What I Learned This Summer In Europe

What I Learned This Summer In Europe

I’ve been home about a month now and beyond it of course being nice to catch up with friends and family, I do rather miss the streets of Paris, the tastes of Florence, and the sights of Venice. In reflecting back on the trip while going through photos I am reminded of the friends I made and the old ones I got the opportunity to see again. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience. It was more than just a vacation it was a master class in French and Italian culture. I want to share some of the few lessons I learned while away:

1: Paris is Real.
In all the hustle and bustle of sightseeing, tourists, and attractions you forget that Paris is a city like any other. People are born there, they live there, and they die there. They fall in love there, they get married there and they start families there. Paris isn’t a make believe place that only exists in our dreams. It’s a living breathing place. It evolves and changes over time. It is worth spending more than a couple days there. To properly experience Paris you can’t rush it you need the time to take it all in, wander around the city streets and experience all things Parisian.

2: Apartments Are the Way to Go.
If you want a real authentic experience I’d highly recommend renting apartments. Not only does it allow you a home base to unwind and relax after a long day it allows you the luxury and freedom to do your own cooking which helps cut down on costs. We also found that the apartments were much cheaper than hotels and in some cases the same price or cheaper than hostels. We stayed 30 nights in Florence for 600 euros. That was $25/night for a 2 bedroom, with a large living area, full kitchen and a balcony. By staying a 20 minute walk outside the centre it allowed us to live as if we were Italians. We used http://www.airbnb.com, I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a unique experience.

3: Blogging is Hard!!
Blogging is MUCH harder than it appears. It is very time consuming but the final product is absolutely worth it. I started this travel blog as a way to keep people informed about what we were up to, journal our experiences, and to force myself to write. I’ve learned so much and the blog has been a great success. I plan on maintaining this blog going forward focusing on a variety of things so be sure to check back often.

4: Travel with Someone You Love.
Traveling is tough. It’s delays, transfers, waiting, and the unexpected, but it’s because of the unexpected that you want to travel with someone you love. When Rebecca and I boarded that plane I honestly didn’t know what to expect. That thought made it very scary and very attractive all at the same time. The things we did, saw, and experienced are things I will never forget. There is no one else in the world I would have wanted to share them with. When I look back on this trip in 20 years I won’t remember just the things we saw I will remember the person I was with when I was there.

That’s it for now. I hope everyone has a great thanksgiving and is able to spend time with their loved ones. Remember, life is short, we only live once and some people don’t even do that.

PS — Click on the mosaic to check out 500 of my favourite photos from the trip up close.

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A Nice Day in Nice

A nice day in Nice

After our long day Saturday, Rebecca and I slept in. We took a nice relaxed pace throughout the entire day. We had made plans with Paul and Colin (The two English men we met in the grand stands) to meet up at a Bar by their hotel to watch the race. They weren’t 100 percent certain what the name of the place was, but knew it was right around the corner from where they were staying and that it had two televisions. We got a map out and located their hotel and swung by before our expected meeting time to ensure we could find this bar. The only information we had to find this bar was that it had two televisions, so we walked around until sure enough we found a bar with two TVs and concluded that we would swing back this way later and if they were here we would join and if not we would watch somewhere else. We had an hour and a bit to kill, so we walked down to the water and sat along the seawall looking out at all the people soaking up the sun. We opted to take a stroll down the waterfront before we headed back inland to meet up with the guys, making a brief stop at the casino so I could lose some money.

Sure enough as we rounded the corner to the bar, there was Paul, sitting in the sun soaking up as much as he could get and Colin sitting under the awning. We sat down and, with the exception of washroom breaks and a relocation to the second TV to avoid some construction work, we didn’t move from there until almost 9pm. We watched one of the most uneventful races in recent memory with French commentary, which definitely didn’t add anything to the overall viewing experience. There were some exciting moments in the race but overall it was a train. It wasn’t until after the race, Paul, Colin, Rebecca, and I had an opportunity to really sit, talk and bond. Rebecca and I both agreed that sitting chatting with both of them after was one of the more enjoyable things we had done since arriving in Europe, and we both really enjoyed having the opportunity to meet them. They are two of the nicest most unsuspecting and thoughtful people I have ever met. They were really down to earth and both knew how to have a good time.

After we bid farewell Rebecca and I headed back to the hostel to pack up for the following morning as we had plans to meet up with 3 of her friends who were also in Nice. We sat in the main room of the hostel for a bit before bed, speaking with other travelers about their experiences in Monaco.

Monday morning we checked out of the hostel, leaving our bags for pick up after meeting with Rebecca’s friends. We met them outside a McDonalds right beside the LRT. We chatted for a bit there before making our way down to the water front and across the old city. The old city was full of antique market stands where people were selling old watches, cutlery and old toys; you name it, it was there. We sat and enjoyed a coffee while continuing to swap stories and catch up. Her friends were traveling Europe for 2 months and were half way through their journey. They were an interesting group of guys who were all extremely outgoing with a wealth of information regarding travel do’s and don’ts.

