Perhaps more than anyplace else thus far visited, London is truly a world city. Just walking down the street and I find myself amazed at the diversity, from food to language to businesses to people. And yes, plenty of activities exist between theatre and museums; local pubs to culinary exploration. Even just relaxing outside in the gorgeous summer weather is delightful.
Arriving just in time for my twenty-sixth birthday, the city was excellent. Once again I could comprehend and understand those around me—excepting the accent and small bits of slang. I was constantly full from all the varieties of food, everything from fish and chips (absolutely the best from a true “chipper”) to Turkish kebabs to Indian curries and more. The food and drink was made better only with some lovely company, seeing friends now moved to London (or back in their hometown). Sarah, Grace and I explored an incredible amount in such a short time—Westminster Abbey and British Museum being some of my favorites. It’s hard to describe how much we ran all over the city, sometimes taking a few hours to relax in the park or perusing bookstores before jumping once again onto the Underground in search of another neighborhood. Even with ten days, plenty remains for next time.
Another delight was a short trip to Cambridge via rail, both to see the renowned university town and to escape the chaos of the city. Even looking out upon the English countryside made me wish I had more time to spend here, rolling hills and plenty of greenery. Just an hour or so beyond London, Cambridge itself was full of local pubs and quiet spaces.
Everywhere in London is full of history. From traditions like the changing-of-the-guard at Buckingham Palace to the numerous monuments and memorials scattered throughout the city, I was constantly in awe. Often I found myself corrected, constantly re-learning facts and figures and dates from western history. In much the way places like Tokyo or Nepal have made me realize how I am but one individual in this world, London expands that across the spectrum of history—both humbling and inspiring as I walk past those tombs of the great poets buried at Westminster Abbey.
Crossing canals never gets old, the peaceful quiet of Amsterdam is interrupted only by the occasional ringing of a tram bell. A curious city, the man-made waterways which encircle the downtown act as subtle transitions between neighborhoods. Water is everywhere, including the soft patter of rain on cool mornings. Escaping it, we take shelter in any of the plentiful cafés to enjoy great drink and lovely company. Something about the city feels different. People are polite, society is ordered and structured so everything always seems to happen efficiently and quickly. The language amuses us, recognizable yet different from what we know. Regardless, we still find ways to order tremendous meals. I had not imagined I would love Amsterdam so very much; leaving was that much more heartbreaking.
I have much love and affection for speaking French that is hard to explain yet captivates me. Visiting Paris feels much the same; without question it is a beautiful city. The landmarks and monuments are stunning. History lives at every turn. Food like crepes can be found from plenty of street vendors. Magnificent art is waiting among the many museums. And of course, everyone is speaking French!
Having studied the language in college, I am both thrilled and terrified to practice my skills. And though I lack perfection—a relatively limited vocabulary and poor accent—I love being surrounded by others speaking. More often than not I respond with a simple phrase (usually oui or non, yes or no) and am then forced to revert to English. But even the challenge is exciting! And for the first time while traveling, I feel far less lost when the native language is not English; though I might not always speak proper French, I certainly understand it. Being in a foreign city and not feeling alien is comforting, especially in a place as large as here.
Paris is truly an enormous city. Much like Rome, it has far too much to see in such a short trip. Days were spent exploring both the Musée du Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. Tye and I ate crepes while meeting friends at the Eiffel Tower after dark. Walking between the Louvre and the Tuileries Garden, along the Champs-Élysée to the Arc du Triumph filled hours. Visiting Notre Dame was great but I was more interested in the Shakespeare and Company bookstore only a few minutes away. Merely wandering the city was lovely. Sarah and her sister Grace joined our final day as we explored Napoleon’s tomb, the Pantheon (which holds in its crypt the tombs of such authors as Rousseau) and hiked up to amazing views of the city at Sacré-Cœur to explore what became my favorite part of the city, Montmartre.
Yes, it is far from perfect. Parisians are—for the most part—incredibly kind and helpful though plenty of them were less than helpful to travelers. Space is limited, and everything costs a little more than elsewhere. But grabbing baguettes and some drinks and roaming the city is quite amazing in itself.
Stunning blue water. Beautiful coastlines. Good food and drink and lovely company made for a short but amazing stay in the Côté d’Azur.
An art exists to wandering lost. In a city with no cars—only water—my brother Tye and I constantly find ourselves facing canals, our paths often and irrationally concluding with a dead-end. Three days exploring Venice; its beauty complicated by a sense of abandonment.
