Hookah Bliss on the ropes

When I first learned of N.C.'s smoking ban, I was really excited. I was so tired of going to crowded bars that allowed smoking where I felt like I couldn't even breathe (cough Goodfellows). But then I visited one of my favorite bars on Franklin Street, Hookah Bliss, where I saw posters all over the walls calling on customers to fight the ban. 
Adam Bliss opened up Hookah Bliss a couple of summers ago down on West Franklin and the place has taken off. It had a great vibe, quality shisha and a knowledgeable and friendly owner in Bliss. My friends and I took to it and it quickly became one of our favorite hang outs. 
Unfortunately, the N.C. smoking ban means that his business will become illegal when the law goes into effect in January. 
But something is wrong here. The law makes an exception for "private clubs" and "cigar bars," but no one else. Why these two? Well according to Bliss (and I agree) it's because the rich, white legislators like to go there and they don't want to see their favorite pastime put out of business. But where does this leave the hookah bars? 
It makes no sense that this ban should put them out of business. The purpose of the regulation is to protect people from second hand smoke in public places, like bars and restaurants. I'm pretty sure if you're going into Hookah Bliss, you're OK with second hand smoke. The reason you go there is to smoke or hang out with friends who are going to smoke. Obviously people in there don't care about second hand smoke, just like the patrons of cigar bars. 
Bliss and other hookah bar owners are working to figure out where to go from here, but it looks like one of my favorite hang outs is doomed. Maybe he'll keep the bar open there. I sure hope so. 
The Daily Tar Heel put together a nice little video about the issue, which is what reminded me of this. You can check that out below. 
If you're in Chapel Hill, make sure to stop by Hookah Bliss before January and do what you can to support them. 

Banned Bliss from The Daily Tar Heel on Vimeo.

Tuesday Guilty Pleasure!

Notice anything different? Think about it. Look to the left. Blonde hair, much more attractive... That's right, it's not me! 
This weeks is the first time that we will have a guest blogger come on and tell you about something they love that they really, really shouldn't. Ms. Courtney Patterson came to me saying that I should use this song as the next guilty pleasure, but I couldn't bear to put my name on this one. I've admitted some bad stuff on this series, but this was just too much. So I decided to let her take credit for it instead. 
So without further adieu, here is Courtney's Tuesday Guilty Pleasure in her own words:
OK, so I just watched the YouTube video of Katy Perry’s “Waking Up in Vegas," and I can’t really tell you why I like this song so much. I made it a point to not like the first two popular Katy Perry songs ("I Kissed a Girl" and "Hot and Cold"), but I this one is just so damn catchy. It’s a frivolous song for summer about going to Vegas and living the life of a high roller then losing it all. I think I like it better when I don’t really listen to the words though. The chorus just makes me want to get up and dance. I think that’s it. The tune of the chorus. I like fun upbeat songs.

On second listen, I can see how she picked this song. The video is pretty cool, too, except that Katy Perry looks strangely like Zooey Deschanel
Next week I'll be back with a brand new guilty pleasure. This guest thing was fun. Less pressure on me....


La la la, I can't hear you! -- UPDATED

My girlfriend's roommate in Washington D.C. is an intern for a certain congressman here on Capitol Hill. Part of her job involves answering the phones, which means she gets to deal with the people that call and (usually) complain about whatever the congressman is getting ready to vote on. That means that over the past few days she has gotten an ear full about the cap and trade bill that just squeaked by the House this week. 
Here's the thing: only really crazy people call their congressman. By really crazy I don't mean legitimately insane (although I believe some are), I mean that they are obsessed with some little issue that they are blind and can't see the big picture or they are ignorant and watch too much Fox News. 
She got numerous calls last week from people making crazy claims about what the bill would do to their utility prices ("This is going to make my gas bill go up $10,000!"), saying that Obama is a Marxist (that's a new one) and even completely denying that climate change is going to happen. Whenever the intern tries to give them the real numbers of how much the bill would cost (numbers that she is getting from official budget projections), many of these callers immediately dismiss them. Where do they get their information? Why, the Heritage Foundation, of course. 
Conservative think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation, are jokes. End of story. Their sole objective in life is to do "research" that confirms or supports their crazy right-wing politics. Their findings aren't peer reviewed like studies by real scientists in journals and, because of this, are usually false or drastically skewed. The problem is that most people don't know that. People will swallow up whatever the Heritage Foundation is feeding them and then spit it back out at poor interns. 
These are the same people that say that there is no such thing as global warming when every other scientist on the planet not only disagrees but says the situation is getting worse every day. This leads me -- finally -- to the point of this post: a column in today's New York Times by Paul Krugman entitled "Betraying the Planet." It's a scary look into how many of our own elected officials still don't believe that climate change is real and that this whole cap and trade thing is just a joke. Seriously people?
We can't ignore this any longer. Something needs to happen. But what can we do when almost half of our Congress thinks that global warming is fake and that we're just overreacting? There is way to much focus on the now and not enough focus on the future. I wouldn't mind paying a little more for utilities if it meant that there's a chance it could keep Kansas from turning into a desert.

ADDENDUM: So apparently my post caused a ruckus over on Facebook, so I decided that I needed to respond to it. I put my response originally there, but I will repost everything I said here.

