Sunday, February 15, 2009

Florence - turned a new leaf

So I understand Florence now. I overheard the owner of my hostel telling a new resident about the city. "This is a city of museums," he said. "You have to go to at least two or three while you are here." When I made the previous post, I hadn't actually stepped foot in any of them yet. That was a mistake. Unfortunately, I left Florence after only seeing one.

Perhaps it's for the best, though, because now I left wanting to go back. I know there's a lot in that city I haven't seen, and now I have a completely different opinion of the city in general. Florence is and has been a city of travelers. Whether they're merchants or tourists, travelers have flocked to this city for centuries, which is fascinating in itself. In all these museums, you read about the paintings and where they came from. During the Renaissance, all of the artists knew each other and met and worked in these cities that are famous today. Some of the greatest art in the world was created in this city and much of it still rests here today.

I saw the Statue of David and was extremely impressed. First off, it's huge, much bigger than the pictures show. I don't understand how one person could have carved it on such a large scale. There are veins that run down his arms and hands. I never realized that before. But altogether... there was something strange about him. You read that his hands and head are large in proportion to the rest of his body and you can see it immediately when you look at the whole statue. His hands are huge. But, somehow it works. It should look odd, but it looks extremely balanced and perfect when you see it. He is supposed to look pensive and calm. It was his innocense that defeated Goliath (which was inspiration to the city at that point in history for some reason). I wonder if that has to do with his hands and head. By having large features and a small body, that may remind us of youth.

Anyway, it was good to see. The museum that housed it was small, but the artwork that was in it was awesome. There were huge paintings, most of which I really enjoyed.

Did you know that the lily is a symbol of purity, which is why it is traditionally placed in most "L'Annunciazione" paintings? So when I was making fun of that painting of Mary before [link], asking why the angel would have brought flowers, I was actually jabbing at something that obviously follows the tradition of the time. The flowers weren't placed in there to be part of the scene, but where placed as a neccessary symbol instead.

Needlesstosay, I have a much more different oppinion of Florence than I did yesterday. It just goes to show that you should never judge a city until you really understand why it is the way it is. There are good aspects to every city, sometimes it just takes a bit longer to find them.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

More Florence

Happy Valentine's Day!

I spent the day wandering around the city. Strangely, I've heard more American accents today, just on the streets, than I have since I was in the states almost a month ago. I think this place is a hub for Californians. I'm not sure why.

Ah... Florence. I have a confession. If you are in love with Florence, please stop reading now and move on to the next blog.

I'm not really enjoying this city. I've really tried to enjoy myself, but today I... sort of lost it momentarily lost it. It was too much. There are too many people, everywhere. Yes, I know it's Saturday (and Valentine's day), but it's February! It's supposedly busier during the summer. I don't know how. Every turn I take, there's a group of people chatting loudly in American English. Every pretty part of the city is crawling with them. Every site has a constant flow of people moving in and out of the building. It's a pretty city, but I enjoyed Rome quite a bit more.

Today I wanted to see the Statue of David and then The Birth of Venus. I also wanted to see the Duomo, which this city is named for. That was the plan.

I went to the museum the Statue of David is in. There was a line, probably about 200 feet long to get inside. I wandered to the front. Surely it had to be cheap. It's a very small museum with only one major work of art (however major). It was about US$10 to get in, plus the wait. US$10 bucks is not a lot of money, I know, but it's the idea behind it. This is a major work of art that is mandatory to see while in this city. Yes, they can charge that much because it's the Statue of David and people will pay anything, but seriously, what kind of museum exploits major works of art to make a small fortune? Ten bucks, multiplied by a steady stream of tourists all day, pushing their way in. Do you have any idea how much money that little museum is making? There was at least two thousand dollars, just in the line I saw. I understand charging enough for maintenance and renovations, but strictly making money off a work of art that you did not create but simply own is ridiculous. To get into the Vatican Museum costs about US$20 and there were herds of people clammoring to get in. I don't think the Pope realized how much money he was making when he commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel, but at least that money includes admission to several other museums, which usually aren't utilized by the visitors. It was the same deal with the Taj Mahal (US$15 goes a long way in India) and the Colosseum (which was free up until a few years ago). There are so many little gems in each of these cities. There are free cathedrals all over and cheap museums with amazing works of art. Why do so many people flock to the major ones?

Nevertheless, I really want to see the Statue of David, and will probably go tomorrow morning early when there will hopefully be no line. I really like marble statues and it is perhaps the best marble statue in the world. But I shall glare at them as they take my money. That'll show them.