If cities are themed, Venice owns water. Even before arriving, stunning views of the Venetian Lagoon separate the city from the mainland. Upon arrival, Tye and I opt to walk rather than pay for a water taxi; two minutes later and we had grab our cameras while standing atop Ponte degli Scalzi over the Grand Canal. The sound of water permeates, a serene reminder of what lies as the foundation to the city. Boats buzz past in all directions. Gondoliers sit beside canals throughout the city, always eager to provide a ride for the many visitors. Venetian masks line shop walls, Murano glass crafted into goods of all forms—the Rialto Bridge has all of these plus great views. The palace and Saint Mark’s Square are iconic. Yes, Venice is gorgeous.
Yet for all its beauty, I felt the city itself wears a mask. The main paths are a constant bustle of activity yet one block away feels empty, abandoned. Shops are closed, buildings look forgotten—or at the very least ignored. The constant presence of water is taking its toll. I wonder how true the claims are that the city has more visitors than residents; then again, if the city truly is sinking, I probably wouldn’t choose to live here myself. In some sense, the more we explore, everything we find makes the city feel more and more superficial, a theater for tourists.
Even with such tensions, we meet some lovely fellow travelers and explore some amazing history. Instead of people-watching, Venice has boat-watching. Grabbing snacks and a Bellini and enjoying musical performances makes for some lovely summer evenings. Despite Venice appearing in an incredible number of films, nothing quite compares to the experience of standing in the center of Piazza San Marco or merely enjoying an afternoon sitting beside the Grand Canal watching boats pass.
Along the southern coast, Sorrento offers clear, blue water as it meets black-sand beaches among the many hillsides and cliffs. Lemon groves exist in troves surrounding this 16,000-person town. Beautiful, quiet and relaxing, our one-day visit concluded with a delightful meal—at a small, family-run trattoria—and was capped with the town’s specialty, limoncello.
Naples was not my favorite place but I got to eat pizza margarita where the dish was invented. The parents departed for home and Tye stayed to travel for the next few weeks. Our first stop in southern Italy includes beautiful coastal waters, views of Mount Vesuvius and a dirty, graffiti-laden city—I’m glad to depart.
I realize it’s impossible to see everything. But we tried. Even now I find myself in awe of the grandeur and spectacle of this 2,500 year-old city—can it really be that I am inside the House of Augustus or standing beside the very plaza in which Caesar was killed? Each morning begins with a rooftop breakfast at our rented apartment, St. Peter’s Basilica to the north as it rises above the walls of Vatican City. Wandering east across the Tiber, we find ourselves downtown—a fascinating mix of excavation sites scattered among the modern city. Buildings literally built around—even over—what remnants still exist. Small alleys connecting the major streets are filled with history and give us chances to explore neighborhoods like the Jewish “ghetto” or Trastevere (literally, “beyond the Tiber”). No matter how early we wake up nor how late we stay out, we only scratch the surface of this place.
Of course we visited the major sites. Ancient Rome is breathtaking. Exploring Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum displayed the wealth and grandeur of the world some thousands of years ago. And stepping into the Colosseum brought to life so many stories; oddly, I found it was smaller than I anticipated. Sitting on the Spanish Steps, people-watching at the Trevi Fountain and looking up in awe at the Pantheon’s architecture more than filled our days. We spent a full day exploring Vatican City. Having reserved tickets for the Vatican Museum, we skipped the enormous line and succeeded in visiting a good portion of the 1,440 rooms containing historical Catholic artwork, Egyptian hieroglyphics, beautiful mosaics and frescos covering rooms from floor to ceiling, old maps of the world, stonework depicting images from “The Odyssey” and many, many other marvels. We also spent plenty of time admiring Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Beyond the museum, returning to our apartment from the city-centre took us past St. Peter’s Square, itself another impressive sight. And of course, good food and great company were always to be found.
I cannot remember another time eating so well. Wandering about town, pizzerias line the streets offering quick and simple meals—margarita and rossa (red) being the two offerings. Gelato of seemingly endless varieties provided a reprieve from the warm days. Coffee was always easy to find—I enjoyed more than my share of espressos! Afternoons were often spent back in our apartment, relaxing with cheese, crackers, chocolate and a bottle of wine; naps often accompanied our siestas. Dinners offered the choice of another pizza or one of the many delicious pastas—cachio e pepe (“cheese and pepper”) being my favorite. Roman delicacies like pasta carbonara or carciofi romaneschi (artichokes) were delightfully filling. Most important, this time was all spent with family.
Goodbyes are never easy. Saying farewell to my parents was harder than when departing last fall; I miss having them nearby. Italy was celebrating milestones—my brother Tye graduated university and turned 22 while my own birthday comes at the end of this month. More than that, I have been abroad for eight months, so this was our chance to spend time together. And finally, it was a family trip; my mother noted that we chose Italy because my father “loves Italian food.” While we rarely traveled abroad when I was younger, we began exploring farther away in the past few years—and I cannot imagine a better place than Italy to have spent the past two weeks together. With any luck, we’ll find just as lovely a spot for our next trip.
Thanks, Mom and Dad.