff 700 feet to our hostel. Haha just kidding, but we could have! Instead we were picked up in a van by George, the fantastic hostel owner, and driven to our hostel in the central town of Fira. We dropped our backpacks and ran to catch the bus to the town of Oía, one of Santorini's prettiest and the best place to watch the sunset. More amazing pictures and another breathtaking sunset, followed by a pasta dinner and our bus ride back to Fira. That night Alex and I went out in search of Santorini's nightlife only to find mostly-empty bars and discos. We realized that March 26 was still a little early for island tourism, but recognized that Santorini would be poppin' during the summer. Can't do much better than warm summer nights in outdoor island clubs overlooking the sea to get people in a party mindset, right? The next morning my travel companions caught another ferry to the island of Mykonos, but I explored a little more on Santorini because I was returning to Athens that afternoon. It was another perfect day, but the Greek islands get over 300 sunny days per year, so I wasn't entirely surprised. I took some panoramic photographs from the highest point in Fira and then lazily made it onto my 3pm ferry with no difficulties whatsoever. The ride back was uneventful and by midnight I was sleeping like a baby in my hostel dormitory.

I decided to take it easy my last day in Athens, spending nearly three hours in the fascinating New Acropolis Museum and exploring a couple of open-air markets. I met a cool Canadian guy in the hostel who is writing a book about his experience visiting every Major League Baseball stadium without once taking a plane, and in the meantime traveling around Europe for six months. If you ask me, the people who sleep in hostels are some of the most interesting people on the face of the planet. For dinner I ate a gyro sandwich near the hostel and then researched- using my very own Let's Go: Europe 2009 guidebook that I found in the hostel library- things to do in the remaining cities on my trip. I went to bed early because the next morning I had to wake up around 5am to meet my travel companions at the airport and catch our plane to Sofia, Bulgaria.

Jing, Jessica and I made it through security and onto the plane with no problems. Alex and the other two friends were headed other places, but Jing had two more Mexican amigos from England getting ready to meet us in Sofia. She's an organizer, that Jing. We touched down on Bulgarian soil after a short flight and took a taxi to our hostel, where we dropped our bags and went off on a self-guided city tour. Sofia is much smaller than Athens and there are far fewer things to take pictures of, but it was a pleasant introduction to Eastern Europe and I'm glad we went. There were a couple gorgeous churches, especially the Nevsky Cathedral, and a bunch of statues with which we took silly photos. Diego and Karina arrived late that night and went with us on a hostel excursion to Rila Monastery the next day, high up in the snow-covered Balkan Mountains. We ate lunch at a Rila restaurant and then did some gentle hiking with four Portuguese guys and our Bulgarian tour guide to a hermit's cave and a few nice vantage points on the mountain. We were back in the hostel by late afternoon, where we relaxed and I played some songs for all the guests on a beat-up guitar. We enjoyed a complimentary pasta dinner and around 7pm took two taxis to the Sofia train station to catch our night train to Belgrade, Serbia.

Apart from the cramped quarters and seven different passport controllers knocking on our sleeper cabin door between the hours of midnight and 6am, the trip was reasonably comfortable as far as night trains go. Not even one gypsy tried to climb through our window and steal our belongings, which was fantastic. We arrived at our hostel bright and early in the morning, before check-in, but the wonderful receptionist let us sleep in the empty private room for a few hours to regain our energy. Around 10am we began our self-led tour of Belgrade, a four-hour walk that included a surprisingly modern pedestrian shopping district, an ethnographic museum where Jing dazzled on the piano, and lunch in the fanciest budget restaurant I've ever seen (imagine eating in private opera box seats, with a golden cord to summon servers). Our tour was cut short by rain, but we were tired anyway and glad to watch a movie in the hostel with the other guests. That night we went out to dinner with the Serbian Society of the London School of Economics, whose members were in Belgrade for a spring break conference. We feasted on as much traditional Serbian food as we could; I don't know what everything was but I know that I liked it! After dinner we went out to a club called Plastic, where the rapper 50 Cent would perform the next night. In my book, good music and no cover is the recipe for tons of fun at the disco. This place had both, and we partied almost until the break of dawn, at which point we grabbed a taxi back to the hostel.