Note: I know many of you will say, "Just spend the money. Who knows when you'll be there again?" And I will spend the money. The problem is that most of it is already spent and I'm in debt on my credit card. Now you ask, "Why did you go to Italy when you had no money?" My ticket was US$90 (tax included). How can you not go to Italy for so cheap when you have time and enough money to get by? Eh... I'll manage. I guess I'll be subbing for a few weeks when I get back to the states. Welcome home.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Vatican Museum - Commentary

I know this is highly inappropriate, making fun of classical artwork, but really I just can't help myself.

Let me start off by saying that if you get the chance to see the Vatican Museum, you should definitely do it. It's great. It gives you a really vivid image of what artwork was like back in the day, but it was from that image I noticed something.

Perhaps it has something to do with Catholicism at the time, but their depictions of certain biblical works are... odd. First of all, I don't think I saw an image of baby Jesus that didn't scare me. There were some renditions that... if I saw that baby alive I would shriek and run away screaming with terror. The proportions were crazy and his expressions were so off. They always painted him preaching about something too, even as an infant. Do they think he could talk at that age? I'm sure most of that is symbolic, but... it's unsettling to see.

Second is their depiction of Mary. I know she is a bigger deal in the Catholic faith, but really, I think some of the paintings are a little too much. Take this one for instance, "L'Annunciazione," by Federico Fiori. I snapped a bad picture of it really quick and had to warp it in Photoshop to make it look square. Sorry.

"L'Annunciazione" Federico Fiori

Angel: My Queen, are you busy? I picked you these flowers on my way here.
Mary: Oh no, not at all. I was just watching the sunset behind a nearby castle.
Angel: I have news from God.
Mary: Really? Hold on a second, let me put my book down. What is it?
Angel: You will give birth to a baby boy, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.

Mary: Why, that doesn't surprise me at all. In fact, I already knew this.

Okay, I was about to apologize for exaggerating, but look at the painting. I don't understand how something like this could be taken seriously. Yes, it's a beautiful painting and actually... the more I look at it the more attached I'm becoming (it really is nicely done). However, when put in to context... I feel like artist painted something completely different, then just called it l'Annunciazione to get funding or something.

Florence - First Look

I arrived in Florence today. Until about five or six at night, nothing really went as planned... and tended to be worse than expected. I could go into it, but it just involves the usual stuff (missed trains, full hostels, ran out of money, etc). Anyway, it ends well.

I'm in a hostel now that's great. They just repainted everything and actually gave me a key to the entire building. It feels nice to have a key. I don't know why. The hostel's pretty cool, too. It has one of those really old-style elevators with two doors and is made out of wood. The first time I went in one I was petrified and thought I was going to die. Then I got used to it and now rather enjoy it. It makes me feel like I'm in some 1930's movie. Tonight as I was coming back I noticed the doors to the building are gigantic. Seriously, they're like three times my size and made of solid wood. Behind that is another chain-like door which reminds me of a portcullis. I've decided from now on I'm going to pretend it's my castle and I am the king.

Speaking of having no friends, tomorrow is Valentine's Day. I'm in one of the most Romantic cities in the world on the most Romantic day of the year and I'm by myself. So sad... I think tomorrow I'll just go to sleep early so I don't have to think about it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

the Vatican

Yesterday I was chatting with a guy in the hostel from Australia. We were talking about Rome and what sites to see, then he mentioned something about "tourists" and how they're all over the big sites. I sort of wanted to remind him that he was a tourist as well, but instead I let him continue and realized that he had a point... Because in Rome there are a different breed of tourists. You see them in every city, herds of people clumped together, reminiscent of schools of fish or perhaps flocks of sheep. They mass together at the major sites, milling about while the alpha tourist buys tickets or finds directions. While on tours, they often stop to graze or preen each other on the sidewalks or directly in front of famous sites. Watch for the the flashing lights of cameras and camera phones. When massed together, it gives the larger sites a glimmer of their own.

Alright, I'll stop. But really... it's distracting. Today I went to the Vatican Museum (amazing) and the Sistine Chapel. The museum is divided into different sections. You can see what you want and as much of you want, until you decide to go to the chapel. Then you have to go through about a half a mile of shoulder-to-shoulder people. The sites on the way are interesting, but... literally I went a little crazy near the end. I don't think I realized how far it was. They wind you around an entire building and then suddenly... you're there.

