Saturday, April 30, 2011

Airbnb

Hosteling has been our primary accommodation when we travel abroad.  In Italy, we ended up staying in one star hotels, which are basically the same thing as hostels.  We haven’t tried couchsurfing, although it does sound fun, it also seems much more likely to pick a crazy person to stay with than pick a crappy hostel.

As I was browsing through the archives at Ginger Won't Snap, I read about how she rents part of her apartment through Airbnb.  This is basically like paying to couch surf, and individuals or commercial businesses can list their places and users can search listings to find somewhere to stay.

I’m always trying to balance quality and price when it comes to housing because for two people on a two week trip, it adds up quickly.

After a quick perusual of the Budapest and Vienna results, it might not be cheaper but the quality might be better.  If we do end up going to Budapest and Vienna, I think I know the general area we want to stay in while visiting Budapest, but the high cost of central Vienna lodging leave me wondering what might be best.

On the other side, this sounds like a fascinating way to host visitors and make some money too.  The only downside it that I doubt we’d by living in a very touristy spot, so the desirability would probably be lacking.

The only downside I see to this is that they take a few percent from the host and a fee from the renter.  For a week in Budapest or Vienna, the fee ranged from $15-17, which is a bit high especially when compared to some of the hostel websites.

We haven’t tried this, and maybe we won’t, but there are great travel sites popping up left and right!

Friday, April 29, 2011

Tragic Losses

Our trip led to two losses one major, the other minor.

The first was the death of Steve’s Kindle.  He accidently dropped it from the bedside table to the floor and the screen is a garbled mess.  This is a big loss because we use our Kindles all the time and getting a new one in Saudi isn’t possible because Amazon won’t ship them here.  For the last couple of weeks we’ve been sharing mine, which seems to be working well for now.

I’m so disappointed that the Kindle broke so easily because it’s a very easy accident to have.  Amazon has a video of a drop test, but I don’t think it’s very accurate if they are really so easily broken.



Loss number two was my fault as I accidently left my hat on the train from Milan to Malpensa.  In the end, it’s not a huge loss because I probably won’t need a hat again until fall and by that time we should be settled into the US.

Rocking my long lost hat at the Cairo Airport while waiting for our flight to Athens.

Not all was perfect in Italy, but these losses certainly didn't ruin our trip.


I bet you all thought this was going to be about William being single no more...

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Italy Day 3: Sforzesco Museums

With one ticket, we got access to all of the museums in Castle Sforzesco, which ended up taking most of the day to wander through the ones we wanted.

Our favorite was by far the Musical Instrument Museum.  The not only had a lot of old instruments, but many that were either stylistically or tonally experimental.  That means there were many strange looking instruments, but they were a unique addition to the museum.

An intricately carved scroll on an old violin

This Giovanni Grancino viola has a fascinating history.  Since it's smaller than other violas of the time (1660s) it didn't get modified when the baroque instruments, which tuned an A to 415 hertz, were re-tooled in a sense to withstand the greater tension and pressure associated with transforming an A to 440 Hz.  So if you played an A on this instrument, it wouldn't sound like a modern A.  Facinating!


A violin from 1778, basically as old at the United States!

A violino sordino with a very unique body shape.

Bassoons, near to my heart as I played this in middle school for a few years.

Some of the other museums were the Egyptian Museum, Ancient Art, China and Furniture, and a special exhibit all about Michelangelo.  The Egyptian Museum was a touch of a letdown because they didn’t have that many artifacts, but as opposed to the British Museum, which might actually have half of Egypt in its museum, it was nice to see a country that didn’t wander away with all of the Egyptian artifacts.

Despite the limited number of artifacts, they did have a mummy on display.

Very interesting Egyptian writing, which isn't exactly the hieroglyphics that are most commonly thought of.

China and Furniture was moderately interesting, but not really something we were very interested in, so we didn’t spend much time there.

Ornate chest in the Furniture museum

I'm not quite sure which museum this guy was in, but he was some kind of mechanical goblin.  Creepy.

The Ancient Art museum had many interesting pieces spread throughout the Castle rooms, and my favorite were some of the tapestries they had on display.  It’s fascinating to see how the different colors have faded or held up over time.  Yellows and reds were very faded and the blues and purples were still surprisingly vivid.
 
The Michelangelo exhibit was huge and filled with his sketches, sculptures, and architectural work.  Steve and I both liked the architectural portion of the exhibit the best.  I never realized how much work he did throughout his life and how much of it was never carried out.  He designed some beautiful buildings and facades, and we even stumbled upon one of the buildings he redesigned, but his plans were never carried to fruition.

One of Michelangelo's famous unfinished sculptures, Rondanini PietĂ .

