Camino Family

How often do you know the exact condition of your friends’ feet?

Well I do.
Louise has three blisters on one big toe and a few on the rest.
Dave has a couple of blisters that keep coming back because he always cuts the badges too small.
Marg is blister free (and we hate her for it).
Anita’s got a few sore spots, but she has magic foot wool that keeps the blisters at bay.
Jakob has cracks in his heels..

My feet are scarred too. The topmost layer of skin on my back left heel is replaced with silicone. My big left toe has erected a temporary wall in attempts to resolve recent conflicts with my second toe and my big right toe has seen more needle punctures than a puppy with a porcupine habit. So why the battered feet?

About a week ago, Jakob and I started a pilgrimage, so our feet are showing the natural wear and tear of about 163km of walking. We started our trek in the picturesque village of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the French Pyrennes.

I have to admit, 163km ago I didn’t have the best attitude. I was pretty certain of 4 things: (1) the trail would be too busy, (2) I would make few genuine friends, (3) I would grow weary of touristy misrepresentations of medieval life, and (4) I would overall find the experience bearable, but certainly not life changing. Jakob would call me a pessimist. Of course, I know that I’m just a realist. Now after a week on the trail, I am reporting the very real fact that I was wrong on 3 of my 4 predictions. Let’s see if you can guess which ones.

No more than a few kms from the start, Jakob and I trekked past a group of three pilgrims. They were blaring music out of their compact speaker and struggling a bit with the steep incline. Just out of earshot we began a somewhat self-righteous critique of “those people.” “Why not just talk to each other?” “Who gives you the right to set the soundtrack for everyone?” “Why can’t you just wear headphones?” We quickly forgot their faces and remembered only the stereotype.

A few kms later, another group of three pilgrims passed us as we sipped water. We chatted briefly. Aussie? Kiwi? Jakob was sure they were from New Zealand. I shrugged my shoulders. A few more kms and they were snacking as we passed. A few more and we were waving at their familiar faces once more and commenting on the beautiful views over the valley bottom.
“Where are you staying tonight?”
“Orisson.”
“Us too!”
“See you at supper then.”
“Yes, see you at supper!”
And just like that, we had our first pilgrim date!

The end of our first day’s hike came quickly and before long, Jakob and I were huddled at a rough wooden table dealing cards and rehashing our day. A short woman with a purposeful walk entered the common space of our hostel/cabin.
“We need to build fire,” she stated sternly.
Jakob and I glanced at each other. Usually we are quick to claim that we are capable Canadians, but at the moment neither of us felt compelled to chop damp wood and kindle reluctant flames. We played dumb and continued our card game. The woman left, apparently deterred by our disinterest. To our surprise, she returned moments later with an armload of wood and explained that she found it under a shelter, protected from the rain. Dropping the logs on the floor, she looked expectantly at Jakob, the only man in the room. Jakob sighed and set down his cards.
“There’s no hatchet. No axe,” he gestured a swinging motion to add emphasis.
“We cut with knife,” the woman explain, hurrying to the kitchen.
I followed, surely she couldn’t be serious. The elderly woman examined the knife drawer with a practiced eye. She selected a large cleaver and handed it to Jakob. His face gave away only the briefest moment of confusion before he got to work peeling thin layers of wood fibres away from the log. The woman shook her head and demonstrated. Smaller strips. She got to work immediately emptying the ash from the fireplace while I hovered helplessly. An elderly German man entered the room, taking in the scene, he dropped his pack and offered his fireplace expertise. Half an hour later, Jakob and the German fellow were busy building an elaborate flammable structure. There were few words exchanged, but a clear master and apprentice hierarchy emerged instantly, with Jakob seeking a nod of approval before placing most of his pieces. I sat at the long wooden table with the project foreman, Lubmila from Latvia.
“I grew up under the Soviet Union,” she explained seriously, “I was taught that when you see an opportunity to improve your life, you must take it.”
I nodded gravely.
“Here I saw opportunity,” she cracked a smile and we both began to laugh.
A few long minutes later, the fire was roaring and we all cheered. The German gentlemen stood up, brushed of his hands, and summarized succinctly:
“Now women happy.”
Jakob nodded in agreement and the French pilgrims upstairs shuffled down towards the glowing common room, bringing all of their socks and laundry to dry by the flames.
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That evening we walked the 1km up to the next hostel for dinner. After a quick scan of the dinning hall we spotted a few familiar faces and invited ourselves to join them. Marg, Dave, and Anita introduced themselves. Yes Jakob was right, they were from New Zealand. After some friendly interrogations we found out that Marg and Dave are on a year long trip around the world, celebrating a “significant birthday” and enjoying some empty-nester freedom. Anita is an Aussie turned Kiwi and a close friend of theirs with an equally bold sense of adventure.