The Creation of Adam (Thank You, Wikipedia)

The Sistine Chapel is impressive (to say the least), although I wouldn't really call it a chapel. I always imagined it would be an actual church, but in reality it's more like a gigantic painting that covers an entire room. There's not much decoration besides. It took me awhile to adjust and enjoy myself because the entire floor was covered with people. It is the cesspool-mecca of tourism in this city. And really, the massive painting is so overwhelming at first. The Creation of Adam (see above) part is rather small in comparison to everything else. Once I took it section by section and really tried to figure out what was going on, I really enjoyed myself. The front is actually a lot more gruesome than I expected. I found out later it is supposed to be the Last Judgement of Christ, hence the demons dragging bodies into Hell.

The crowds. Maybe this is why cameras aren't allowed.

I'm being too negative. This is a really cool city. It's so picturesque and romantic everywhere you go. Good thing I'm by myself (sarcasm). But at least I have my camera. To quote something I emailed my sister yesterday: You could take any block in this city at any time of day and use up an entire roll of film easily.

I think mainly it has to do with the Renaissance. I also noticed this with London, only I didn't really realize why until just now. Athens was a really cool city, but while most of the major European cities were flourishing during the Renaissance, it was being taken over by the Ottoman empire. The whole concept of the "Renaissance" all makes sense now. It's just so evident here.

Some weird people want to play cards with me. I don't really want to play, but they need a fourth player. Argh... alright, I'll be social.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

First night in Rome

One thing I didn't expect to be doing on my first night in Rome is hanging out with a bunch of Brazilians, but... well that's what happened. I guess Brazilians are everywhere and I just haven't run into them yet. Really, I don't think I've met any Brazilians outside of Miami in my life, but today in the hostel the first language was Portuguese. The Aussie I talked to said that was normal. Is that normal? Am I crazy?

The Brazilian Flag

Anyway, they are very friendly. We all went out to a pub and watched the Brazil-Italy game. I learned all about the players and then promptly forgot everything. Brazil won. Strangely, I found myself rooting for them.

So I'm in Rome. I really haven't seen much of the city yet, but it seems neat. It's interesting hearing the Italian language spoken by everyone. It kind of surprises me every time. I bought a... I'm not sure what it was but it was delicious... from a random stand at the train station. They guy behind the counter seemed like you're run-of-the-mill average guy, but when he spoke he had the Italian rhythm and it really made me do a double-take. I suddenly felt like a grunting buffoon.

I think part of it is how everyone looks. I thought the same thing in Japan awhile back. Let me explain. When I was in Korea I got used to the way people looked. Everything about Korean people was very foreign in the beginning, but eventually I got used to it and associated the culture and people there with "Korea." I went to Japan for a weekend and it all felt... a bit more like the states. It wasn't, but I think I felt that way because I had more Japanese friends in the states than Koreans, or maybe it was from seeing so many of them in Hawaii. I don't know. It may have just been a feeling. But it's sort of the same situation with Italy. Italian people look American to me, perhaps because we have so many Italians in America. Sure, we've got Greek people too, but not as many. How many people do you know who've got a little bit of Italian blood in them? Quite a few. I don't really know where I'm going with this. Any thoughts?

I feel like I should put up the Italian flag so I don't confuse people...

There we go.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

~ Greece Photo Album ~

Here's a link to the best of the Greece pictures:
Comments are nice because then I know people are actually reading this. hint hint

Greece, Customs, and a Dirty Foreigner

A nice, touristy picture in front of the Parthenon.

Well, I'm back in the UK now, for better or for worse. Greece was beautiful. I stayed in Patras for another day. Seriously though, that hostel was filthy. I was staying in this old little manner with really interesting looking rooms, but I swear the windows hadn't been open in 20 years. It was cold, dank, and it smelled like bus. No, I don't mean "new car scent," I mean "public bus," crusting with dry sweat and who knows what else. I put out my shirts to dry after my night in the rain... they were still wet when I left. The showers didn't have hot water. I was bundled up each night. I could continue, but let's focus on the positive, shall we?

After Patras I went to Nafplio, which was beautiful. It's this little Mediterranean town with a fortress on a small mountain and an incredible view of the coast. I seriously sat on the shore for a few hours, just soaking it all in.

The coastal, Venesian town of Naflio.

Besides that, there's not much to say. I'm back in London now. I got hassled by customs again and warned I probably would a third time after Rome. This time he was at least friendly about it, but he really didn't see a problem with what he was saying.