First, I want to correct something I said that I really hate when other journalists say and that Steven called me out on: my generic "government experts." I simply couldn't remember exactly who the intern said it was and decided to generalize. According to her, the budget people in Washington have said over and over that it will not cost more than a postage stamp a day for each consumer. Take that as you will, but that's where I was coming from.
As far as the cap and trade bill, I have to agree with Marion's stance. I don't think it's a great bill. It's not going to drastically help emissions and it's actually a weak bill in terms of how it will help the environment. But it's huge that Washington is taking a step to confront this problem and could lead to more strict regulation later. But this argument is probably moot because I don't think it's going to pass the Senate.
But it is definitely not as expensive as people want to think. It's definitely not going to lead to the doomsday scenario that Steven laid out. So what if things are a little bit more expensive? That's a price I'm willing to pay if it means that we can try to do something about climate change.
That brings me to the point that Steven made in his last post. Global warming is linked to carbon emissions. You can talk to any slew of scientists (I'm not going to try to link them all, but if you haven't already, read the Krugman article. He mentions a few). But, if nothing else, take a look at the graph of global temperatures over time that he uses in the article. The majority of the increase actually happened after around 1970 and has gone up exponentially since then.

Also, the prices of energy is not going to go up so much because the bill gives out tons of free permits, which means some of the bigger energy companies (gas, electric companies, and cement, steel and glass) won't even have to pay anything. It's really a weak bill on the surface and is not as drastic as people would like to think.
Finally, I just want to point out that none of this was the point of my original post. All I was trying to say was that it's scary to me that so many people -- including our politicians -- don't believe that global warming is real or that our actions and emissions don't affect it. Any slew of scientists will say otherwise. Just look around for it (and avoid think tanks). What do they have to gain by lying?
Finally, I just wanted to point out that none of this was the actual point of the post. The point was the fact that many people -- including our politicians -- don't believe that global warming is real or don't believe that our actions have anything to do with it and that disagrees with everything nearly every scientist around the world has said. What would they gain from lying about that?


"When it all, yeah, all falls down..." UPDATED

I haven't been totally into what's going on around the world for the last few days because of a much needed visit up north, but I just can't help but think that all the crap that has happened this week is a definite sign of the apocalypse.
First, this whole crazy thing in Iran. Not only was the election controversial, but then you have the killing of Neda that was caught on video (which wasn't the Basij's fault, but apparently a master plot by the CIA according to the Iranian ambassador to Mexico).
Then you have the deaths of Ed McMahon and Farrah Fawcett, which, while sad, were not entirely unexpected. But then we see two beloved fifty-year-olds leave us: Billy Mays and Michael Jackson. You may think it's weird for me to put those two on the same level, but let's be honest, over the last few years, who would you rather see on TV? I love me some Jackson 5 and "Billie Jean" era MJ, but anything after he turned into a white woman child molester kind of turns me off. And who doesn't love OxiClean? 
Anyway, I guess I'll give the latter two a tiny tribute by posting some of their best work right here on my prestigious Web site. I know they would want it that way. 

ADDENDUM: Last night, I forgot about a couple of other things that have happened recently that have really make me wonder "What the hell is going on??" 
The Varsity Theatre, a Franklin Street and UNC-Chapel Hill staple, went dark this weekend. I was in D.C. so I wasn't even able to catch a last minute movie during it's last weekend. Owner Bruce Stone cited various reasons for closing the movie house, but the bottom line was that it was no longer making money and with this economy it didn't look like things were going to get better. If there is a silver lining it's that the Chelsea, also owned by Stone, will remain open as of now. But, as Jordan Lawrence over at the Daily Tar Heel Blog said, "the Chelsea is an ugly little runt of a theater in a shopping center far off campus and it doesn’t have anything like the history of the deceased Varsity. But it’s got free parking, and that’s enough to bring in the kind of business needed to stay alive."
Finally, in world news, what the hell is going on down in Honduras?? Maybe it's my naivete of international politics, but this came out of nowhere! 


Tuesday Guilty Pleasure!

...Is back!! That's right, after about a month of neglect, I'm restarting the series of posts where I tell you about something I really like that I definitely shouldn't! I know, you've been on the edge of your seat. 
Ask me in person and I'll tell you that I hate this song. It's because I really don't like it. But at the same time, there's something addicting about it. I think it's the beat. Whatever you say about the song, it's got a solid beat. Honestly, I'm just going to have to go ahead and blame Salih and Thomas for me having any kind of positive feeling toward this song. They played it every five minutes in Florence. 

I really think I would be able to like this song without reservations if it wasn't for friggin' Fergie. Wanna ruin a great song? Hire her. "You're two thousand and late!" Seriously? If someone tried to record that in one of my songs, I would immediately kick them out of the studio. That said, I think Will.i.am does a pretty solid job with this. He might be the only reason I even can listen to this song.
I can't believe this is my guilty pleasure. I'm a little ashamed. Oh Salih....


Europe in a nutshell

Here it is: the long awaited conclusion post about our European vacation. With this post, I hope to give you a summary of the trip and find some way to rank cities, hostels, and mention some things that surprised me about the continent.
Here we go...
First, I want to clear up something about Amsterdam. Let's be, when anyone mentions Amsterdam, they immediately think one thing: marijuana. But here's something you might not know: it's technically still illegal there. Yeah, shocker, right? Well here's the deal. It's decriminalized. 
The Dutch have this little policy where they are willing to deal with anything on three conditions: if it's profitable, if it doesn't hurt anyone and if it's not in the public eye. So marijuana is technically illegal, but you can't get in trouble for it. This also explains why the places that sell it are called "coffee shops." They can't advertise what they sell in there. As long as they keep up a front like their doing something else, they can get away with it. The Dutch government can tax these, so it helps them some. And it's not hurting anyone. Maybe just a few extra bike wrecks. 
But here's the real surprise. Holland is (as far as I know) the only country in Europe where marijuana is "legal." So you would assume that it smokes the most, right? Wrong. They're actually seventh, just in Europe. Most of the locals don't even smoke that much. It's mostly the tourists. When people grow up with marijuana, it loses it's rebellious appeal and no one seems to care as much. Just something to think about when the discussion of legalization comes up....