The next morning the same fantastic receptionist surprised us with free coffee and waffles- the perfect way to start a long day of Serbian exploration. This time we left modernity in search of history, spending over an hour taking lots of hilarious pictures with the old cannons and tanks outside of the Belgrade Fortress Kalamegdan. When we ran out of ideas for silly poses we decided to take a walk along the Sava River, stopping for lunch on an Italian boat restaurant and window shopping in a mall on the way back to our hostel. Prior to boarding our 9pm night train to Hungary we passed by a grocery store to buy party supplies and a cake for Karina's birthday, which we proceeded to celebrate all night in our tiny sleeper cabin. We had party music courtesy of Diego's laptop, we had streamers and cardboard hats and a colorful birthday sign, we had cake that we even offered to the conductor but that he didn't want, we had it all. I'm certain that it was the most unorthodox birthday Karina has ever had... perhaps not the best, but definitely unforgettable!

We beat the sunrise to Budapest and were therefore extra thankful to find our Happy Flat van waiting for us in the train station parking lot. Jing had booked an entire apartment for the five of us in Budapest rather than a hostel, and it turned out excellently. We had two bedrooms, six beds, a bathroom, a kitchen and a huge common room with cable TV, all to ourselves! Sometimes renting apartments in a foreign city is a disaster waiting to happen, but Jing found a goldmine. We napped for a few hours and then took to the Hungarian streets, which were way more crowded with tourists than I expected but still remarkable. For the first day we kept our adventures in Pest (the part of the city on the eastern bank of the Danube River), visiting the gothic Parliament building, St. Stephen's Church (one of my new favorites), and the fancy Opera House, among other sites. At night we met up with three of Karina's friends from Monterrey who were also on spring break in Budapest, listening to outdoor music with hot wine and steaming cinnamon funnel cakes before calling it quits relatively early.

After a long and restful sleep, we awoke to sunshine and slightly warmer weather than the day before, not to mention the soothing sounds of Hungarian MTV, thanks to Diego and free cable in the apartment. We set out to explore Buda in its entirety around 1pm after a delectable Sicilian lunch in the city center (you can't escape Italian food anywhere on earth!). The panoramas from atop Gellért Hill were gorgeous, as were the views from Buda Castle. I especially liked the Disneyland-esque Halászbástya, or Fisherman's Bastion, with its countless spires and arches. On the way back to Pest we came across a massive pillow fight, presumably the work of a devious flash mob organizer. We didn't participate, but you can be sure we took pictures and refereed as best we could. That evening we went out to dinner at a restaurant called "Mini" with one of Diego's Hungarian friends from LSE (the portions were mini but the prices were maxi...), and then to a club called Play for "Barbie & Ken Night". We didn't know it was a themed night, but I'm not one to complain about an excess of Hungarian Barbies. Play was one of the best clubs I've ever seen, definitely comparable to the discos in Florence and Berlin, boasting two huge rooms with two different djs, as well as private rooms upstairs for smaller self-important groups. We danced until 4am and then caught a taxi back to our flat and passed out from exhaustion.

Three hours later I was up and out of the apartment, walking briskly down empty streets toward the train station with my pack on my back. I caught the 8am train three hours to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, where I would spend the first half of my peaceful Easter Sunday. I am very proud of myself for my Slovakian stopover because it was an instance of pure spontaneity. When I was looking at the map in my Let's Go book in Athens, I noticed that Bratislava was more or less directly between Budapest and Vienna. How could I pass right by and not visit? I arrived in the city without a map on Easter Sunday, a day everything is closed, tourist offices and map vendors included. I didn't know what languages they spoke in Slovakia, nor what currency they used. I couldn't name a single sight in Bratislava, if there even were sights to be seen. I had no idea how far the station was from the city center. But I looked at all this as a chance to test my traveling abilities, as an opportunity to measure my capacity for navigating a foreign situation with no help whatsoever. And let me tell you, I dominated Bratislava.

Before exiting the train station, I climbed up to the top level and looked for a window. When I found one, I saw in the distance a tall hill with a statue at the summit. "That's where I've got to go," I said to myself. And so I went hiking, backpack and all, to the highest peak in Bratislava, where I found the Slavin Memorial Statue and managed to survey the entire city, mentally picking out points of interest and their approximate locations. I snapped some panoramic photos and descended, making my way to the historical center and from there discovering just about all there is to discover in Bratislava on an Easter Sunday. I visited the Opera House, the Bratislava Castle, the Nový Most bridge and several beautiful churches where I took the time to lift my praises to Him who guides and watches over me through all these remarkable journeys. After around four hours of walking, I made my way back to the station and caught the next train to Vienna.

