Thursday, August 28, 2008

And the winners are...

Several people have asked me to name my favorite part of the trip, which I really struggle to do. I would visit all of our destinations again in a heartbeat. Maybe it is because I am not well traveled and have never been to Europe before, but each stop was a brand new experience for me that I loved for different reasons.

That being said, I created a list of categories and selected winners to give you a taste of what we experienced on our trip without boring you with a daily play-by-play.

Most visually stunning location: Hands down, the island of Capri wins this award. The cliffs, rocky beaches, beautiful water, grottoes, and quaint but elite towns have carved a soft spot in my heart forever. I really hope that Brad and I return one day.

Favorite small town: Orvieto, Italy. It's a hill-top town in Umbria, about an hour outside of Rome. Brad had been there before and he was thrilled that its "cuteness" measured up to what he remembered. Orvieto was the first town we visited the day we rented a car and drove through Tuscany. We went to Orvieto and Siena and drove through Greve and the Chianti region. A close second place goes to Bayeux, France.

Favorite city: Now this one is truly a toss-up between Florence, Venice, and Paris. I would choose each of them for different reasons. Everyone I know loves Florence (and I did too). I know that many people dislike Venice, but I absolutely loved it! And Paris seems to get mixed reviews, but that city is close to my heart as well. I could move to Paris tomorrow.

Best city neighborhood: Hands down, the Saint Germain des Pres (6e) neighborhood in Paris. We stayed in a cute boutique hotel that was surrounded with cafes filled with (gasp) locals!!! Our hotel was located directly south of the Louvre and about three blocks south of the Seine (Left Bank). We walked everywhere. Staying in this neighborhood is probably why we loved Paris as much as we did.

Favorite touristy thing that we did: Yep, we did it. We took a gondola ride in Venice. It's touristy, but it's a must. We also took a day trip from Florence to the Cinque Terre, which was just stunning. I loved learning about the gladiators and the high society Romans at the Colosseum in Rome. I fantasized about the historical fiction novel that I could write about that part of history.

Best meal/restaurant:
Our first day in Venice (our 10 year anniversary of knowing each other!) turned out to be our only day on the trip where we hit a few logistical bumps in the road. We arrived at our hotel (a hotel that I had sooo been looking forward to) to learn that a pipe had burst and they had to move us to another hotel for the night that was supposed to be of similar quality. Well, it wasn't. It was frustrating and disappointing, but we survived. But, we did have our best meal of the trip on that evening in Venice at La Caravella. Despite the complications, it was still a glorious anniversary!

Favorite hotel: This one is also a toss up. We loved our Paris hotel mostly because of the wonderful neighborhood that surrounded it. Our Venice hotel wins the "cutest" award and it was also in a great location. We were only about five minutes from St. Mark's Square, but were on a quiet, private, picturesque canal. And it helped that they upgraded our room and provided a free bottle of wine for our last and only night there because of the pipe burst inconvenience. And we loved Hotel Weber in Capri because well, just because. Hotel Weber's staff members were probably the sweetest and most accommodating (except for my constant requests for an iron... more on that later). We felt very welcome in Capri.

Most humbling experience: I constantly felt humbled when I made a request in French or Italian (carefully practiced ahead of time, mind you) only to be answered with a smile in English that was much better than my French or Italian. Feeling brave the first day we rented a car in France, Brad pulled into a French fast food restaurant called "Quick" and said, "let's go through the drive-through". I was actually quite impressed with how well Brad spoke French to order and to ask questions. But sadly, the woman behind the loudspeaker couldn't understand him and made us come inside to order, which meant that we had to wait in line behind other cars in the drive-though, cars that contained drivers who had been more successful in their ordering, to get to a place where we could park the car. The humiliating thing is that a few days later when we rented a car in Normandy, we once again tried to go through a drive-through only to fail a second time!