That first night, we probably should have given them fair warning: you won’t be able to shake us off. We should have told them that we would likely interrupt our travel schedule if it meant staying on the same itinerary as them. We might even slow our pace or delay a departure. Upon arriving in a new village we might even ask anxiously if any other pilgrims have seen three Kiwis looking somewhat lost or lonely.
“Oh you’ve seen them?” we might say, “yes, they are looking so sad because they have misplaced their Canadians.”

On our second day on the trail we traversed the Pyrenees and rescued a damsel in distress or a jomfru i nød (a mermaid in need). We had just made the steep descent into Spain and were dusty and exhausted, waiting to check-in to the hostel. A lone pilgrim ahead of us seemed to be having some trouble. She had no cash and there was no ATM in town.
“This is going to be a problem,” she mumbled under her breath.
The clerk looked sympathetic, but remained resolute. He suggested that she begin the 4km walk to the next town.
Jakob leaned over and whispered, “we should pay for her.”
I gave him a skeptical look. Twelve euros is a lot to just throw around. Jakob ignored my hesitation and marched towards the counter.
“We’ll cover her stay,” he offered nonchalantly.
She spun around, surprise and gratitude written across her face.
“You need dinner too don’t you?”
She hesitated and looked down, “yah.”
“No worries! We got this.”

Her name is Louise, she is 24 years old, she is from Denmark, she’s got a crazy sense of humour, she’s served in Afghanistan, and she’s barely left our side for the last five days. For the first few kilometres there were some indentured servitude jokes, but even after the money was settled up, we still couldn’t seem to part ways. At this point we rarely make decisions around food, accommodation, foot care, or travel without consulting her. The deal works something like this: Louise makes sure we don’t starve, Jakob makes sure we don’t get lost, and I keep everyone well informed with useless facts and inspirational quotes from the guide book. Needless to say, we are all quite content with the arrangement.
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A couple of days ago our camino family, Dave, Marg, Anita, Louise, Jakob, and I were inching past the 20km mark for the day when Dave pulled out a compact bluetooth stereo and offered to lift our spirits with a little country music and rock and roll. My eyes widened as I put it all together. Those hooligans blaring music the first day were our beloved Kiwis. We laughed awkwardly and admitted to our snobby prejudice that first day. The Kiwis seemed pleased to have rocked our boat a little. So we turned up the volume, picked up our tired feet, and sang along to George Ezra’s “Barcelona.”

The only prejudicial assumption we regretted more was the time we ran into our Latvian grandma again and she gave us another one of her classic bossy pieces of advice.
“You must skip down the hills,” she stepped one foot in front of the other and demonstrated an awkward lope.
We smiled and laughed, immediately dismissing her suggestion as the crazy ramblings of an exhausted pilgrim.
“No, no,” she insisted, “I am not joking. It is really better to skip. I fly down the hills. Passing everyone and they ask me how I do it. I tell them I skip down the hills.”
The next time our knees were straining and our shins were aching from a restrained downward descent, we heard Lubmila’s stern words in our heads and decided that if anyone knew how to ease suffering, it would be someone who survived the Soviet Union. So we gave it a shot. Louise tried it first. Then Jakob. Then I joined in. We’re now known as the crazy pilgrims who run down all the hills and I have no doubt everyone else secretly wishes we would fall flat on our faces. Still, at every opportunity we try to convince others to convert to our skipping ways. Dave and Marg are the most recent converts. Anita is next.

While our camino family is pretty tight (Jakob and Dave bought matching shirts and have been known to call each other “young bull” and “papa bull,” we do have room for a few extended family members including a couple of Britts, a few other Canadians, and some Aussies. We call it the Commonwealth plus Denmark. In a typical day we each leave at our own pace. Jakob, Louise, and I get up at the crack of dawn and usually stop for breakfast about 5km down the road. Just as we are finishing our café con leches and hot chocolate, a couple other Commonwealth pilgrims are bound to stumble in. Of course, we stay and chat and just as we are finally strapping our backpacks on a few more familiar pasty faces will likely find their way to our table. It is in this rhythm of ‘hello’s and ‘see you later’s that we pass most of our days. In the evening we track each other down in some sort of central square, bring out the wine, and munch on pinxos (basque version of tapas). Even the bustling city of Pamplona started to feel like a small town when we strolled past bars full of familiar looking pilgrims and eventually managed to gather the whole Commonwealth gang together.