One of the many buildings that he designed during his life.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Eating Fruits and Veggies

After delightfully eating our way through Milan and Florence we were on carb overload.  I felt like I didn’t want to see any more pizza or pasta for many a week.  I knew that we needed to beef up our fruit and veggie consumption because we were nowhere near the recommendations made by the USDA. (2-4 servings of fruit and 3-5 servings of veggies)

Eating that many servings can be hard to do and hard to remember.  Yes, this is a ridiculous affluent problem to have, but a problem none the less.

Our solution was a blender so we could make smoothies!  Buying a blender has actually solved another problem by also giving me a much better breakfast option.  Since we bought the blender, I’ve eaten cereal twice!  We’ve been buying much less cereal and replacing it with bananas and frozen strawberries and other fruits and veggies.  Carrots have been a great addition to our smoothies because they don’t have a very strong flavor so they are easily masked by the fruits.

We’re also trying to steer away from some less healthful additions like yogurt or milk instead favoring water or pineapple juice as our liquid addition.

After two weeks of smoothie noming, I can declare this a success.  We’re still trying to add more veggies to the mix and we discovered an interesting addition in the produce department.  Stay tuned to find out more about our interesting grocery find!

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pack and Move

From when we left Saudi Arabia until we got back, we packed and moved five times in nine days.  Part of this was because we chose to visit both Milan and Florence, and part was because our hotel reservation got lost, so we had to move an additional two times.

All of this extra packing and moving was a huge hassle for our hotel switch because we had to check out of Hotel A early, but couldn’t check into Hotel B until later in the day.   That meant we also had to store our luggage at the hotel twice.

Unfortunately, there really isn’t any way to avoid this in future travels, since all of the extra effort was a result of the lost reservation.  I hope that our next trip will give us enough time in each city to not have to fuss too much over packing.  Cairo was nice because we spent nine days in the same spot, so there wasn't any extra fussing.  This could have been a lot worse if we had more luggage with us, but we only had one rolling carry on, my purse, and Steve’s backpack.  I was so grateful that we chose to travel light!



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Sunday, April 24, 2011

Italy: Day 3 Part 2

Gobs of people hanging out having fun on an Italian weekend.

After touring the museums we went to the Parco Sempione, a park just NW of the castle. There were tons of people out and about just relaxing and having fun (it was a Saturday, which is part of the weekend in Italy). We visited a free aquarium located in the park. It was small, but nice and new, with a cool walk through aquarium tunnel. There was a pretty tropical coral reef, but it was mostly focused on Mediterranean fishes. The aquarium also served as an art gallery, which is a pretty cool combo.

Fish pond outside the museum.

I love this photo.  I read about shooting waterfalls before we left, but didn't think I'd actually get to try out the technique until we got somewhere more forest less desert.


I loved this painting.  It was done by a street artist named Mambo, which doesn't yield the greatest hope for an independent website.  But regardless of having his own website, his art was awesome.

Steve found this outside the aquarium, and we couldn't believe that Italy had floating head problems too!

Reading and hoola-hooping makes this girl just about the most awesome park goer we saw in Italy.  Plus the creepy/angry guy on the left was worth a good laugh.

I loved how many people were outside hanging out in the park.  At any given time you could easily count 10 soccer balls up in the air at a time.  I do not however love big construction cranes that insist on sitting in front of my shot.



We had spotted a cool looking triumphal arch from the castle, so we headed over to see it. It was the Arco della Pace (Arch of Peace) which was built in the first half of the 19th century. We walked over to it, and got some great views across the park back towards the castle.

Ode to Napoleon.

That night we had to pack up and move to a different hotel due to our reservation being lost. The new hotel was a little bit more expensive (the hotel that messed up the reservation paid the difference) but way worse. The whole place smelled like old fish, and the room was really dark and gasp there was no internet!

We went to a brick oven pizza place for dinner, and the pizza was amazing. In Italy, restaurants often have a service charge called cuperto, which they add to the bill. The funny thing is that they translated it as "forks, knives, tablecloth, glasses". It kind of sucks, because that fee doesn't go to the server, and it really discouraged us from leaving a tip.


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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Italy: Day 3 Part 1


"Good Luck Africa!" is Italy's version of "Welcome Cairo!": it is what the street vendors use as their opening remark. This was how the conversation went when we first encountered one of them while we were trying to take pictures at the fountain:

Man: "Good luck Africa! Gift to you from Africa." as he approaches and attempts to forcibly tie a rainbow dyed string around my wrist.
Me: "No thank you, no grazie, non merci, hakuna" Lion King proves its worth yet again (the previous time being when I removed one of my rivals by way of a wildebeest stampede).
Man: "Is free gift from Africa to you, for good luck" as he succeeds in tying a string on Abby's wrist, and clipping off the loose ends with nail clippers
Abby: "Thank you" as she tries to get on with taking pictures
Man: "Make a donation for Africa." as he turns back to me
Me: "No, it is free gift, we did not ask for it"
Man: "Just two euro, for coffee" (does Africa really need coffee?)
Me: I give him one euro, which seems way more than fair for an unwanted bit of string.
Man: "Come on man, one more euro"
...and so on, until he spots more tourists to harass.

