Bon Voyage #27: Barcelona

La Boqueria, Barcelona

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That One Night When I Was Stranded in Venice

That One Night When I Was Stranded in Venice

After my three-week stint last winter attempting to make a life for myself in the Czech Republic, a friend invited me to tag along with her as she criss-crossed Europe taking in the classical sights before her impending return to New Zealand. After a week and a half of suffering from a horrible cold in snowy Paris, having way too much fun in sunny Barcelona, and being underwhelmed by Rome and all its ancient ruins (it gets boring after a while), I arrived at the Marco Polo airport near Venice at 9 pm on Monday Night. This is when all my troubles began.

 I hastily bought a ticket for an ATVO bus and boarded the express bus to the Piazzale Roma only to arrive there and discover that the ACTV water-taxis weren’t in service that week because of a strike. The signore at the information booth kindly informed that my only option was to start walking till I got to where I wanted to go. I had downloaded a map of the city from the hostel’s website but it didn’t do me any good since the map was black and white, and hand drawn which made it difficult for me to decipher at night (or the daytime for that matter). So I spent the next hour and a half carrying and dragging all my bags across Venice and its various bridges. Just to summarize the next hour: girl takes bus to the piazzale Roma, girl carries luggage across Ponte delle constituzione (a huge arched bridge with wide steps) to cross Grand canal, girl looks for hostel in district of Cannaregio, girl realizes she’s in the wrong district, girl walks back, girl drags luggage across big bridge with no ramp again, girl walks for 30 minutes till southern end of island, girl finds hostel, girl finds hostel closed. Fun times.

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Strangely enough, even though I had spent so much time lost and I really was not amused with having to lift my suitcase across a bridge every two 3 minutes, I can honestly say that I really enjoyed walking up and down Venice by myself at night. Maybe it’s because I am a night person but I find that I only really start to appreciate a city once the  sunlight fades away and the warmness of the sun’s rays is replaced by the night’s cool air. I think in order to understand just how mystical and beautiful Venice can be you have to explore it at night when the human traffic dies down and the street lights begin to illuminate the passageways and magnificent architecture which defines the city.

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After arriving at my hostel at midnight only to find that all the lights were off and the door was closed, I  figured that I would need to find a different place to bunk up for the night. Since there wasn’t any 24/7 timmies or McDonalds that I could set up camp in (the first time I actually cursed not having a fast food restaurant around) and I didn’t have any other addresses of guest houses on me, I had to find someone asap who could point me in the right direction. Thank my lucky stars, right down the street was an African man closing up what seemed to be a pasta restaurant. Deducing that he could probably speak French (I know my migration politics and geography), I dashed towards him with my luggage in hand and after inquiring about what languages he spoke (Italian and French, he confirmed), proceeded  to explain to him my very unfortunate circumstances in French.  It turned out that he had a friend who had some room at her place which happened to be located in Cannaregio. Now if you’re thinking, “MaVieEnBleu, wasn’t Cannaregio the district which you got lost and ended up in an hour ago?” You are absolutely right! As I said, great times in Venice.

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Not my cat. I don’t even like cats!

Since this story is already long enough as it is, I’m gonna fast-forward to when we arrived at his friends place. It’s then that I realized that his friend was actually an old Italian lady who owned and lived in a small hotel (something must have gotten lost in translation before). When we met the Old Woman sitting at her front desk, greetings were exchanged between the two old friends and we proceeded to have an interesting conversation in Italian, French, and broken English in which the Old Italian woman and African Man ‘Baba” wondered about how a lovely, young foreign girl like me came to be walking around Venice alone at night. Since the woman only spoke Italian with some broken English and I only (barely) spoke French with some broken Italian, I relied on Baba to translate the conversation between the two of us from French to Italian.