Now for something just about Europe in general. One thing I have to admire is their different approach to transportation. Sure, there are cars in Europe, but not as many as there are here. So many people use scooters and bikes. Even more use metros and trains to get around. As we proved, you could easily get anywhere you want without ever touching a car. Try doing that in the U.S. and see what happens. Now of course the U.S. is more spread out and doesn't have the infrastructure to link the whole country like Europe is linked, but why can't we invest the same in public transportation that they do? Regional trains (like a system in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area) would make it so much easier to get around while also drastically reducing the amount of traffic on Interstate-40. 
The reason they have such great infrastructure is because of long term investment. Taxes go toward public transportation. Gas and licenses are much more expensive to dissuade people from driving and using public transport more. Doing that here could have the same effect.
The cars that they do use are very energy efficient. You won't see a lot of SUVs and I don't remember seeing any trucks other than work trucks. Instead, there are tons of hybrids and Smart cars. 

Finally, Germany is nothing like "Beerfest." 

Now for the hostels. I'm going to list them all out. The ones with stars beside them are ones we recommend in each city. 
Jugenderherberge Frankfurt
Frankfurt Hostel*
Baxpax Mitte
Baxpax Downtown*
Meininger City Hostel Berlin
Bob's Youth Hostel
Campground Amsterdam Bos*
Snufel Hostel
St. Christopher's Paris*
Aloha Hostel (NEVER stay here)
Hostel Galla
B&B Maison*
Meininger City Hostel Munich (much better than the one in Berlin)

Now for the best and worse of the trip:
Best Hostel: B&B Maison (Florence)
Hands down, this place was awesome. It was the only place that really felt like a home away from home. The staff is amazing and the food is unforgettable. And you can't beat the great price. STAY HERE. 
Worst Hostel: Aloha Hostel (Paris)
We should have known better than to stay at a place called "Aloha" in the middle of Europe, but we really didn't have a lot of choices. Anything would have been better. No lock on the door, mean people at reception and some random Russian people stole our beds. Never again.

Best nightlife: Berlin
I know this might come as a surprise given what happened that night, but Berlin nightlife was definitely the best. You can get whatever you want there and nothing closes down until dawn. And you can't beat banging techno music.
Worst nightlife: Florence
Not that we didn't have fun, but I just can't justify a beer costing 5 Euro for a pint. Next....

Best people: Germans
The Germans were the nicest people we met all trip. Most spoke English and humored us when we tried to butcher their language. They seemed to genuinely want to help us and make sure that we knew what we needed to get around. 
Worst people: French
Do I really need to explain this?

And now, I'm going to try to rank the places we went and make some sort of sense of it. 

1. Munich: it had everything. Germany is beautiful. the people are great and very laid back. Munich is smaller, has a beautiful park and beer gardens as far as the eye can see. Definitely enjoyed this place the most.
2. Florence: The food. It's amazing. The only reason it fell below Munich is because being in the city isn't very nice. It's tight and crowded and very touristy. But when you get outside of the city into the country, it's absolutely beautiful.
3. Amsterdam: I didn't like this place at first, but when I got out of the city and into the woodsy area, it was much nicer. I think a longer stay there at a place not as crazy as Bob's would give me a higher opinion.
4. Bruges: Awesome older city with amazing beer. And they have French fries and mayonnaise. Sold. 
5. Berlin: This would be higher, but I had a bad experience and I didn't want to rank two German cities too high. It's a great place though and very cheap, which gives it major brownie points.
6. Paris: Despite all our bad luck, the city is very nice and has a lot of good things to see. And I've heard that the Latin Quarter is much better and cheaper. Maybe on a second visit I would spend more time there and away from the main part of the city.
7. Milan: Honestly, this is a slanted opinion because I only stayed there one night, but there's really not a whole lot to do there... at least free stuff. 

All right, I think that's all I have for now. This post has gone on long enough. If I forgot about something, I'll be sure to put it up here.



Good news, everyone! All of my pictures should now be up on Facebook! I know, get excited. Not all of them have captions, but I can add those later. Enjoy! I'm going to start working on video now....
And way to go UNC baseball! Staying alive in the College World Series!


