Seamus vs. The Lost Comrade in the Louvre

Paris.

One of the most famous cities in the world and a place I had seen images of my entire life. The countless movies ranging from Midnight in Paris to Ratatouille, hundreds of books and articles , and of course photos from every student who has ever been abroad on Facebook.

On the first weekend of November, it was my chance to see the city for the first time, with a great group too. Max and I had been planning this trip for months, wanting to see Normandy one of the days in order to get to the D-Day beaches. Also coming along were  two buddies from his Rome program, and coming in here and there was the one and only Jeff from the JFRC. After weeks of planning ahead, looking at ways to get to Normandy, getting rejected by an airbnb owner and going into another hostel, we thought this was going to be just an uneventful fun trip. Ha ha.

Leaving all together, Jeff and I had decided to stay over at Max’s apartment since it was closer to the bus we were going to take at Termini to the airport and we wouldn’t have to worry about trying to find the 990 bus at 5 in the morning. Excited about the next days to come, Jeff and I were looking forward to sleeping a little bit so we could function in a few hours and get on the plane bound for France.

When we got to the apartment, however, the front door was opened to a large group talking and drinking in the front “lobby” area. Out of the wood works Max  appeared giving me a big hug. I looked at him with my suitcase in hand and said,

“Uhh…aren’t we going to bed?”

With a laugh Max  quickly replied, “No man, we’re going out!”

Fast forwarding to three in the morning, the guys were finally convinced to leave Campo di Fiori and get ready for the plane ride ahead. But we had caught ourselves in a complete downpour. Jeff and I tried to hide under his jacket but the rain somehow waterfalled in anyway. Rivers flowed down streets as if we were in Venice, even the Tiber overflowing its normal level. I was beginning to question how the heck we were going to fly in this weather.

Utterly soaked, we put all our things together and groggily headed to the bus that would take us to Termini. However, one member of our party, Ish, was not there. Max and Adam had called him and messaged him…but there was no sign of Ish. In the midst of the dark downpour there was only us and our luggage. Soon this dark scene was interrupted by a hurried flash of a Roman bus. Behind it in the distance was Ish of course, running in a mad furry. Even though we cheered him on, the poor guy missed it and would have to take a cab in order to catch up with us.

Reminding you again that it was still pouring, I had a little fiasco getting on the bus to the airport. Apparently, there were fervent instructions to print out the ticket, and a printed page of the confirmation code would not be accepted. Of course the lady would not print out the ticket for me either nor did they have a printer me to use. So they made me buy another ticket. How nice is that. Didn’t know that I would have to buy a ride for two people in order to get to Ciampino!

I remember the beginning of the flight, and that is about it. I was tired, still soaked, and hungry. Max on the other hand woke up for the overhead view of the Alps and took some lovely pics of an unconscious me. Waking up to our Ryanair flight beginning to land, I realized it was STILL RAINING. This time a little worse with strong winds and darker clouds. We started to endure mass turbulence, the kind that makes you believe you’re not going to make it turbulence. Or maybe that’s just because I hate the drops and swerves of the occurrence. But everyone was grabbing on to there chairs as it was getting bumpy and the ground was getting closer. I looked out the window and thought, “Well, at least I can say I saw France before I leave this earth.” The plane, however, still at top speeds, somehow managed to jump its way onto the runway and was met with thunderous applause. I checked my pants to make sure I didn’t pee myself.

The group then found ourselves in a rush of three hour transit: first figuring out the bus that would take us to Paris itself from Beauvais, the cold middle of nowhere airport where we almost died. Then from there it was deciding what kind of ticket we would need to take the Metro, and after looking at maps to see how the heck we would get to our hostel.

Don’t worry, once finding the place and getting settled, we found a bakery and rewarded ourselves with fresh pastries. Unbelievable. Our first taste of French food was their desert, which was a fantastic choice to say the least. I cannot fully remember the pastry I had now….but I believe it was some chocolate pastry puff, because I had a lot of those during our trip.

Basing our later day on the fact that the Louvre would be open until 9pm because it was a Friday, we decided to explore the area around the Seine. Walking along the river we crossed the Love Lock bridge, full of lovers, non-lovers, and peddlers selling locks alike. I’m not sure if it has been torn down yet but that was the big news at the time, that the bridge had become to popular and thus it was starting to weaken the bridge, emphasize the ever poignant saying of “too much of a good thing..”

Walking along the river you realize how much the movies got it right….which is rare. The architecture of the buildings, the smells, it was like I had fallen into a TV set. But it was real, authentic, and beautiful. Blue roofs and buildings covered in a hazelnut creme, letters painted on them right out of a Toulouse Latrec painting.

Having just read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, a memoir about his time as a young man in Paris, Jeff and I were literally taking our conversations in class into practice, strolling along the old green bookseller and print stands that lined the riverwalk. Hemingway had talked about how he walked past them every morning, and it was fun to actually relive his past culminating in a stop to The Shakespeare Book Co., a local haunt of the Lost Generation. We spent a good 45 minutes as a group looking at books old and new, and finding a first edition of A Moveable Feast, I put it back as quickly as I had picked it up, as the price tag would have made it impossible to but a ticket back to Rome.

I forgot to also mention that as we were walking by the book stands, there was a cliche hustle going on. You know, the one where the man has a bead in one of three cups and switches them around, and the victim places a bet on the cup they think contains the bead at the end of the cup musical chairs. Looking at Jeff, I laughed and stated how could somebody fall for that now, as there was so much out there saying it was a big scam. We agreed it would be crazy to even think about trying to play that game. Well, as we all congregated at Shakespeare Co., Ish and the other guys kind of had a look of shock on their faces. Ish, who looked the most disappointed, facially made me ask what had happened.

“You see that cup game that was going on by the river?”

He had lost 100 euros.

With Ish a bit down we headed over to the famous Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the most famous and oldest buildings in the city. No, I didn’t see any gargoyles or hunchbacks up close, but the inside was absolutely beautiful…just a tad dark. It was massive, and with an actual mass in French going on us tourists roamed around the edges of wood paneling and stone statues. The weirdest thing was that we actually ran into a girl that had gone to St. Ignatius with us, but being abroad that just started to be a normalcy. In Paris, in Notre Dame, at the same hour…..the odds of that are just unbelievable. But those kind of things happen anyway.

Around 6pm we decided it was time to head over to the main event of the day: the Louvre! With the sun setting on the city, we were given beautiful views of the Eiffel Tower  overlooking the blue roofs, the walls of the buildings having an orange creamsicle look about them.

The sweet part about after hours and being a student was that we got in for free and there were no ridiculous lines! Walking right under the glass pyramid I was reminded of that last scene in the Da Vinci Code…wondering hmm could Mary really be down here? (All in good fun of course). Some of the boys were a little hungry so before we dived into the massive arena that was the Louvre, we went to the cafe. Ish and I, however, went to the bathroom as the other guys went into the snack area.

Seamus, why are you mentioning you went to the bathroom? Is that necessary? Can’t we just assume you take care of your bodily functions?

1. Never assume. 2. Trust me, it is important to what happens next.

Leaving out of the bathroom to join the other guys I didn’t think anything of it. But as we started chatting and the cafe began to close (it was on regular museum hours), we all started to wonder the same question: where was Ish?? In the first fifteen minutes you think dang he’s having a big one, but after that you start to worry that he had an Elvis Presley Episode. We went back to the bathroom to check up on him but he was gone. The stall was empty. No Ish. We looked around the lobby area and seating areas on the second floor. No Ish. We went back to the cafe to see if he was waiting around there. No Ish.

Don’t get me wrong, I was worried about the guy, but I also didn’t want to have my experience at the Louvre being a manhunt and not enjoying anything. So we decided to split up: Max going to the right, Jeff, Adam, and I going to the left meeting up at the Venus de Milo statue in 30 minutes. We did not truly gage, however, the expansiveness of the museum, and the trifecta found ourselves racing through some of the Egypt sections just to get to our meeting spot. Still, no Ish spotting. Meeting up with Max he had no luck finding the mysterious escapee either, so we decided we would enjoy the Louvre and try to find him later thinking maybe he got lost and went outside.

Thus we saw Winged Victory, took selfies up close with the ever small Mona Lisa as no crowds were there, and then going to the next room found the painting that was on the cover of Coldplay’s Vida la Vida. Some of the painting were simply beautiful-you could tell that this was once part of a palace complex.

After spending a few hours in the Louvre and having walked all day, we were a bit tired and had not eaten dinner yet. Going outside to the Tulleries we still could not find Ish, instead finding the beautiful wonder we deemed the Sparkly Tower. For those who don’t know,  I am referring to the phenomena in which the Eiffel Tower once it becomes dark has a light show every hour. It has the effect of the tower being made by diamonds, as it glows and ruminates the Parisian night sky for a fleeting moment. In awe of this and still not knowing where Ish was, we decided to lie to ourselves that it would be okay, that he was probably on his way back to the hostel, and he knew how to get home. I think the hunger got to us.

In what was to be a kind of tradition for the trip, we ate very well for dinner. But it’s Paris! In a place so known for food how could you not indulge yourself and write it on the budget expenses as another museum you saw. In the Latin Cafe of the Latin Quarter, we dined like kings sharing the house wine, going through so many bread baskets that the waiter even commented on it, and oh man…..Creme Brulee to top it all off. This was unbelievable Creme Brulee. Like every time I took a bite it was followed by and “mmmm” or “wow”. Max also had us all try his escargot, which was fine actually, I just hated the fact knowing it was a slug.

Full and content, we got back to our hostel  to find……no one. Ish was not in his room. Everything had been left the way we had left it when we first set out. HE WASN’T BACK. We all started to panic then. It was 10pm, it had been hours since we had seen him….the situation had just gone FUBAR.

While Jeff focused on the praying section of our rescue squad, the rest of us used my phone (which thankfully I had just filled up prior to the trip) to call their abroad program and ask what to do. It started to become a big deal. The program’s Paris adminstrator was notified, people in Rome were on high alert, and we were told to report immediately to the French police. Great. This is not how I envisioned this trip going at all. But we had to find our lost friend, someone I had only met 24 hours prior. We grabbed our coats with Max in the lead, and as Adam and I started walking down the step with reality setting in deeper with every flight, my ears took in a shout of  “YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME!!!!!!”

It was Max at the front desk asking for directions, when low and behold, none other than Ish himself walked into the hostel lobby. Jesus. Mary. And Joseph. He had made it back.

After recounting to us how he had gotten confused that the cafe closed and thought we had left him, he waited in the Louvre lobby (we somehow didn’t see him) until closing, then got super lost in the metro system. This explanation was followed by Adam stating, “I need a beer.” Everyone followed suit, and let out a little laughter now that we had Ish back.

We woke up early the next morning to take a train out to the Normandy D-Day beaches, something Max and I wanted to do for quite a long time, and to do it together was a real treat. The problem with doing the beaches by way of public transit however is that if you don’t have a car, you have to go with tours, and it being off season the tours weren’t really running. By a stroke of luck I found  a taxi service in Bayeux (yes of tapestry glory), that for a certain rate would take you to as many locations you wanted, dropping you off, letting you look around, and then off to the next spot (pretty sweet huh?)

When we got off the train at Bayeux, we saw the one taxi, knowing that the car was probably our ride. I had communicated with the company beforehand so they knew the whole trip and sha-bang, but it turns out our driver didn’t speak a lip of English. After our “hellos” the kind man stated he only spoke French…and so I had to go back into the anals of grade school to remember some French to say we just wanted to go into the town for half an hour. Counting in French on my hands like a 2nd grader, I was somehow able to get across that we would meet back up again with him at 11. Whew.

After a quick walk around the Bayeux Cathedral, which was absolutely towering and gorgeous, it was off to our nerdy and exciting adventure to the battlefields that we had read so much about. I’d like to add that most of the car conversation was quiet, besides me asking our wonderful driver, “Ca va?” to a chuckle by him saying,”Ca va bien.”

Our first stop was St. Mere-Eglise, site of a horrendous miscalculation by the Allies to land smack dab in the middle of the town, only to be butchered by Nazi troops. How lovely. A statue of a paratrooper caught on the town’s church steeple hung somberly, truly overpowering as the steeple was by far the tallest thing in the little town. But the great part of the area was the paratrooper museum that we got to go inside. Basically having the museum to ourselves, it was one of the most interactive WW2 museums I have seen. Max and I pretended to jump out of the paratrooper plan and were wonderfully surprised to find a whole scene set up making the museum participant really feel like they had just jumped out of the plane that night back in 1944.

Heading back in the cab we were feeling pumped, this was only the beginning! Our next stop took us to Utah beach…making one realize how long and wide these beaches actually were. Currently the scene was a beautiful beach you could find in Cape Cod, back then I have no idea how they were able to run that distance through blazing bullets and somehow make it past the beach head. There was no way. How the heck did they do it….

Pointe du Hoc was a little more sobering than the past two. I think this is where it really started to hit me that I was on ground where so many men had fallen. The thing about Pointe du Hoc, where the U.S. Rangers had battled to take out enemy guns to protect troops landing on the beaches, was that it had been left basically to rot in ruin. The ground was green but shelled, grass now covering the huge divots American bombs had made. Rusted barbed wire hung around some of the area, and the bunkers were all still there, bullet holes and all. It amazed me that some of these things had been untouched…sure there was the bunker overlooking the cliff that everyone was going around, but Max and I explored some in the back area that gave me the heebie jeebies. There were no lights, and having to use the flashlight on my camera the walls of these bunkers were clammy with paint chipping off. There was a part of me that thought a soldier could pop out any minute….realizing that’s how the ranger probably felt going into all these bunkers. The reality being the only threat to me was my imagination, where they actually had the possibility to face an enemy inside. As I observed the bullet holes all over the doorways, most of the time the possibility was real.

