Sunday, January 3, 2010

Danke, Bitte

I'm sitting in the last European hostel I might ever sit in, in Brussels, killing time until my flight tomorrow back to Athens. I'm kind of pissed off at Airlines in general for making very little sense and insisting that I leave Northern Europe to go back to Athens, to go back to Northern Europe to fly back to Chicago. But kay hest lah vy. And it's pretty poetic, really, that I have to return to Athens before going home.

Amsterdam was wonderful, Paris- beautiful, Cologne- ..German, Brouge-magical. In a way, I've wanted to be home since I left Athens. And since Dan left, I've wanted to be home desperately but only now that I'm for the first time truly and actually travelling alone do I realize how final my departure is, how singular my experience here, and how my Junior Year Abroad (or Junior semester and some abroad)is a memory. a MEMORY! Oi, it makes one very guggerschaffen.

To review,

My holidays were exceptional:

We had a wonderful Channukah party with homemade latkas (made by yours truly- and a recipe from Dan's mother, whose actually jewish), homemade applesauce (amazing!), tzatziki, and noodle kugle. It was very warm and filling and friendly and I think we even turned off the lights when they sang the prayer and lit the candles, like it was a birthday cake. We, and by 'we' I mean 'they,' Jess, Dan, and Hillary, even kept up lighting candles on the tin, tacky, but treasured traveler's menorah every night, until we stopped.

And most of Athens after that was a blur of Farewell parties and events that I didn't go to, packing, and seeing the people I'd spent almost four months with kind of fade in front of me as the end of classes came, Finals arrived, and Dan and I spent our time trying to appreciate what we could before we left Greece. We went to the top of Lykovittos (probably not even close to the proper spelling) hill, and to the Acropolis Museum, and to the car-less island of Hydra, and to the town of Kalambaka to see these giant rock structures with monasteries and nunneries built right into them on the top called Meteora.

And although there's not a whole lot of love lost between me and the city of Athens (aka 'the city of smells,' 'the trash can of Greece,' the city stuck in the lower middle class housing developments of Miami cerca 1973, the city of a thousand, meaningless demonstrations, the least magical part of Greece, a disgrace to the Ancients, etc) it was sad to leave it, to leave the apartment that had become my home, and the neighborhood that had become my neighborhood, knowing I'd probably never go to my favorite gyro spot (Gregory's) again or my wine guy (George) or my supermarket. I'd never take the Marble Stadium for granted (or granite- ha!ha!ha!)again, or live with these three randomly assigned but incredibly wonderful girls again. In fact, as we left, it felt a lot like the end of a Real World season. Dan even sung 'Time of Your Life' as we walked Hillary to her cab and imagined the cheesy montage that the producer put together for the final episode. We then wondered how they put together those REal World montages, how ours could possibly work out without at least one hot tub scene, and who chooses to edit these montages as a career, or better yet- movie trailers! And at that point the moment was lost.

But as Dan and I took our cab to the airport, I stared at places I've known as I passed them with the same concentration, attempting to absorb them completely, as I do when leaving Chicago, or Amherst. I was glad to go, and I didn't want to stay, and I truly believe I really took advantage of my time there and lived it well, but I was still sad to leave. Again, guggerschaffen.

From there, again due to questionable planning and some overconfidence, I flew into Paris where I went to Gare du Nord, to take a train to Amsterdam. But alas and of course, my plane was late and I missed the last train. Unwilling and unable to find a hostel in Paris, I took a train to Brussels (where I would have had to connect to Amsterdam anyway and from where I could get an earlier train the next morning). And I spent the night in the train station waiting room, waiting, which was probably the most isolating then adventurous time I had in Europe:

There were people sleeping along the walls, and I seemed to be the only female, and the only one below 40. None of these facts were comforting. So I called/texted everyone for someone to comfort me and for something to do (because, really, there's only so many times I can read Pride&Prejudice- the only book I had on me at the time). And by everyone I mean my mom, Brian, and Dan. After having been warned against sleeping and worked into a frenzy of paranoia (I even put my wallet and passport under my shirt and put on extra layers and zipped up my coat to my nose), it was all justified when a beyond drunk, presumably homeless, and incredibly curious old Belgian man came in and decided there were things he needed to tell me, me in particular. So he sat next to me and began to mumble in incoherent French with emphatic hand motions and many a finger point. So, naturally, I listenened intently said ne parl francais (which may or may not mean what I think it means) and crossed over to sit by a young asian couple that had just walked in and who looked by far the least intimidating people there. Undeterred, the drunk Belgian followed and began again to attempt to speak to me. I took out a book and looked busy. I called Brian. Because at least I'd go out with a friendly voice, and maybe he could tell me that European emergency number I had just realized I'd forgotten. But, luckily, by this point, two security officers (who, by their dress, looked really much more like a Ski Patrol officers) came in, spoke with him, in what I assume was stern Dutch, and took him out of their by force.

