Water World

November 4, 2015

Venice can never be summed up in one word; it would be even insulting to try. My first steps tasting the Vencian air is like inhaling life. How incredibly warm the breeze feels, how blue the water looks, how old the city truly is. I am not in Seattle anymore.

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My first thoughts of this new city is comfort. Most people I consult with when planning my trip always tell me of their difficulty adjusting to a foreign city because of the language barrier; how it throws them so much when trying to get from point A to point B and their frustration of not understanding the countless conversations happening right besides them. Not me, never me. I mysteriously felt at home when walking among the Vencians. Second thoughts of Venice? Where the fuck is Rachel and Mr. Goat? I told them the time of my trains arrival and was half expecting them to hold a cheesy ‘welcome to Venice!’ sign as I immediately got off the platform.

As I scanned the unfamiliar faces hoping to find one familiar one I started to have that feeling I would need to once again find my own way back to my final destination. Just before I was about to make a left onto the Grand Canal bridge I saw Rachel’s signature strut towards the station. I shouted ‘buongiorno!’ in the worst Italian accent I tried not to muster and was glad that no one could hear me. After I caught her eye and we made our first hellos in over a year in person I was immediately whisked away to our new flat for the next 4 days in Venice.

After a quick 5 minute nap on my back (the first in 23 hours) and a shower that washed away most of my jet-lag I felt human again and ready to take on the city. Within 10 minutes of me stepping inside the apartment we were out the door and hitting the pavement.

NOTE

As a side note, I never stopped hearing about the amount of pick-pocketing in high tourist areas of Europe. So much so that a lot of travel sites HIGHLY recommend you get a ‘money belt’ which is basically a wallet you wear around your neck or tie around your waist underneath your clothes. I however took a different approach. I purposely bought 7 cheap leather wallets and a bunch of fake US currency and planning on having one on my person when ever I go outside. I keep the wallet in clear visible (and easily pick-able) sight to truly test how easily one can get pick pocketed.

St. Marks Square

The most popular tourist gathering in the city and our first stop in Venice is St. Marks Square. Despite being in a completely different country, I still saw a lot of home – american brands, american stores, american tourist, ect (at this point I haven’t gotten that ‘culture shock’ everyone keeps talking about). There were still Venicians here and there but the city at that moment felt…empty; like a shell that a hermit crab once called home. Surrounding me were a million copies of me; tourist with a camera around their necks and always looking up.

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Religion is a big thing here (literally!) but I found a new religion tourist pray to – the ultimate shot. So many people bending their bodies in odd shapes just to get that angle right for the shot that they’ll later brag to family and friends about that a million people before them had already taken.

I know this is getting a little morbid so lets change the setting – after the square we wondered off to…no where in particular. Mr. Goat said we are heading to a place for dinner but the journey to get there took nearly an hour. We made several stops along the way of moments that we felt must be photographed – pause and click! – and then we’re back on our way to dinner. ‘Dinner’ as I later found out was basically bar hopping from one place to another. We would arrive at a counter that serves wine and small appetizers and after we finished we go out to the next one. We kept the first day I was in Venice slow, nothing too big or drastic – just something for me to get a grasp of, sleep it off then start fresh the next day.

Day 2

First stop, coffee. I am NOT a coffee fan and I don’t think I’ll ever will be. I know, shocker right? A true-blue Seattlite not a coffee drinker? Well a change of city will not get me to join that boat. Regardless, my hosts are and thus we stopped by the coffee shop just around the corner from the flat.

P1100149*Tip on how to order coffee in Italy: First either decided if you will drink it by the counter or at a table. Keep in mind that the shop will charge you more if you sit down. Second, know what you want before you enter the shop and order fast. The baristas working the counter want to turn the tables as quick as possible so if you hesitate, you lost your place in line. Third, finish quickly. There is a fuck ton of people behind you that just want their coffee and get the hell out (and ordering coffee to-go is almost unheard of). To summarize, quickly sip what you got, pay then get out. I tried my very first cappuccino that day and frankly, I wasn’t a fan. But when in Rome (or Venice) so I gulped the sucker down and followed Rachel and Mr. Goat down a deserted alleyway to begin our day.