The first thing I noticed about Austria is that nobody jaywalks. Groups of people- teenagers included- will just wait at the crosswalk for the signal, even if there are no cops, no cameras and no cars anywhere in sight. That bewildered me. The second thing I noticed is that drivers respect pedestrians, always giving them the right of way no matter what. Again, a huge change from Brazil and Italy, where crossing the street is always a life-and-death game of Frogger. The third thing I noticed is that German is just an ugly-sounding language, plain and simple. I'm not saying it's not cool or that I wouldn't want to maybe learn it someday; I'm just saying that it's not, nor will it ever be, a romantic language.

I made it easily from the Vienna train station to the metro to my hostel around 4:30pm, grabbing a kebab on the way and taking a long nap after check-in. At 9pm I woke up, put on all the clothes I could fit at once, and ventured out into the freezing cold to see what the area around my hostel had to offer. Not much. I was back in my dorm room by 9:45pm, I wrote in my journal for a bit, and I went back to bed. The next morning I met my dormitory roommates, three University of Miami students studying abroad in Spain. I was planning to explore Vienna on my own in the pouring rain, but we were leaving the hostel at the same time and they invited me to tag along. We took the metro to the center and walked around a bit, taking pictures of the Hofburg Complex, the Town Hall, the Parliament Building and a couple theaters. I felt like I was a character in the The Illusionist, prepared to see Edward Norton around every corner. I really liked the Albertina art museum and the Burgtheater, where we watched an incomprehensible German play starring two vagrants, a rich man and his leashed, radio-ad-reciting zombie servant, with a special guest appearance by a brusque little boy. We got back to the hostel around 10pm, at which point we played "Uno" in the hostel bar with three Brazilian girls and eventually headed up to bed. Vienna is probably a fascinating city, but I had only one full day there and it rained from start to finish. That's just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. Needless to say, I was ready to leave Austria the next morning in search of nice weather in the Czech Republic.

The trip from Vienna to Prague was cheapest by bus, so that's what I chose. In hindsight, it was a great decision. It took a little longer than the train, but I got to sit with the Brazilian girls from the night before and speak Portuguese the whole time. From the Prague bus depot I was able to walk to my hostel, and in those twenty minutes I already knew I would like Prague more than Vienna. The sun was shining brightly and lots of people were out in the streets, not rushing around but simply hanging out, shopping and eating lunch in the squares. My roommate Christian and his friend Max from Bowdoin were also in Prague, so I organized to meet up with them for dinner and in the meantime simply wandered around near the hostel. I had pretty high expectations for Prague because of numerous gushing reviews I'd heard from other travelers, and the city would come to meet them and exceed them with ease. It was infested with foreigners, but I'd choose sunshine and tourists over icy rain and locals any day. Christian, Max and I met at the hostel around 7pm and went out to dinner, after which we met up with another friend of Christian's and three of her travel companions in one of the main squares for hot wine and funnel cakes (I'm convinced that if someone sold hot wine and cinnamon funnel cakes in Harvard Square during the winter, he would be able to retire and move to the Cayman Islands by spring). We went out for a bit to a nightspot called Le Chapeau Rouge and then a couple others nearby; they were all fairly quiet because it was a Tuesday night. I got back to the hostel around 2am and was about to fall asleep when I heard some Brazilians enter and start changing into their pajamas, laughing and whispering to each other so as not to wake me. I told them in Portuguese that it was fine to turn the light on if they needed it, and they responded with surprised remarks about the number of Brazilians they keep meeting. It surprised them more to find out that I wasn't Brazilian at all, but rather an American who had studied in Rio de Janeiro. Regardless, I instantly became one of the crew and they made me swear I would go out with them the next night.

I got up early the next morning to take full advantage of the beautiful weather, first stopping at a supermarket to buy breakfast and lunch and then following a route I had created for myself with a map from the hostel through all of Prague's top sights. Beginning with a panoramic view from the tower in Old Town Square, I walked through the city and along the Vltava River and across the Charles Bridge and around Hradcany Castle and up to the "Dancing House" and back to Republic Square, taking in all the sights and sounds and smells of one of the most captivating places I've ever been. Prague's architecture is permanently striking and incredibly diverse, ranging from medieval to baroque to renaissance and more. I especially liked the statues along the Charles Bridge- check them out in Kanye West's "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" music video- and David Cerny's hilarious Peeing Statues in front of the Kafka Museum (they write quotes from famous Prague residents with their streams!). I had been planning to stay another full day in the Czech Republic and take the night train to Poland, but after all that exploration I realized that I had seen everything I meant to see in Prague. I didn't see the Brazilians that evening, so I was off the hook for going out with them as promised and instead turned in early. Eight long hours of the next day were spent on the train to Warsaw, but I was glad to arrive refreshed and ready to go rather than exhausted and miserable from a sleepless night.