But the Belgian drunk had only just begun, three more times he came in, singled me out, and attempted interaction- from patting my hair with a look of intense curiousity on his face, to taking my book from me to investigate more fully what seemed to be detracting from my attention to him. Each time it took an inordinate (to me) amount of time for the security officers to come back and haul him out, and soon we were the spectacle of the entire waiting room, which by this time was much fuller, with a larger range of people all circled around us, unsure of what to do. Most of the time, I was on the phone with Brian, giving him a nervous play-by-play, but after a while it was just humorous- not terrifying. And after the third time he was led out, a a young man sat next to me explaining that this way the drunk Belgian couldn't take the seat. He introduced himself as Mark- the actor living in London from Germany on his way to Israel for a three week vacation- that is, if the trains would start running again. Half the trains had been cancelled due to the incredibly cold weather that the train apparently couldn't handle. And so, I talked to Mark the German, and later the conversation was joined by Michel the Frenchman- a middle aged English teacher from Leeds until 7am, when my train left. And as the Swiss security officers had become more attentive, the Belgian Drunk made very few more visits.

And so, eventually, I got to Amsterdam and to Dan and to a warm room, a shower, and a bed. And having seen all the sites the last time I was there, and this being Dan's third time in Amsterdam, we spent a lot more time just exploring. We took a ferry across the large canal (if it even was one) to a section of Amsterdam made for Zombie movies and went to a bar meant for MTV executives (literally), we had the most amazing Indonesian food two days in a row, we met up with Dan's friend, Matt, and his family and went out to eat, we went beer-tasting and decided La Chouffe had the subtle but deep taste we liked (Dan describes it as a 'milky' taste) and we enjoyed ourselves immensely, unpressured by the manic desire that usually afflicts tourists to 'see everything.'

We spent a few days there and then went to Cologne, Germany for Christmas. We arrived on the 23rd and caught the last of the Christmas markets, where we drank mulled wine and bought knick knacks and kept exclaiming how very nice and Christmassy it all was. On Christmas Eve and Christmas, everything was dead. But we anticipated this. We went to the giant, medieval Cathedral in the center and accidentally ate at a soup kitchen on Christmas Eve, we walked along the Rheine (the infamous Rheine!) and were freezing and talked about rap and had a very Merry Christmas. This was the first time I'd ever been away from my family on Christmas, and although I managed to skype with them on Christmas Eve (barely), it still made me a little homesick but Dan did his darndest to make sure it was wonderful, and it was.

From there, we went to Paris for four days and visited all the compulsory sites, the Louvre, the Musee d'Orsay, the Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysee, etc. Due to the obscene prices in Paris (I mean really!) we ate only bread and cheese (and peanut M&Ms) and picnicked everywhere, which was actually just as rustic and bohemian and wonderful as it sounds. But so not to bore you, I'll fast forward a little.

From there, on to Brouge. MAGICAL. Like a dollhouse, tiny and intricate, medieval and charming. With chocalatiers on every corner, and lace shops and the cutest boutiques offering everything adorable you'd ever want to buy. We've decided it is officially the Best Place to Buy Gifts for Mothers. And the Christmas markets were open too. It's really just a wonderful place, and no better a place to bring in the New Year. We dressed up and had the most expensive dinner I'd ever paid for by myself (which isn't saying a whole lot, but still) and sang Auld Lang Syne on New Years and popped (significantly cheaper) Champagne and everything. Happy New Year.

And then we went to Leuven, and we spent the night at Dan's friend's Matt's house, and Dan left for the airport at 7am to catch his plane back to Chicago. I spent the entire day, literally from when I woke up to when I went to sleep talking to Matt (who is a wonderful, gracious person who I'm eternally grateful to), and this morning I came to Brussels to the most hostel-y hostel I've ever stayed in. A hostel that has out pseudo-futurized IKEA and where they sell 'Fruit&Beer' drinks in the Vending machine and where everything is in English.

And now I'm waiting two hours until 3pm when I can officially check in, and then I'll wait another 24 hours until I leave for Athens, and there another 7 hours until I fly to Zurich, and there another 2 hours until I fly to Chicago, and then I sit in a plane for around 9 hours, waiting to finally finally finally be home.