Each morning when we head out there is a brief moment of tension. How far are we going? Where will we be stopping? What if we loose track of each other? But I have to believe that our paths crossed for a reason, and they are going to stay entangled for as long as they need to be. By the time we do say “good-bye” it will most certainly be a “see you later.”
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Top 10 Reasons to Get Out of Amsterdam

For most Euro-backpackers, Amsterdam is the only corner of the Netherlands they’ll ever see. Just ask the hostel crowd in Prague or Krakow and you’ll hear something like this: “Amsterdam? Ya I think I was in Amsterdam. I took the train there, don’t really remember anything else.”

Well I guess I am no different, because I have taken the bus, train, and plane in and out of Amsterdam at least six times in my life, and I still don’t have any memories of the city. But my reasons are a bit different. Unlike most travellers in the low countries, Amsterdam has never been my destination. Instead I have wandered through Urk, lunched in Zwolle, cuddled sheep in Muiden, biked in Zwartsluis, sunbathed in Roodeschool, and dined in Kampen. And I think you should too. Here’s my top 10 reasons why:

1. Biking.
Ok obviously you can bike in Amsterdam…if you have sharp elbows and a death wish! The Dutch are confident cyclers, and if you can’t match their speed and stealth you might as well hit the sidewalk. I loved biking in the open countryside where I didn’t have to compete with hundreds of other cyclists for the same patch of pavement.

 

2. Bourtange.
A magnificent fortress village, best viewed from the sky, but bearable by land too. This village is so picturesque that if you google images of any other place in the Netherlands, a few shots of Bourtange are bound to show up in the results.

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Ok obviously I didn’t take this photo

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See, plenty of fun from the ground too!

3. Festivals.
Sure Amsterdam might be party central year-round. But the really unique festivals can only be found in the smaller cities. In Groningen, we happened to be in the right place at the right time for the annual Good Friday flower market.

IMG_7032Another notable festival, which we missed, but heard lots about is the Deventer Boekenmarkt! Every August, the romantic cobble stone streets of this town are converted into Europe’s largest book fair. But if you happen to miss that weekend (like us) the beer isn’t too bad either.
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4. The Hunebedden
In the Netherlands, these large mysterious rock formations register as mountain ranges. But like every other geographic feature in this country, they are actually manmade. Very little is known about them, since they are over 5000 years old, but they were definitely used as burial markers and chambers. We found a couple in the Drenthe countryside and just had to check them out. Uncle Eilko shurgged, “they’re just big rocks.” But we thought they were pretty cool.
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5. People living along dikes are the nicest in the country.
We spent one week in the tiny village of Roodeschool, which is basically a huddle of houses found at the northern most end of the dutch railway tracks. With only a wall of cement and dirt standing between these tidy homes and the stormy sea, the villagers are always on their best behaviour. Why you might ask? Well obviously, if there was ever a neighbourhood squabble or even an unpleasant conversation, the ocean would catch wind of the social breakdown in seconds, jump its bounds, and quickly reclaim the fertile farm land. So everyone knows their neighbours, smiles at strangers, and pauses for regular chit-chat, just to be sure that we remain a united water-fighting front

6. A Bookstore in a Cathedral.
The Dutch have perfected the art of never wasting any space, which includes old abandoned church buildings. In Zwolle, a 500 year old cathedral was converted into a bookstore only a few years ago. We found it totally by chance. As we were exploring the city’s streets, my ear perked at the familiar sound of English. A few Britts were chatting about their next destination: a bookstore. I insisted that we follow (at a distance of course, I’m not a total creep) and before we knew it we were wandering through the massive wooden doors of a cathedral. I was about to turn around, realizing that I must have made a mistake, when I noticed that instead of pews, the space was filled with stacks of books! We spent the next half an hour running up and down the levels and trying to get a photo that could do justice to the beautiful space.

7. Cuddling sheep.
There are about a million sheep in the Netherlands and I want to cuddle them all. Ok not all of them, just the cute little baby ones, or lambijes as the dutch like to call them. After unsuccessfully chasing sheep on a dike and frequently begging Jakob to pull over near a pasture, I finally found my sheep cuddling opportunity in the village of Muiden. It was magical.
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8. You may find someone who doesn’t speak English. 
They are rare beasts in the Netherlands, but if you go far enough from Amsterdam, you may find someone who actually can’t speak fluent and effortless English. In this case, I pull out one of my three trust worthy conversation starters:
“leuk kerk!” (Nice church)
“Ik vind paarden leuk” (I like horses)
“lekker?” (tasty?)
Any of these three will easily illicit a smile and they really do cover every possible social situation….just don’t mix them up. I don’t like eating horses in a church