Funniest moment: Unintentionally, I caused some scenes on the beach in Nice. First of all, let me say that I absolutely adored Nice. I've never seen a more beautiful, classy, or pristine stretch of beach and we enjoyed about four blissful hours of time there. Because I'm an idiot, I wore my only pair of sunglasses into the water only for a large wave to nearly drown me and sweep my sunglasses from my head. I fought with the waves and rocks to get them back, but as soon as they were in my grasp, another wave knocked me down and stole them again. I kept trying to enlist Brad's help by shouting and pointing, "there they are!" before I lunged after them, which entertained the entire beach, I think. I also tried to keep my bikini top on and in place during this ordeal, because predictably, I noticed that only about half of the women on the beach were bare-chested and I didn't think that I would stand out too much if I remained clothed. About two hours after we recovered the sunglasses (yes, I DID finally win my battle against the elements), a wave nearly swept our camera (and all of our pictures thus far) out to sea while I had set the timer to take a picture of Brad and me laying on the beach in the water, and we entertained the crowd a bit more with our shouting and scrambling to grab it and dry it off. Luckily, the camera and pictures were not damaged, but I completely lost Brad's trust; he banned me from venturing near the water again with anything in my hand or on my head. For good reason, I suppose.

Biggest surprises of Europe: Way too many to list here. This category necessitates an entry all of its own... coming soon. Please stay tuned.

Monday, August 25, 2008

A swanky encounter

Brad and I tried our best to venture off the beaten path, at least for a few hours, in every European city we visited. Being city dwellers ourselves, we love checking out the various neighborhoods in other cities to develop a sense of what it would be like to live there. After packing all of the Rome must-see sights into an unbearably hot day and a half, we celebrated our last day there by sleeping past 6 a.m. (a rarity on this trip, let me tell you) and visiting the Trastevere and Campo del Fiori neighborhoods (thanks to my friend for the recs - we loved both areas!). Just like an ideal way to end a week in the States, Brad and I spent that Friday afternoon sipping beers and writing a few postcards at a bar in the Campo and decided to return to that area later that night for dinner.

While we searched for a restaurant in the Campo del Fiori area later that evening, we passed one of the cutest wine bars that I've ever seen (L'Angolo Divino - check it out if you're ever in Rome) and we decided to enjoy a drink after dinner there. We returned around 10 p.m. or so and found it nearly empty. Only two girls remained at one table and a rather loud, but normal-looking family at another table. Not giving the other patrons a second look or thought, Brad and I claimed a cute table in the corner and ordered some wine. There were maybe six tables total in this place, so you can imagine how close we were to the other guests.

After relaxing for a few minutes and quietly observing the ambiance of the bar, Brad leaned closer to me and whispered, "What's the name of the actress who was in Million Dollar Baby?"

A little startled, I looked at him and said, "Hillary Swank. And that woman over there sounds exactly like her, doesn't she?"

Brad's seat directly faced the loud family, which included a young, slim, attractive woman with short blond hair, a man with dark hair, a young boy about age 4 or 5, and an older couple, who we assumed were the parents of the man.

I turned and stole a quick glance at the woman to which Brad referred and I muttered, "Did Hillary Swank cut her hair even shorter and dye it blond? That can't be her!" Obviously, I had not perused the celebrity gossip sites all summer. Sadly, I was a bit behind.

For a few minutes, we quietly watched and listened and decided that we couldn't possibly be sitting less than ten feet away from Hillary Swank; that rather loud and gregarious woman had to be someone else who coincidentally looked and sounded just like the million dollar baby herself. Neither of us had ever just bumped into a Hollywood star before!

But then something funny happened. We clearly heard the child call the woman Hillary. And Brad and I just stared at each other as the truth sunk in. This woman looks and sounds like Hillary Swank AND her name is Hillary?? Too much coincidence. (Note: We're a little slow at times, so occasionally, you may just need to beat us over the head until we figure something out.) We were sitting about 10 feet away from Hillary Swank, her former agent and current boyfriend John, and his son Sam. We never learned the names of the parents, but they definitely looked like and seemed to belong to John.