We bid our farewell, returned to the hostel to pick up our bags and made our way to the train station to catch our ride to Marseille. We stopped in at the McDonalds to grab a Big Mac meal for myself as I was starving by this point. I got to go through a walk through express window on the side of the street to order which was very neat – but not overly “express” like. Inside the McDonalds you were able to order on computers and bring your ticket up to the counter to redeem your meal. I suspect it is only a matter of time before we start seeing those types of systems in North America.

The Fresh Prince of Monaco

The Fresh Prince of Monaco

We left Jeff’s early in the morning on Friday to catch the first of our 4 trains that day. Jeff kindly drove us to the station and waited with us for our train to Venice to arrive. With a single tear he bid us farewell and turned and walked gracefully back to his hoopty car with his new previously enjoyed fairy cell phone.

Our train to Venice was uneventful; we managed to transfer at Venice Mestre, without incident, for our train to Milan. As Rebecca wrote in her journal I sat and read on my Playbook (I don’t always read, but when I do, I use my Blackberry Playbook). Traveling across the Italian country side, with the vineyards and farms out the window is an overly tranquil scene. Our next train took us from Milan south to the border city of Ventimiglia along the French Riviera. When we arrived in Ventimiglia we found out the train we were expecting to board had been cancelled due to a train strike so along with the largest crowd I had ever seen we stood waiting for a train hoping to all squeeze into the next train. Until the moment the train pulled up, I had never seen old Italian ladies stiff arm their way onto a train before. There was no where to sit by the time Rebecca and I got aboard but we managed to stand right in front of a group of students from Queens University who were on a course trip.

The train from Ventimiglia runs right along the coast line, through and around the mountains, in and out of the respective bays. It was breathtaking, to see the sun reflecting off the clear water, with massive yachts moored up in the bays, and simply beautiful homes situated on the side of mountains. When we arrived in Nice it took as a little while to figure out the location of our hostel. Eventually after meeting with someone at the local tourism office we were able to locate it: a massive place right off the LRT line.

We were given a 4 person room, which had two bunk beds, an upgrade from which we had originally paid. The down sides of a hostel appeared right off the bat. The first night we shared the room with a German couple who happened to check in before we did. Instead of them taking one single bunk bed, for one to take a top bunk and one to take a bottom bunk, they opted to both take the bottom bunk leaving Rebecca and I to both have the top bunk. Who does that? Luckily the German invasion only lasted a single night as we were joined the next two nights by a very nice couple from China who were both studying in France. The young lady had fully embraced the French natural style as she had the longest and dirtiest under arm hair I had ever seen. I threw up in my mouth the first time she reached up to the top bunk to hand me the keys I had dropped. Also the breakfast featured in the morning was cereal and bread, a lack of fruit, cheese and deli meats was dully noted. Beyond that, a very clean and friendly atmosphere with a lot of really nice people shared the hostel with us. Oh and the internet sucked, forgot that.

Friday night in Nice we opted to grab some food from the local grocery store and have a picnic in the park. Sitting in front of the large fountain right in the old city was lovely, it was warm, and picturesque, and we even had the opportunity to meet a vey nice group of out going Africans who offered us hash…repeatedly. We ended up relocating to the main square itself after that interesting proposition. We walked around trying to get our bearings and determine where we would need to catch the bus the next morning. After locating the stop we made our way back to the hostel with a lovely salmon dip and some chips along with a lovely wine. We sat and met a few different people and headed to bed early so we could be fresh for Saturday in Monaco.

On Saturday we woke up at around 4:45am in order to be able to catch the 6 o’clock bus to Monaco, the first bus of the day. My only salvo in our one day war with the Germans was making an unreasonably loud amount of noise while trying to get ready for the day. I stopped short of using Rebecca’s blow dryer to dry my pubes. We managed to get out of the hostel by 5:30am and the bus was just a short walk so we were there with plenty of time to spare. While waiting for the bus we met a very nice Italian man of similar age as Rebecca and I. He had recently moved to Nice to work and had been staying the last month in a hostel while trying to find an affordable apartment. He was already late for his shift in Monaco where he worked at a restaurant making sandwiches.

The 6 o’clock bus arrived on time, we all got on, paid for our ticket, 1 euro was all it cost. We sat and waited patiently until about 6:05 when the bus driver got back on board and told everyone to get off after which he proceeded to drive off. Once it was obvious he wasn’t coming back and we would have to wait for the next bus, the 6:30, it sparked a 40 minute lecture where I explained why socialism in Europe doesn’t work. Eventually the next bus showed up, and much similar to the events of the previous day in Ventimiglia in boarding the train we had to fight our way past senior citizens to get on the bus. A American standing behind us yelled “If you’d put up this much of fight during World War II maybe we wouldn’t have had to bail you out”… awkward.  We would eventually make it to Monaco, unknowingly missing the stop at which we need to get off. We walked around the city for a bit trying to again get our bearings, and determine where we needed to go to buy tickets. We tried to enter the Fairmount hotel and the casino but we were quickly turned away. Apparently that man knew I had paid 5 Canadian dollars for my shirt from H&M.