P1100169FP1100173irst tourist stop of the day – The Academia of Venice. Its both a school and a museum that host an assortment of artwork. It was ok – it was a large museum but just ok. Lots of artwork from the renaissance and plenty of sculptures of once famous individuals in the past. I saw a bust of Pompey’s head, that was cool and I got to see a mummy so that’s also fun.

Honestly, the second day in Venice was kind of a blur. I didn’t really pay attention on where we were headed; I just blindly followed Rachel and Mr. Goat down one alleyway and then another and another. We headed to a couple other museums that hosted renaissance work but after a while all the Madonna’s and child paintings kind of look alike after a while. Don’t get me wrong I get it – back then if you were an artist most of the time you get a commission from the church to paint a religious moment in time but the default always seems like Mother Mary and baby Jesus. I got bored very quickly seeing the same moment painted in different styles.

Day 3

The third day was the better of than the previous two – we headed out early to explore the outer islands; primarily the two most famous ones of Murano and Burano. First up is Murano, the island of Venician glass.

FUN FACT! I later found out that apparently during the ‘golden age’ of Venice, the city-state nearly deforested the entire area just to fuel the fires to make the world famous Venician glass.

The island was fun – small – but fun. All three of us poked our heads into every glass shop (and it seems that every store on the island sold one thing – glass) and admired the craftsmanship of the pieces. After the 6th shop we realized that every store is selling the exact same thing. Exact same pattern, exact same shape, exact same price for each piece of glass. Well, at least a good 98% of them. After a good two hours of taking photos and the sights we decided to take a ferry to the next island, Burano. While walking to the ferry we came across a shop that seemed different than the majority of glass vendors. Their items seemed slightly unique (and more expensive) so we decided to give the store a better look. After an hour of browsing I ended up buying a set of earrings and a frosted glass bracelet while Rachel and Mr. Goat bought the kitchen sink of jewelry. It was amusing after a while – right after Rachel bought something, Mr. Goat would notice a pair of cuffllinks that had to be his and on and on it went. After lying to myself that the glass I bought was authentic and frrom Venice we boarded the ferry to Burano.

P1100229Well, us and everyone else within a 100 mile radius. Seriously, every. single. ferry in Venice was full. Not just ‘full’ either – sardine canned full. After 45 minutes of standing on the world’s most crowdest ferry we make land at Burano. Famous for their lace, Burano is lined with uniquely painted houses that still look as vibrant and alive as if we were in the 1600s. I already knew this but shortly after arriving on Burano, one of the locals mentioned to us in passing conversation that all the women who use to make the lace on the island have died so every piece of cloth you’ll ever see on the island will forever be made abroad (China).

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The real reason we came to Burano however was the food. Not food in general but one particular restaurant; Da Ramano. Anthony Bourdain (an American celebrity chef) made a visit here once before and now it’s a pilgrimage for any Tony Bourdain fan to visit if in Venice. The restaurant was already famous without Bourdain’s presence though. They are known for a couple of dishes but the most well-known dish is their risotto. This dish isn’t just ‘rice’ – its texture, taste and aroma are far better than any risotto you can cook up in your kitchen. Despite it being cooked in a fish broth it gave off a scent of soft-boiled chicken and it shines in the light like each gain is a small gem.

P1100231Mr. Goat was feeling particularly hungry that day so he also order their famous ‘cuttlefish pasta’ which is cuttlefish cooked in its own ink and tossed with pasta. I wasn’t a huge fan – mostly because it dyed your tongue black but also because it was a bit too oily for my liking. After the late lunch we decided to slowly head back to the main island and recharge for a bit. The ferry going back to Venice had several stops so it took a good hour if not more to arrive back and by then the sun had already set.