In Athens most of the street vendors looked Pakistani or Indian, but here they almost all looked African. Street vendors were probably the worst parts of our vacations so far, and at some points we were reduced to simply yelling at them to leave us alone, and we definitely weren't the only ones doing this.


Once we got past the African gauntlet we started to visit Castle Sforzesco. This was a beautiful brick covered fortress, which now houses several museums. We bought one ticket that got us into all the museums. We went to the museums of porcelain, ancient art, ancient Egypt, furniture, and musical instruments. We also visited a special exhibit all about Michaelangelo, including his art and architecture. The museum of musical instruments was our definite favorite, they had a whole bunch or really unique instruments. Tune in later in the week for more pictures from these museums! There are just too many to share in one post.


All of the bricks had worn down, but the mortar was still holding up a lot better than the bricks.


Inner courtyard of the castle.  There was a couple here doing wedding photos while we were here.  It was a great choice of background!


Enjoying a delicious mozz and tomato sandwich in the park behind the castle.

The castle grounds were free to the public, and you were allowed to come and go from the museums all day.  This was a great idea as it allowed us to leave, get lunch, and then go back to the museums.

This gate is all that is left of an older wall that used to surround the castle.

Kitties were all around outside the castle.  This one was just crawling out of this hole in the moat wall.

More kitties lounging in the castle moat.

View from inside the main wall.

Lounging on the grass and soaking up some sunshine.  My favorite part of Italy was my afternoon nap in the sun.  I napped on so many different green spaces it was awesome!

Tune in to find out more about day 3!

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Thursday, April 21, 2011

Keeping it Alive by Trying New Things

Repetition leads to routine and this easily slips into a comfortable rut, which is hard to break out of.  Having routines and being comfortable with life isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does tend to act as a barrier to new and unknown activities.  Our trip to Italy was filled with chances for us to break out of being comfortable and try new things.

On our trip we:
Rode buses around Florence
Visited more than one city in a single trip
Bought train tickets five minutes before the train left
Learned a few key phrases in Italian
Visited a city with no metro
The only reasons we didn't do things like this in Athens or Cairo are because it made us (mostly me) uncomfortable and seemed too hard to do.

In almost every case we were wrong; they were relatively easy and added a lot to our trip.

Riding buses in Florence really made getting around easier and saved our tired feet on more  than one occasion.  It was pretty easy to figure out where to get off the buses and finding bus stops was doable, although a bit harder.

Splitting our time between multiple cities ended up being a great idea. While we easily could have spent the full nine days in Milan or Florence, seeing both provided a more well rounded experience of Italy.  Milan was much less touristy and was much more big city feeling whereas Florence was probably prettier than Milan, but the tourism was obvious and everywhere.

The train tickets ended up being a bit of a funny story too.  I was trying to navigate the ticket machine while Steve bought stamps from the train's newspaper stand, when the machine just froze.  At that point I figured we were stuck waiting for the next train, when the machine kicked back into gear and acted like nothing was wrong. By the time the tickets printed we had less than five minutes to make our way to the train.  All of the trains between Pisa and Florence do not have assigned seating, but the machines do sell 1st and 2nd class tickets.  Since we'd spent all day walking around Pisa, we decided to get the 1st class tickets so we'd have more space to spread out.  So not only did we have to rush to the train, we also had to rush to find the first class car.

Basic logic tells me that if first class tickets are sold, there must obviously be first class seating.  Not true.  We ended up hopping on almost at the last minute perterbed that we weren't able to find the first class seating.  After we got back to Florence, Steve walked the length of the train and realized there wasn't any to begin with!  For future Florence to Pisa travelers beware of the first class tickets!

Picking up on words like ciao, buona sera, grazie, and other simple phrases made it just a bit easier to talk to people and it made it more fun.  It didn't take much to get the hang of it, although this was much easier to do because we have experience with French and Spanish, which seemed to help a lot.  This would have been (and still is) much harder in Cairo for example with Arabic.

Finally, visiting a city with no metro had me in knots.  I had no idea if it would affect the quality of our trip, resulting in seeing fewer sites because we'd have to walk more, but in the end this was great.  Florence was small enough that it really didn't take long to get from one place to another, and it inspired us to try out the buses.

Not every trip can be packed full of new and exciting things to do, but adding a couple in definitely spiced up our trip!  We (I) got over some silly travel worries and realized that almost anything isn't actually that hard to do.