I shortly got the shock of my life when I asked how much a room would cost me for that night and Baba confirmed my understanding of the Old woman’s answer when she had stated in Italian, “350 euros”.  Three hundred and fifty euros for the night in cash. Apparently, the only room available was a 4 bed-room which cost at least three hundred and fifty euros a night. If there was ever a time away from home when I thought that I could be seriously stranded in a place with no money to get out, this was that time. After spending all my hard earned savings in Europe for the last four weeks, 350 euros just wasn’t money that I could give away so easily before I knew I could get back to Canada safely. But at 1 am in a new city I had no other choice. After thanking my Italian savior Baba and receiving my room key from the Old woman I proceeded to my room to get dressed and lie down for the night, all with a heavy heart dreading my trip to the bank machine that morning.

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After the fiasco that Monday Night had produced for me in Venice, Tuesday morning actually started off on the right foot. After running to a bank Machine a few blocks away from the hotel, I handed the Old woman in the lobby three hundred and fifty euros like she had asked. She carefully counted the notes, started going on in broken English about how this was a lot of money in Italy ( I think 350 is a lot everywhere) and then out of nowhere told me she only needed a 50 euro note and gave me back the rest of my money. Was something lost in translation last night? Maybe. Was she visited by St. Mary and had a change of heart? Maybe. Was she senile and confused? Maybe. But I didn’t care I was just happy that I didn’t have to consider selling a kidney to get back to Canada anymore and just in case there was a chance she’d remember something or change her mind I hastily said thank you and excused myself from the hotel, eager to trek back onto the other district and finally check into my actual hostel.

Would you believe me if I told you that Venice turned out to actually be my favorite city in Europe? It’s funny how things start out sometimes 😀

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My friend (fellow english volunteer in Czech Republic) and I

New Year, New Land: Czech Republic, Prague part1

In January I had the fortunate opportunity of visiting the Czech Republic for three weeks. The journey to this small but charming Central European country was quite exciting for me. It was my first time travelling solo outside of Canada so I was definitely feeling like the kids from those Huggies pull up commercials (~I’m a big girl now!~ ). I bought a KLM/ Delta flight from Toronto to Prague for December 31st. It only cost me $845 including taxes (with a return flight from Paris to Toronto).

My total travel time was 15 hours. Detours included the lovely airports of Minneapolis and Amsterdam before finally arriving in Prague on New Year’s afternoon. No seriously, the Minneapolis airport had iPads plastered across its lounge. I though that was pretty cool.

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Copyright Forbes Photo Source

During my stay in Prague I resided in a single person dorm room at the Czech University of Life Sciences.

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What can I say. It was small, very small. At night they turned the heating up too much and is that a cell number on the door? On the bright side, the rooms were dusted and wiped down every morning. What I didn’t appreciate though was the bathrooms. Co-ed bathrooms have just never been my thing. But I won’t complain about this communist era cell…I mean, dorm room since I only had to pay $11 per day.

While I was in Prague I had a chance to catch the last week of the traditional Christmas market at the Old Town Square where vendors sold grilled sausages, roasted chestnuts, ushankas (Russian fur caps), and hot wine.

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Here I had a chance to look at the world renown Prague Astronomical clock (though I’d never heard of it before). After every hour, you can catch a special clockwork show in which the Apostles, the Reaper, and other figures come out and make an appearance.

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After stealing some pamphlets from the Prague tourist centre, I had a quick peek at their Press Photo exhibition where I found walls covered with framed photos highlighting the most important news stories of the year including the death of former Czech President Vaclav Havel which brought the whole country to tears.

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As a self introduction to Czech cuisine I visited the Ungelt Jazz and Blues Club located not too far from the Tourist information centre in the Old Town Square.

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The place was quite small but its walls were decorated with jazz instruments and photos of musicians giving it a very intimate and low key type of charm. The prices were decent and the staff were very friendly. If you visit the club at night you can enjoy some music by live bands.

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Here I had my first Czech meal of buttery potatoes with lime, sesame coated pork cutlets and pickles which I quite enjoyed. Definitely better than any “Canadian” food I’ve eaten (no offense to all you Anglo Canadians). And of course, I always forget to take a picture of my food till I’m halfway done.