Evening in Venice

There was one thing that Rachel wanted to do before leaving – ride on a gondola. I joined as a third wheel so I can act as a sort of photographer and capture the happy couple in wedded bliss. Out of all the things we’ve done in Venice, this surprisingly was my favorite. I always rolled my eyes when ever I saw a someone on a gondola passing by and thinking to myself “how tacky! Typical tourist…” however after now riding in one, it was totally worth every penny. Especially at night.

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In the morning I was awoken by the sound of church bells and felt a sense of pain that I have to leave. It was a brief stay but a good start to a long and eventful journey ahead.

 

Preview on what’s ahead for next stop: Florence.

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The End is NOT Now

October 26, 2015

Hello! My name is Amber and I’m hijacking this blog!

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That’s me on the left – first selfie I made while in Venice. Keep in mind I’m not a selfie person so that might be the first and last picture you’ll see of me this entire time while I write this blog.

INTRODUCTIONS

Right so who am I and what have I done with Rachel? I am Amber and I’m the younger sister and only sibling of Rachel. A few years back I was told by Rachel and Mr. Goat that for a christmas gift that they were willing to pay my way to get to Europe. I have never been to Europe nor left the continent before so I was understandably thrilled but hesitant. Three years ago was a rocky time for me – fresh out of college and the student loans weren’t accepting monopoly money for payment. Every year I had to decline the opportunity to go because of financial reasons but after the third year Rachel and Mr. Goat broke the news that they are leaving Zurich for a new city in early 2016 so I should cash in that plane ticket soon.

With money still being slightly tight I decided to screw the rules and take the chance anyways. After 6 months of planning I took my first steps into that plane bound for Milan on October 22nd, 2015.

DAY 1

My first destination is Venice and getting there from Seattle isn’t a smooth and easy trip. My first plane left SEA at 7am on October 22nd bound for JFK and the trip was pretty uneventful though I got a couple of shots of the Puget Sound being absorbed by fog in the morning sun which was nice.

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I had a 3 hour layover in JFK and I was excited to explore the airport because I assume ‘famous airport must have cool things to do’ – NOOOOPPPPEEE. Honestly I thought JFK was smaller than Sea-Tac but more crowded. I ended up huddling near a charger station while watching Back to the Future part 1 and 2 to burn time. The flight to Milan was a little more exciting considering that during boarding I found that I got the window seat in the very back of the plane and the seat right next to be will be vacant during the entire flight – can I get a ‘hell yes’! The flight itself was under 7 hours but in reality it was 9.5 hours. Just before the plane got to take-off the captain can be heard on the PA system:

“uhhh…this is your captain speaking, uhhh….we are, uhhhh….having issues with our, uhhhh….gps system and we’ll need to turn around, uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…yeah”

So. Great. Apparently the GPS just needed to be turned off and turned back on but you know that in the aviation world that takes nearly 2 hours. So after that delay we were in the air bound for Milan and dinner wasn’t served until 10pm (for them Europe folks out there, that’s 22:00). The meal selection (for which I was thrilled there was even a meal option) was either ‘chicken’ or ‘pasta’. I put those two options in quotation marks because when I asked the flight attendant if she was given the same choice, what would be her pick.

“Neither” she said flatly. Great, I’ll take the pasta then!

After inhaling my dinner and promptly tried to fall asleep for the entire duration of the trip. I ended up getting four hours of rest on the plane which was apparently very impressive to Rachel and Mr. Goat when I told them but I was trying to aim for the full 7 hours. I got to see the sunrise over the alps during our approach and got some nice shots:

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First thoughts of the landscape of Europe. Small. Everything was small about it even as the plane was decreasing it’s altitude. Small towns, small farm lands, small roads, just small everything. When flying over the midwest, you get a sense of just how BIG the USA is by seeing the size of each plot of farmland for each farmer but in Europe its like a Picasso painting. Many mix-match shapes and sizes that have no sense of organization and lack of a grid. There isn’t really a ‘suburb’ in Italy either – at least, from what I saw at 30,000 feet. There are just clusters of villages and towns surrounded by puzzle piece shaped farmlands. HOWEVER the overall landscape of the Tuscan region was undeniably beautiful.