You would think that would be the highlight, Seamus being in shock at Pointe du Hoc. But no, it all culminated in an emotional whirlwind at none other than the fated Omaha beach. We only had an hour there, which probably was not enough…but the museum that they have you first go through was so powerful, first explaining what happened and then allowing you to sit in a sound area listening to veterans talk about what happen on June 6th, 1944. It was moving, hearing these men talk about their experiences at the same age we were, entering France very differently than we did (though Ryanair tried to make it the same experience). At the end of the museum is a beautiful memorial to those that we lost-a symbolic makeshift marker for a soldier that had died in the bloody beachhead of Omaha.

We walked down the cliff to the beach, and again I was met with the same feeling of “How the heck did they do this?” It just did not seem possible. The beach was huge and the cliff was hard to climb up with no one shooting at you. It just gave me more respect for the men who landed on Omaha….what an impossible task that somehow they accomplished. You don’t realize the true magnitude of the feat until your shoes are covered in sand and looking up you can see the old pill boxes above you.

Of course there was then the Omaha cemetery of Saving Private Ryan fame…which I feel we were a little rush on. I couldn’t help but be upset by the place. Going through the museum and seeing the beach itself, I was in the midst of its aftermath, surrounded by thousands of dead soldiers. The cab was quieter than usual when we left Omaha.

Okay brightening up here, the group was a little physically and emotionally drained from the whole experience, so after seeing some cool old German batteries, we told the driver to end the tour and we could drop off back in Bayeux. With a little time before our train would take us back to Paris, we wanted to catch something to eat. But France being France, nothing was open for dinner at 6pm except a divey burger/pizza/grill place similar to a storefront bodega. You should nothing of this except that I tried to order my hamburger in french with an accent and instead of sounding like a refined tourist I sounded like Steve Martin in the Pink Panther “Je voudrais un HAHMBEARGUEHRR”. The cashier gave me a confused look to which I responded with an “Um..a hamburger?” If his face didn’t say “Dumb Americans”, I don’t know what does.

Somehow, a good nap on the train completely refreshed us, and we were feeling some night activities. Well Gare du Nord is in close proximity to the Montmarte neighborhood, something I had read was a cool area to see…plus we could see Moulin Rouge on the way there!

Well, I had no absolutely NO IDEA the area that was around Moulin Rouge. Literally the pattern went like this: Peep show, Strip club, sex shop, Gyros eatery–repeat. There was also a McDonalds in the area making me think there was a lot of good stories from that place. Oddly enough at the tip of sexytown where we began was this little pastry shop where we had macaroons for the first time….again the typical “whoa” that you get from food in Paris. Having walked past Moulin Rouge and had enough, we started up the mountain that is Montmarte. The neighborhood had a great old cafe vibe about it…beautifully lit with tons of French folk hanging out at tables outside enjoying the night. We made it to the main thoroughfare and were enveloped by art shops, chocolate shops, and the occasional artist hoping to get some money for a quick portrait sketch. All of this led to Sacre Coeur, the beautiful pearl white cathedral overlooking the entire city. There was a sizable crowd on the steps below the church, as the view was one of my favorites. Of course there on the right the Eiffel Towered sparkled signifying another hour in Paris past. We agreed to go back to the area the next night, and enjoy one last great dinner.

Waking up in the morning, our last full day in Paris would be a good one. Again getting breakfast pastries at the bakery near our hostel, we then planned to have a picnic lunch…getting a fresh warm baguette for 60 cents (unbelievable deal) to save for the day ahead. Clamoring off the the metro we walked along the magnificent mile of Paris: The Champs Elysee. Though it was fun to walk through, this trip really wasn’t about shopping for handbags and dresses, and I was more focused on the Arc di Triumphe ahead. A quick tidbit for those students out there: the Arc di Triumphe observation deck is free for students if you can prove your visa, unlike the Eiffel Tower. Some of my classmates argued that it was actually a better view that the Tower, as you could see the grid system and see the Tour di Eiffel itself. From experience, the Arc was completely worth it…not paying anything we got to take pictures from a sweet view and they even have cameras as you are walking up showing the outside view below you.

Leaving the Arc it was time for our lunch picnic…under the Eiffel Tower! That’s right, we knew there was a park next to the famous monument so why not enjoy a lunch with a great view? We went to the grocery store and picked up cheeses, a couple meats, some chips, and to top it all off: a huge bottle of Orangina (as you cannot legally drink alcohol in the park)! Even though we did not go up to the top, it was a surreal feeling to be with the landmark. To actually see it with my own eyes up close was a better gift than any picture. We put our bags and a blanket down and ate to our hearts content, then basically laying down and listening to music like it was summer. Everything was so good….you could eat the cheese on its own but the combo of meat, cheese, and fresh baguette washed down by Orangina was a meal that could eat forever. The view wasn’t bad either. Max evoked his inner Gaugain and with a cigar in hand he sketched the Eiffel Tower for an art class he had back in Rome. The whole scene was very Parisian don’t you think? Good food, company, an artist in the midst, and the Eiffel Tower in full view. All of this was only ruined by the peddlers carrying metal Eiffel Towers on an iron chain as though they were keys in all different sizes. Unlike other European countries, they really came up to you close and tried to make a hard sell. This happened all over the city of course, and every time was a bit unnerving.

Waking from our nap of reverie the group had two different ideas of what to do next. Max, Adam, and Ish want to go find a cool hat for max in the Hotel de Invalides area, whereas I wanted to see all of my favorite Impressionists at the underrated Musee d’Orsay. So we decided to split up (reckon  all my phone minutes had been used up from the events of the night before), and made the old fashioned plans of meeting back up at a certain time at a certain place. Jeff went with me to the Musee for a little bit, but then went to meet up with one of our other JForcers who was coming into the city for the day. So I had the Musee D’Orsay as my own personal experience. What that means is that most picture observations were fast paced but definitely thought about and cared for. All the artists I love–Van Gogh, Gaugain, Cezanne, Seurat, Renoir, LaTrec, Monet, and even Picasso were all there. It was the perfect Seamus McMahon art museum. But as I said before I do art museums quick on my own so I had seen mostly everything with a lot of time to spare. So I set off to explore the area around the museum, the converted train station, and found myself walking on the St. Germain Pres. Another character in Hemingway’s novel, I was pleasantly surprised to find a crepe cart, and stopped to have a delicious chocolate and banana crepe. Wow was that good…super gooey like a crepe should be and the chocolate being a perfect pairing with the fresh banana (see I told you I loved the food here). Walking through the Parisian side streets on my own was full of fun people watching…the old shopkeeper closing up like she had been for years, the young couple arguing about something that I couldn’t understand with the language barrier, though I had fun imagining a scenario in which the man had bought the WRONG cheese.

After a long walk I met back up with the hat afficianados and we left for dinner in Montmarte. Max was super excited for this dinner because his parents had told him to live it up and thus have whatever meal he wanted with them paying for everything. Well, the rest of us did not have that luxury so we opted for a still pricey but less pricey than what he was thinking restaurant on the square leading up to Sacre Coeur. As all of us were looking at the special deals that included three courses, Max studied the menu like a textbook–some frog legs looked good as the first dish. What he did not count on however, was that the restaurant was super busy, our waitress being the only one it seemed who was outside. So even though she was fun and flirty, Max never got the chance to order anything besides the frog legs. As the other three of us got the salad and meat dish after, the waitress would leave to another customer before he had the chance to order. You could tell he was getting a little upset. The tipping point was when our waitress brought out three deserts for those of us who had purchased the special AND the checks. Adam and I couldn’t help but laugh as the waitress left, as one could see smoke coming from Max’s ears. Here he was supposed to have this decadent meal and instead all he got were frog legs. So he made up his mind and told us angrily, “I’m going to get a crepe then.”

Again taking in the beautiful but sometimes broken bottle ridden steps of Sacre Coeur, we this time went down the long grand stair case to the bottom of the hill. What were hit with up arrival was an entire avenue of souvenir stores giving Times Square a run for its money. It was hopping too, tons of people going through the stores and low and behold at the end, a crepe stand! But this was not the kind of crepe stand on par with the one I went to on the St. Germain Pres….oh no, this was like one of the Gyros shops near the Moulin Rouge. As an immigrant man started to pour the crepe mix onto the burner, Adam and I watched as the man obviously did not really know how to make a crepe. To Max’s dismay, he completely burned it. Another one of the workers came up to the stand and apologized to Max saying that guy was new and still had a lot to learn. He then made the crepe himself putting chocolate on it as though Paris was under siege and this was the last bottle he had left. Adam and I started laughing as friends do as Max was not only utterly disappointed but upset about his crappy crepe. You would think after that whole experience none of us would dare go near that crepe stand again, but of course Ish felt he wanted a crepe too but this time as a nutella banana combo. The crepe process itself looked fine, except when the guy pulled out the banana. Half brown, the man didn’t seem to mind it’s colors nor care to cut it in slices putting it directly onto the crepe (though he did ace the amount of choclate this time). Thus we left the area with Max and his sad crepe, Ish with his cod-piece looking crepe, and the rest of us in silly laughter. As we waited for the Metro Ish blurted out,

“Oh man, I don’t feel so good.”

Illustrating for us that bad things truly do come in threes.

Leaving Paris was almost as hard as getting to it, as even though I was extra careful in printing out a confirmed ticket and bringing it to the airport shuttle, as the man scanned the code it read ERROR. My ticket literally had an error code on it. Great. It was 5 in the morning and no they did not let me on, I had to buy another bus ticket and send my grievance to the company and then they would get back to me in six months. An obvious ploy to not have any grievances. So there went another  20 Euro towards the Parisian economy. You’re very welcome Paris.

But besides that, Paris was awesome, definitely a place I hope to see again in my lifetime. There’s just so much left to explore there. It was also fun being on a “dude” trip, it just had a different vibe than traveling with only another person, family, etc. As you can tell from all the writing it was one of my favorite trips….and definitely one Max and I still talk about to this day.

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Seamus vs. The Funghi Festival

Hey y’all,

I’ve started to finally start up again as I don’t want the memories to fully fade. Yesterday, I was talking to one of my friends who is in Rome currently and  wanting to make a recommendation I forgot the name of Frigidarium!! My favorite gelataria! I was surprised with myself as to how the heck could I forget that….but I guess that’s what happens when you are half a year removed from your last travels (yikes). So I’ve decided to finish this once and for all, so both you and I can look back on these and think, wow he really didn’t forget a whole lot (though somethings will probably be left out and if so, those who are there can correct me). We begin with one of my first trips in September.

Having gotten back from the Amalfi Coast which had been a blast but stressful planning adventure, and Munich which left me in a boozy drowsiness, I happily awaited my first school organized trip to Cusano Mutri. No last minute tickets, no thoughts on where to stay, just packing a couple shirts at 1AM and sleep on a bus. It was refreshing to not worry about any of that and not have to do any work myself. Though a lot of these school trips hurt the wallet (remember when the Euro was a $1.40? I do), it was worth the money in that you traveled with new people in the JFRC program and most of your meals were included. Plus Mitch who was one of my favorite student life assistants, a European term for RA, was the head of the trip and thus everyone knew there would be a great energy and fun aspect added to the trip.

The drive down to Cusano was beautiful from what I remember of going in and out of consciousness. It was about this time in my travels that I started to perfect the art of sleeping in uncomfortable bus/plane chairs. The secret? Stay up really late the night before and bring a sweatshirt as a blanket. The combo does marvels for the college traveler.

Mountains were everywhere. I guess that’s a lot of Italy in general but in Campania they dominated every landscape. Where were the famous landmarks in this area?  On mountains. We passed the Monte Cassino Monastery famous for the WW2 battle that took place on that sacred ground, and in order to get to the little village of Cusano Mutri we had to go through mountains in order to get to the valley in which it was located.

After a lot of ear-popping twists and turns on the small Italian roads, there was the town of Cusano Mutri in the distance. I only knew this because being the travel nerd I am I looked up what it looked like all week. I think Mitch also pointed the place out, but heck you couldn’t miss it. It was the center tower in a mountainous fortress. But to my dismay we pass right by it. Where were we going? Wasn’t our lodge in Cusano Mutri? Future Seamus to Mutri Seamus: Nope.

Our big bus passed the town and climbed higher and higher into the mountains until we finally stopped at our lodge, which turned out to be on a mountain overlooking the entire valley. The view was beautiful, it just meant that going into town would be a big 25 minute ordeal by bus. But that was no problem, as we basically had the whole place to ourselves, set up like grade school camp where the boys were in a cabin on one side of the site and the girls on the opposite side. Gotta love Catholic schools. The campground came with a lot of great amenities though, a swing set, a basketball/soccer court, and even a teeter-totter (yes of course we college kids used all of them in our time there).

But my favorite part of that place was a hill that was right next to the guy-cabin. Climbing up the rocky terrain was rewarded with a view of the entire valley and town of Cusano. A small wooden cross was erected on the highest point of the hill in what seems to be an Italian tradition and the basis for every cross you see in the American South. But there was something calming about it…just the silence of looking out into the green mountains with a reminder that you are not the only one there.

After we were all unpacked and settled, immediately we went down into town to meet our first guides, two lovely Italian women whose names escape me. In what was to be a theme that not a lot of us knew at the time, they took us on a hiking trail right outside of the town that followed to course of a river. Turns out Italian rebels had used the area as a hiding place during unification time, and with all the nooks and crannies and caves, you could see why. A highlight was at the end of the hike where we got to walk around rocks by the river and a small waterfall. Given some time to ourselves pictures were being taken like each view was a celebrity, and everyone was going off into different directions. Two girls Tina and Judi followed me into what should’ve been a simple slide down a rock to get super close to the waterfall, but for one of them it was more of an accidental fall (No worries she was okay, though I think Mitch had a little heart attack).