9. The beach.
You may not closely associate the Netherlands with beach bumming, but there are actually plenty of sandy escapes…sure you may be wearing a windbreaker bodysuit instead of a bathing suit, but at least you can get some nice photos before seeking refuge in a beachside restaurant. Then grab some Heineken and bitterballen and watch the waves in warmth and comfort.
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10. People actually wear clogs.
Old farmers, young kids, women working in the flour mill, businessmen on their way to get groceries, EVERYONE WEARS CLOGS. I don’t quite get it, they don’t look that comfy, the average dutch person doesn’t really need the height boost, and they probably let more mud in than they keep out, but still they wear them! I assume it’s some sort of national culture program. “Here is your dutch passport and set of clogs. You will be expected to clock a minimum of 100 clog hours per year. Bonus hours will be rewarded for clog hours spent holding tulips or cycling. These can then be redeemed for dropjes or stoopwafels at the rewards desk. Tot ziens!”

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This is Jona, he loves his clogs, even though they are one size too big and always slow him down. Crazy kid. You’ll hear lots more about him in my next blog post. Can’t wait!

15 Things that Made Italy Unforgettable

March 2-12

  1. Trying to align my hunger with the late Italian dinner hour….well if I have one lunch at 11:30, and another lunch around 3, maybe a snack at 5:30, then by 8 I should be the right amount of hungry to eat my weight in pasta.

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    A strategic afternoon snack

  2. The pervasive national passion for houseplants.
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  3. The way the ticket machine at the railway station yells “PICK OUT YOUR CARD” once the transaction is over. Only about 30 seconds after an equally loud announcement to avoid pickpocketers…maybe if they didn’t announce that my card was available for the taking, it wouldn’t be a problem!
  4. Trying to choose a pizza.
  5. Air drying socks, no better way to start a day than slipping on some cardboard booties.
  6. The sound of Italian spoken quickly, which can only be described as staccato.
  7. The effort to make sure no two houses have exactly the same hue of peachy yellow.
  8. BASIL…PESTO….BASIL ON PESTO.
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  10. Pondering why anyone would say “arrivederci” when you can say “ciao”…Who has time for 5 syllables!?! I ran into so many doors craning my neck around trying to stutter out the last few consonants. Just say “ciao.” For your personal safety.
  11. The series of hand gestures I exchanged with a Pharmacist in attempts to get some sort of cream for Jakob’s chaffing.
  12. Seriously considering the necessary logistics to steal a little cash from the Trevi fountain.IMG_6220
  13. Adding “i,” “a,” or “o” to the ends of English words and hoping they come out Italian…ya I told someone “una momento” is that even Italian?
  14. Tomato Basil potato chips that answered the nagging question: What would happen if ketchup chips and all dressed chips made a baby?
  15. Cinque Terre (yes this post is really just a shameless excuse to throw all of these gorgeous pictures online, because Instagram couldn’t even handle them). After two months on the road, it’s the most beautiful sight we have seen.
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    First sight after stepping out of the train station in Monterosso

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    The hiking begins!

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    First glimpse of Vernazza

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    sooo many stairs

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    Manarola!

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    An Australian couple on the trail told us about this great café. Jakob declared it the best dinner of the trip!

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    Stairs!

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    STAIRS!

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    Jakob in his happy place

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    I guess the stairs were worth it

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    Catching the sunset in Riomaggiore

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    Perfect end to what we both agreed was our favourite day of the trip. Yes, we missed one of the 5 villages…but we did that on purpose so that we would have to come back.

Rest Day(s)??

February 26-March 4

This is the story (more of a picture book really) of how one rest day turned into four.

After nearly two months of winter travel we were both craving some beach time. Our level of desperation for sunshine and surf only became fully apparent when we caught ourselves scoping the Airbnb map of Italy for any accommodation as long as it was cheap and close to a beach. Coliseum? Pompeii? Venice? We didn’t care, we just wanted to lay down and let the sun do all of the work. So yes, I would say we have reached some level of travel exhaustion.

Where did this moment of desperate trip planning take place? In Edipsou, Greece, a tiny resort town fed by piping hot streams of thermal water. So we gave our heads a shake, shut the laptop, pulled on our bathing suits, and began searching the deserted town for its famed thermal pools.

Only a few steps away from the beach and we could see billows of steam rising from the shore. In seconds, we had our shoes and clothes piled on a nearby rock and were tiptoeing over mineral encrusted rocks towards a scalding waterfall.

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Usually, as a tourist, I am the one trying not to stare at people who are doing something unfamiliar to me, but this time the roles were reversed. As we relaxed in the algae covered volcanic rock pools, Edipsou locals, bundled up in parkas and scarves, took turns peering over the railings to inspect the crazy ‘Americans’ who had taken over their beach.