The plane landed safely at Milano Malpanesa at 9:20am and ‘customs’ (if you would call it that) was just a border agent taking your passport and stamping it once. That’s it. First thoughts of Italy while on the ground – American culture was everywhere. Advertisements of Coke Cola, Bugs Bunny eating a taco (for some reason), MIckey Mouse and most importantly it seemed that there was more Americans in public spaces than actual Italians. Granted, I’m in areas that serve a large number of tourist but I never got the initial ‘culture shock’ that I keep hearing so much about.

Thanks to my several years experience working the public transit system in Washington state, I was (somewhat) confidently able to navigate the train system in Milan. I first got a ticket on the train bound for Milano Centrale from the self-kiosk system. The train itself took a solid hour to travel the distance from the airport to the central station in Milan. Once I arrived I needed to immediately get on a connection train bound for Venice (another additional 4 hours). I finally arrived at Venice Santa Lucia at 2:10 in the afternoon to be greeted by my host for the weekend, Rachel and Mr. Goat.

Next entry will be about my entire time during Venice – pictures below as a preview:

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The End for Now

February 16, 2014

Dear friends and family,

This may come as no surprise to you, but due to school and having very little time to focus on other various engagements, I have determined to stop blogging. At least for the time being.

Thank you for your support following me on my adventures as I found myself adjusting to a new culture.

Wishing you the very best in 2014!

Rachel

Tis the Season

December 7, 2013

I’ve been enjoying walking around town and taking in all the sights, sounds, and smells of the holidays. I thought I’d share some of my favorites with you.

Blinged out Swarovski Christmas tree at the main station

Lights all the way down Bahnhofstrasse

The Santa tram in motion

My kind of Christmas market booth

Ice rink and market in front of the Opera house

Pop-up bar in front of the Opera house

Check out those icicles!

Bern’s Onion Festival

November 29, 2013

Every 4th Monday of November, Bern hosts their annual “Zibelemärit” (Onion Festival) from around 4am to 4pm. There’s onion pie, garlic bread, onion and garlic garlands and wreaths, onion art, and more.

Onion Nurses!

Also, this appears to be a favorite holiday for obnoxious teenagers, as throughout the day, it’s not only allowed, but encouraged to throw confetti. It’s certainly a unique experience to witness the (otherwise) pristine Swiss streets drenched with confetti.  Tip: keep your mouth closed! And watch out for teens with plastic hammers! This one rather annoying teenager hit me repeatedly with his hammer until it broke on him.

Confetti Attack

I was in a friendly mood, so let them do this to me

Now it was a beautiful (yet cold!) day when I went to check out the festival. I went in the afternoon, catching the tail end of things. I’d say 2 hours is plenty of time to check out the festival. Then, I went to catch a train back to Zurich. What happened next is simply unheard of in Switzerland. The trains were completely stopped! Nothing was going because there was an electrical fire and power outage at the Bern station, due to a second-hand clothing fire on a train. I kid you not. So, my friends and I decided to head for dinner because it was estimated the delays would last for a couple of hours. Rightly enough, a couple hours later the trains were functioning again and we were able to hop a train (15 minutes past the departure time) home. All of these delays and cancellations are just unheard of in Switzerland! I was amazed at the trains not running for nearly 2 hours in rush hour traffic time on a festival day, no less!

Train board showing the ridiculous delay times – plus confetti everywhere

It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

November 22, 2013

We had the first snow of the season yesterday in Zurich!

Marius loves the snow

View when I woke up this morning

A trip towards Bahnhofstrasse showed that the Christmas season was now in full swing. These holiday huts are EVERYWHERE.