After hiking we went into town for dinner in the weekend long Sagra di Funghi, an annual celebration of local mushrooms, so everything you ate had something to do with the product. A lot of you who knew me before traveling knew mushrooms were not my thing..well this festival changed that. The first meal was a olive oiled and mushroomed pasta, and boy, was that delicious. I think I had seconds. There was also bruschetta with mushrooms and a red sauce paired with the house wine that we all know would not be considered a house wine anywhere else in the world.

We were then left to explore the town at night, full of its twists and turns and never-ending staircases. Of course everyone broke off in groups, I staying with my buddy Bobby, but the town begin so small you would usually run into someone from the group every 5-10 minutes. The town was buzzing with shops and carts ranging from trinkets to delicious smelling food. Bobby and I walked all around the town trying to find the local haunts, which was cool to do at 9PM at night…with colorful lights fighting off the shadows and everyone in town enjoying themselves in the streets and piazzas. We eventually found Mitch and a groups of other JForcers, which was actually a great benefit because Mitch spoke fluent Italian and being a small town far from touristy spots, no one spoke English. So it was with Mitch that we started to interact with the townspeople more, observing how wonderful and fun people can be once you figure out how to speak with them. We cut a deal with the cheesemaker  so all of us got some free fresh cheese samples, and learned about types of sausages from the area. A couple of us also found a bakery near the center piazza that made AWESOME nutella and cream bombas. Don’t know what bombas are? Look them up. Basically a Boston cream doughnut but a heck of a lot better. It was hands down my favorite pastry in Italy, and sadly have not found a copy of it in America since.

We headed back to the lodge later that night, and were surprised with marshmallows, graham crackers, and Italian chocolate. That’s right, we made s’mores amidst all the Italian summer pastries. It was a blast though as there was a little area to make a fire and a lot of marshmallows for everyone to share. The only problem was that we forgot that we were on a mountain top, and what comes with that setting is a lot of wind. There were a couple instances where I thought we were about to create a “smokey” mountain, but somehow the gods smiled on us and our grassy mountain was spared from the crazy Americans.

After a full breakfast, as in I ate too much mortadella, the bus again made the winding trek down the mountain. After stop in town for a little bit and learning about mushrooms, the restaurant that became our mainstay the entire trip tried, and I emphasize tried, to show us how to make pizza. Kneading the dough and throwing it up in the air is a lot harder than it looks. If they had kept the pizza I made and baked it, it would’ve looked more like Swiss cheese with all the holes it had. But the owners were very gracious and gave us all Sagra di Funghi ornaments, while we exchanged some awesome JFRC hats (definitely a hot commodity in countryside Italy).

We were then off to another hike! This time on the opposite side of the valley from our cabins at a ski lodge. Meeting with one of the owners and his dog, we started walking up the path that usually would be full of snow and full of skiers in its busiest months. In September, it was us, the clouds, and that pesky dog that seemed to always be running. I applaud his energy. For us humans, however, the hike was steep. It was like going up an  staircase to your buddies apartment and asking, “Is this it?” only to realize you have three more flights to fight through.

But getting to the top….Wow what a view. We were so high I couldn’t see Cusano Mutri, just the landscape and clouds. It had that same silence of the hill at our cabins, and along with it that strong wind, so if you see any pictures from that mountain, you’ll see that perfect hair for pictures for the most part was not accomplished. Once my breath came to me from all the climbing I could really appreciate the natural beauty that lay in front of me. “Well, you’re definitely not in Chicago anymore,” I thought to myself. It was a world where you could easily lift up your hands and twirl around like Maria Von Trapp.

After seeing that, you would think that was the only grandeur we would experience today. Instead, our buses led us to a lake in the mountains, guarded by horse that appeared to be mostly free roaming, and a sun that was deciding it was almost time to go to bed. The effect was a dramatic painting, you almost didn’t want to move closer in order to not damage the broad strokes and ripples. Walking along the lake I could see the clouds trying to get across the mountains, sliding down into the lake after trekking about the mountain top as we had done not an hour before. The pictures couldn’t do the place justice…it’s one of those things you reader will have to see yourself.

After all that hiking and walking it was time for dinner in town. The meal? You got it. Mushrooms. This round being pizza with a fresh tomato sauce covered in sauteed mushrooms! And this being Italy we each got an entire pizza to ourselves. God knows we needed that after all the walking we did. We then set our sights on another nightly tour of the town, and having gotten my barrings from the night before this was more of an interactive night. We explored the church on the top of the town’s hill, and in my curiosity exchanged a broken Italian-English conversation with the women who seemed to be the docent of the church about its history. Turns out the crypt of the place that also was a chapel, was from the 1300’s! Or maybe it was 1200’s….not sure as again, broken Italian. It was old that’s for sure.

A group of us then sauntered into one of the main piazzas, and found some locals doing a dance reminiscent of the Electric or Cha-Cha slide. So we thought heck, why not join them? So for a good half hour we danced with the locals in the very choreographed dance…I couldn’t do it now or remember what it sounded like, but by the end I got pretty good at the rhythms and was laughing with the locals. It was a lot of fun. Once the music was over we regrouped ourselves and went down to the main piazza at the bottom of the hill, where a band and DJ were playing for what seemed to be most of the town. Crowds of people were dancing, and now feeling like pros we decided to join again. Soon enough most of the Jforcers on the trip were dancing with the crowd….and they started to recognize us.

Soon the DJ was playing “Surfin’ USA” and some American songs, and we started dancing with the Italians themselves. There was some kind of country swing dance that partnered me with some old Italian ladies, and of course “I Will Survive” somehow pitted me in the middle of a huge cha-cha circle (joined by two strange Italian men that I quickly escaped from). All in all, I had a blast dancing with the locals as we embraced our differences but joined in the great fun of music. Though we could not say a lot to each other, many great things were said that night. We got on the bus still in a music infused mood, and had the front of the bus playing our favorite hits on the intercom the whole drive back to the cabins.

As all good things come to an end, so it had to be with Cusano Mutri. Our last night there Mitch brought us all in the girls cabin to have a celebratory shot of Fragolino, which is basically alcoholic strawberry juice native to the region. Most of us agreed it didn’t taste great (who wants chunks of strawberry right as your throat gets burned?), but the gesture was more important.

The next day was a little more relaxed, we went to a paleontology center up in the mountains that appeared to not have been updated in a while. They needed a big donor pronto…or it was just that I was bored after seeing all those beautiful views. After looking at some dinosaur fossils, we had one last meal in that same restaurant we ate the entire trip, and said our goodbyes to the people we hand bonded with over the past couple of days. Bobby and I of course ran to the bakery to get two bombas each for the bus ride back. Our thought process was that we would save them and eat them over the course of the bus ride. They were gone in minutes.

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Seamus vs. The Arrivederci

Hey Guys!

I know, where the heck have I been the past few months???

Well, November was a crazy time of traveling every weekend, mostly spending about three days in Rome until going off again to somewhere else. It did not seem daunting to me in September, but honestly there was a point towards the end where I was getting a little sick of airports.

Along with the crazy travels, however, were some great memories and stories that I will be sharing with you over the course of my winter break as I have a little more time on my hands. The goal is to get all the travels in there, but we will see how far I get! For now, I’d just like to dwell on leaving Europe and being back home for the first time in four months.

It has been about a week, and I think my mind has still not really dwelt on the fact that I’m not going back to Rome for a while. Maybe it is just because I left the city on multiple emotions. Sad to leave the people and stop traveling, but also very ready to be home with my family and friends and enjoy a good juicy burger. Yes, a good juicy burger. Surprising as it may seem to some people, not matter how fantastic Italian food is, there were nights where I really craved some greasy American food.

The last week and a half in Rome was a mad scramble to do the last things people had on their Roman checklist. There were souvenirs to buy, Frigidarium to eat, and last minute museums to see! I compiled a whole list of things to do, knowing that I probably would not get to all of them (here’s looking at you catacombs).

It what would be a good decision on my part, I was not able to book the JFRC group flight back home, and thus I would be leaving a day after everyone else. So when everyone else was saying goodbye, I knew I had little more time. But since everyone else was going, we lived it up one last time anyway.

First, a fantastic pizza meal bought for us by our wonderful chaplain, Fr. Al, in which my buddy Bobby and I got a table to ourselves and just shared some stories from the past four months and what was ahead when we came back. Then, it was a mad dash to meet up with everyone at Steelers Bar, which turned out to be closed for some odd reason, so that turned into a mad dash to Scholars Bar (not before having a final gelato scoop at Frigidarium). Only a couple hours were spent in there, but looking at our watches we realized in was 2 am, and it was probably time to walk around the city one last time together.

It was cold by Rome standards, and as we walked along the lit up Via del Corso we were the only people daring enough to brave it. We reached the deserted Piazza di Spagna, the one and only Spanish Steps, and for once no one was there. It was like the City knew it was time for us to go and and reserved the area for the night so we could enjoy it for ourselves.

I walked up to about the middle section of the staircase and took a seat on the large bannister. It was freezing cold, but there comes a point where one is willing to have their butt numb from the cold in order to be sitting down and enjoying a moment. It was at this point that it really hit me that I was going…my buddies where swarming around taking pictures, someone decided it would be fun to jump into the fountain, and there was definitely a lot of yelling going on. But besides from being called for a picture or two, my usual loud and talkative self was quiet. I probably should have enjoyed it more or had more laughs, but it just wasn’t that type of moment for me. I felt like crying but couldn’t, and I didn’t really no what to do with myself except sit there and take in my last moments with everybody.

I was woken up that morning by my roommate Brian at 6. Everyone was leaving. I quickly got out of bed in a getting back to consciousness stupor and walked downstairs. Bags were packed, last minute cornetti were being eaten. When the call for boarding the bus came, it was almost like goodbyes at a family reunion. So many hugs and emphasis on “I’ll see you soon”, “Let me know how that internship goes”, or “Say hi to so-so for me, Merry Christmas!” However, it was also a little more depressing than that. A lot of tears were shed because it was “goodbye” for a while, and the great community we had created at the JFRC was now being disassembled right before our eyes. Yeah, I cried. I mean if you had read above paragraph you know the emotions that were running through it was only a matter time I guess! And in a matter of minutes, even the last minute stragglers were gone, and the place that had been so full of life and people the last four months was empty. When I say empty I really mean EMPTY…like there was a hurricane coming and people had left some belongings lying around in a hurry empty. So after an emotional train ride like that what was there left to do? If your answer is pass out for four hours, you guessed correctly.

Gathering all my things (Wow, that was heavy), I said my goodbyes to Fr. Bohr and Al, the SLAs who had become more like friends than authoritative figures, and walked into the cab to Trastevere with some of my buddies who also had opted out of the group flight. I was headed to my buddy Max’s apartment, and as this entire European vacation began with traveling with Max, it was only fitting it ended with him as well. Max and his roommate Adam were doing some last minute cleaning for their apartment so I was left with a few hours to enjoy the city truly one last time. Turns out Matt and Lindsey who had taken the cab with me to the area were staying in the same building as us, and meeting up we decided to go to the “Keyhole” on the Aventine Hill. If you have never heard of it, it’s a Roman spectacle that is best kept a surprise…looking through the keyhole of a doorway on the hill you get to look at something pretty special. If you really want to know you can look it up easily, but I’m telling you, wait until you get here!

So after going to the Keyhole we walked up Michelangelo’s staircase to the Capitoline museum. It was slowly getting dark, and from the stairs we were given a beautiful painting of Roman ruins and domes outlined in the orange-pink haze of the sky behind them. Unfortunately, part of the museum was closed because of the huge labor strike that was going on for the day, so Matt and Lindsey begin there for the weekend opted to go the next day. Low on time, however, I opted to go in anyway, the museum being on my Roman check list.

Turns out, most people would be seeing the museum the next day…..or so it felt like that as I perused the halls of the museum all alone. Now maybe some of you might think that was a bummer, but having gone to so many museums and dealing with flocks and flocks of people, taking in this last museum alone was a true gift. As I gazed at the huge murals and statues, it was only the security guards playing on their phones that reminded me I wasn’t truly by myself. The museum was a great cap in Roman history: The original statue of Romulus and Remus getting fed from the she wolf, the original Marcus Aurelius, and wow..the original foundations of the Temple of Zeus. All of this I was just able to take in alone, and enjoy at my own time. Being a little bit on a time crunch (having no working phone us students can only live by the times that we tell each other we would be back by), I raced through the last bits of the Roman statue exhibits and saw a staircase going to a lower level. Hmmm…well, might as well check it out because when will I be back? I coincidentally followed the museum janitor to the lower level exhibit (something about zodiac symbols) with him telling me in his fastest italian that the end of the hallway was closed for the huge labor strike going on that day. Yes, that is how Italian strikes work. A lot of hubbub in the beginning is supposed to be closed, and then you wake up that morning and a few buses are still going and only half of the museum is open. If your point is to strike, why even show up to work half the museum in the first place?

But hey…where does that staircase lead? Walking up the darkened halls there was an odd elevator/scary music playing. Maybe this was a part of the strike, scaring anyone who wanted to go up this way so they didn’t have to work the area. Lo and behold however, another security man on his cell phone lounging in the corner. He didn’t seem to care about the view right in front of him, and maybe after living in Rome for a couple months I should have had a “whatever” mentality, but it was a beautiful view of the Roman Forum. Quiet, somewhat lit, it was the moment I had needed the night before. In order to properly say goodbye, it really needed to be just me and the city having some one on one time. I leaned on the fence of the indoor terrace, the Forum being as empty as the dorms of JFRC.