Saturday was a sad day. After a perfect streak of three Australian NewEurope tour guides, our run was destroyed by a Texan with a goofy cowboy hat. We were even willing to switch groups if we had to, but the only Australian was doing a paid tour and it just wasn't that important.
But despite the fact that we didn't get to listen to the beautiful Aussie accent, the tour ended up being pretty good. We learned a lot about the history there, including the fact that the Nazi party was started in Munich. The guides had a great time making fun of the famous glockenspiel that plays on the new town hall. It's incredibly boring and slow and the music is incomprehensible. There were tons of people crowding the main square, but we eventually found out that the next day was Munich's birthday. There were stages being set up everywhere. It was very hectic trying to follow a tour group with all those people. We also saw the place where Hitler was almost killed years before he took control of the country. And, of course, we saw plenty of beer halls and gardens.
Munich is the beer capital of the world. I don't care what anyone says. Not only does it have six great breweries in the city, but they have beer halls and gardens around every corner and people are drinking all day. Beer for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Men, women and children. It's great. And they don't use pint glasses much. They serve things in "masses," which is a huge stein with a liter of beer. 
After our terrible pub crawl experience in Berlin, we had avoided any more alcohol related events with NewEurope. But it was our last big night and we were in the beer capital of the world, so how could we resist? We signed up for the Beer Challenge. 
The Beer Challenge is basically a guided tour of four major beer halls or gardens around the city, where you sit down at each one for about 30 minutes and have a drink. It went from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., and was great. Our tour guide was an Irishman named Niall who was great fun. He taught us a traditional German drinking song (that we repeatedly butchered) and even tried to teach us to sing "If You Leave Me Now" by Chicago. Unfortunately, even though many of the people were Americans, pretty much only Thomas and I knew the song. Disgraceful....
Despite the assertion by one of the other British tour guides that Americans couldn't drink, we held our own. The British guy was an encyclopedia of beer information. He could list the top 20 countries in total alcohol consumption, total beer consumption and per capita consumption (for the record, the Czech Republic drinks the most beer). And he wasn't even supposed to be on the tour! He was just there because he wanted to have a few drinks. Oh the British.... Despite his ribbing of Americans, he did have to admit that we brew the strongest beer: a brewery in Portland, Ore., called Hair of the Dog made a beer that was 29%. Impressive.
The next morning we woke up feeling nice and relaxed. I'm convinced it's because Munich has laws that force the beer to be pure, so no extra chemicals or anything like that. It definitely improves taste. 
We decided to spend our last day in Munich just walking around again. We went through the main square and saw tons of people celebrating Munich's birthday after church. We saw little polka bands, old people dancing and choirs singing. Pretty cool, even if we didn't understand a thing going on. 
We walked back down to Englischer Garden to watch the surfers again and then wander farther back into the park. There is a large lake farther back in the park that we walked around. Ducks and geese were all over the place, like they were trying to take over. And, of course, there's a beer garden around it. We didn't stop this time because we were on a schedule. 
After running back to the hostel to get our bags, we made it to the train to Frankfurt just in time. For the first time all trip, something felt familiar. When we got off the train we knew exactly where we were going and what it was like. It was really nice. We crossed the street to the Frankfurt Hostel and checked in. A terrible storm popped up, but we decided to brave it to get some dinner. I finally had a schnitzel. I'm still not really sure what it is, but it tasted pretty good.
I was joking on the train that it would be great to see some of the people we met in Frankfurt the first time: Christina, Terry, Dan, Darko or Andy. How much of a coincidence would that be?Thomas and I were waiting for different bathrooms, when I heard him start to talk to someone down the hall. 
"Corey, look who I found."
I look down the hall and see Darko standing there. I couldn't believe it. Come to find out he was flying back to Canada literally 15 minutes before we were leaving. He even got to Frankfurt the same day we did. Kinda creepy. It was nice seeing a familiar face so we ended up staying up talking for a while.
Monday was pretty uneventful. We made our train, made our plane and made our connection. They did show "Marley and Me" on the plane along with an episode of "Big Bang Theory," so that was nice. 
But now we're back home trying to fight off the jet lag and I'm working on putting up pictures and videos. Look for all the pictures to be up on Facebook sometime later today and I hope to have videos done this week. 
I really hope you enjoyed following us around Europe and I hope you'll keep checking in. I'll have a post where I break down the trip (best/worst cities, hostels and final conclusions about Europe and it's people) and will get back to updating like I normally do. It's not like I have much else to do (stupid job market). 
Until next time!


Home again

Hey all!
Just wanted to let everyone know that I made it home safely and am sitting comfortably on my couch in Chapel Hill. It's nice to be home again, but I think I'm going to miss Europe (especially Germany) a lot.
In the next couple of days I'll be doing a lot of updating. I still haven't told you about the many gardens in Munich and the strange coincidence in Frankfurt. I also need to upload TONS of pictures and edit some video. I hope to get all this done in the coming week for your viewing pleasure! I'll also wrap up the trip with my final thoughts on those countries across the pond.
Until then, bring it on, Jet Lag!


We made it to Munich...finally

This should be my shortest blog of the trip so far. That's because we've done the least stuff in the last two days. And I'm totally OK with that.
First off, let me just say that our bed and breakfast ended up being amazing. The people weren't weird, but just genuinely nice people who enjoyed what they did. It was such a laid back environment and you couldn't beat the food (breakfast and dinner) that we got for barely any money. On the second day we had to pay for dinner, but it was only 2.50 Euro for a heaping bowl of rigattoni and salad. I'll take it. Lorenzo (the owner) was great and Rachael and Caroline were some of the nicest people we've met so far. If you ever go to Florence, stay there if you can. You won't regret it. Of course, you might end up stripping a couple of times like Thomas did, but it's all in good fun. Just don't volunteer to put on the David apron or buy David boxers. They will take pictures.
Anyway, on our last day we decided to take it easy. We had to catch a train at 9 p.m., so after laying around in the morning we decided to walk to Piazza Michaelangelo, where there's a big replica of the David statue that overlooks the entire city. It was an amazing view. You can't beat the countryside around Florence. Beautiful mountains just circle the city. And it was much nicer seeing the city from above.
We didn't really have any other plans, so we ended up staying up there from 1 p.m. to about 7 p.m. and got totally sunburnt. It was great. We wound our way back to the hostel and found a great little restaurant to eat at before we got our bags and went to the train station. We still haven't exactly figured out the European eating schedule. It was about 8 p.m. when we got to the restaurant and we were the only ones there. They eat late in Italy!!
Our train was an hour late, but that was the least of our problems last night. We found our couchettes in a six person room and were just sitting around talking at first. It felt great then. But when we climbed up to our top bunks, we realized the temperature at the top of the room was literally about 20 degrees hotter than the bottom. We were sweating like crazy and there was nothing we could do about it. We tried everything, but it didn't work. Finally, about 2 a.m. it started to cool down, but I didn't get any sleep before then. Then, of course, our room got searched by police. I don't know if they did it to every room, but it did not help my sleeping any. When we got to Zurich, I had only gotten about three hours. I made up for the rest on the train from Zurich to Munich.
When we got here, we decided to walk over to the big park in the city. It's a cool place, but one of the best parts is the little "surfer wave" they have in the river. Basically it's an endless wave created by the current going over a huge obstacle at the river bottom. People just take turn surfing it all day. It was awesome to watch. Then we found a beer garden in the middle of the park where we had a couple of liters and ate a great German dinner (sausage, of course).
After that we wandered back to our hostel and we're getting ready to pass out. Not enough sleep last night.
Tomorrow we're planning on taking our final NewEurope free tour (we're praying for an Australian tour guide...we need to go 4 for 4) and will probably just piddle around after that. We booked our train to Frankfurt on Sunday afternoon, so all our transportation should be taken care of!!
Only a couple more days til we're back in the states!
I'll try to update this before Monday, but if not, I'll be back with pictures, final posts and stuff I forgot about this coming week when I have more time on the internet.