My friend Beata, a Warsaw native who studied abroad in Bologna last semester and was good buddies with my best friend Martín, met me at the train station as I arrived and brought me back to her house, where I would be for staying two nights. After so many nights in hostel dorms, it was magnificent to have my own room and the creature comforts of an actual home. In my limited experience, I think Polish hospitality is the best on earth (or at least tied for first place with some other country, maybe Mexico). Despite the language barrier, Beata's parents treated me like a king, with savory home-cooked dinners, humongous breakfast buffets and warm smiles. Beata took it upon herself to be my tour guide through every inch of Warsaw, starting that very evening with the Old Town and its iconic Mermaid Statue. We met up in the historic center with Monika, another Polish friend who had studied abroad in Bologna, and went to drink tea at an underground teahouse. Afterwards we walked around for a bit and then Beata drove us along the Vistula River, stopping at "La Playa" (an area along the river with sand and a restaurant during the summer) on our way back to the house. I went to bed around midnight and slept eight glorious hours, subconsciously reveling in the absence of noisy Brazilian roommates.

The next day's sky was as gray as Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science, a gift to Poland from the Soviet Union in the 1950s, but that didn't stop us from visiting Royal Baths Park and marveling at the dozens of wild peacocks behind the Palace on the Water, or from eating pierogies and drinking fruit kompot, or from walking around the university zone munching on heavenly pączki, Polish doughnut-like pastries. When Beata had to go to class I went with Monika to a cool 3D photo exhibition showing Warsaw's squares and monuments as they were at the turn of the 20th century. It was sobering to walk around the city afterwards and see just how many of those places had disappeared completely or were largely destroyed due to wartime bombings. Poland has a fascinating history, with far more than its fair share of tragedies. Little did we know as we were taking silly pictures in front of the Presidential Palace that the next morning would bring another terrible catastrophe upon the nation.

I woke up on Saturday, April 10, to breaking news that there had been a deadly plane crash. Beata and I ate breakfast in silence, glued to TV reports that the presidential couple and 96 other Polish government officials were on the plane, en route from Warsaw to Russia to attend an event marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Forest massacre (a mass murder of Polish officials carried out by the Soviet secret police in April 1940). Both Beata and her mom were stunned, frozen in disbelief. It felt like September 11th in that time seemed to stop, with the news stations replaying the same footage over and over for hours on end. Eventually Beata decided that it would do no good to watch the reports all day, so we took the car and visited the immaculate Wilanów Castle, the incredible Warsaw Rising Museum, Chopin's Statue and the manicured roof of the University Library. Dark clouds covered the entire sky but it didn't rain, thus creating an appropriately solemn atmosphere throughout the city. That evening we joined thousands of others in front of the Presidential Palace to add our candles and flowers to the spontaneous vigil in honor of those who passed. It was a time of ardent national solidarity, an especially unique experience for me as a tourist but an event that I wish never would have occurred. Early the following morning Beata drove me to the central train station, where we said our goodbyes and I boarded my train to Berlin.

I didn't really know what to expect from Berlin. I'd been thinking of it only as the last city on my adventure, the place where I would eventually catch my plane back to Italy. Instead Berlin hooked me with its enthralling history and reeled me in with its extraordinary street art, but not until day two. When I first arrived in the city, the air was damp, the sunlight was weak and the temperature was hovering somewhere around freezing. With a wardrobe intended more for the Greek islands than Siberia, I decided that my warm hostel was more enticing than a solo tour through the city. I stayed in for the entire afternoon, venturing out around 7pm to grab a currywurst plate from a corner stand (hot pork sausage with curry sauce and french fries, a Berlin specialty) and then returning to the hostel when my teeth started to chatter.