………………………………………

So, now that I’m back in the States, looking back at my first blog, I just wanted to go over somethings that I’ve learned and taken from this experience (just going with what first pops in my head):

I can sleep on planes now like it’s my job. Seriously. After so many flights by the end of my travels I actually would get tired on the plane and would just pass out. Bye Bye staying awake!
I did not become an intense coffee lover, but I will happily drink a cappuccino or espresso when needed
My favorite part about traveling is going into a city for the first time, the unknown ahead of you and all you got to help you is the memory of the map you looking at on google the night before.
In the beginning, I had an itinerary of things I wanted to do by each hour…and as more trips came along I realized that something like that was not really necessary. If you wanted to truly see something you would see it, and you kinda have to let your travel days take their own course.
Always know where you passport is..ALWAYS
Learn a few words if you are going to a foreign country. With most Europeans speaking English, it was nice to try and return the favor and speak in their tongue. Even if it was pretty bad pronunciation!
Having met so many people from all over Europe, I just feel more confident in talking to new people. Going into a city alone or a place you know nobody, you kinda have to make do and put yourself out there
I feel more relaxed, maybe it’s me still being on European time, but if I’m a little late to something I’m not going to have a spasm attack (We shall see how long that lasts).
If you have a flight really early in the morning and your friends want you to go out the night before, don’t do it. Please.
In Europe, churches abound, especially in Rome where it feels like every street corner. So obviously, there was a lot of reflection about my spiritual life and where I was with God. I don’t really think it was in the churches that I found him though….more in nature, and the people I met along my travels. It seemed to me that he was there enjoying the cities with me.
It’s tempting to have Chipotle and McDonalds in Europe (yes, I did indulge), but seriously the best meals were trying new things that were a part of a country’s culture. I ate frog legs, had some crab gnocchi, and even ate some whitewurst in traditional Bavarian style.
Be open to whatever comes your way. The best memories and stories from my trips always came from one answer: “Eh, why not?”

And I guess that’s a wrap. I’ll be sure to follow up with the rest of my travels that I missed, and then this will all fully come to an end. But for some reason I think this is only the beginning of a life of seeing the world. That last night in Rome, peeking out into the Forum…I knew I would be back. I don’t know how long it will be, or what lies ahead before that moment, but Europe and Rome left me in awe of what is out there. As I head to classes in Rogers Park for Spring semester, the memories I made will stay with me, and thankfully a lot of the JForcers I was with will be there too. Going abroad was one of the best decisions of my life, and if you are on the fence about it reading this….GO FORTH AND CONQUER.

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Seamus vs. Budvar, Baths, and Blackwater

Ahoy! You’d think I was imitating a pirate, but nope, that’s “hello” in Czech. It’s definitely been a while guys, but I’m glad to get back to writing again. I actually wrote an entire blog post about my travels to Cusano Mutri in Campania, but for some reason my computer decided to delete it all. So there’s that. But maybe if I have some spare time I’ll be able to write on it eh? For now, let’s talk Central Europe.

When my buddies came up with the idea of doing Central Europe for our 10-day fall break, I was very excited at the prospect of traveling somewhere cheap, very different culturally, but more importantly nice and cheap. The six of us decided to do 3 days in Prague, train it to Budapest for 3 days, and then finish up in Croatia (we all had different ideas of what we wanted to do). But it’s funny…I look at that itinerary now and get excited about all those places, but when we booked them, I don’t think it really hit me at how awesome our break would be. I thought it was cool, but the great nervous anxiety truly hit as we stood in line to board the plane to Prague. It was a 0 to 60…there we were, GOING TO PRAGUE!! WOOOHOOOO!

The flight was an easy two hours, with most of the group passing out and I of course reading up about the city. When we got to the airport, we immediately started seeing differences from our home in Rome….the modern architecture, the sculpture of contorted men walking as we exited our plane. One of my friends in the group, Marie, was meeting her parents in Prague and then they’d be going on an entirely separate trip. Cool thing was, her parents had sent for a car to pick her up, and because they wanted to meet us, Corbin and I were able to hop on for the ride! Free transport to the city from the airport is always welcomed. All in all, getting to Prague might have been the easiest and smoothest transitions I have ever had (getting out was harder, but we’ll talk about that later).

The driver was very nice, and helped us start to practice our Czech. “Proseem” was please, “Ahoy” hello, “Jacqui” was thank you (I’m just phonetically spelling this out for you because they are definitely spelled differently). And as we started to drive into the city, he pointed different landmarks along the way. It was a drive full of oohs and ahhs…as we all started to realize how special this place was. What first struck me were the uniform red tile roofs on most of the buildings, and the spectrum of different colors that covered every street. Crossing the river we saw the imposing and regal castle behind us, and the famed Charles Bridge to our right. We finally pulled into Marie’s hotel….and it sure was far from a hostel that we were used to! Just think of any modern luxury hotel and you will get the same feeling we had of “Umm…are we at the right place?” But of course we were! And ended up staying and talking with Marie and her parents for an hour which was awesome. Corbin and I’s hostel was on the other edge of town, so we decided we would walk it and just get a feel for the city. After saying our goodbyes and getting an invitation to dinner with them the next day, we went off with our maps at the ready. Thus began a budding romance between Prague and traveling American student.

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For one, the architecture was so different..the building with different colors, the medieval signage, and this awesome font for their stores and streets that I want to learn to write. I think my friend Corbin hit it right on the head when he said, “This doesn’t feel real, I feel like I’m in the Austrian resort town in Disney World.” It was true, the front facades of the buildings were all meticulously colored and decorated in a certain way, along with Art Nouveau style buildings that I had no idea Prague was known for. Walking through was a great idea, as we went through Old Town Square (where the famous Tyn Church was and the Astronomical Clock…and where you could find the most jacked up prices in town!), saw a cool wooden market that reminded me of the Kris Kindl Market in Chicago, and then….Charles Bridge. For some reason throughout the weekend I kept saying it was the “St. Charles Bridge”, maybe because in the back of my mind I thought it was worthy of heaven. I won’t go into great detail about the history of it but the bridge itself has so much lore: The city’s patron saint was martyred there, a statue of the crucifixion was paid for by Jew as a punishment, and for a long time it was the only bridge that connected the city. Now in the photos you see the bridge on its own, the light rising, and nobody there. Yeah, those pics were probably taken in the early morning or they just blocked of the bridge because every time we went on it, there was a flood of people and vendors. Thousands of tourists trying to get the essential “money shot” of the bridge with the castle looming in the background. Don’t worry, I got plenty of those shots. Even though it was super touristy, I think it was one of my favorite spots in the entire city. Over the course of three days we walked over it many times, and with each step I savored the statues, the view, and the huge medieval towers that waited at each side.

Though very enjoyable, the walk lasted a while, and by the time we started trying to find our hostel it was starting to get dark. It was up on the hill close to the castle, and having lived on a big hill in Rome for a couple months, this thing was a piece of cake. I was again amazed by the red roofs and the colors. We passed a huge white church that from my Baroque Art class I knew was definitely Baroque (we later learned it was called St. Nicholas). Finally reaching our hostel, we discovered that we had found an ace in the hole. For one, the bunk beds were made out of finely stained wood with lockers..the ceilings painted with old colorful designs. Above my bunk was this red and gold all seeing eye which was cool. Turns out the building we were staying in was 400 years old! Not bad…especially looking out the windows and being able to see a lot of the city. And now the whole group was finally all together…Corbin, me , and those great kids from LMU. All settled, we went out and found a cool place for some authentic Prague food. I had this really awesome goulash and bacon dumpling dish, which was eaten pretty quickly after walking around town all afternoon. We then walked across the Charles Bridge once more and saw birds flying over the bridge gate…making me feel that I had been transferred to Gotham city. Another interesting tidbit I realized from this walk…Prague all about flaunting its great buildings at night. Spotlights lit up every landmark, as if they were helping us tourists spot the big draws in the city. Makes you wonder what the electric bill is for lighting up all those landmarks!

The rest of the night was very relaxed, as we went to the bar called Usudu, which was housed inside an old, winding wine cellar. Though there might have been more smoke then oxygen in the place, you could tell it was full of locals (always a good sign) and I had my first delicious Pilsner. We all had a lot of fun, and they had fooseball tables at which my friend Zach and I were a pretty good team (thank you fooseball training in Spain).

The next morning Corbin and I got up with a big to do list. My wonderful cousin Cathleen who had studied abroad in Prague a ways back gave me a couple lists on things to do, so I was trying to follow her lead, as well as add in some things on my own.   First Stop, the Prague Castle right above us. We literally took a right from our hostel and  there was the ramp that led up to the place, full of beautiful views of the city of course. It was a grey sky and foggy…but no spotlights were needed for us to see all the great landmarks of the city. The castle itself was absolutely massive…we decided not to spend the money on a tour and instead just walked around for free. You can go inside the vestibule of the grand St. Vitus Cathedral without the tour ticket which was great as you really got a feel for the inside. The windows were beautifully colored with reds and blues and greens, and there was a window by Mucha on the left side (he’s a famous artist in Prague). After enduring the awe of the cathedral, we walked around the palace gardens and walked through a vineyard on the far side of the castle.

We then walked all the way to the Old Town Square again, as Corbin’s parents had told him that we needed to check out the town hall and clock. After a big line, we worked our way up the tower to get another beautiful view (Corby had a little easier time getting up than I of course). But finally reaching that last step it was well worth it…you could see the entire city, and there was a trumpeter who summoned the hour passing which was cool to hear while looking out into the distance. People carved their names all over the Medieval stone, there was Al from 1970, R+S 2011. I didn’t feel like carving though, I just wanted to take it in. Looking over the square, I may have stood there for 15 minutes just people watching. Thousands of tourists and locals just enjoying another day in Prague, with the guy playing the guitar in the middle of the square creating some nice background music.

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We were getting pretty hungry by this point so we decided to walk away from the overpriced restaurants of the square and get a good meal. Ended up getting this potato bacon and sauerkraut dish called something like “Halousky”. Because we were close, we decided to walk around Wenceslas Square (Yes, named after the king who is featured in that Christmas carol). It is also the spot of the start of the Velvet Revolution….revolution because it ended the communist era in the country, and velvet because hey, nobody died in the process. It was nice just to walk around, definitely more of an urban feel and Art Nouveau buildings than in the older parts of town. As we walked past the Wenceslas statue there was a 4 part band playing a song that was literally a repeat of “Jesus…Jesus….Jesus..Jesus”, but I think the old king would have approved since he was the one who brought Christianity to the country.

Feeling a little worn out from all the walking, we sat down in the far end of the square for a relaxing drink. I tried Budweiser Budvar, which is way better than its American cousin in my book. But it was nice just to sit down and enjoy the beer and company.

Turns out it was a good idea to sit down for a while, because Corbin wanted to see Prague’s mini replica of the Eiffel Tower. Now yes, the tower itself was small, but the hill it was on across from the castle hill made it as high as the Eiffel Tower. Walking all the way up that hill, I was happy the air was full of fresh oxygen I could use and not in Usudu. It was very pretty though, it was really a forest reserve and park..something that was missing in Rome.

We took a little bit of a breather, stretched the muscles, and went to tackle the tower. Now the only way to get up it is up to the outside stairs, so I knew the first level of the tower was enough for me. With my camera in hand Corby went to the top and got some nice selfies. Though it was foggy, THIS was probably my favorite view of the city. You could see for miles even in the grey…and in the distance past the castle you could see a huge block of old concrete housing that you knew was from the Communist era.

We then walked back to our hostel, took our shoes off, and enjoyed the sensation of sitting down and not using our feet. We had seen a ton of the city in a day, which goes to show that Prague is very walkable. It wasn’t before long that we had to dress up and head to dinner with Marie and her parents (who are awesome by the way), which was seriously so good. We went to this Indian place called Two Brothers and literally ate like kings. Stuffed and full of curry, lamb, and cheesy naan bread, Marie, Corbin, and I met up with the rest of the group and went to this fun dance club for the night  that was right on the river.

The next day, we felt we had saved the best for last: The Jewish Quarter. Now even though the Jewish population is sufficiently smaller than it was before World War II (about 120,000 to 10,000…appalling I know), the quarter is still full of the old synagogues and a cemetery. Buying one ticket you can see all of them, with each synagogue having its own unique artifacts and theme. I think the first one we went into was the most powerful. The synagogue itself was basically empty furniture wise but the walls were full of every single name Czech Jews that had died during the Nazi occupation. It was absolutely unbelievable….it seemed like it was a never ending list as each room was full of even more names. Looking at the dates you realized a lot of them were almost the same age as you, and I couldn’t believe it. I feel like I still have so much left to do in this life and there was their lives..systematically ended so quickly. To make the visit even more emotional we went upstairs where they had children’s drawings while they were contained in the ghetto and at the camps. It was amazing to see how the children reacted to what was going on around them and what they observed. There was an illustration of a Jewish stick figure getting hung, a picture of children being able to play outside the ghetto….things I never thought of drawing as a kid. But they were indeed powerful, and I recommend it to anybody who wants to go to Prague.