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We were eventually joined by a Siberian woman on vacation and a Greek-Australian basketball player on his day off. It seemed we all needed some warmth and relaxation for our own reasons. We chatted off and on, but mainly spent the evening silently submerged in the ocean/spring water.

On our second day in Edipsou, we decided to put a bit more effort into our budget spa experience. At the risk of offending locals, we began hauling rocks of assorted sizes from the beach and redirecting the thermal water flow to create a new pool.

gopr7703-1 Our well intentioned efforts were mainly a failure, and we managed to overheat the one pool with a perfect temperature, while creating one fragile and leak prone new pool. Fearing retribution from the Edipsouians, we bid the village goodbye and headed south hoping for not only another beach, but also better beaching weather.

After a four hour drive and one goat herd sighting:

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we arrived at the Peloponnesian seaside:

img_0943Where we took our beaching very seriously:

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While we were happy to see some sun, my favourite part of the day was maybe not what you’d expect…unless you know me well then you might not be surprised.

Some sort of mystery citrus fruit was growing at our beach house Airbnb! It was almost the size of a cantaloupe with a thick spongy skin that, from the outside, made it seem rotten. If the neighbours had been home at the moment, they would have seen a pasty white blonde girl jumping around in the courtyard tossing a massive fruit in the air and begging her husband to get her a knife so she could hack it open and see if it was poisonous. It wasn’t poisonous, but it was impossible to eat because of its incredible size. I offered Jakob a hunk, but he likes to know the name of a fruit before he eats it.

Eventually we did meet the owner of the orchard. On our walk back from the beach later that evening, a deeply tanned Greek farmer stopped his tractor in front of us, climbed down and motioned for us to follow him. He reached over the fence and plucked two ripe fruits (which were recognizably oranges) and pushed them into our hands. What’s with people and giving us free produce? He then began to push open the orchard gate, motioning for Jakob to help. We set down our beach stuff and made a feeble effort to pay off our citrus samplers. He nodded in thanks and sent us on our way. For future reference, I will accept oranges in exchange for small favours.

This was not our last strange encounter with an elderly Greek man. On our second day at the beach house, we had run into problems with the washing machine. As in, we had put all our most essential clothes in, shut the door, discovered it didn’t rotate, and then couldn’t open it again. Our approach to the problem started with a frantic youtube search for “how to break into a washing machine” and ended with an apologetic text to our Airbnb hosts. They ensured us that a mechanic would come later that day, so don’t fault us for thinking that the hunched old man who wandered into our yard around 5:00 pm was the mechanic. He shook our hands and began a spirited one-way discussion in Greek. If “baba” is Greek for grandpa, then maybe he was the grandfather or our Airbnb host, or he wanted to be our grandpa. I’m still not sure. At this stage we still assumed he was the mechanic, so we led him into the kitchen. He followed, inspected the washing machine, and began explaining the issue… in Greek of course. Jakob and I repeated any words we could make out, adding a question mark and some hand signals. The conversation became even more vigorous. Until we realized that: one, he wasn’t the mechanic, and two, we had let a stranger into the house. We fell silent, shrugged our shoulders, guided him back to the yard, and waved good bye.

Eventually, the actual mechanic showed up and we hauled our liberated laundry over to a neighbouring beach house with a functioning washing machine. I spent the next few hours practicing my Greek letter recognition skills, which as an arts major, consisted of no more than π and Θ just five days ago. Painstakingly, I translated the words ‘Cotton,’ ‘door,’ and ‘end.’ Which is really all the words anyone needs to do laundry. Jakob endured my sporadic shouts of “TELOS! I get it, like teleological, like the study of the end times. Telos is the end of the laundry cycle!” Only the coolest kids use theology to do their laundry.

So in case you missed it, in the course of about three days, all we had accomplished was three beach visits, two discussions with Greek grandpas, and one load of laundry. We agreed that we would achieve more in the coming week.

Our first day in Rome was clearly a reactionary response to our recent laziness. Over the course of only about four hours we had:

Explored several narrow medieval streets:

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Scarfed down some delicious gelato:

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Tried to blend into a wall:

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Walked over some bridges:

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Sat in the middle of a square: fullsizeoutput_403

Climbed to the top of the Spanish Steps:

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Stared up at the Pantheon:

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The Pantheon is one of the most impressive buildings we have seen so far and, even better, entrance was FREE! It was built in the 2nd century and turned into a church about 500 years later. Today, it still holds the record for the largest unreinforced concrete dome.

and finally, watched the sun set over the Vatican:

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a papal pigeon

We walked over 20km of Rome’s streets and plazas and counted it as practice for our planned pilgrimage in May. I can’t think of a better place to practice for a pilgrimage.