God must have taken pity on me, because the next day's weather was absolutely gorgeous. I decided to participate in a "New Europe" tour of the city, which had been highly recommended to me by several travelers. These tours are given in most of the European capitals by engrossing American and British college-aged students who work entirely off of tips. The Berlin tour was over three hours long and covered most of the city's important sights and stories. My guide, Summer from SoCal, had lived in Berlin for 5 years, moving there the day after her college graduation because she had fallen in love with the city during a 17-hour layover junior year returning home from a semester abroad in Italy. (Don't worry about me, my stopover in Frankfurt is only two hours!) Starting at the Brandenburg Gate, we made our way to the Reichstag Building, the Holocaust Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie and a bunch of splendid squares, churches and museums. We finished our tour at the foot of the imposing Berlin Cathedral, where Summer acted out (she was a drama major, so she literally acted out) a hilarious version of the story of the falling of the Berlin Wall. By 3pm the outing was over and we were free to go. I decided to be ambitious and visit the East Side Gallery of the Berlin Wall on foot, walking 3.1 kilometers to the start of the 1.3 kilometers of murals that represent a colorful memorial for freedom. I was so glad I made that extra effort because the East Side Gallery became the highlight of Berlin for me. The murals were remarkably unique, painted by artists from all over the globe and each with a different positive message. They were recently restored to their original conditions, so the colors were wondrously vibrant and there wasn't a mark of graffiti anywhere. I asked a few tourists to take pictures of me in front of my favorite pieces and then walked all the way back to my hostel. That evening I organized my backpack, devoured another currywurst for dinner and chatted with a British roommate named Jo, a recent high school graduate who is traveling alone for six months before started university in Engand. Way more adventurous than I, and three years younger. I'm telling you, hostel dwellers are some of the most amazing people you'll ever meet.

I slept well that final night and caught the metro to the airport in the morning with no problems. My flight to Milan went smoothly (the volcano in Iceland erupted furiously two days later, luckily for me), I took the airport bus to the central train station and then the regional train back to Bologna. I arrived "home" around 8:30pm after grabbing a kebab to go (woah, déjà vu from my first trip?), but this time the apartment was empty. Steven was in the US for a wedding, Ludovica was in Turkey visiting her parents, and Christian was in Sicily with some Bowdoin bros. That's more or less the story of this Bologna apartment. The solitude didn't bother me because I was exhausted from the day's travel, more eager to fall asleep on my pillow than to talk about my three-week adventure. I gave thanks to the Lord for keeping me safe and healthy on my journey, and then I passed out until late the next morning.

Christian came back the following day with three friends, so the apartment was crowded and lively for a change. They were supposed to be in Bologna for a few days only, but the volcano had a different idea, cancelling their flights and stranding them in Italy for over a week. No big deal for us or for them. We're exchange students in Europe, after all. What could they possibly be missing at school? Haha just kidding... But seriously. The change of pace at the apartment was nice, but eventually all good things must come to an end and the ash cleared enough for them to fly home.

The last week of April was crunch time for figuring out my summer plans. My idea to spend two months in Honduras with a nonprofit organization working on sustainable development was rejected by all three grant committees to which I applied, so I had to decline that gracious invitation for lack of funds. Another possibility was to serve an editorial internship with Budget Travel magazine in Manhattan, but they were too slow in offering the position. Even if they had told me they wanted me right away, I don't think I would have accepted for this summer. In the two weeks following my trip I had been doing a lot of thinking and a lot of praying about where I would be happiest this summer, and by the end of April I was certain that a full-time office job for no pay in New York City was not the answer. During this time a friend suggested I write to some travel journalists to see what kind of advice they had for me. I sent emails to Rolf Potts and Pico Iyer, two of my favorite travel writers, and to my delight they both responded within 24 hours telling me to forget the office job and to TRAVEL this summer. Their joint validation of my gut feeling was a definite relief; I could forego the NYC internship and still be on track for my dream job. That same day I emailed my friend and recent Harvard graduate Liz Cabrera (who I knew was working with a nonprofit in Mexico) to see if there were any summer openings with her organization or if she knew of any other opportunities for me. She responded excitedly, telling me that she's actually the Program Director and would probably be able to make a spot for me in La Catalina Foundation, her nonprofit in La Manzanilla, Jalisco. She told me that she would speak to her bosses and give me a definite answer by that Friday, April 30.

The rest of that school week I caught myself daydreaming about summer on the beach in Mexico, getting my Spanish fluency back and working to make a positive change within the tiny community of La Manzanilla. Friday finally came and Liz gave me the formal invitation over Skype video, even offering me free housing for the entire summer. Through the window behind her I could see palm trees, white sand and turquoise water, but I would have accepted even with a less paradisiacal background. Words can't express the excitement and blessing that I felt- I had been praying that I would have summer plans set by May 1, and He delivered with a few hours to spare. Since Christian had taken me out to dinner the night he found out that he got his summer internship with Deutsche Bank, I returned the favor that evening and we went out to eat at a nice trattoria. I finally crawled into bed around 1am, but even then I was too adrenalized to sleep.