So after that emotional joyride, we walked through the old Jewish cemetery, which apparently was layered because they only had so much space, so 5 markers usually covered one spot. If the grave markers were teeth, they would definitely need braces, as they were jagged and pointing towards all directions…which apparently is caused by the river moving the soil, as the Jewish Quarter was built on the worst piece of land. There was also this cool collage of Jewish grave markers from the 10th century built into one of the walls…and it was full of coins and rocks, and little papers people had shoved into the old Hebrew lettering . I was of course curious as to what prayers or sayings people had shoved into the wall but I knew it was higher than my curiosity….it was sacred.

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After hitting up the last two synagogues on my list, the Spanish and the Old-New, Corbin and I were feeling a little hungry, and so we walked to Cafe Kafka near Old Town Square which had been recommended from somebody or somewhere. Being a little saddened from the Jewish Quarter, I was very happy that we decided on chocolate cake and ice cream. The cake was awesome…the ice cream I still can’t figure out what was weird about it but we still basically licked the plate dry. Walking back to the hostel I decided in my mind that I’d just be up for a chill night of enjoying the city one last time…which is exactly what we did. For dinner we got some take away kiolbasa and fries from McDonalds (cheap and necessary) and then walked through a park along the river across from the huge and ornate National theatre…which was flooded with spotlights of course. Then as the rest of the group went back to the hostel, Corbin, me, and my buddy Eric went to the top of the castle rampart we had been a day before…and just looked over the city for while.

So you know how I said that it was harder leaving Prague than getting in? Yeah so we are at that part. At first all was good, got up early for the train, made sure we had enough time getting there, got some amazing pastries super cheap. I thought we were going to walk to the station as we had walked this entire time, but others in the group felt it would be better if we took the metro. So Prague’s transit system is pretty similar to Rome in that it is all on a trust based system. You buy your ticket, validate it for a certain amount of time, and then ride freely. But there is nobody to check you if you have one except transit police from time to time who ask you for the ticket, and if you don’t have it you pay a fine on the spot. We were not feeling like taking a fine so we went to the ticket station….but there was no option for a credit card, only coins (which I didn’t have).Crap…what do we do? We only had a certain amount of time to catch the train. So the few of us who didn’t have coins decided to risk it as there were no turnstiles to get in. I was nervous as we went down the escalator but just had to take deep breaths, play it cool, play it cool man. However, as we got to the platform, I was stopped with a “Ticket?” Of course. It was the transit police. And I know from reading there’s a scam pulled on tourists sometimes where people dress up like the police and take your money, but no, these guys had badges..they were legit. They caught Zach and I, the others somehow escaping this…they took our IDs and escorted us up the escalator. I didn’t really know what was going to happen next, were we getting kicked out? brought in somewhere? arrested? Nope. Turns out the cop was very nice and gave us a tour of every sign that said we clearly needed to validate our ticket (which to ourselves we knew we had seen). Explaining we had had no cash, he showed us that the convenient store, right next to the ticket place, sold tickets!!! ARGHHH!

At the train station, we ran into another sad problem in that the train ticket we had researched and read that you should buy at the station…is actually a ticket you need to buy 4 days before your trip. So paying a fine and paying more for the ticket to Budapest, I needed some more of that Kafka chocolate cake…or maybe the Trdelnik, the large cinnamon twists sold all around Prague that remind you of Christmas. It was almost like Prague didn’t want me to leave…and took revenge on me for cheating on her with Budapest. But even though it was a frustrating ending, Prague is still one of my favorite cities in all that I have seen. That last night walking around we passed through the Charles Bridge for the last time, and there is this a marker that If u place your hand on St. John and make a wish, it will last forever. I know it’s bad luck to tell your wishes, but I wished to come back….with a friend, a lover, family, whoever…as long as I get to go back.

The seven hour train was not bad, and we got to see a lot of the countryside that we would not have been able to see otherwise. I learned a lot of the Czech Republic is very different from Prague, and we even got to train through Slovakia. I think a highlight was while I was in the middle of my writing, I was nudged by Corby who pointed out the window to four massive nuclear power plant towers right next to the train tracks. My immediate reaction was along the lines of “Oh…lovely…anyone up for going back to Prague?”

After lots of sleeping, peaking out into the different countrysides, and reading, we finally reached our destination: Budapest. One think I kept reading about and which was very true was the importance of one date, 1896. It was during this year that in an effort to commemorate the 1000 year anniversary of the Magyars settling on the Danube, a ton of new buildings were constructed, including most of the important landmarks. But the interesting thing was…it almost seemed on first impression that a lot of this city was stopped in 1896 or late 19th century. Sure, there were modern amenities, but it reminded me of Pompeii in that you could walk down one road or avenue, and feel like you are walking in a world that is centuries before your time. Some buildings are in better shape than others…you could turn a corner and find an old apartment building that had eroded with time and dark soot, its facade crumbling, fading paint job, maybe if it had a brain it would be always thinking about the good ol’ days when it was magnificently decorated. 

It was at the train station area that we had to part with our LMU friends, as they were in a hostel different from our very uniquely named “Sexy Tractor”. Yes…I know what you are thinking, Seamus, what the heck were you doing at that hostel and why does it have that name? Well to answer the first, it was six bucks a night, which I find a very nice deal to the 34 dollars a night of London! And second, I eventually asked the wonderful owner, Tim, why exactly he had named the place “Sexy Tractor”. His answer: “Why not?” I guess he had a point….thus the hostel I shall own in the future will be dubbed, “The Sensual Bulldozer”.

The hostel was in a great location, but the problem was finding it. Walking up and down the block about two times, we finally found the doorway..to an apartment complex.  Not really knowing what we were doing, an old Hungarian man opened the door for us, telling us in Hungarian (also known to stupid American tourists as gibberish) that we need to go up the stairs. Now, this staircase, was out of Saving Private Ryan when they are going in and out of bombed out French buildings. Old staircase falling a part basically. The lights would sometimes go off, and one would have to turn on the phone flashlight and wonder the possibilities of making a horror film there. Finally getting to the top, we found that the hostel was located on the top floor, and we were led to our rooms and such no problem.

The reason why I’m spending so much time talking about this place however, is that this hostel was so different than anything I had experienced. First off, I think my Mom would have been in utter shock of this more than the cabins in Sorrento. Secondly, it was one of the most relaxed, chill, community based places I have ever been a part of. Though I was a little skeptical at first (opposite of Corbin), this place grew on me, and the different personalities that walked the complex each had their own tales and stories. On one side of the tenement courtyard, a huge group of refugees from Syria were staying there as it was the only place they could get. They seemed pretty cool, all we could do to communicate was nod at each other, but it was friendly enough.

Okay enough about where we lived, let’s get to Budapest yeah?

So that first night after we had gotten settled, Corbin and I were getting super excited about how cheap everything was. For dinner we walked to Octagon square and got a full Gyros and a drink for two dollars…then we saw a cool uppity park in the distance, sat down at benches, and just people watched as we enjoyed our meals. Then it was time to meet up with our LMU friends once more at a Budapest place called Trap Game. It’s exactly what it sounds to be….you and your friends are locked in a themed room, and have to unlock different logical puzzles in order to escape. Don’t worry, they will let you out if you’re not able to get it right. If you do try to do this, just be wary that there are two different locations 15 blocks away from each other…and hauling yourself from one to the other to reach your friends who are at the other location in time can be a tiring experience. But even though we were late, the Trap guys were very nice and let us join our friends. It was a lot of fun, we were in this room that was Egyptian themed, and literally with every puzzle you felt like Indiana Jones or Robert Langdon. We finished in about 47 minutes..so beat that people!

We then all decided to walk north towards the Parliament building, but being disoriented with directions ended up hitting the Chain Bridge…and one of my favorite views in our stay in Budapest. The old Chain Bridge illuminated with those 19th century lightbulbs  of movie theaters and vaudeville shows, the massive domed Buda castle in its background, and there, to the right, was the Parliament building that I think blows the U.S. Capital building out of the water. There was a stone walkway that we sat on for a little bit. It was funny…it was like Prague in a way that there was the bridge that lead up to the castle, all landmarks illuminated…but for some reason that I cannot figure out I liked it better. It had a regal-ness to it, a setting to an Agatha Christie novel. We then parted with our LMUers, not to see them until we got to Croatia (we’ll get there I promise). Corbin and I kept walking to the Parliament building, where we just gazed in awe at the spires, the dome…gosh they must have dropped a lot of dough for that (they did). It was then back to our Sexy Tractor, where I went to bed early internally knowing the next day would require a lot of energy.

Something I had never done before, but getting good reviews from friends in other cities I decided to try, was a free walking tour of Budapest. Andrassy (pronounced Andrahsh..and don’t worry that was his name) made it something to remember. He was full of wonderful puns and great information, and doing the tour definitely made me appreciate the site more than just reading a book and winging it. Of course on these tours you start talking to people, and we met these cute South Africans. As I was talking to one of them, making her laugh, feeling very good about the situation, I was so focused on her that I didn’t realize where we were walking and was brought back to reality by a metal pole to the crotch. It was straight out of a movie. Anyways, after the tour ended on the Buda side next to Matthias Church, he actually took us to this Hungarian cafeteria hidden away from the touristy areas. It kind of reminded me of Manny’s Deli  back in Chicago..take a tray, pick what you want, then pay the cashier for some amazing food. It was completely off the beaten tourist path..as we were the only non-Hungarians there. I had this awesome beef potato egg and cheese casserole topped off with a creamy crepe.

From our cafeteria adventure we went with one of our new friends from the tour to see Matthias Church and the Fisher’s Bastion…both equally beautiful and basically done being restored, which is refreshing for a student currently living in “construction forever!” Rome. The church and bastion were a clean cut white…making us think we were on the ramparts of Minas Tirith ready to do battle with Orcs and Ring Wraiths! Okay maybe that’s not the vibe everyone gets as they gaze across the Danube into the imperial city, but I like to have a little goofy fun. 

After walking around there for a little, Corbin and I departed from our Australian friend and decided to go to the top of Gellert Hill…on which an old fort and this giant old communist statue looks over the city. But it’s a pretty high hike from the Castle as you have to go all the way back down and then all the way up (there was a little trepidation). As we started the climb, however, we realized that we had entered a beautiful city park. The entire hill was full of paths, benches, and all sorts of greens..and it just needed to be explored. I looked back at Corbin, “Hey, you want to split up and just meet at the top?” “I was actually about to ask you the same question.”

Winding my way up was a nice time of quiet, just the trees, the view, and that old guy picking up his dog’s poop. As I got higher and higher and realized the stairs narrowly hugged the cliffside of the hill, the hike became a little slower. But I did it, and reached Budapest’s best view. I don’t know how long I sat there, just watching the city as the sun slowly was making its way down. When Corbin and I met up again, we decided we would stay around the park, eat, and then enjoy the city turn on its lights. It ended up being a great idea, as I laid down in the grass after a lot of walking…and after a cheap hamburger I ran back to the view overlooking the city, and saw the car lights turn on followed by a glowing city. It’s a moment I will keep for a long time, and maybe I’ll be able to go back some day.

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Having done most of Buda in a day, we decided that our last real day would take place in Buda. What is there to do in Buda? Oh boy, lots of things that I have yet to do…but for too tired travelers, the Szechenyi Baths are a perfect idea. So that’s exactly what we did, as we had the whole day to soak in the baths and get a little break from walking around everywhere. They were relaxing in every sense of it..I first tried out the indoor pools and just let out a deep “Ahhh..” I looked around and there was such a diverse crowd of people..the foreigners (us), fat old men in speedos, children running around, couples sitting in the pool together. It was a very public affair. Made think about how this is what it must have been like for the Romans way back when, with just pools upon pools. Though I think they were naked….but hey, the speedo is pretty damn close.

We spent the entire afternoon going to different pools and saunas, my favorite of course being the outside pool. It was actually a little cold outside but then you would work your way into the pool and immediately forget that it was cold at all. I think these baths would work wonders for the Loyola Chicago community come winter time. Thermal bath on Lake Michigan anyone?

After the baths we had gotten an idea from Marie’s parents to go see an opera show, as it was 2 bucks to get a seat the Opera house was supposed to be right. Getting to the Opera House, they were right on both said statements. We had thought the show was at 7, so we just went in to check if any tickets were left, but it turned out the show was starting in 10 minutes! So we jumped on tickets, and got to our seats. Wow, that chandelier was huge. Wow, this space is space is full of ornate gold designs and statues. Wow, am I underdressed. But it did not matter too much, as we were high up and not a lot of people could see that there was a young kid in an Old Navy sweat shirt listening to the classy Opera. The show itself, Verdi’s Falstaff, was amazing too…the sopranos hitting unbelievable notes, and thank goodness for the English translation above the stage. We decided to leave after intermission as we had plans for the night and had not eaten dinner, though there was a part of me that just wanted to stay and see the next 2 hours of the show. However, my stomach won. I was starving.

That night for dinner we decided we would make our own food that we had bought at the market earlier in the day and then head out to the famed “ruin pubs”. I was starving after the baths, but to my surprise, my .80 frozen pizza  (name on it and everything) was nowhere to be found. I had just bared witness to to the reason why some in an office are really stingy about writing on there food. Ex. THIS IS LISA’S GORGONZOLA SALAD. TOUCH IT YOU WILL BE CUT! I guess I didn’t really have a fearsome message written on my food so I guess it was up for grabs. But c’mon, it was an .80 cent pizza! It was easy to just go grab another one…and with some of the people living in that hostel, I assumed they needed it more than I did. As a bonus to myself, however,  I not only got the pizza but a delicious Hungarian pastry.