OK, last post of the night. But apparently my computer has started to like me enough to allow me to put some pictures on Facebook. So now there are pictures from Berlin on there. I couldn't get anymore up because it took forever and I'm about to pass out, but they might go up soon. Either way, enjoy!

P.S. the first picture is the hotel where Michael Jackson dangled the baby over the railing. Awesome.

Good night!

Apparently UNC loves me

So thanks to a tip from my lovely girlfriend, I found out that the UNC-Chapel Hill website has a picture of me for their header. If it doesn't come up the first time, just keep refreshing it. It's a great picture of me marching down South Rd. during Fall Fest. I'm rocking my aviators and Terrass is in the background. It's pretty sweet. I wonder how long it will stay up there. My 15 minutes of fame??? We'll see. I guess my university does care about me some.


So HostelBookers.com made our traveling decisions for us. Nowhere in Cinque Terra was open on Tuesday, so we decided to settle for Florence. Well I guess settling might be the wrong word....
Anyway, before we left we decided to go see the Duomo in Milan, one of the only free things that our handy travel books told us was worth seeing. And it was. It's absolutely massive and it's gothic architecture is breathtaking. It reminded me of one of those sandcastles that you build by dripping the wet sand in a pile. So many spires and gargoyles were all over it. You could walk inside (only if you were dressed appropriately...somehow my shorts and a collared shirt worked) and see how massive it really is. The ceiling seems miles above you and it had beautiful stained glass windows.
We left there and caught our train for Florence. We were dozing most of the way, which almost made the trip a disaster. Florence wasn't the last stop for the train, so we really had to pay attention. I happened to open my eyes one time when the train stopped only to see a sign for "Firenze" outside. We had to run over about 20 people to get off the train and barely made it before the doors closed. But make it we did.
The information for the hostel told us to take the 25 bus to Via Bolognese, which would stop right it front of it. Sounded simple. About 20 minutes later we're flying up some mountainside about 10 km outside of the city. I guess we missed our stop. But we did get to see some beautiful countryside. This area is really mountainous and has little towns and homes scattered all over the place. Pretty good area to get lost in.
On the way back down we finally found our hostel. The place looked interesting online, but with the price and amenities we couldn't pass it up. Free internet, free breakfast, free drinks (wine and gin and tonic) and free dinner every other day. Sign me up. When we go in, there are three people at the top of the stairs yelling "Hello!" at us. A little strange, but whatever. "Reception" was a little room with a couch and a small TV where a few random people were hanging out. Attached to it was a kitchen with some crazy Italian guy named Lorenzo cooking. Turns out he's the owner. We learn this as he offers us drinks and a heaping plate of delicious pasta. The people working were all in their 20s, two from England and one from Kosovo. Salih (Kosovo) has been here for about two years while the girls from England were only supposed to stay three nights and ended up working here for three months. An interesting group to say the least.
But everyone seemed genuinely nice, so our initial hesitation faded away. Then we found out where we would be sleeping. Apparently they overbooked, so for half the normal price we were given the pull out sofa in the reception room. The same place that everyone hangs out at and where breakfast is served. Oh well, I like cheap. It was only a little awkward when I slept in boxers and had to get up and get dressed in front of about five people eating breakfast....
We took some time today to enjoy the city. We walked past the Duomo, which was not as impressive as the one in Milan but nice nonetheless, and saw the golden Doors to Paradise (or something like that). Then we went to see Michaelangelo's David first. The line for it was terribly long and it cost 10 Euros, but I thought it was worth it. I don't know if I'll be in Florence again, so you have to splurge sometimes. The sculpture is larger than life. So detailed and perfectly crafted. It was just amazing to walk around it and look at it from all angles. They don't allow picture taking in the museum, but I snuck a couple of shots before finally getting caught. I figure if they made me pay 10 friggin' Euro I should at least get a picture!
After that we just ended up wandering around the city for a while. Parts of it are really touristy and crowded. Everyone and their mother has a scooter and they're not afraid to try and hit you. And the streets and sidewalks are really skinny and crowded. A little hectic, but overall a nice city.
We're back at the hostel resting up now before dinner. We wanted to take a wine tour, but they were all too expensive and too high class for us, so I think we're just going to wander around and see some more of the sights tomorrow and maybe enjoy some wine at a cafe before we head out.
Speaking of which, we should have all of our transportation figured out for the rest of the trip. We're taking a night train from Florence to Zurich on Thursday night, then catching a train from there to Munich, which should get us in Germany by sometime around 1 p.m. on Friday. It's a long train ride, but we had to avoid Austria because our Eurail isn't valid there and we'd have to pay for that part of the trip. We're staying in Munich for two nights, then moving to Frankfurt on Sunday to make sure we get our plane back to the States.
I can't believe it's almost over! I've had a great time, but I'm starting to get worn out. I look forward to some relaxing times. Oh, and I have a craving for sweet tea, Bojangles and barbeque. Mmmm.... I shouldn't be thinking about food though when I have delicious Italian all around me.
All right, I think that's all for now. I should have free internet in Munich, but I probably won't get to it until Friday night, so I'll let you know how things went then!