My sleeplessness was unfortunate, because at 4:30am I had to be up to catch a train north to Lake Como, where I was meeting my former Harvard Italian tutor Kendra at 9:30am. She had been working at a school in Brescia the whole time I'd been in Bologna, but this was our first chance to connect in Italy. We spent the morning walking around the lake, which was especially serene because of the mist and fog partly covering the surrounding mountains. If the name "Lake Como" doesn't ring a bell for you, think of the final scene of Ocean's 12 that takes place on the terrace of the Night Fox's mansion. Remember? That mansion is on the bank of Lake Como, and not just that one but a bunch of others as well. Kendra and I strolled around for a few hours and took pictures, and then around 1pm we hopped on the train north to Switzerland, where we would be spending the night at a lovely hostel overlooking Lake Lugano. The weather wasn't much better across the border, but the city was charming and the lake was picturesque. That Saturday happened to be International Workers' Day, so almost everything was closed with the exception of restaurants and churches. We ate an early Italian dinner and headed back to the hostel around 6:30pm, deciding to "take a nap" for a few hours and see how we felt after. I woke up fully dressed at 10pm and saw that it was pouring rain outside our dorm room. I looked down at the bunk below me and Kendra was already in her pajamas, fast asleep. Lugano was in no condition to be explored at that hour or in that weather, so I brushed my teeth, put on my pajamas and fell back asleep until 8am the next morning.

I have no idea how I slept thirteen hours straight, even taking into consideration the fact that I slept only three hours the night before. I'm usually one to wake up naturally after eight hours no matter what. We were obviously very refreshed the next morning, but it was still raining so we decided to eat a leisurely breakfast in the hostel and just catch each other up on our international lives. That Tuesday she was moving to Israel to start work at the Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa, so this would be the last time I'd get to see her for a while. I thoroughly enjoyed our extended conversation right up to the moment I had to catch my train back to Bologna at 11:30am. Or rather, my four trains back to Bologna. I had told the man in the Lugano ticket office who was trying to put me on the bullet train that I had lots of time but little money. It cost me six times less than the price of the high-speed train ticket to get back home, but it also took me six times longer, with three different changes along the way. I got back to my apartment around 6pm, ate dinner with Christian, played guitar and wasted time on the computer until 1am, entirely incapable of falling asleep after such a restful weekend.

May in Bologna has been characterized by ugly weather and studying. I would complain, but I've discovered that they're utterly perfect complements. Besides, a little studying is a small price to pay for all the fun I've been having here in Europe over the last five months. This past Wednesday I handed in a ten-page paper for Contemporary Italian Literature, and Thursday I had a written midterm in Italian for my Brazilian Literature class (slightly confusing, yes). Both went pretty well, no big deal. On Wednesday I have an oral exam in Portuguese and then I'm headed to Milan to spend a few days with a Brazilian friend I met in Buenos Aires last semester. The following Monday I have my oral exam in Italian and then Wednesday I'll take my oral exam for Sociolinguistics. Three hours after my last exam I'm flying to Paris for a weeklong French cultural and linguistic immersion experience. I'm thinking of it as a sneak preview of next year, since I've already decided to learn French as a senior. I paid 40 euro roundtrip from Bologna and I'll be staying with a Harvard friend in his apartment, so my adventure shouldn't break the bank even though Paris is outrageously expensive. I'm especially excited for the reappearance of some former blog celebrities who will all be in and around Paris while I'm there. One is Ana Clara, a carioca friend I met early on in Rio last year. Another is Cat, the Harvard friend/tennis player/favorite person trifecta with whom I met up in the Algeciras bus station in Spain. Still another is Marely, the girl from the Athens-Santorini ferry who knew my travel companion Jessica. This is the nature of the globalized world in which we're living, readers. Or at least the one in which I'm living. Meet people in one part of the world, jot down their Facebook contact information, and see them down the line somewhere entirely different. I LOVE IT!

So there you have it, ladies and gentleman. Ketchup on my life since March 23. I applaud you for making it all the way to the end of this Homeric saga. If you just skipped ahead to the finish, shame on you (but I can't say I blame ya!). Until next time, my loyal readers. I promise I won't keep you waiting until mid-June.

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