Great, that was a nice story but what are these ruin pubs? I’m glad that you asked reader. So remember when I was talking about how some of the buildings in Budapest seemed warn out, needed some love? Well, sometimes they don’t get love, and need to be torn down. In 2002, however, one crazy guy decided, Hey! This building might be condemned but let’s build a bar in it and party! The result: One of the coolest, hipster-esque, strangest places I have ever been. There are three so called “ruin pubs”, but by far my favorite was Szimpla, which was the original. Now don’t worry, they’ve fixed up the place so it won’t fall down..but they also added a ton of weird trinkets and cool lights. There were so many thrift shop cool antique places you could sit down, it kinda reminded me of my cousin Cathleen’s wedding in some way (gosh, there she is again!). But honestly, for a while I sat on this duck that definitely had been in a kid’s park, and they had a huge outside courtyard where Corbin and I talked sitting in a cut out of an old car. The place was an experience in itself.

The next morning, it was time to leave Budapest. I must admit, I was not happy leaving the city, as I felt I had just scratched the surface. There was still so much to do…and when was I going to get a huge gyros for $2 again? But that is something I am learning with travel, the more I do it the more difficult it is to leave each city. You get something out of every place you go, and it’s an addicting curiosity of what the next day will bring you in a foreign place. Well, that day Budapest gave me a great goodbye gift with great tickets to Croatia and the Langos for pre-train lunch. The Langos, a fried dough with sour cream, cheese, bacon, and sauerkraut, of course being my favorite of the two! It was then a six hour train ride from Budapest to Croatia, on which Corbin and I got a whole compartment to ourselves. Though it was long, we shared some laughs, talked about home and friends, and come about 9 o’clock was pretty darn tired. But I could not be–we had a flight out of Zagreb (the capital city) at 5:50AM and we were pulling an almost all nighter.

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After doing a little asking around, Google Maps (This whole town has open public wifi, just saying), and searching, we figured out the public bus that would take us to the airport at 2 in the morning. Cool, settled. It was then a short walk into the main square, which compared to the relatively larger Prague and Budapest wasn’t much. But we had to kill some time, so we walked around the Cathedral, some closed shops, and then found the cool cafe strip of Zagreb. Sitting down at a random one, we ended up talking to some really cool locals: Marcos and Jozef. They both were studying in Zagreb, but Marcos had been a tour guide in Dubrovnik for the summer, which was great considering useful tips about a place one is going to is always welcomed! We then started talking about the long and complicated history of Yugoslavia..which if any of you are interested should definitely read about. I won’t really go into it, but only being about twenty years old…the wars that happened in the 1990s still have their effect today. For one Dubrovnik was sieged and shelled during that period, and second a lot of innocent people on both sides were slaughtered. Marcos talked about being 5 or 6 and just looking out the window..seeing the short flares of gunfire and the sound of shells. Unimaginable right? What a great cultural lesson before sinking our teeth into Croatia.

But it was 1 o’clock in Zagreb, and it was time to go. So we strolled through the dark streets to the deserted bus station, where, thank God, our bus was the only one left. Trying to keep myself awake the outside view is just a blur to me now…but finding our street to get off and found ourselves a short mile away from the airport. In the complete darkness, the only sound was us walking…and getting to the airport, we found the place deserted. Literally no one was there, it was out of an apocalypse movie. Okay so maybe the night security guards were there but that was it! Being 2:30AM,  we found the nearest chair, set our alarms for 4:30, and passed the heck out. We would later wake up as they were setting up security at 4:30, so I guess check that off the bucket list…but the rest is we got on the flight, I passed out some more yadda yadda transport stuff.

So, that brings us to the final destination: Dubrovnik. Just as it took you a lot of energy to get to this point, it felt the same way as we drove on the shuttle towards the main city. But there it was…the Pearl of the Adriatic, surrounded by mountains and sea. We decided it would be cool to stay in the Old Town for a few extra dollars, and ended up staying in this awesome house that was 400-500 years old!! The staircase that led up to our third floor thus was very narrow and steep, two factors that led to me slipping down a couple after a little nap.

So it was 8:30AM, we were running on little sleep, and had dropped our bags off at the hostel. So what does that call for? Exploring of course! We immediately tackled the great walls of Dubrovnik (you can walk around the whole thing in about an hour and a half), and got to see some of the most beautiful views. It was very steep at some points though, 1)Making me wonder how the heck did they do this in armor back in the day and 2) How are these old cruise ship tour couples able to climb these steps right now because I’m struggling! But it was cool to be on walls that no doubt had been used for the Game of Thrones series, and Corbin and I reenacted the Battle of Blackwater as old ships were coming into the harbor. After walking around the entire wall system and towers, we went back to the hostel to sleep for a while…but for some reason it was only an hour before I was awake again and just had this urge to see more. I also realized that the Dubrovnik wall ticket we had bought also included the St. Lawrence Fort right outside the walls, so I decided it was time for a little independent adventure. So I raced down the stairs (this is where I slipped and fell) and out I went through the old city gate. There is something magical about exploring a city by yourself. In an odd way you almost see more because you are not focused on anybody but your surroundings…taking things in at a higher level. It was in this state that I realized wow, this main drag of Old Town is a super tourist trap (though I liked it anyway) but I also found some quiet away from the crowded streets at the fort. Sure, there were a couple people there, but I was able to just look out from the city at its walls and just gaze into the city from a little distance. It felt like 4 in the afternoon when it was really about to be 1PM.

After the quiet of the fort and exploring a little bit of the city we had not seen yet, I met back up with Corbin and went to the Buzo bar, a whole set of patios built outside of the walls on which we could see the sunset. The main level was the bar, but you could walk down a flight of steps and there was a whole stone level made for just watching the horizon and in some cases, cliff diving (crazy kids). Watching the beautiful orange sherbet of a sunset hit the old walls…I was suddenly hit with a memory of Innisfree, my family’s summer home, the tradition being to watch sunsets from our cliff. After watching a great sunset like that in the small town, what more is there to do but to walk around and enjoy the place at night. So we dropped in on a group of people doing this kind of kick-boxing-fight dance (a lot cooler than I’m describing it), we got some ice cream, and ended up going to the port pier where we were joined by couples and a hobo sleeping on a bench, who might have had better views than any hotel could offer him.

It being our last day in Dubrovnik, Saturday was a lot more chill than any other days of our travels. Packing our lunch, we headed up the hill above the old town to take a tram to Mt. Srd (pronounced Surge), where Napoleon had built a fortress over the city. Remember that Siege of Dubrovnik I was talking about? Yeah, well a lot of the fighting happened here, as a group of soldiers defended the town from the fort’s bunkers and walls. Up at the fort, it was pretty evident fighting had taken place here…the fort still had battle scars, ceilings caved in, and  stone bunkers still dug in like they had been twenty years before. We decided to eat lunch on top of one of the bunkers that overlooked Dubrovnik and the entire surrounding area. What a surreal moment…here we were surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery on earth, sitting on a landmark that brought memories of something not so beautiful. Walking around after lunch Corby found some pieces of definite shrapnel a little bit below where we had sat at our bunker. The history buff in me thought wow! How cool! (As yes I do have stuff from the Civil War back home). But, as we started to walk back where the tram was, I saw the quickly put together wooden cross that we had passed before. Erected on top of a big pile of rubble, the cross found itself in a bunker that looked like it had been shelled. I looked at the pieces of rubble in my hand. “This doesn’t belong to me,” I thought, as I realized I was not one who had lived during that time, and the guys who had probably seen the shell I was holding were now just a memory, a wooden cross. So I left my shrapnel pieces there. I don’t know if the are still there now but, I know for a fact, they were left in the right place.

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After the hill, it was time for the beach. Though I was not completely into it at first, as the Irish skin tends to make me not like the sun, it was actually a great end to a great trip. All the hiking, walking, exploring, and learning all led to a moment of relaxation on a beach overlooking the walled fortress of a city. Listening to some chill tunes as the sun slowly went down, Corby and I knew we had had a fantastic adventure.

If you got this far, thanks for reading! I apologize for any of the spell checks in there, but you know, not a ton of time to edit these things. The next upcoming week should be interesting, as I have two midterms and then classes on Friday (bummer) to make up for the class time lost on Thanksgiving break. So it’s definitely going to be a weekend of staying in…or maybe I’ll just take a day trip somewhere..who knows! Regardless, Fall Break was a great adventure full of so many memories and people that I will never forget. Ciao for now ragazzi!

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Seamus vs. Paradiso and Pompeii

Part 2 (of an ever-increasing write fest)

So where we…yes the Amalfi Coast!

After a great weekend in Umbria, I found myself in another position of “This was not on my radar of things to see but I am going to go for it!” Talking with a few of my friends a lot of them had suggested going to the Amalfi Coast, and after looking up Google images of the place, I was ready to pack my bags and travel there. With a group of originally eight, the planning process was a little stressful…but I won’t really go into detail about that. Who wants a blog full of “CAN THIS TRAIN FIT ALL OF US?!?! HOW DO WE GET THERE FROM THAT PLACE?!?! DID WE BOOK IT RIGHT?!?! HOLY CRAP MY CARD GOT DENIEDDDD” Trust me guys, it’s not that dramatic but hey, those are good questions to cover when planning a big trip (and those questions were rolling through my head).

When planning hell is over however, you get the reward: an amazing trip. I think we all were very excited on the train to Sorrento, where we would be staying for the weekend. I don’t think we could have possibly known, however, all the happenings and learning moments that would take place.

After a two hour speed train into Naples, and an hour long suburban train ride to Sorrento, one can get a little tired. But we had made it, it was a beautiful night in Sorrento…and even though I really could only see the dark imprints of the mountains around us, I knew we were in a pretty cool place. Now, our hostel was on the mountain over looking the city, so from the train station we rambled through the town to a main road that led up the mountain. Positive: Beautiful view of the town, the cliffs, the lights, the cruise ship just docking into the port. Negative: Carrying up suitcases (as some of us had ) is never easy! It what seemed to be a road full of twists and turns that never ended, we finally made it to the hostel…I mean…campground. Yes, we were going to stay in little cabins with outdoor community bathrooms. And we were on the farthest most point on the entire campground. It was a place that I knew my mother would never stay at, but hey it was cheap! I’m a college kid! She wasn’t with me!

Walking up small hills and such, we ended our long adventure from the train station and reached the shiesty cabin. And who greeted us across the water from our view? Good ol’ Mt. Vesuvius. Literally right in front of us. It was a chilling moment in the sense that wow there is the real monster that wreaked havoc in Roman times, but also the idea that it could blow up at any time and Poof! There goes great Amalfi vacation.

Okay, so now that we have covered that morbid thought let’s talk about our next morning shall we? So the girls had been talking about going to the island of Capri. It really had not been on my radar, but it sounded like a good time, the place was only a 25 minute boat ride away, and I had heard the place was beautiful. Taking a shuttle down from our campground, we headed into Sorrento to book our ferry. I had not truly realized this in the dark, but it turned out Sorrento was on a huge cliff that went straight down. The port we were trying to go was way down below us, and after asking a lovely hotel receptionist, found the elevator to take us all the way down. Stepping out, it appeared as though there was difference between sky and sea…maybe just a different shade of blue here and there. But it was like nothing I had seen before, and with each step I just tried to take it all in. After buying our ferry tickets at the port, we had an hour to kill and decided to get some lunch on the sea. While we waited for our food an old man trying to sell his “Paradise” gelato started shouting, “Paradise! Paradise! Get your paradise here!” Sitting at that table with my friends–laughing, eating great pizza, taking silly pictures–I think the man was right.

Coming into Capri all of us were able to catch a glimpse of the island, and I immediately thought, “Gosh and I thought Sorrento was pretty.” The town at the port was full of all different colors, surrounded by the green mountains and great rock formations you see in resort commercials. As we were getting off the boat, I was telling my friend Taryn about how in one of the guidebooks I had Capri was a notorious tourist trap. “If this is a trap,”she responded,”I’m totally okay being trapped in it.” I couldn’t agree more. I was ready to enjoy the island, and see what our day in Capri had to offer. Turns out, fortune hit us right off the boat. A man was standing right in front of us folks coming off the ferry offering a boat ride around the entire island. Now, I had my doubts about this as those are the guys that get ya, the ones that are trying to sell things right when you land. But as a whole group talking with him, he seemed like a good guy, the boat ride for all seven of us was cheap, and we would be getting to swim!

As we started heading out of the boat, we learned we had picked a good driver. 1)He had lived in Capri his whole life 2)Had been doing private boat tours for 8 years 3)He had a pretty cool name I had never heard before: Atteno. Me being me I of course wanted to ask him about the island, so when we  passed the first mountain I asked him what it was called, to which he replied, “Uh, it’s just a mountain.” But he was actually a very informative guy, and took us to all the different caves around the island.

With each turn, Capri got more and more beautiful. Lying on the motor-sailboat we all continued to ooh and ahh about the landscapes and the sea. We decided that to have a house here would be ideal. Atteno agreed. I closed my eyes, I was having a great day. Here I was in the most beautiful water and island and….SWOOSH a big splash of salt water right on my face.

Halfway through the ride Atteno let us swim around. After which, some of us got a little sea sick and had to fall asleep on the deck in order to keep calm. I, however, was like a puppy putting its head out the window. Look there’s the lighthouse! Aw man look at that house! How did they manage to build that stone structure on that hillside?! Besides the thoughts in my head it was a quiet last hour boating around the island. Atteno on his phone, me looking longingly at the island, and Bobby watching the waves. The sun was beginning to descend, and as we rode back into the port the island blocked it out…giving a holy rays coming from the mountains look. Getting off the boat we all thanked Atteno for the great ride, but Marielle, just wanting to be sure, asked him what his name was again……it was Guitano. GUITANO. I had been calling him Atteno the whole time and his name was Guitano. It was a sad moment for those trying to undermine the American tourist stereotype. Nevertheless, through my guilt I gave him a nice tip.