Paris: Memoir of a failure

When we were on the train leaving Paris today, I could only think one thing: I'm so done with this place. Sure, Paris is beautiful and full of history and a must-see for any European traveler. But you know how people say that the French people hate Americans? Well I'm going to take that one step further: the country, it's land and it's atmosphere hate Americans.

I already talked about our run-in with the French police. It just got worse from there.
On Saturday we decided to take yet another NewEurope free tour. They've been good so far, so we figured it would be the best way to quickly see the city. We had to move to a new hostel because we couldn't get a second night at St. Christopher's -- the best hostel we've had so far -- so we got a train to the opposite side of the city.
We should have known better with a place called "Aloha," but it was cheap and available. It was a piece of trash. The people at the desk were disagreeable, the place was falling apart and our door didn't have a lock on it. It looked like a closet beside the stairwell. But we were going to be gone most of the day so we just left our stuff and moved on.
The tour was great. We were really hoping our streak of Australian tour guides would keep going, but Sam didn't seem to fit the description. Then she told us she was from Melbourne and Thomas and I yelled and high-fived. She looked at us a little weird. Now we're three for three.
We walked around and saw all the big sites: Notre Dame, Louvre, walked by the river, saw big pretty buildings and, of course, the Arc de Triumph and the Eiffel Tower. Oh, and McDonalds. We went there for our break and I'm sad to say that it's one of the most substantial meals I've had all trip. What happens when you travel on a budget....We didn't really get to go close to the Arc and the Eiffel, so Thomas and I decided to get a closer look.
The Arc is huge and surrounded by the worlds worst traffic circle. It's like 12 lanes of traffic and there's supposed to be a wreck every 30 minutes. I wouldn't drive there for anything. We took the underground tunnel to get under it, but decided not to go up because it was pretty expensive, like everything else in Paris. We walked about 20 minutes to get over to the Eiffel Tower. It was weird seeing it in person. It's a lot bigger than I expected. But it's right around this beautiful area in the city. Being cheap travelers, we decided that it would be a better idea to walk up the tower to the second level for 3 Euro instead of taking the elevator for nine. Seven hundred stairs later, I'm not so sure it was a good idea. But the view was miraculous. You could see the city stretching all the way out to the horizon. We didn't get to go all the way to the top (you have to take the elevator) but we got a great view anyway.
After the stairs, we were pretty exhausted, but we needed to get to the train station to book our train to Florence. About halfway to the train station I realize I don't have my Eurail pass. So we go back to the hostel. When we finally get to the train station -- somewhere around 10:30 -- the ticket booths are closed. No way to get tickets. We just wasted three hours and four Metro tickets. Awesome.
When we get back to the hostel and finally decide to go to bed, we find that two guys have taken our beds. Luckily these two Spanish girls next door had free beds so we were able to get some sleep. The next morning we went to the train station again to book our train. We wanted to take a night train that night (Sunday night) so that we could spend all of Monday in Florence. We were informed that there was no such train. In fact, there was no train to Florence period. Great. Milan? Yes, but no night train. Only one that leaves at seven in the morning. So we took that. We just wanted to get to Italy.
But we still needed a place to stay that night, so we ran over to an internet cafe and booked St. Christopher's again. And, wouldn't you know it, we got the exact same room. So we decided to make the most of our day and visit the Catacombs.
The Catacombs are exactly what they sound like: windy passages deep under the earth that used to be used as a graveyard and a religious area. At first we were just wandering through dark tunnels and I was beginning to wonder if we were going to see anything else. Then, suddenly, we walked into the main part of the Catacombs. All around us, stacked in neat little piles and formations, are thousands of human bones and skulls. It went on like this for a while. A little unsettling, but interesting nonetheless.
We finally crawled out of the hole and decided to go to Roland Garros, where the French Open final was being played. It was about two hours into the match, but I was hoping they would be showing it on a screen outside and had some souvenir stands so I could get some official French Open stuff. But, of course, I was wrong on both counts. We walked around the entire thing and there were no souvenirs, no screens, no nothing. We heard when Federer won and I got a picture of one of the outer courts, but that's it. And to make matters worse, it started pouring down rain as we walked to the metro.
In our last attempt to do something for the day, we tried to make it to the Pablo Picasso museum. I love his work and all the museums are free on Sunday. Win-win, right? Wrong. Of course we show up and it was closed. Four more metro tickets wasted.
We gave up and went back to the hostel to get dinner and pass out. For dinner I had a Croque Madame, which I had heard about from someone we met in Frankfurt. It's basically a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with a fried egg on top. Delicious! I'm definitely trying that at home. After our long day, Thomas and I decided to drown away our sorrows with some nice cheap wine from the corner market. It improved our spirits. That is, until the next morning.
I wake up and it's really light outside. "Crap," I think, "there's no way it's 6:30." That's when Thomas set his alarm for so that we could get to the train. Sure enough, I look at my watch and it's 9 a.m. Awesome. I roll over and eventually here Thomas wake up and say the same thing. Paris just must hate us.
We roll out of bed and head to the train station around 11. The woman there says our tickets are no good, so we have to reserve two different ones (not expensive, thanks to Eurail) for 2 p.m. Not wanting to miss another train, we sat around the train station for three hours, feeling awful. I began to feel better once we got on the train. I put my headphones in and dozed. When I looked out one time, we were in the middle of a beautiful mountain range. Snow-capped peaks and clouds and fog covering the tips of the mountains with little towns nestled in the valleys. It was stunning. After studying a map for a while I realize it's the Alps that we're going through. I could get used to this part of France.
We finally roll up to Milan at about 9:30, find our hostel, which is an actual hotel this time, and get some gelato to make ourselves feel better. We're trying to learn from our mistakes and have the whole rest of the week mapped out, assuming that trains work in our favor. Tomorrow we're going to go see a couple of things in Milan, then go to the train station and try to get a train either to Florence or Cinquaterra, which is a group of five towns (thus the name) on the coast that is supposed to be amazing! Whereever we go, we're going to stay there for two nights. Then Thursday, we're going to come back to Milan and try to find a connection to Munich, where we will stay Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Sunday night we'll be back in Frankfurt so that we can catch our plane the next day.
I hope it will all work like this, but I've come to expect some bumps in the road. I hope I'll be getting internet sometime soon so that I can update again. And as for pictures, my computer doesn't like me to upload things, so I guess they're just going to have to wait until I get home. Then Facebook will blow up with the amount of pictures I've taken!! Sorry for the delay, but there's nothing I can do!