Glühwein on every corner

In the spirit of the season, I was motivated to put up my little tree this week. Classic Rachel fail.

See, I brought my tree from home with the (American) lights on it. I put it up, find an adapter and plug it in. All is good. Then 20 minutes later, I notice a shift in lighting in the room. I look at my tree and suddenly one of the light strings is not working. “Odd” I think. I go over and see if any lights are loose, plug and unplug, that sort of thing. I decide to unplug and try again tomorrow. The next day, I plug in my tree and neither string lights up. Frustrated, I decide to go out and buy lights. I do a quick search on English forum to see where I could get (inexpensive) lights and in the comments I read that even using a transformer, American tree lights nearly always blow out. Ooohh, right…the difference in voltage.Whoops. I didn’t even try it with a transformer! My poor lights didn’t have a chance. Well, I certainly can’t be the only expat who has blown something out. 🙂

Anyway, after re-stringing my new (Swiss) lights, my home looks a little more ready for the season.

Top 10 Things to do in Madrid

October 31, 2013

A couple of weekends ago, we were in Madrid for about 72 hours. I decided the Madrid tourist card was not worth it. Also, a public transit pass is definitely not worth it. You’ll really only need transportation between the airport and downtown. And for that you should use the Airport Express Bus (5 Euros and not covered under the metro pass). You can easily walk around downtown to see all of the sights.

To sum up my experience, here are my top ten things to do in Madrid:

10. Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina SofiaI only put this on the list because if you are into modern art, this is a must-see. I, however, am not, and thus was not too thrilled about this museum. But it’s one of the famous trio of museums in Madrid, so we saw it anyway.

9. Corpus Christi Convent – A really neat area with lots of old buildings. At this convent, the nuns make a special selection of cakes and treats you can purchase, although they did not have anything for sale the weekend we were there (the sign said to come back on Monday).

8. Mercado de Fuencarral – On Calle Fuencarral you can have a great shopping experience. And this three-story shopping area has some really unique clothing, including absolutely adorable 50s-60s inspired pieces.

7. Mercado de San Miguel – A great market hall to wander through specializing in seafood and drinks. We tried the sherry sampler from The Sherry Corner. It definitely expanded my (very limited) knowledge on sherry. Fresh oysters were also a must in this mercado. And there is a really interesting fish tapas that looks like a bunch of cold noodles piled on top on bread, but it’s fish. I dubbed it the “fish brains” tapas. It’s called Gulas (the article mentions its made from eels, but now it’s made from fish). It’s really good!

6. Buen Retiro Park – Such an expansive park. We especially enjoyed walking around the artificial lake to the semicircular colonnade with the monument to Alfonso XII. There is also a rose garden which had roses in bloom even in October!

5. The Royal Palace – The largest palace in Europe, boasting 3,418 rooms. Excessive? Naw…  It’s certainly one of those must-sees. I think the audio guide is worth getting.

4. Museo del Prado – This museum houses much of Spain’s (and the world’s) greatest art pieces. We particularly loved works from the 18h century and Goya’s dark period.

3. Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza – Art from 13th century to present day. Majority of works in late 19th century. Great collection of impressionist pieces.

2Almudena Cathedral – Ever wonder what a modern Cathedral the likes of Notre Dame would be? Wonder no more. This cathedral, officially completed in 1993, is so modern and yet is decked out in such grandeur to easily compete with famous Gothic Cathedrals around Europe.

1. See a Flamenco performance! We went to Casa Patas. An intimate performance space in a back room of a restaurant. 35 Euros gets you a seat with a drink of your choice.

I loved Madrid. Such a lively city with so much to see and do. It was my first time in Spain and hopefully not my last!

Almudena Cathedral from the visitors entrance.