Jolly Man: And after Rome will you be coming back to the UK?
Me: I'm planning on coming back for about a week and a half after. I'd still like to see a bit more of the country here.
Jolly Man: Well the only way you'll see the country might be from a plane.

Really? Is that necessary? England needs to know that no American wants to become a UK citizen that badly. Tell me, if I came to England to get a wife so I can get a UK passport, why would I have left the country (twice!) when I already had a visa to stay six months? Why would I leave the country at all, knowing how hard it is to get back in? Why would I go to England when there are several other countries in the EU that can give me an EU passport with the same benefits and their customs officers aren't crazy? Why is it that I've met so many solo backpackers from the UK while traveling, yet the people at customs seem baffled that any man would travel by himself for an extended period of time without a return ticket? Is it really that worth it? If I had a chance to plan this trip again, there is no way I would have based it in England. But such is life. I've got to risk it one more time to get back from Rome.

One more note on Greece.

I did my laundry yesterday. How do I put this? I... I have never smelled anything so awful in my life. That's not true, but really, I don't think I've ever smelled clothes that collectively smelled so bad before. They stank, and I really didn't even realize it while I was there. Sure, I gathered that I probably didn't smell nice, but only if you happened to put your nose right up to my clothing and body. But I must have cleared paths with the odor I was giving off. I'm a little worried about Rome now. Should I try to do laundry while there? Will it make a difference? Maybe I should just be aware of it and stay clear of people in general.

Ah, Rome. I'm pretty excited about it. It's starting to hit me now that I'm really going. It's strange to think that I was thinking the same thing about Greece two weeks ago, and London a few weeks before that. But nothing is really ever what you expect. I'm pretty anxious to see what happens.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

On the roads so traveled...

One of the most interesting things about sleeping in hostels and traveling in general is the great amount of interesting people you meet. Yes, some of them are crazy, but I've had some really good conversations with people I'm forced to share a small room or bunk with.

I think part of it is everyone traveling by themselves or only with a few people is so socially deprived that they're able to chat up storms with the first person who will listen. But also, I didn't meet any Americans this whole trip, so there's always an interesting cultural gap that is always good for several different topics. I've told people all about Chicago and the MidWest. The world has such a crazy opinion/view of America that is always interesting to hear about. You can always tell when someone hates Americans and they feel awkward talking about it to me because we're obviously getting along. Usually I convert them to like us by the end.

But the conversations are great. I always get great information about the surrounding area or easy ways to do things or things not to see, plus info about other countries or places they've been to. It always starts out where they're just another crazy traveler, but then you find out all about their family and work and hometown and everything. Not always, but I think it's always cool when you do.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Night in Hades

Okay, so here's the story of a stupid traveler who needn't be named, although he may or may not be me.

Two days ago in Olympia, the bus dropped me off at night and I found myself disoriented for a few minutes. I had about an hour before my hostel closed (according to my travel guide) and a map of the city. I just had to figure out how to get there. While looking at the map, a man approached and asked me if I wanted to stay in his room, but after the bad experience I had in Yangshou, China, I was hesitant to comply. He told me that he'd charge me 15 Euros and that the hostel was closed. That sealed my decision. I hate when hagglers lie and I knew for a fact that it was open (not actually a fact). He pointed me in the right direction (nice guy) and I went on my merry way, eager to find the hostel.

When I arrived, however, the hostel was dark and no one was inside. I knocked a few times and rattled the doors, but no one answered. Now most people here would either (a) sigh and find a more expensive place to stay or (b) run back to the bus stop and hope the man is still there.

I, being the idiot that I am, realized with exitement that I had no place to stay and had to sleep outside. I almost skipped away, happy to start scouting for places to sleep. There was a possibility of more rain, but nothing bad (not actually a fact). I found an empty park and tested each place for comfort, cover, and light. I wanted somplace that wasn't horribly cold, with cover above, and out of the street lights so someone wouldn't stumble on me in my sleep.

I eventually found a little place that worked. It had a roof-type thing that would block the rain (not actually a fact) and seats around the edge of which I could sleep in the shadows.

In my defense, the hour before it started to rain was one of the most fun moments I had on this trip. I was ecstatic. It was a beautiful night with strong, warm winds and lightning rolling away in the distance. Then Zeus decided to have a raging fit that quickly ended any enjoyment I had that night.