Here's to a good last week! Ciao!


"Are you getting somewhere? Or did you get lost in Amsterdam?"

So let me start by apologizing for my last blog post. For some reason Amsterdam had me in a really bad mood for the first few days so I wasn't exactly in the best state of mind to write about our trip. Luckily, our third day was much better than the rest and at least left me with a good taste in my mouth. 
We decided to get a cabin outside of the city, thanks to a tip from our good Frankfurt friend Christina. It was almost 45 minutes outside of town on the train and in the middle of the Amsterdam Bos, which basically means forest. It was beautiful out there. We had a little chalet to ourselves (the first night we haven't had roomates all trip). After we checked in in the morning, we went back to the city to rent bikes. 
If you didn't know, Amsterdam is the bike capital of the world. Seriously. Bikes are everywhere and there are even bike lanes everywhere, complete with stop lights just for the peddlers. We got the bike for about three ours and started tooling around the city. It went back and forth from being tons of fun to absolutely terrifying. Intersections were the scariest things ever. Cars, people, trains and other bikes are all over the place. And of course they all know what they're doing, while we are just hoping not to crash or get run over. 
We finally got down to Vondelpark and rode there (no traffic!) and took a little break to sit by the lake. I definitely like the park side of Amsterdam much more than the city. We then went over to Museumplein, a cool little park with the Van Gogh Museum and Rijkmuseum. It also has this massive statue that reads "I amsterdam." Of course we had to take pictures with that. 
For dinner, we decided to go cheap and buy food at the grocery store. We got meat, cheese, bread, a massive sausage (Thomas' idea, which he came to regret) and a bottle of wine for just over 10 Euro. Pretty good deal if you ask me. We took this all back to the cabin and had a nice little dinner in our chalet. We realize that we haven't been eating full meals all trip, so if we ever get anything more than a snack we're pretty happy. 
Our last night in Amsterdam was pretty relaxing and was exactly what I needed. 
The next day we had a train from Amsterdam to Bruges, a little medieval city in the northern part of Belgium. Let's be honest: the only reason we cared about going to Belgium was the beer. And it was totally worth it. 
It's a really tiny town (takes less than 30 minutes to walk across it) but it is super touristy. The first thing we did was wash clothes, which was very necessary. It was starting to get ugly. After that we enjoyed a few beers at the hostel bar during happy hour. What is great is that even the cheap beer in Belgium is amazing. 
After a few more drinks, Thomas dove into his sausage. He was like a homeless man on the staircase just chomping away. He ate it again the next day. Then his stomach turned on him. But he still claims it was a good idea. 
Fun sidenote; fries were apparently "invented" in Belgium. No lie. And they have all kinds of little fry stands there. I'm pretty sure all two meals that I ate there were fries. And they love to put mayonaise on there. Lots of it. They gave me a little tub of fries and about two pounds of mayonaise. It was delicious. I was glad that I got the mayo fries here since I missed out on that in Amsterdam. It just kept reminding me of the line from "Pulp Fiction:" 
VINCENT: But you know what they put on french fries in Holland instead of ketchup?
JULES: What?
VINCENT: Mayonnaise.
JULES: Goddamn!
VINCENT: I seen 'em do it. And I don't mean a little bit on the side of the plate, they fuckin' drown 'em in it.
So true. John Travolta doesn't lie. My fries drowned. Many times over. But they were delicious. 
This morning we had to catch our train at about 1 p.m., so we decided to check out a church in town that has Michaelangelo's Madonna and Child in it. It's one of the very few pieces of his that made it out of Italy. The church was absolutely gorgeous and massive. 
We barely made our train to Paris. When we got off to switch trains in Lille Flanders, we saw cops walking up to us. Out of the dozens of travellers who were unloading off of the train we were singled out. He comes up speaking French and I give him my classic "I have no clue what you're saying" look, which I've perfected over the past week and a half. Finally he realizes we speak English and ask for our passports. By this time, three other cops are standing around us looking us over. They look at our passports and start talking to each other. The only word we understand is Americans. I can't quite figure out what the connotation is. "Do you have any knives?" "Uhh, no." "Drugs?" I actually laughed. Why the hell would we have drugs, and if we did, why would we say yes? "Ha...no." Then they let us off. I'm not sure what made him key off on us. I guess I just have bad luck with bored cops when I travel (Texas...). 
Despite that roadblock we made it to Paris unharmed and got to our hostel. We found out that on Friday's after 6 p.m. you can go to the Louvre for FREE! You know how much we love free stuff, so we jumped all over that. I never realized how huge the place is. It has three wings and each one is absolutely massive. And the pyramids outside were awesome. There's so much art in there it's overwhelming. And I don't really know art, so it all started to look the same to me, except for the obviously famous one. Of course, we had to go see the Mona Lisa. I've always heard people say that it is kind of anticlimactic. They're right. It's a pretty small painting behind a glass case. I understand why it's famous and it was amazing to see, but I just expect it to be more grand. 
We wandered around for a little while longer until it closed at 10. We found the metro back, had our ceremonial doner (this one was terrible), and headed back to the hostel, where I'm abusing the free internet. 
As I type, I'm putting pictures on the computer. I'm hoping that I'll be able to get them on Facebook, but we'll see if my computer wants to cooperate. If it does, I might try to add some to the blog posts also. 
Tomorrow we're taking another free walking tour, then who knows what. We do have to change hostels, so I'm not sure if I have free internet or not. I think so, but who knows. 
We're just over half way done! I really can't believe it. It's flown by! 