Back in Sorrento, we ended up having dinner in a great place that had been recommended to us by a local shop owner. The funny thing about the place was, I think the waiters were ready to get us out as quick as possible. First off, we sat at a table that had the signed “Reserved” on it, but they were also hovering over us as we sat eating our meal. Maybe they were just being very attentive and helping us out in seconds of dining distress, but I had never seen it before. Besides that though, we got a free slice of margherita pizza with our pasta, which is always sweet. For the main course I had some cannelloni stuffed with a beef sauce….mmmmm.

The next morning, we prepared for the long hike from Sorrento to Positano on the other side of the Amalfi inlet. It was 10 miles, 4 hours, and when we were planning the trip it sounded like an exciting thing none of us had tried before. Well, when we asked our desk receptionist how to get there by foot, he was taken a little aback. Printing out many maps of the area and high-lighting what we would have to do, it looked like we would have to take some highways to even get there. So, we decided as a group that it would be best to just get to Positano by bus..as it was already getting close to midday. I was a little disappointed not doing the hike, but looking at it it probably would have been a bad idea. Getting to Positano and stepping out of the bus made the morning’s stresses go away. I was immediately brought back to memories of the Greek island of Santorini and its cliffside roads and houses. Now THIS is something my Mom could do. As we were on the top of the cliff from the bus, we slowly made our way down to the beach. Another beautiful view, looking behind us you could see the town rising up the cliff, multiple colors at each level, and turning back to the front there was that salty sea that every part of me loved (except my eyes). As most of the group decided to lay on the public beach, I decided I wanted to explore and find how to get to this stone tower off in the distance. Bobby joined up with me on my adventure, and walking around the hill what we found was a beautiful rocky beach that was not as crowded as the public one in Positano. We hung out there for a little, but trekked back to our friends to tell them of our findings. They were up for heading to “our secret” beach, and in the process of waiting for everybody to go I actually ran into one of my old high school classmates, Clare, who I had not seen in a very long time! But that’s not all…as we got to the new rocky beach I heard a “Seamus?!” It was Nikki, one of my Mom’s coworkers who somehow had found the same beach. Now that was weird. Two sightings of people I knew in such a random place such as Positano. It is truly funny how life works like that sometimes.

We ended up staying at that beach for hours, even though the rocks were killer on the feet. So much so that if you had watched me walk on them, you would have thought I was trying to quickly walk through burning hot sand. The locals sitting on towels probably enjoyed my performance. But who cares, Positano was worth the sore feet. As the sun started to set, we decided to climb up the other side of Positano, and were rewarded with beautiful sunset views of the city.

Back on the bus, we ran into some Loyola kids who had actually done a hike that day. From what they said it sounded amazing, but I was happy with what we had done…we were meant to spend an absolutely beautiful day in Positano, and I wouldn’t trade that for the world.

The next morning, the group split up for the first time, the girls deciding to chill out in Sorrento for the day and then have authentic Neapolitan pizza while us guys (after a little convincing of Bobby), decided we would take the train to Pompeii as it was on the way back to our train in Naples. I for one had thought about going the whole weekend after I realized how much time we had on the last day. It was $11 euro to get it which was kind of a bummer, but  again, when were we going to do this again?

After a train ride full of a young italian couple making out in front of us, Bobby, Brian, and I headed towards the gates of Pompeii (cue Eye of the Tiger music). I was pretty pumped, as my inner nerd was ready to go again into a place I had read about so much before. But this place was also different. Before I had left for Europe, I thought it would be cool to find the places in Europe that my parents had traveled once before, and so on my phone I took pictures from their honeymoon but also got ones of my Dad when he had gone to Pompeii with his buddies. I had two pictures, one in which he was with another guy in a place where it seemed to overlook the city, and another where he was sitting in what looked to be a bathtub fountain. With this as a secondary goal to actually exploring the city, us boys went in.

Now, having been to Rome now and having been to Greece, I have been blessed to see a lot of  ancient ruins in my day. But Pompeii was completely different than anything I had seen before. Though a lot of the tall apartments had been taken out, it really felt like I was walking through a city. Not much had to be left to the imagination as the original roads lay at your feet and the walls still encircled the city. Time was frozen here….you were back in 79AD when Vesuvius had covered the city in ash. I had a little idea of what stuff was and where to go, but that was better than nothing, so I ended up guiding Brian and Bobby around and then when we would pass tour groups we would stay around pretending to be taking pictures and such but actually listening in on what the pros had to say. We ended up seeing the bathhouses, the House of the Faun, House of Apollo, and made our way towards the northern wall. Seeing that that area was higher than the rest of the city,  thought that would be my best bet for finding the spot of my dad’s first picture. Walking along a beaten path that followed the wall, I realized something…there were two great big pines behind my dad in the photo, and looking to my right.. THERE THEY WERE!! We figured out that my Dad and his buddies had been standing on a guard tower that people were not allowed to be on anymore, but instead took a shot that had those same trees in the background…and Bobby and Brian were great sports about taking pictures in the same poses as my Dad and his friend.

Walking down the path we decided where else to go in Pompeii, the Roman theatre ampitheatre would be our next conquest! This was on the other side of the city however, and as a way to amuse ourselves we made our own music video of Bastille’s “Pompeii” in Pompeii, because that’s where the real music video should have been done obviously! It was then on to the Roman theatre, where Bobby and I were freaking because we had just learned about all thing Roman theatre in our classes last year. Seeing an opportunity to be theatre kids we decided to do a little rendition of “Trojan Women” something that had been put on our Freshman year at Loyola Chicago. Standing in the orchestra, we merely were doing it for Brian who was videotaping it for a joke back home…but when we finished, a loud applause echoed the theatre. A tour group we had not really paid attention to had been watching us the whole time. Unknowingly, we witnessed what it must have been like for Roman actors at the end of a performance…though ours was definitely more half assed and did not need the applause that our ancient predecessors probably did.

Then walking through one of the main streets of Pompeii (where we saw old Roman graffiti which was cool), we reached the ancient stadium. There was not much to do there but take goofy gladitorial photos and videos, but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless. It was at this point that fatigue set in, and I for one was ready to be done walking. I mean if you think about it…we had walked through a whole city in 4 hours! It was great for the legs but they sure weren’t happy about it!

There was only 2 sad problems…we had not seen any of the bodies that were so famous of Pompeii and I had never found my Dad’s fountain. I had really tried to find the fountain, but reader if you see a map of Pompeii you will see that there are fountains freaking everywhere!! I found one that had a similar face to my Dad’s photo but it didn’t look like a bathtub..none that I had seen were as big as the one my Dad was sitting in. So I conceded…a photo of my sitting in a fountain was better than nothing right? Once again Bobby and Brian helped me with the right pose. I wasn’t totally disappointed, I mean there were so many parts of Pompeii blocked off..it must have been near that tower he had stood on.

On the same street we headed back to the Forum….but it was not the sight of the Forum that caught my attention. Right there, in the distance, was a white fountain. Like the picture. I walked faster, and saw it was bigger than any other I had seen. Like the picture. I looked at the facial carving above it….and yes, IT WAS THE SAME FACE. We had found it! We had found the fountain out of a thousand fountains that my Dad had sat in back in the 80’s. I still have no idea why he decided to sit in the fountain, but there I was, about 30 years later, doing the same thing. I was overcome with excitement…my Dad was here, he sat where I was sitting. It was surreal. I think I kept saying “Ah! This is so cool!”, and so much so that a woman asked us if the fountain was some important monument she had missed. After explaining to her the situation, we then asked if she knew where the bodies were, and heck! They were a block away. Check and mate.

After getting pizza at a local shop where the waitress was cute but the mosquitos were violent (about 7 bites on the legs), we headed back on the train. It had been a fantastic weekend, and experiencing Pompeii was really the cherry on top. Meeting the girls back at the station in Naples, we traded stories about how our days had been, and reflected on the trip as a whole. I had not planned on going to the Amalfi Coast, but I’m so glad that fate pulled me in that direction. With so many fortuitous happenings and great finds, I was meant to be there, I was meant to be in “Paradise! Paradise!”

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Seamus vs. The Green People

Hello wonderful people.

So I know it’s been a while, but in the past couple of weeks so much has been going on that I just really have not been able to sit down and write. I guess that’s a good thing, but for this blog it has been tragic. But I’m here now! So gosh darnit some European travel stories are going to be told. Since it has been two weeks I will separate this post into two parts: 1 being on my school’s orientation trip to Umbria, and 2 being my weekend in the Amalfi Coast. I of course think you should go through all of it but if you are running low on time or maybe thing one section might be boring, just think of this paragraph like a table of contents, and ready away!

Part 1: Umbria

It was 7:00 in the morning that we had to depart on the buses. 7AM. I know that may not be a big deal to some of you but here in Italy waking up that early after having been out the night before is a little hard on the body and mind. A group of friends and I had decided to do a night tour of the Castel San Angelo since that kind of a tour was not going to be available when we got back. It was amazing getting to the top of the castle and seeing all of Rome at night, let alone enjoying it in the company of others. But waking up the next morning there was a little regret. ‘It’s okay though,’ I thought, ‘I’ll sleep on the bus.’ Wrong, my friend. One of my eccentric professors, though I love him dearly, felt that we should see the Italian countryside we were driving through. Thus, whenever he sensed us falling asleep he would either yell into the microphone that there was a castle on a hill or singing a song from his native Netherlands. Awake and alive me would have been all over this….but I was not awake and alive.

Miraculously sleeping through some of my professors antics, I awoke to “Welcome to Umbria!” Opening my eyes I started to see the immense fields and mountains that encircled us. There were sunflowers everywhere, though they appeared to be sleepy too. Amongst the fields and hills, old houses and farms dotted the land. It was rustic, it was beautiful…it was exactly how I had imagined Tuscany to look like (though of course I have not been yet). Turns out Umbria the region is really a large valley surrounded by mountains, and each town we went to on our weekend adventure was just a small bus ride away in the valley.

Our first stop was in the small Medieval town of Bavagna (buh-vahn-ya). It was here in our first stop that I realized how large of a travel group this was. Walking into the city square, we probably doubled the city’s population. But I don’t think the locals minded too much, as hey more tourists more money!! Bavagna itself was actually very pretty, and separating into smaller groups a tour guide took us around to little shops illustrating life in the city during the middle ages. First was the weaver, who made us feel guilty as four silk worms needed to die for one good silk shirt. I mean, they look nasty but yikes that’s a rough way to go. Then we meandered over to the candlemaker, who reminded my friend Marielle of some movie character that do this day she cannot remember the name of. He was very nice, and showed us the intense process of continually putting hot wax on a thread and letting it dry…only to repeat the process until he had a full candle. He was very happy in his job though, and I think his love of candles rubbed a little off on us too. Who wouldn’t love a job where you’re work place always smells likes Burt’s bees?

The next shop man, the coinmaker, could not have been more of the opposite. Here was a poor guy who showed up to work in gym shorts and who I imagine was only doing the job because his mom guilted him into doing it. He spoke no English 9so we had a translator), but if he did I imagined him saying, “Yeah, here’s the coins…..we melt them…we weigh them here…boy I’m boring myself to death why are you Americans still interested?” From there was our last stop in Bavagna…THE PAPER MAKER. Now this guy, I wanted him to be old crazy Uncle Richard…which I guess in Italy would be crazy Uncle Riccardo. But anyways, this guy was a joker, saying things that our translator laughed at but I’m guessing did not translate to us. One of the processes of paper making is to boil different linens and such, stirring them around, and so instead of doing the job himself he had one of my classmates put on a lovely Medieval hat and stir the pot, making fun of him in a kind way.

Learning all things Medieval in Umbria can make one hungry, and so lunch was a highly anticipated event. Well, we may have had the best lunch atmosphere in all of Italy. Our buses stopped about a half hour out of Bavagna, and it was there surrounded by mountains and sunflowers that our lunch awaited. Set up in a commune of sorts, we had a large tent and court. It seriously was like we were at a destination wedding reception, as their was classy italian music playing and we ate like kings and queens. Fresh pizza exactly as we sat down, followed by a mostacciolli with meat sauce and bottomless baskets of bread. It was only out of worry for my poor stomach that the cookie dessert was not consumed as quickly as the courses before it. Content and full of great Italian foods, I looked out into the expansive backyard of the restaurant with the field of sunflowers, with some of my classmates taking pictures in the fields. I started to understand how one falls in love with Italy.

After lunch we departed for Castel Buenovenuto, a local winery in Montefalco that grew grapes that were only able to grow in the Umbrian region. First we got a tour of most of the winery (good) and then we got glasses of two different wines (better). With glasses in hand I just talked with my friends and enjoyed the moment.

It was a full day, and after a little bus ride through the valley we reached our hotel in the lovely town of Spoleto. This hotel was niceee, right on the edge of the town, with my roommate Brian and I’s view overlooking a small valley and a large hill. On the hill there was a church, and a couple houses..the highest being a small pink villa that I could tell was worth the hike to it’s front door. If I ever make too much money I want that villa. Anyhoo back to Spoleto, this town had some pretty cool stuff…besides the night life which we really never found. That night I went with a couple of my buddies and explored the aqueduct that had been there since the 15th century I believe..connecting the town’s castle to another fort across a gorge. Now besides the lighting, this aqueduct was pitch black, and no one was around us…or so we thought. In a beautiful silence we disregarded the sign saying this aqueduct was being watched by security cameras and walked along its path. Though I couldn’t totally see below me, I could here a river running underneath, my fear of falling slightly subsiding. Looking to our right, my friend Sam and I decided to explore further, where in the darkness was a light on the bridge. What we found was a beautiful view of all Spoleto in the darkness, and also an Italian couple getting it on. Deciding that they probably should enjoy their love-making in peace, we swiftly ran back across the bridge, and going through the deserted streets went back to the hotel.