What are we doing today? Well the length of this blog post should tell you that we aren’t walking 20km. No, we are 50 days into this adventure and today is the first day that our bodies refused to cooperate. Jakob experienced a bad combo of poor underwear choice, friction, and 20km of walking and I was experiencing some sort of digestive rejection of Italian food. So we decided to listen to our bodies and take a real rest day. Not a beach day or a travel day, but a sleep in, eat breakfast at noon, read books, and go to bed early rest day.

While our Airbnb kitty may look sceptical:

fullsizerender-3I am quite confident that it was the right decision.

 

Introducing: Helena

February 22-26

If you asked me before we left which part of the trip I was most excited for, I probably told you: Greece. Sure enough, the country of epic poems and heroic legends has not disappointed. In every direction there is an ancient ruin, a turquoise sea, or a snow capped mountain.

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Exploring the ancient theatre at the base of the Acropolis (because it’s free and none of the other ruins are!)

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View of the Aegean from the peak of a mountain in Athens where the muses lived or something

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MOUNTAIN!!

It seems like every highway is sea-to-sky and thanks to our little Helena, we can drive them all.

Introducing Helena:

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A feisty Nissan Micra, who’s overbearing GPS and gutsy first gear has brought us through the mountains of Delphi, to the rocky pillars of Meteora, and to the shores of the Aegean.

We’ve had a lot of fun taking buses, trains, metros, planes, and ferries over the past seven weeks, but there is something irresistibly thrilling about regaining the freedom to depart from the typical tourist track. In fact, no more than four hours after signing the rental car paper work this is where we were:

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Ten kilometres down a dirt road, looking for a cave-shrine dedicated to the Greek god Pan. With only two short sentences in my lonely planet book and a GPS coordinate as our guides, we parked the car in a field and started hiking up a steep set of switch backs. Jakob’s complaints were endless.

“Classic Meghan, ‘Oh I read about this thing, now we have to drive to the middle of nowhere to see if we can find it’.”

Welcome to being married to a Horlings.

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“Onwards and Upwards”

Halfway up the steep incline we realized we probably should have taken our passports and wallets with us…this wasn’t exactly the little roadside pitstop we thought it would be. Another 200m straight up and we were peering over the side of the cliff, hoping that the lonely dirt biker coming down the backroad wasn’t there to break into Helena and take off with our travel documents and potato chips. What were we going to do from up here anyway? Send Pan after him?

Eventually our upward ascent brought us to this:

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A pretty cool cave…until I saw the bats hanging from the walls inside and then I wanted none of it.

Taking a few deep breaths I put my historical logic to work: if people have really been coming here for thousands of years to worship the hoofed god of nature, then these bats are probably pretty well behaved. In we go!

Once inside I wanted to explore every corner and look for signs of the ancient writing mentioned in my guide book. Jakob stood frozen about 10 metres from the cave opening.

“Well this is as far as I go,” he hastily snapped a few GoPro shots and moved back towards the exit.

My suggestion that we explore the dark passageway in the back of the cave was quickly declined.

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Me trying to show how big the cave is, if you can even see me

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The mysterious abyss at the back of the cave

Back out in the fresh mountain air we took a few minutes to take in our surroundings. The snowcapped mountains appeared to run straight into the desert below, as if Pan couldn’t decide if he liked summer or winter better, so decided to do both at the same time.

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The remaining daylight hours were spent navigating windy Greek backroads to Petroto, a tiny village boasting a church, a corner store, and the cheapest Airbnb in all of central Greece!

We had the entire house to our selves, but we didn’t touch most of it…in fact most of it appeared untouched since at least the 1950s. That first night in Petroto was spent in fear that the propane fire place was going to explode with each bang of warping metal. There was also at least one paranoid check for intruders when the wind and window shutters decided to take a midnight tango. Finally, in the morning we were woken by what must have been a military grade loud speaker declaring what we assumed was a hostage or bomb threat situation.

The second night we wore ear plugs and just hoped that the impending furnace explosion wouldn’t be too hot and that the thieves wouldn’t be too loud on their way out with our few belongings. Oh also we took our chances and glanced out the window when we heard the loud speaker…turns out that’s how the local veggie seller gets his produce to his customers. When we listened closer we realized that the aggressive bark was actually an informative song: “Potate, tomate…” Now don’t we look silly peering timidly through the shutters at a truck bed full of cucumbers.