So much going on!

That's why I haven't gotten a chance to update this more! We did eventually make it out to Amsterdam, where we are currently sitting safe and sound after eating dinner. The past few days have been fairly interesting as far as activities go. Our last day in Berlin ended up being a lot better than I expected it to be. We checked out of our third and final hostel and took a train up to the main station to drop of our bags for the day since we would be taking a night train to Amsterdam. We were going to go to the Reichstag, but the lined seemed too long at first. We decided to just go over to the Holocaust Memorial, where there is an information center you can visit beneath the actual memorial. It was free, as were many of the museums there, which was amazing. 

It was a very sobering experience. It showed how the Nazis came to power and the development of the "Final Solution." The design and lighting in each room made the place a little unsettling. One room was very dark with lit up tiles in the floor that had quotes from journals, letters and postcards of the prisoners of concentration camps. Another room was dark with names projected on each wall while a voice recording told their story. The museum told the story of the Holocaust by telling the stories of the individual prisoners who experienced it. That's what made this museum interesting. It made the event personal by telling you the names and about the history and the family of these prisoners. 

When we left that, we decided to go ahead and head up to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, which is about an hour north of the city. We figured that by the time we finished visiting the camp, the Rechstag wouldn't be as busy and we could do that right before heading to the train station. 

The camp was a massive installment right on the edge of a cute little town called Oranienburg. The contrast is kind of strange: we were walking through a regular little neighborhood and bam, suddenly we were at the camp. It was free to walk around but we decided to drop a few Euros to get the radio tour around the area, just so we'd know what was going on. We didn't quite realize what we got ourselves into. 

Each little listening point on the audiotour was extremely long. They put every little ounce of information that they possibly could into each little station. It was way too much! I definitely learned a lot, but even more went straight in one ear and out of the other. Much of the camp was still intact, surprisingly, so you could really see how things might have been back in the '40s. Much like the museum, it was very sobering to hear the stories of the prisoners here and see in person what the conditions must have been like. They had two barracks where the prisoners stayed so that we could walk in and see what kind of conditions the prisoners lived in. These were made for 150, with triple-decker bunk beds for them to sleep in. But as the camp started to get full of prisoners, the officers started shoving as many as 300 people into each barrack. There was no room for them. And they had maybe nine toilets for all the prisoners and a very small washroom. 

It was shocking to see what kind of conditions they were forced into. As we were walking around we saw a dark cloud forming and decided to go ahead and cut out before it started pouring rain on us. We got back to the train station before the rain and managed to avoid it all. When we finally got back to central Berlin, we went over to finally go up in the dome of the Reichstag. To our surprise, at 8 p.m. the line was still just as long as it was at noon when we walked by the first time. So we decided to bite the bullet and go ahead and get in line to go up. It took us about 45 minutes to get through the line but when we got to the top it was totally worth it. From the glass dome you can see all around the city. And, to make the view even more amazing, a small storm was coming through and the sun was setting. It was an amazing mix of purples, oranges, yellows and greys painting the sky. I really hope my pictures are able to show how beautiful it really was. It was a perfect way to end our time in Berlin: getting to see the entire city from above. 

A night train on Sunday brought us to our second country of the trip: Holland. We made it to good 'ole Amsterdam about 10:30 surprisingly rested seeing as how we had to sleep on a little bunk in the train. We found our hostel and got our stuff checked in so that we could explore the city. We ended up walking all the way out to Vondelpark, which is this massive beautiful park on the southwestern edge of the city. People were laying down all over the place, enjoying the beautiful weather. We decided to join them and ended up taking a little nap. It was so nice to lay out there on a nice spring day.

Eventually we left and found a little place to get some food. After enjoying Happy Hour at the hostel, we decided to check out the storied Red Light district. It was everything I could have expected. There were tons of sex shops, peep shows and girls standing in windows with little red lights above them. It's funny how up front it is here. It's completely legal and even a part of the economy. The girls rent the windows for the day/night and even have a union. They fill out tax forms and are an official occupation: some even say the oldest occupation. 

Today we took another free tour with New Europe around the city. It wasn't as good as the one in Berlin, but that's only because Amsterdam doesn't seem to have as much history as Berlin. But the tour guide did the best with what he had. Oh, and our guide was Australian again. Go figure! We toured around and saw some of the nicer canals, the Red Light District (again) and, of course, the Anne Frank house. We haven't gotten to go there yet, but we might try to make that happen tomorrow. One of the best things I learned on the tour was about the bikes in Amsterdam. It's well known that bikes are everywhere here and almost everyone rides them. It's kind of hectic. But what we learned today was that there are over 40,000 bikes thrown into the canals every year. Some accidently fall in, but many Dutch people do it on purpose because it's fun and "good luck." Then, every now and then, they dig through the canals and fish the bikes out to make new ones. Talk about recycling!

OK, I think I've got you all caught up now! I still am having trouble uploading pictures, but I hope I'll be able to make that happen soon. Tomorrow we're going to a hostel in a campground outside of the city, so I might not have internet. But Thursday we go to Bruges, Belgium for one night and I should be able to update there. 

Until then!