I would like to tell you that Brad and I played it really cool, and I try to convince myself that we did, but I am 99.9% certain that Hillary knew that we recognized her by the way that we kept not-so-subtly whispering to each other and sneaking glances at her. It was all I could do to keep from bubbling over with excitement! At one point, Hillary got up to go to the ladies room, and I was soooo tempted to follow her, and I kick myself now that I didn't, but I genuinely didn't want to bother her. She seemed like a nice person and I imagine that if I were an academy-award-winning actress, I would really appreciate people who didn't accost me. But I did make eye contact with her when she returned from the bathroom, and she answered my beaming smile with a grin of her own. She even made eye contact with Brad later and smiled at him too. I'm sure that our American-ness and obvious admiration were palpable.

Brad and I lingered at our table for 30 to 45 minutes, eavesdropping and watching the star and her entourage. We could tell that they'd already eaten dinner there and were enjoying dessert and after-dinner drinks. Sam, the child, ran around. Hillary complained about Sam's dirty feet and told John to take him to the bathroom to scrub them. They all joked about being tired from seeing sights (seriously, does Hillary Swank visit the Colosseum or St. Peter's when she travels to Rome?? Stars actually sightsee?). They talked about their favorite moments of the day. They were totally normal people, just like you and me. And it was incredibly cool to sit and watch and listen.

After some Internet research on Hillary when I returned home, I learned that she's exactly my age. I liked her before, but after seeing her in person and watching how she acts off-screen, I came to one conclusion: if life were different and I actually knew her, I am sure that we would be friends.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

We survived!

My beloved readers, I'm back! And I've missed you immensely. Like my friend, I also suffer from HTM Disease. It nearly killed me to not have access to email, my blog, my friends' blogs, or the Internet for three weeks. I didn't earn perfect attendance during all four years of high school because I was worried about missing a major development in the classroom! I admit it: I am a bit of a social busybody. I try to fight it, but most of the time I just can't.

Many, many times throughout the trip, I often told Brad, "Don't let me forget to write about this on my blog!" and after our A-list celebrity encounter during our last night in Rome (I CAN'T WAIT to share this story with you... very soon, I promise!), EVEN Brad, who normally acts more annoyed by my blog than humored by it (mind you, he doesn't even READ it), wanted to rush back to the hotel in hopes that we could find a free Internet connection so that I could write a quick post about it.

To briefly summarize the trip: We had an incredible, marvelous, absolutely amazing time. And I can't wait to tell you all about it, which I will do in a series of posts just as soon as I can. This trip, the completely-on-our-own way we did it at least, was definitely not for the faint of heart. It was a true adventure and the trip completely surpassed my always-too-high expectations. We've been dreaming of and saving money for this trip for nearly four years now, and let me tell you, it was 100% worth the years of coursework, the two comprehensive exams, and the whole dissertation-ball-of-fun. I would enter another Ph.D. program tomorrow if it entitled me to a second trip like this. Except, I told Brad that it's his turn next time! Dr. Blondie needs a bit of a break from the classroom, but should Brad ever experience the school itch again, I'll happily accompany him on the vacation of his choice, just as long as he doesn't make me visit every single baseball stadium in the country or something else crazy like that.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dernier destination: Paris

We'll reach the last stop of our trip today, the city of lights!

We're staying at a boutique hotel in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres area on the Left Bank, an area that's supposed to be chock-full of cafes and chic shops and home to myriad scholars, writers, and artists. Our hotel is only a couple of blocks from the Seine and it looks like we're within walking distance to all of the big sites: the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Isle de St Louis, Jardin du Luxembourg, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysees, Musee d'Orsay, and more!