Château de Chillon Converted to Haunted House

October 17, 2013

Last weekend, Château de Chillon had it’s annual “la nuit de l’épouvante” or haunted house night in celebration of Halloween. I heard haunted house and I was in. I grew up on this stuff. Walking through an old mansion converted into Halloween wonderland? Yes please. I’ve seen some freaky stuff in some of the haunted houses back in the states. It’s certainly a sure-fire way to get an adrenaline rush (at least for me). So I was thrilled to see there was a haunted house in Switzerland, as I wasn’t even sure they celebrated Halloween at all.

Now, my worry was whether it would actually be a haunted house.  All of my Google searches weren’t turning up anything on what to expect. Not even on the official website did they have sufficient information. So we decided to go evaluate it for ourselves.

Chillon covered in cobwebs

And I’ve got to tell you, going to the Château de Chillon is a great experience for everyone living in Switzerland to see. But…the consensus was: if you don’t have kids, then you should maybe plan to visit the castle another day.

In fact, they should pretty much rename this event “Children’s Night at the Castle.”

Well, at least everyone was dressed up

It is absolutely not a haunted house. At least not in the sense of an overly decorated maze through a building with gruesome sights and strangely dressed actors to startle you at every corner. No. There was none of that. Instead, there was face-painting, raclette and a couple of kid-friendly Halloween-themed activities.

So, to all of you out there who may be interested in checking this out in the future, I have saved you the time. Not a haunted house. But, hey, if you do have children and want to take them out in their costumes, this is the event for you!

Probably the best part of our night was getting this unique view of the castle.

6 Month Reflection

October 13, 2013

It’s been 6 months!! I would say I’m in shock, but really, come to think of it, a lot of life has happened.

What I Accomplished from 6 Months in Switzerland:

  • Travel. Lots of travel. Saw much of Switzerland thanks to my handy GA pass and visited 5 new countries for the first time.
  • Language Learning. Made it through 2 intensive German courses (and still feel like I only barely have a grasp of the language).
  • Getting Connected. Started a new young person group at ZIWA.
  • Volunteering. Became a leader on an event team in the Red Cross.
  • Musical. Got connected with the English Theatre Group of Zug and performed in a musical.
  • Grad School. Applied for and got into Grad School. Yep, that’s right — I’m a future MPA candidate at USC!

Our Biggest surprise:

How long it’s taken to get settled. We spent a little more than half of our 6 months in temporary housing. And because of various engagements and external factors, it’s taken forever to make our home feel, well, homey. We got our lights installed (all except two, that is) last week. Yeah, that’s right, we spent over two months living by candlelight. Kinda romantic, really. I got quite used to it.  And just today we are finally breaking down the cardboard that we haven’t managed to give away.

We are still missing some key furniture items and curtains. And our housewarming isn’t until November. Which is kind of pathetic for having lived in Zurich for over 6 months.

But this just goes to show how long it’s taken to feel like we have a home here. To let it really sink in that we live here now. Seattle may still be home in many ways, but Zurich really is coming to be our sort-of temporary home.

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So, what is this unemployed hausfrau going to do with the next 6 months in Zurich? Well, the MPA program is online and starts in January. Therefore, I think I’ll have something to keep me busy with not only the next 6 months, but much of the next 2 years.

Here’s to another 6 months of living the expat dream!

September Update

September 29, 2013

Wow, it’s been a busy month! There are a lot of fun things happening and very little time to blog about them.

Here’s the quick update for friends and family:

I went sailing around Greece in early September

I didn’t sink the boat!

My mom has been in town for the past couple of weeks and she’s been helping me tackle #4 on my priority list — traveling!

Montreux

At the Matterhorn

In the Lauterbrunnen region

Speaking of my list, I’ve sent off the applications for grad school, the Red Cross event is moving along, and the musical performances are this coming weekend!

For anyone around Zurich or Zug, come see me in “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” It’s been a blast working with this theatre company and my fellow talented cast members. I’m so sad to see this come to an end, but overjoyed to get to perform this weekend what I’ve been working long and hard on for the past 4 months. It’s a hilarious show, so if you are around and into theatre, come see it and bring your friends! 🙂