I don't know what kind of new adventures we'll strive to have on our next trip (in May!) but I know that we'll try and fit in some new and some old travel activities.


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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Italy: Day 2

Day 2 started with eating a strange breakfast and shopping for new shoes.  Breakfast was strange and funny because we couldn’t easily communicate with the cafĂ© owner where we stopped.  We were trying to figure out if they served breakfast foods beyond croissants and coffee, and he insisted that we sit and eat.  Turns out, they didn’t really serve “normal” breakfast and they brought us a sandwich menu.  Therefore, our first breakfast in Milan was delicious lunch sandwiches.  Milanians didn’t speak much if any English, so we had a ton of comedic moments like this during our trip.


Next we went shopping for some new shoes for me, because mine were totally worn out, and my feet were already starting to hurt. We had meant to go to Jeddah for shoes before we left for Italy, but never had the time or the desire to make it. After being shocked by the ridiculous prices for impractical shoes for walking, we went to a Merrell store (Steve suggested it). We paid a lot, but the shoes are fantastic.


After we took care of breakfast and shoes, we went to a public park for almost the entire day.  The park was very pretty, with nice gravel paths and little ponds.  It was so nice to see so many people out enjoying the wonderful spring weather.  The natural history museum was right inside the park, so we went through that.  They had some amazing minerals, and great fossils.  There was a whole floor of dioramas of different environments, complete with stuffed animals, and most of them looked very realistic.



Napping in the park.

Beautiful arched ceilings in a nearby building.


Donkey on exhibit in the museum.

Pretty minerals on display





We debated going to a nearby art gallery, but neither of us have a strong love of art so we actually ended up seeing very little of it throughout our trip.

We also saw these awesome bike rental areas on our walk back to the hotel.  They were all over Milan and we saw a lot of people out riding the bikes.  We both wanted to ride them, but never got a chance.  I think it’s great that the city is willing to encourage alternative transportation methods, because the traffic in Milan was loud!



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Sunday, April 17, 2011

Shopping in Italy

It’s interesting to see how being devoid of non-food shopping has affected us.  When we do go to Jeddah, it’s usually for many items; on our last trip, we got printer ink, a duffle bag for Steve, a mini Leatherman, and a root canal.  (Ok, that last one was free, but it was the reason we were in Jeddah)  As a whole though, we don’t buy very much.  I didn’t consider how appealing shopping would be in Italy after being deprived of genuine shopping for the last few months.

Our first purchase was a new pair of shoes for me, because my old shoes were absolutely uncomfortable when standing or walking for extended periods of time, which is the opposite of what you want when traveling.  We started looking for cheap shoes, but after visiting three or four stores, we realized that nothing worth wearing for eight or more hours a day was going to be cheap.  So on Steve’s recommendation we wandered into Merrell, which was shockingly expensive.  I ended up trying on the Men’s WaterPro Manistee shoes, and they felt amazing on my feet.  They are, at 90 euro, the most expensive piece of clothing or accessory that I have ever owned.  However, after wearing them all week in Italy, they are by far the best shoes I’ve ever owned.


My favorite part is that they are super lightweight, coming in at only 1.4 pounds!  It really does feel like I’m not wearing shoes at all.  It’s generally a pretty dumb idea to start a trip off with a new pair of shoes, but thankfully, I didn’t have any problems with blisters or foot pain from these dreamy shoes.

We also did a lot of window shopping while searching for shoes, and oh the envy!  Clothes were definitely more expensive, but Milan is hands down the most fashionable and beautiful place ever.  Had I realized how nice the clothes were going to be, I might have packed fewer clothes and more money!  While I didn’t end up buying any clothes, I did get a few cute accessories before we left Milan for Florence.

Shopping in Florence was less planned and more a result of wants not needs.  We ended up buying a new SD card our first day because I had left my 8GB card in the laptop back in the hotel.  Steve also decided to get a new wallet in Florence, since his, which I got him two years ago, is falling apart.

In Athens, we got two beautiful pieces of art, and we decided that we might get another if we found something we both liked.  Instead of traditional art, we found a beautiful series of postcards.  If I can find the right kind of frame, I’ll frame and hang them here, otherwise I’ll have to wait and frame them when we get back home.



Our finale to our buying extravaganza was a trip to a yarn shop in Florence.  I ended up getting three different kinds of yarn, two for me and one to make something for Steve as well as two pairs of needles.  The pink yarn was originally one large hank, but Steve helped me ball it into more manageable sizes while we were sitting in the Cairo airport, flight delayed.  All of the knitting needles we found in Italy were crazy long.  I'm not sure how Italians manage to knit with such long needles; they seem clumsy and awkward to me.

We certainly did more shopping than expected in Italy, but it was so much fun, and we found some things we most likely wouldn’t have found in Jeddah.


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