This entry marks my 100th post since I began the blog on January 1, 2008! Thank you to my most faithful readers for sticking with me through all of the ups, downs, and in-betweens of my days, all conveniently documented and easily accessible for you and the rest of the world to see on the Internet.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Destination six: Bayeux (les plages de Normandy)

Brad, being a history lover, especially World War II history, is most looking forward to this leg of our trip. I just hope that we can find our hotel. Supposedly it's fairly close to the train station, but I couldn't really find directions to it anywhere online. I mentioned before that I've often chuckled when communicating with the hotel staff via email because of the strange and vague ways that they translate their messages into English for me. After at least two requests about how to find the hotel from the train station, here is the message that a hotel staff member finally sent to me:

"Dear Madam,

When you will go out from the train station, you have to cross the road where there are traffic lights, have to take directions Rue de Crémel and after Rue aux Coqs. We are just at the end of this street.

Sincerely Yours

Séverine"


Bayeux is a small town, so we will surely find it sooner or later!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Destination cinq: Monte Carlo

Goodbye Italy, hello France (and Monaco)!

My entry titles are now in French, with the help of this site, just in case you didn't notice. Please know that I take no responsibility for correct grammar in other languages.

Special thanks to my friend's mom for hooking us up with the friends and family rate at our hotel!

We're looking forward to some beach time. We also plan to briefly hit the casino in Monte Carlo (just to say we did it) and rent a car to explore some of the towns/beaches along the Riviera. I initially wanted to stay in St-Tropez, but I couldn't find a decent hotel for under $1,000 per night. So we'll just visit for the day instead. And if the Jolie-Pitt clan is still in the area, maybe we'll stumble into them (or for sure, the hordes of paparazzi around them).

A couple of girlfriends tried to convince me to cut loose and go topless on the beaches in Southern France. They argued that I'll stand out much more by wearing a bikini top than by taking it off. They have a point, but I just don't think that I can do it. It's just not me. But please know, gentle readers, that if by some small chance I succumb to the pressure, I will never admit to doing it.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Destinazione quattro: Venezia

Ten years ago on this day, my life changed forever. I met my match. Little did I know that the red- (or should I say orange... Go VOLS!) headed, green-eyed, sweet-talkin' Southern gentleman I met in the Greek Life office at UGA would become my husband. Or that we would spend the ten year anniversary of our meeting in Venice. I promise that I didn't intentionally schedule our visit to Venice to coincide with this anniversary; ironically, it just worked out that way. But being a huge sap at heart, I'm secretly thrilled about it.

So let me share the story of how Brad and I first met. We both moved to Athens, GA in August of 1998 to begin the same master's program. I met Brad only five days after I arrived and he was the first person I met in my master's cohort. At the time, I semi-worked for my sorority and I conducted a formal business visit with the campus's Greek Advisor about the imminent formal recruitment season. Decked out in my business suit, killer stilettos, sorority badge and all, I was surprised when my meeting was interrupted by my future beloved and one of his assistantship supervisors, who was giving Brad a tour of the building and the different offices within it. Someone quickly made the connection that we were starting the same graduate program and introduced us.

My first impression of Brad: Honestly, I was a little stunned by his appearance. While I had known a few redheads before, I had never met or even laid eyes on anyone in person with hair quite like his. I can best describe it as flaming orange, kind of like his head was on fire (at the time, of course... the color has since faded a bit). His hair's hue combined with his extra long, blond eyelashes, flashy olive/emerald eyes, and dominant freckles (it was the end of summer) caused me to stare at him like he was an alien. I found him so unique looking! And then he smiled at me and dropped a "y'all" in conversation and immediately I thought, "He's going to date someone in our cohort. And it's NOT going to be me." For some strange reason, I felt convinced that he was a player, which could not have been farther from the truth.

Brad's first impression of me: I think that my attire intimidated him a little bit. And my heels were so high and ridiculous that I'm pretty sure that I towered over him. He immediately dismissed me as "all business" and "no fun", which were probably accurate descriptors when I was in dissertation mode recently, but definitely not then (or now, mind you).