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Home sweet home

Our nightmares were also terribly misplaced, because Petroto turned out to be a town nearly as charming as Avonlea or Stars Hollow. On our last day in the village, our Airbnb host, Dimi met us just as we were leaving and offered to take us for coffee. How could we decline such a generous invite to bypass the standard tourist experiences and get to know a real local? We eagerly agreed and a few minutes later we were following Dimi into a large cafe filled with mismatched wooden tables and a handful of Greek men enjoying a Sunday morning smoke. Dimi called out to each patron by name, and before long a little receiving line appeared at our table. We shook each large leathery hand, and smiled to convey our gratitude, all the while regretting our failure to learn more Greek. It didn’t take long before each of us around the table held a coffee in one hand and a smart phone in the other. We took turns typing words into google translate.

“car salesman”
“graduate student”
“historian”

It didn’t take much to find out that Dimi’s son also has a graduate degree in history!

Sensing the halting conversation, our server returned to the table. “I work at a hotel in the nearby city, but I come home on weekends to help at my family’s business,” she explained in confident English. Having introduced herself, she began to quiz us: “How old are you?” “Are you together?” “Do you work or are you students.”

She didn’t hold back her own personal details either. “You have watched My Big Fat Greek Wedding?”
“Ya I love that movie!” I responded, eager to make a connection with a local my age.
“Yes, that is my life. That is how life really is in Greece, and that is how my life is. I am 32 and my mom is always yelling at me: ‘get married!’ and my boyfriend is always yelling at me ‘get married!’ and I will always work in my family’s cafe. Just like the movie.”
“Really?” I laughed, unable to believe that she was willing to claim the popular stereotype of her culture.
“Yes,” she insisted, “I am just like that girl in the movie.”

We chatted a bit more and soon the conversation turned from movies to the complexities of politics and the economy.

“Greece is not the problem,” she explained, “Greeks have lots of money, it’s just that Germany is taking it. Everyone around Greece attacks us. They want our money. They are jealous because Greece is in the best location, it’s not so cold, we have the islands, we have the tourism. We are not the problem, they are the problem.”

I was fascinated to hear her perspective on the financial crisis. The last few days we had seen countless boarded up shops in Athens and row upon row of incomplete construction projects in the country side. I wanted to ask the other men sitting around the table what they thought of the situation, but our server, having satisfied her curiosity, had returned to the counter and I was unsure how to discuss an economic recession using largely hand signals and google translate, instead we discussed our previous day’s adventure.

Like every other tourist who forsakes the islands for the Greek interior, our main goal was to visit Meteora. The men at the table nodded. I am sure 500 year old monasteries perched on massive stone pillars aren’t as exciting if you’ve lived in their shadow for most of your life. For me they were the pinnacle of my trip planning, and I enjoyed every minute of exploring their ancient halls and pathways:

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Getting serious about seclusion from the world #monklife

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How amazing is this view?

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This is what a happy church historian and her husband look like

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Check out these two cuties #TooCuteToMonk

The men at the table were more interested in what we did after our visit to the touristy holy sites. Using a combination of google maps, charades, and collaborative story telling, Jakob and I explained that from one of Meteora’s view points we had spotted a dirt road snaking up the opposite side of the valley at an impossible angle. We checked our GPS, and sure enough, it was a real road, with what seemed to be a village(?) at the top. So with some hesitation we left the tourist crowd, crossed a river near this medievalish bridge:

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dodged some road side chickens and some sun bathing farm dogs, and made our way up the windiest road I have ever seen in my life.

In most ways I think my husband is pretty different than my Dad, but seeing the look of thrill and determination on his face as he geared down and coaxed our little car up that mountain, I realized they may not be so different after all.

I quickly slipped into my mom’s role:

“Are you sure it’s not going to over heat?….What is that smell, is that burning? Do I smell burning?”

After twenty-five switch backs, we hit a stretch of road better suited for a 4×4 than a Nissan Micra and we unanimously decided that we had better give Helena the rest of the day off before she declared a strike (she is Greek after all).

The view was decent, despite the clouds rolling in:

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But much greater was the thrill of driving up a road that even the Sunday morning coffee crowd in Petroto would never drive. After recounting our story, Dimi shook his head in dismay.

“Why? I give you map? I show you to go mountains like Switzerland!”

I don’t know what to tell you Dimi. There’s no accounting for the crazy things two small town kids will do after six weeks of living in cities and depending upon public transit.

We tried to explain, but all I could say was,
“We come from the mountains, this feels like home.”

Istanbul: First Impressions

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It was 11:30pm the night before our flight to Istanbul when we realized that we needed a visa to get into Turkey. We both flew into our own variations of panic. Jakob’s expressed as frustration and mine expressed with a grab for the computer and a controlling ‘calm down, let me figure this out’ attitude. Not a glowing moment. Sure enough, the Turkish government requires a 90$ fee from each Canadian who wishes to prance within its borders. Not in the budget. While Jakob bemoaned the unexpected expense I rejoiced.