It rained. Hard. It was not a drizzle, like the weather report said, nor was it simply rain. It was pouring. Thunder was screaming in the sky and lightning lit everything up now and then. I learned quickly that the "roof above my head" was nothing more than twigs lined up to block the sun. I wrapped my backpack's cover around my body and took out clothes to cover anything thing that was still exposed. Actually, this managed to work for a bit. I stayed relatively dry the whole night. However, the warm winds were now gone and the freezing rain had cooled everything. It was still, after all, January.

When I realized that I was basically sitting on a slab of cement in the middle of a park in a thunderstorm, I got up (shaking) and started to look for someplace else to sleep. Nothing was open because it was January and the town is half the size of my high school. Not too far away, I found a little gutter in an alcove that was completely dry. I got in, kicked out the cat that had also made it it's home, and curled up again. Unfortunately, after walking around, my whole body was now a bit wet and I couldn't stop shaking. I did about thirty sit-ups to warm up my body that wrapped up as tight as I could.

While laying there, trying to fall asleep, I realized that this was actually the second gutter I'd slept in and both times it had rained. What great luck I have.

The rest of the night was... not fun, but rather uneventful. The rain eventually subsided. I got about two hours of horrible sleep. When the "shakes" got me again at 4:30ish... I remembered that walking warms you up, so I took a two hour stroll in loops around the city, which worked but was tiring. At 6:30 I watched the sunrise and finally at 8:30 went to go check on the hostel to see if it was open.

It was. The old man greeted me, seemingly confused. What could he possibly be confused about? Anyway, after I asked him if he had any rooms he shook his head and told me that a group had come so he had no rooms. I gave him a look of utter desperation but still got the same answer.

You can imagine my irritation. The only thing that had gotten me through the night was the thought of taking off my wet clothes and either hibernating in a mountain of dryness (a bed), or taking a hot, hot shower for the rest of my life.

In my frustration I almost left right there. I'm really glad I didn't. I had an awesome time in the ruins, perhaps partly because I was so sleep-deprived that my senses and imagination was on complete overdrive and I could really "understand" everything around me.

Oh well. I got out fine, have a good story to tell, and just slept 12 hours last night in my new hostel here in Patras. You learn from your mistakes. Next time I'll pay the extra 5 Euros.


Why I stayed in Athens so long? I'll never know. The Greek countryside is beautiful and the people are so friendly. Since my last entry I've spent time in Pyrgos, Olympia, and now Patra. Olympia was amazing, minus an extremely bad incident that was... I don't even know if I want to write about it. It was a really... stressful night. I'll save that until the next blog entry.

I might not be able to upload any more pictures. My camera is pretty much out of battery, so I'm trying to savor every last drop by cutting autofocus and completely minimalizing the amount of time it is spent "on." Unfortunately, until I see a card reader, I can't upload tsuff. Why didn't I bring a charger for my camera, you ask? Good question. Why didn't I spend the extra five Euros and have a place to sleep last night? Another good question, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Olympia is definitely one of my top places to see in Greece, and perhaps in life. They are the coolest ruins I've ever been to. In case you don't know, Olympia was the grounds of the original Olympics and is still the spot where they light the torch every year. It was also a sacred spot for Zeus, going back much earlier and was the site of one of the original Wonders of the Ancient World.

So the thing I like best about the site is the condition of everything. As of now, most of it hasn't been restored. And because the area hasn't really been massively populated... ever, many of the original rocks and fallen columns are still there. You walk around this huge place and you're actually walking on the ground these athelets and officials walked on. You look at a stone, almost completely corroded and you're like, "that stone has been sitting there for over two thousand years." It was awesome.

My favorite was the Temple of Zeus and the Arena. I remember reading about the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World back in the day, and reading that the only one left standing is the pyramids. Most of the others are lost. I didn't even realize there was anything left from the big guy's temple, but its all still here (Except, of course, him. It was actually his statue that was the supposed wonder, not the temple) But all the columns (huge columns) are lying there, still in the same place that they were when the temple fell fifteen hundred years ago. Yes, stuff has been touched, but comparatively to other places like the Acropolis / Parthenon, not much has been touched at all.

The Arena was just cool. There's not much to see except a big ditch in the ground where they had all the events, but the fact that it's still there and the same rocks line the border is really cool.

The rest of the place is really neat to see, too. There's just so much, and the surroundings are beautiful, too. It was the place they chose as sacred to the king of their gods. Of course it's going to be nice.

Anyway, it was a cool experience. If you find yourself in Greece, definitely drop by Olympia.