Monaco is a city built essentially on the side of a mountain, which means no road is flat for long, all roads will either go up or down, so eventually after some trial and error, we found a lovely place in the shade to have a little breakfast, stolen Nutella and sliced bread, we spared no expense. After our “Pit Stop”, we managed to stumble across a ticket booth, at which point we looked at the prices, for one seat on Saturday to watch free practice 3, qualifying, and a couple GP2 events was between 170 and 220 euro for grand stand seats, for the race on Sunday a single seat was 440 euro. The no brainer decisions was, lets go Saturday and sit in the sun and enjoy a little sound and sight of Monaco during the GP weekend. As a late birthday gift my wonder girlfriend said the tickets were on her and we picked the best seats, in grand stand K, higher up so you had a better view of the hill and saw both the enter and exist of the two corners. You know that feeling you got when you were a kid when you got exactly what you wanted, I felt that all day long, it was exactly the most perfect thing with the most perfect person to share it with. Now you would think after you forked over 440 euro for tickets they would offer to carry you to your seats but in Monaco this isn’t the case, we again began our second walk and stumbled through the streets of Monaco, eventually finding the entrance to the GP.

The GP entrance is right out front of the train station, since we opted to bus in the train was below us, and we were oblivious to this fact until it was spelled out by a very nice Monaco police officer. Once down below the city was a bustle, booths set up along the road with people selling F1 gear, hats and shirts, and other motorsport related memorabilia, such as die cast models, photos, and posters. We found a supermarket where the prices were not only reasonable, they were cheaper than in Canada, I bought 12 Heineken to bring into the race for only 11 euro while Rebecca got two bottles of wine. Liquid lunches are starting to become a reoccurring theme on this trip.

We got to our seats around 10 o’clock and they were breathtaking. We were sitting right in front of where the yachts had parked. Along with the view of the marina and bay, we could see the beautiful landscape along the coast. It wasn’t until I did a little thinking that I realized we were sitting right in front of where the fight scene in Iron Man 2 was and at one of the fastest most technical parts of the track. Corner 12 was to our left, which has a speed of 161 km/hr, followed by corner 13 which is taken at over 200km/hr then almost immediately after is corner 14 which has a maximum speed of approximately 207 km/hr. At all 3 corners the drivers will pull more than 3 g’s and corner 14 is the fastest corner on the track.

For those of you who have never heard a Formula 1 car, it is like nothing else in the world. The pure raw energy that comes out of those tail pipes is unlike anything else. It is loud, and overwhelming. It’s the sound you’d make if you put an angry badger down your pants first thing in the morning. If my kids ever made a sound like that I would have no choice but to put them in the naughty chair. That sound, that V8 rumble may never grace the ears of those in Monaco again as Formula 1 is switching to tamer, more polar bear friendly turbo charged V6’s to show they are in touch with the times.

We spent the day sitting and soaking up the environment which we were lucky enough to be in that day. We met a lot of nice people sitting around us. One couple was from Italy, where the husband worked in the north in the mountains doing something engineering related, and owned a hotel that his wife managed and ran. Another couple was from Switzerland. They had tickets for both days, Saturday and Sunday, and had paid a total of 1,700 euro for that honour.

We spent the majority of our Saturday talking with two British men, Paul and Colin, who were sitting 2 rows behind us. I noticed Paul sitting with a Becks behind me and I opened my first beer in the late morning, reached back, cheers-ed him and said “No one wants to drink alone, cheers”, which got a good laugh from both of them. Both Paul and Colin work for a ship building company in Holland. They are carpenters by trade and are responsible for installing the interior wood work on these super yachts. Many of the boats they had worked on were actually parked in the harbour or just moored up outside of the bay. They told stories of what they had gotten up to the last few nights, being taken out to some of the boats and being hosted by a few of their clients. They originally were supposed to be watching the weekend from a boat and a balcony but as they explained in their line of work sometimes things don’t always work out so they had made their own plans to watch qualifying from the grand stands and had intended to stay in Nice on Sunday and sit in a bar and watch the race. As Colin and I both agreed the best seat in the house for a race is at your own home where you’re able to properly follow the parade, I mean race.

Qualifying was by far one of the most exciting things you can see, cars are running at their optimal speed and rarely in races do they ever get close to times set in qualifying. Getting the opportunity to watch Michael Schumacher set his first pole lap since 2006 was something very special to see and something I won’t soon forget. It was a flashback to his best years, and in my opinion maybe the beginning of something special.

After qualifying we stayed around the track and watched the GP 2 race. I took a brief nap as 12+ beers in the sun all day will make one drowsy. Our exit from Monaco could have been smoother. After being sent in a different direction than the way we came and becoming lost we were only saved by a nice lady who was able to direct us back to the train station where we were able to catch a bus. Again this spurred another 40 minute lecture from me about why the French and Italians should be grateful that tourists are coming to spend money and helping to maintain their economies instead of being resentful to us and making it harder, not easier, to travel.

We arrived back in Nice with time to spare to pick up another cheap and cheerful meal from the supermarket and we sat in the hostel and conversed with others who were at the circuit that day. After a long day Rebecca and I called it a night early and hit the sack. Rebecca dreamt of aloe while I dreamt about growing up to become a race car driver.