I already miss the waft of fresh-baked brownies blanketing the countryside—wait, let me start at the beginning so that makes the slightest bit of sense.
Five weeks ago yesterday I set out what would be likely the best Spring Break of my life, fitting for my last year of college. I’ve been able to take wonderful weekend trips within Spain alone and with my program group, but I wanted to take advantage of my free week and use my being here as a vantage to see Europe. And how magnificent, simple and rewarding it was!
Plane tickets here are plainly-and-simply cheaper than they are in the U.S. For just €40, I hopped on a jet from Madrid to Rome, albeit with the notoriously sketchy RyanAir, whose service I found just fine but seems to be provided solely by dudes who might actually be named ‘Ryan.’ I’ve always wanted to visit Rome and can say I had a truly classic Roman experience in my three days there. Thanks to my friend Siobhan’s connections, we managed to live in a monastery on the Aventine Hill, a quintessentially Roman neighborhood just a 10-minute walk from the Coliseum.
Rome was delightfully affordable. A €1.50 train ticket took us to the beach in Ostia and €12 was all they ask for two day’s access to the Coliseum, Palatine Hill and Roman Forum—all three of which were exquisite experiences. Entering the ancient amphitheater where so many gladiators and animals alike perished to appease the populous, it was almost as if my vision waxed a sepia tone like a dream sequence from Gladiator. It sparked in me a hungry curiosity to learn more about ancient Rome and know what it would’ve looked like in its splendor.
The city was surreal—my first time in a monastery was also my first night sleeping in one. Next to it was a villa that exists as a sovereign entity within Rome and serves as the embassy for the Sovereign Military Order of Malta. Essentially, we lived right next to another country, with a mysterious peephole to gaze in through. We ate lunch with the monks and enjoyed friendly conversation and even received some tours of the city from brothers and volunteers at the monastery.
One monk took us to his favorite restaurant so I can say with confidence that I’ve had legit Italian food. On our last night we meandered the streets of the city center with him until we rounded a corner to face the Pantheon, which is impressively grand and amazingly still in use as a church some 2000 years after being built—same door and everything. Nearby, we sampled cheese at a cheesemaker’s shop that’s been open for 500 years and some great gelato near the Trevi Fountain. Rome was beautiful and certainly left me hungry to know more of the history of its ancient history, but I know already that I want to return.
I parted ways from my friends and left on train early Monday morning. My plan was as such: see as much of Europe’s countryside as possible within the time allowed for break, as cheaply as possible, while also cherishing each stop as much as one can when allotting undue time per each locale. In one day, I train-ed from Rome to Verona, from Verona through the Alps and Innsbruck, Austria to Munich and from there to Stuttgart, where I met up with my mountain biker friend Axel. The passage through the Alps warmed my soul, which is constantly starved for mountains. Winding upward into them in the north of Italy, the rock and landscape looked like parts of the U.S. West I’d never imagined it would.
The lay of the land in Southwestern Germany reminded me remarkably of Southeast Ohio: foothills and deciduous clusters amongst farmland. Axel and his family were wonderful hosts. I visited Esslingen, which seemed to be the ideal German hamlet in all regards. Later we took a hike up a ‘berg’ to see a ‘burg’ of the same name. That is we visited the 19th century Hohenzollern Castle on top of Hohenzollern Mountain. It was a handsome building, bearing a silhouette not unlike that of the Disney logo.
We ended the night at his home, where his whole family and I enjoyed good German beer (I can now attest to their claimed quality) and home-cooked schnitzel. Whereas in Italy, I could surmise the context and subject of overheard conversation, with German I could make no such inferences. This came somewhat as a relief; I could relax and for once this semester spend less energy on communication by simply checking out. What I didn’t realize at the time was the power hearing other languages would have on solidifying Spanish as my second language.
The next morning I took a train to Paris that topped out at 200 mph so I didn’t waste any time in meeting up with Omar, a good friend from high school and OU grad. Paris amazed me in its homogenized architecture, especially considering its immensity. The view from the terrace in front of la Basilique du Sacré-Cœur was incredible. The city was absolutely packed with cars and a bustling blur of people. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more gridlock or sardine-packed metros.
I walked miles in Paris and saw quite a lot of the famous sights. I didn’t go in many so that my wallet and I could remain friends throughout the trip. But I did take advantage of the free ones—Notre-Dame, to my amazement, was free to enter and well worth it—and also made light of the rainy weather to play with reflection and daylight long exposures.
It was excellent to see Omar again. I remember him as always being happy and kind and I’ve confirmed that he hasn’t changed much. We had Cambodian food with a friend of his and, while that might not have been the most typical Parisian food, I feel it was appropriate considering how cosmopolitan the city is. Plus, I made up for it the next day by having a baguette and a street crepe with Nutella. As quickly as I had come I left Paris for Amsterdam, ascending from cosmopolitan to the most international city in the world, where I would reunite with my 3 friends with whom I had visited Rome.
I’ve had respect for Amsterdam ever since I read about its bike infrastructure. As an avid cyclist, I geek out about anything that promotes or facilitates more biking. Not only did the city have a bike lane for every surface street and an extended network of bikeways leaving the center, but it featured the first public transit system that made sense to me. The routes of Amsterdam’s metros, trams, trains and busses overlap in a way that never leaves you waiting too long at any stop—or if you own a boat you can simply commute by canal.
Our AirBNB was a fair distance from the city center, which just allowed us to partake in the biking phenomenon and public transit. Downtown was a treat to the senses. Each branch of the canal system offers it’s own neighborhood vibe with plenty of attractions from museums to curious shops. The word I invented and keep returning to when describing Amsterdam is ‘fairy-tale-like’. The city is very clean and logically laid out. The people seem very harmonious as if propelled by some unseen social clockwork. Dutch, when listened to idly sounds as familiar as English but with fabulously wild words inserted here and there.
But the most mesmerizing part of our fairy-tale experience in Amsterdam was the scent of chocolate that occupied several square kilometers of our suburb, Westzaan. We noticed on the first night while biking that it smelled as if every single house in the zone had just finished baking brownies—delicious… but improbable. After the scent pleasantly plagued the following two nights’ journeys home, we were sufficiently vexed. It wasn’t until the morning we left that we finally—terrible pun alert—sniffed it out. While walking to the train station near our lodging, we passed by a chocolate factory. Though it wore away some of the sheen of wonder, it’s nice to rub my eyes, pinch my arm and know that Amsterdam is a real place that I can return to.
I’m still not positive the field of sleeping miniature ponies my bus passed upon arrival was real; by that point in my journey, I was thoroughly overwhelmed with the countless incredible experiences I had been able to squeeze into my week. The variety of Europe is a treasure and I look back knowing how fortunate I am not only to be able to spend a semester studying in Spain, but to have the opportunity to explore. Being an adult is cool. Spain is cool. Life if pretty cool too.