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After a wonderful day strolling down the cobble stoned streets of Old Prague, soaking in the sights and sounds of the tourist filled Christmas Market and munching down on my first Czech meal I decided to call it a day but not before I had a chance to head back to the Old Town Square (tourist central) and marvel at how much the Church of Our Lady Tyn resembles the Walt Disney castle.

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It really does doesn’t it?

Stay tuned to find out about the rest of my adventures in Prague!

New year, new land: My life changing experience in the Czech Republic (prologue)

Dobry den! Jak se máš? Of all the languages that I dreamt of conquering someday, I never imagined that I would one day find myself conversing in the Czech language (or at least attempting to). But you never know where life will take you and just a day after New Year’s Day I found myself with a Czech map and phrasebook in hand as I navigated my way through the cobblestoned streets of Prague, the small and quaint capital city of Czech republic. It’s hard to believe that I had made the decision to go to the Czech republic only 2 weeks before. Before that I don’t think I’d ever even heard of the Czech republic despite my engagement with plenty of history lessions about communism or European nationalism.

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The fact is in September last year, I signed up to become a member of AIESEC. Aiesec (according to my always dependable professor ‘wikipedia’) is an international organization that provides students or anyone under the age of 30 with leadership training and internship opportunities at for-profit and non-profit organizations. You can either join Aiesec as a regular member in which case you get to go to informative and fun leadership conferences (or so I’ve heard). Or you can join as an exchange participant in which case Aiesec helps you find a paid internship at a company anywere in the world or you can go on a cultural excange where you volunteer with a non-profit organization anywhere in the world. When I say ‘anywhere’ I mean ‘anywhere’. My brain almost exploded everytime I looked through the list of Aiesec exchange opportunities on their website. They may be a student organization but damn it they’ve managed to invade almost every major university campus on this earth. And since it’s such an elite organization I had to endure a brutal 30 minute interview where I was assaulted with quesions about my experience in cross cultural settings, leadership roles, life goals… Psssh life goals. Like I had any idea!

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Long story short at the beginning of December I wrote the final exams which  put the last nails to the coffin that had been my 4 1/2 years at the University of Toronto (Absolutely hated that school). And then I started to panic. What the hell was I going to do after I graduated? I was petrified of the idea of finishing school and tarmacking (as we call it in Kenya). All I could think of was the last four years I’d spent arguing with my parents about studying political science and sociology when I could have studied medicine. So while I was frantically trying to decide what country to do my exchange, the Igx (incoming exchange coordinator) for a university in Prague invited me to do my Aiesec exchange at a childrens home in Usti nad Labem, Czech Republic. I agreed to her offer. Truthfully, I got a lot of offers to do an exchange in Russia, Hungary, Ukraine and Poland. But I turned them all down. See, I don’t think about my race or ethnicity often (thanks to growing up in a 90% black country) but there’s certain times when I’m forced to think about my skin colour and how people will react to me. Travelling is one of those cases. I figured that since Czech republic had a bit of a western european influence (being sandwiched between Germany and Austria), I’d have less of a chance of being attacked, humiliated, or mistreated because of my skin colour. I don’t think I’ll ever go to Russia. I’ve read countless stories of students from Africa being beaten up and killed while simply taking the metro home from classes. It’s rather unfair that as much as I would love to travel I have to limit myself from going to certain places because my skin colour is feared or looked down upon.

In anycase, stay tuned for the next entry about my three weeks living in Prague and a small city (Usti nad Labem) in the North of Czech Republic!

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Bon Voyage: TPED #1

Bon Voyage: TPED #1

Christmas Market at Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí), Prague, Czech Republic [Jan 2nd, 2013]

What was I thinking when I took this photo? I think I was still quite perplexed at how I (as a 22 year old black girl and recent graduate) came to find myself on the streets of a central european country where I couldn’t speak the language and stood out like a sore thumb. I think I finally started to understand why my mom thinks I’m crazy sometimes. But I think crazy makes the world go round.