Later that very day, I went on a blind date with one of the sorority advisor's sons. Aghast that I was 24 and single, those old-fashioned Southern ladies set me up on dates right away. The gent picked me up in his huge pick up truck and if I remember correctly, I think that he wore Wrangler jeans (I really don't mean to be a snob, but ew!). While he was incredibly nice, I thought, "I could have found this in my podunk hometown, substituting the Southern accent with the Midwestern twang. Humph." Blind dates were never my forte anyway.

So thankfully, Brad and I were thrown together in class-related work groups right away. And we became fast friends. And then love began to blossom a few months later. And the rest is history. And now, ten years later, here we are in Venice. And life is just amazing.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Happy 1/2 b-day to me!

Today marks my half birthday, an event that I grew up celebrating with oodles of cupcakes, which I believe in Italy equates to oodles of gelato! What a fun day this will be!

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Destinazione tre: Firenze

We're traveling today to the destination that seems to be everyone's favorite: Florence!

Florence hosts us the longest of any other destination on our trip: four glorious days! In addition to seeing all of the main attractions in the city, we also hope to take a day trip to Pisa and Cinque Terre, and rent a car and drive to Siena and other cute towns in Tuscany. Knowing us, we may explore Chianti (someone told me that they make tasty wine there) and Umbria as well.

Once we start sightseeing, we tend to run ourselves a bit ragged. But we've promised each other that we'll take some time to relax at each destination by hanging out at cafes, watching people, ditching the tourist traps for the local areas, and engaging in our favorite activity when visiting new cities: scoping out all of the neighborhoods and choosing the one where we would move to tomorrow if we could. Then we act like we live there, even if it's just for a few hours.

Friday, August 8, 2008

All roads lead to Rome...

In researching some of the destinations on our trip, I learned this phrase's origin from this site. Apparently, here's the story:
"The origin of the expression lays in the Romans' well-deserved reputation for their construction skills. Their network of roads, all of which headed towards the capital city, meant that they literally did all lead to Rome. The expression came to have the connotation that no matter which way you chose to go, the outcome of something would be the same, with no one option being better than another."

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Destinazione due: Roma

One of the more comical parts of planning this trip has involved corresponding via email with staff at the various hotels. I'm the first to admit that I don't know a lick of French or Italian, and I could never accurately compose an entire email message in any other language but English. So I commend the hotel staff for communicating with me in my language. I also know that they want my business, so it's in their best interest to communicate in English.

A couple of days before we left, I emailed the staff at all of our hotels to confirm our stay. Here is the response I received from someone at our hotel in Rome. It brought a smile to my face, so I thought that I would share it:

"All it’s confirmed !

If you need , we can arrange the pick-up service from airport to the hotel.

The pick-up cost around € 60.00 ( one way ), suitcases included.

If you want to book , send me all your flight details.

If you may need further information, please do not hesitate to contact us !

My best regards and I wish see you soon !!!

Thank you very much !

Sorin ,

HOTEL HOMS * * * * "


Isn't that message so cute? I especially love the extra space between words and punctuation and the enthusiastic use of the exclamation point. Let's hope that the staff are as friendly in person as they are via email! We will find out today!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Destinazione uno: Capri

First stop: Isle of Capri, Italy

Lord willing, we will arrive today soon after lunch. Thanks in advance to my friend for the hotel recommendation; we're pretty excited!

Capri fun:
  • The Blue Grotto
  • Anacapri chairlift ride to Monte Solaro (Capri's highest point)
  • beach, beach, and more beach
  • swimming in the sea
  • R-E-L-A-X, because we will be running for most of the rest of the trip
  • ride in a convertible cab
Click here to see our itinerary for the next three weeks!

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Surprise!

Brad and I leave today for our three-week European adventure and guess what? I'm so organized that I've written a number of entries to automatically post while I'm gone (big thanks to my friend for introducing me to the world of autoposting... let's hope that it actually works)! Please understand that your entertainment, dear readers, is one of my top priorities. You didn't really think that I'd abandon you for three weeks, did you? Lesson #1 about Dr. Blondie: I may take a break from time to time, but this blog WILL GO ON!