That morning we actually got an official tour of the town from a really sweet old man who you could tell was very proud and loved his region of Umbria. He took us to the duomo, which was originally from the 1200s, and carried some beautifully colored mosaics and paintings. Now one detail I haven’t shared yet was that during all of these tours we were given these devices called “whispers” where you the listener would turn your device to a certain radio channel and be able to hear the guide loud and clear from their microphone. This is a brilliant invention when there is one guide and many people trying to hear him or her, but of course it has it’s downsides. Walking through town our guide gave us a five minute break and went into a bar. No biggie right? Well he left his mic on, and even though he gave us a break, he continued the tour with lovely sounds of him going to the bathroom. Nothing like looking out into the panoramic vista of the town and hills as you hear a zipper being pulled up.

We again went on the aqueduct, where I not only saw how high we really were but also saw the scene of the love crime the night before. It was a beautiful spot though..and not having enough time to explore everything I knew I wanted to come back that night. Coming back into the main part of town after the tour had ended, my friend Bobby and I decided we wanted to check out the souvenir shop, but before we could enter we were stopped by Fr. Al, the head chaplain of Jforce, who asked us to have gelato with him. I did not know it then, but so began an awesome funny friendship between me, Bobby, and Fr. Al. After a lively conversation we followed him in his search for a great amaro (a drink that helps one digest the meal, or so they say). Going into tiny  delis and wine shops Al would talk up the store clerk, basically becoming friends in minutes, and thus introduce Bobby and I. It was a talent that reminded me of my father whenever we were in a restaurant or store back in Chicago. Cool thing about Fr. Al though…he is the treasurer for the his order, and thus works at the Vatican bank. Pretty cool, huh? Don’t worry, he is not the reason the bank was considered corrupt.

For lunch–another splendid meal in another breathtaking location. Using trees for shade we dined on meat plates, a lentil soup, yadda yadda don’t need to get your mouth watering again after my first meal description. Just imagine your favorite meal. It tasted like that. Funny fact though, Umbrians eat a lot of pork, so even though most of our meals were surprises, when the meat plate came… “You betcha! It’s pork!” I don’t know why I gave the Italian waiters Minnesotan accents, but let’s just role with that.

So after our great meal, we bused into the town of Foligno. As we started to walk into the streets, great colorful flags were flung along the buildings. Not totally knowing what they were, I knew I immediately wanted one. You could tell the flags had old designs..maybe they were for different families, who knows. Well though a little fact finding we found that a Medieval festival was going on in the town, and a major part of the celebration was a tournament with teams consisting of the different teams in the city (hence, the different flags). In the coming week a horseman representing each neighborhood or quarto as they call it would try to put his pole through a ring. Now there are many rounds, and as more people were cut, the rings get smaller, which is a real challenge and leaves the title up for grabs. It kind of gives it a final four upset factor where a guy can come out of nowhere and just win the whole thing, beating the favorite.  If that sounds exciting to you, than you only slightly understand the feelings of a local. Here’s why I know this:

In my long quest for a flag, my friends and I stumbled upon a neighborhood that was full of green flags, which was my favorite design. I went up to one of the men who seemed to be decorating the neighborhood and asked him in my best broken Italian where I could buy a flag. He said he could get me one an hour later, but excited in seeing my interest decided to show me around. He took me into what was comparable to an italian beerhall, full of memorabilia with some dating hundreds of years back. I had been taken into the green headquarters. The man, who I soon knew as Massimo, then took my buddies and I into the green bar, where they were setting up for the night festivities. Massimo introduced us to some of his buddies, and we went back in forth in a Italglish of some sorts. Seeing that at least I and my buddy Corbin were excited about it (some in the group were rather overwhelmed with the amount of attention we were getting), they put in a video that documented all of green’s past victories. The Mora neighborhood, the land of the green, had only won a few times…but the funny part was a lot of the people in the video partying and celebrating were right in that bar with us. You could tell these people were really invested in this, die hard fans. You could say that even though their last victory was only five years back, their faithfulness to their team was very Chicago Cubs-esque. Granted, it was their neighborhood, it was the collection of families that had lived together their whole lives. It was a cool moment for me..here I had asked about a flag, and instead I was brought into a community.

Apparently there was a big banquet going on that night, and we were invited to come and eat with them as now we were unofficially apart of the Mora neighborhood. I looked at the reservation book, “Guidallo-3, Domenico-4, Ficci-2,….McMahon-7”. I fit right in.

After this experience we met up with some other friends for an appertivo buffet, taking about what had just happened and our adventures. It was during this meal that an american couple came up to us, asked us how the heck we found this place (as I agree, most Americans don’t think of Umbria when thinking of Italy), and then in a super kind gesture gave us a list of their favorite places in Rome…I even have the guy’s business card.

Sadly, we were not able to actually go to the banquet as we realized we had to catch our school’s bus, but we went back into Mora, said our goodbyes, and I got my momento of the new friends I had made.

That night back in Spoleto, a group of us went back to the great aqueduct and explored the fort beyond. Now that was super fun as I could totally imagine some horror movie with the opening lines “They thought they were in for Italian paradise….it was an innocent trip to Spoleto….until someone disappeared…” Sounds riveting right?? But I think the big part of that night was back at that view of Spoleto from the aqueduct we had caught the couple the night before. If you sat on the ledge, one part of you was safe, but the other threatened the possibility of a free fall at the end of the gorge. It became a thing that everyone in the group did it, and when it came to my turn, I did it, but had a nice adrenaline rush in the process. There’s a nice picture to illustrate how I was doing being partially off the aqueduct.

Checking out of our hotel the next morning, we went to the hill town of Spello, which had been around since Roman times. The town’s simple charms won me over, and I immediately fell in love with it. It might have been the views, the buildings, the people…I still don’t know how to describe it..I just really loved being in Spello. On a hill overlooking the entire valley, I think you reader might find it pretty enchanting as well.

We walked down the hill of Spello and into an olive mill, where we had our lunch. This time, we did not have shade, which was a problem for us Irish folk in the group, as Italian meals do take hours. I followed a pattern of eat the course, then take my wine and sit under the olive tree, and repeat. I think my favorite part of that meal was a combo I made myself: olive oil pesto shell pasta with..you guess it..pork sausage. Combined the two myself, and was very happy with the un-Italian combination.

Now the owner of the olive mill got all of us excited when he said he wanted to show us another Roman aqueduct. My mind immediately went to Spoleto, and I was ready to see another. the only problem was that we needed to walk up another hill, and there wasn’t really a designated path for some parts of it..but knowing that we would get to see an aqueduct was worth it. Suddenly, the owner stopped in front of what looked like a deteriorating wall that you might find in western Ireland. “This is it!” He proclaimed proudly. Where were the arches? The great Roman architecture? The wonder? Well, it turns out that not every Roman aqueduct was a ridiculous project, and they kind of half assed the aqueduct to Spello. For, as one could see through the holes in the wall, that once water did pass through the inside of what was not a spider web haven. Don’t fret now though, because we turned around and baam! one of the best views of the Umbrian countryside right behind us. Now that view was worth it.

From Spello we returned on the long journey back to Rome, and this time I was able to sleep. Even my professor was worn out, as Umbria had done us in. In such a packed and eventful weekend, there comes a time when everyone just needs to stop, and pass the heck out.

Part 2: The Amalfi Coast and Pompeii coming soon……

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Seamus vs. Orientation and il Sole

     Hey guys, sorry this one is a little late but there has just been so much going on and so little time to fully write something. I could not possibly tell you every single moment that has happened in the past week so instead I will give a few vignettes of last week.

     My first night with of Orientation a group of us decided, “Hey, we are in Rome, we are close to the Vatican, let’s go to the Vatican!” So thus began the nice walk down to the City Centre. Being the only non-jetlagged person was wonderful, as people were struggling walking through the uneven sidewalks and streets. The fun part however was we had a general idea of where we were going, but had no idea of where we were. Everything was new….from the Tattoo parlor on Via Trionfale to the the restaurant on the corner where the Italians looked at us funny. But looking up, atop the buildings, we could see the great Dome of St. Peter’s beckoning us closer. I still do not know where this is now, but we made it to a grand staircase that led to the giant AND I MEAN GIANT walls of Vatican City (obviously they didn’t want any heathens going to and fro in the country). We walked along the wall, eventually leading us to the colonnade of St. Peter’s Square. As we got closer the excitement brewed in my body, as I again was going to see something for real that I had seen a billion times in pictures and such. Reaching the square I was completely taken a back….the place was massive. It was night but I bet hundreds of people were in that square, just walking around and looking taking it all in. I mean, that’s what I was doing….I found the wind floor sign that’s in Angels and Demons, I walked around the obelisk, and also talked with my buddies Brian and Bobby about how the Chicago Bears should do the same thing with their colonnade but instead of huge saint statues it would be the Bears greats. How sweet would that be right?

      After talking to a group of Brits about how cool it was to be in the square, we decided we would try to get closer to the Basilica. Now, there were metal gates everywhere so after getting through that maze we made it along the left side of the Basilica…and everything just got bigger. From the square it looked big already but going closer with each step I felt more ant like, and also realized how much ridiculous detail was put into this thing. Carvings and statues all over, places where it wasn’t even necessary. Now there was a gate after a certain point close to the Basilica steps, but it was open, so my friend Mar decided she would try to get closer. I jokingly warned, “Good luck when the Swiss Guard take you down.” Well, after a few paces towards the facade, a strained voice like he was tired and had dealt with too many stupid tourists said on the microphone “Signorina……outside gates please.” We had a good laugh about that, and walked down a well lit lane down to the Tiber where the group of us just leaned on the wall breathing in the views. 

     You know how I said the walk down was very nice? Yeah…that’s because our home is situated on the highest hill in Rome, Monte Mario, and lovely gravity was helping our working. She was not as helpful on the way up. An hour and back drenched of sweat later, we decided that 1. This hill was San Francisco worthy and 2. We probably should not walk into Rome all the time. 

      Flash forward two days…I’m standing at the bottom of the Colosseum, playing roaring crowd tracks in my head as i look around the ancient stadium. I can here them chanting “MAXIMUS! MAXIMUS! MAXIMUS!” “To which I respond, ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINEDDDDD??!?!” To the regular onlooker I was just standing there taking it in, but there you go reader, you got an inside look into what was actually going down. Anyhoo, it was cool to just be in something that was such a big part of Roman culture, and then comparing it in my head to a modern sports stadium. Walking in the indoor halls I could imagine The Hot Dog stand or the smell of brats and saurkraut…but of course I don’t think they had those back then. The Romans really had it figured out engineering wise…and the cool part about the Colosseum being ruined is that it is essentially a real life “How it Works”, you know, the books that show you cut outs buildings, cars, etc. Thus you can see how one arch way supported a whole stand section, and see the underground basement where the lions (and sadly Christians) awaited the arena. 

    From the Colosseum we went to Palatine hill and the Forum. A group of us decided to go to Palatine first (which overlooks the Forum) and then we could hike down. At first, it was awesome, the views of the city were beautiful amazing  (pick any positive adjective). The palace (or what remains of it) was huge…the emperors of course were not gods but they sure as heck lived like them. Back in the day, this place probably made Versailles look like a common apartment. But because it was so big…this also led to a major sweep of fatigue for the group I was with. With the sun beating down on us and are legs tired from walking, we all just kinda needed a break from Roman ruins. Even me, which is saying something…but it was bad, I started to just be annoyed and hungry which is never a good combo! So how does one combat this? With gelato of course! Unfortunately we kinda sped through the Forum, so I think I will just go back there…but it was necessary. We ended up finding this place that I had read about before called Frigidarium. Man was that ice cream good…got a chocolate and fruit combo along with a name sake gelato that almost had a cake like flavor but with chocolate drops in it so I would have to say it was way better than any cake flavor I have had. 

     Overall, the past week Rome and I have just been trying to get acclimated to each other the same way I’m getting to know my classmates. Learning that buses here aren’t as reliable as Chicago’s is a sad but something one has to realize very quickly. At first you think Google Maps is pulling a fast one by saying it will take an hour to get to some place relatively close, but then you wait for the bus for about a half hour sometimes and you realize that google is always right. The “Italian Time” thing is real…the walks are slower, the meals are slower, eve the wifi here at John Felice. I think that is going to be a main challenge for Manhattan-pace me, especially with the food because it’s just so good, I want to keep eating it and not wait every five minutes you know?

       I’m doing my best to order things in Italian, but so far I usually get English back. I gotta learn how to say “take-out” in italian because it already has happened so many times where I order everything the right way and than the person behind the counter goes “bigogidkndlkfn dklfnklffk  hdhlsdkl?” and getting a confused look from me they say, “Take out?” The Italian people I have already interacted on this journey with our wonderful however, and have been very helpful to anything I have asked. At Mensa (which is the cafeteria here) the ladies who work there do not speak English, and so asking them how to pronounce a certain word or phrase has been very beneficial. 

      In a couple days we are going on an orientation trip to Umbria, which is supposed to be very cool, so look out for that in the next post. Last night a group of us also booked our trains to go to the Amalfi Coast the weekend after, which I am very excited about. Especially after trying to coordinate eight people getting on the same trains and the same places…at some points last I just wanted to leave the meeting, and go straight for some gelato at Frigidarium and decompress. But no matter, we got through it, and the fun part of planning will soon begin. 

 

Ciao for now!

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