“This is what travel is all about,” I patronized, “unexpected expenses means you’re trying something new, going outside of your comfort zone, taking risks!”

While Ms. Frizzle rambled on, Jakob began filling out his e-visa entry form. A few minutes later and I was on the phone with Visa trying to get them to approve the online payment. Even with the extra bureaucratic hoops, it was still the easiest visa I’ve ever obtained. Which means that once again, Jakob had to endure the story of how I once spent three days, far too much money, and all of my willpower to get a Rwandan visa while in Kenya.

For all that effort, our grand entrance at Turkish customs in Sabiha Gökçen International airport (which is named after Turkey’s first female fighter pilot!) was quite underwhelming. The only question from the agent was a mumbled “Canada?” uttered more to himself than to us while he stamped our passports and glanced briefly at the visa screenshots on our phones.

Immediately upon exiting the airport, we saw our first genuine Turkish sight: two large well groomed and well fed canines, lounging in a covered area as if they too were waiting to catch a bus to Taxsim. As we boarded our bus, calculated the lira-dollar conversion of the fare, and tried to connect to the wifi, the image of the content canines still nagged at the back of my mind. Why wasn’t I scared of those massive beasts? Nothing was stopping their 80lb bodies from lunging at me and pinning me to the ground under their rabid breath.

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A couple of adorable street dogs not unlike the ones I saw in the airport (this picture was taken outside the Blue Mosque the next day). Don’t they look so cuddly?

As the Istanbul skyline came into view there were new sights to take in and the docile dogs moved to the back of my mind.

Jakob pointed eagerly out the window, “look a castle!”
A smirk spread across my face, “that one there?”
“Ya the one with all the turrets.”
Now I was laughing out loud, “that’s a mosque, babe.”
Finding no way to recover from his mistake, Jakob joined in my laughter.

An hour later, Elyse joined in laughing too when we told her the story while sitting elbow-to-elbow in a smokey basement restaurant with the “best food in Istanbul.” When we met Elyse just moments before at the bustling Time Square of Istanbul, any passers by would have assumed that we were old friends or possibly relatives, but if you read about our adventures in Budapest you would know that we met her less than a month ago. In fact, we knew each other about as well as you probably know your hair dresser before we agreed to jump on a plane to Turkey and crash on her couch.

Our first dinner out with Elyse was worth the flight and visa alone. For the first half hour, the servers brought a steady stream of tapas-like dishes. The only things I know we ate were chicken skewers and the best hot hummus in the world! The rest was a mysterious concoction of sea food, olives, and tomatoes. Elyse giggled and dared us to guess what we were putting in our mouths, all the while toping up our glasses with a Sambuca-like clear liquor that turns milky the instant it meets water and ice.

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Getting a little excited about our complimentary dessert thing

Eventually, Jakob and Elyse sat back with their hands on their stuffed bellies, admitting defeat, while I tried to power a few more bites into my digestive system. The attempt to wash it down with the milky liquor failed instantly and I stood up looking for a quick escape from the maze of tables. While Jakob explained to Elyse my quick gag reflex, (all too familiar to my closest of friends) I dashed out to the nearest flower pot. Classy entrance to Istanbul Meghan. Thankfully, the healing power of deep breaths of fresh air cured my sudden nausea and I was able to keep all of my hummus.

Back at Elyse’s place for the evening, we took some time to take in our surroundings: the twelve foot high ceilings, the tiled mosaic kitchen counter, a shower built on a podium to accommodate modern plumbing, and the window shutters with Constantinople emblazoned on the handles. Clearly the building was ancient, and Elyse threatened us with expulsion should we break anything. Finally, I noticed a bay window jutting out over the street. According to Elyse, the window was built for the women who’s worlds at one time existed within these walls. It gave them the opportunity to peer out over the street without actually touching the profanities of the city. From this perch, the women of the house could track the neighbour’s midnight visitors and gather other gossipy intel. Seeing two chairs in the window, I assumed that Elyse still made use of the woman’s window, probably offering the street below a bit more sass than the previous occupants.

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The woman’s window

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A little daily reminder that we were staying in the heart of a very old city

With the first sights and tastes of Istanbul still filling our minds and stomachs we pumped up our air mattress and drifted off to sleep. Never thought downtown Istanbul would feel so much like home.

Poland: Top 10 Fun Facts

January 22-28 (bonus edition)

I knew so very little about this country before coming and now I am pleased to announce that I know at least ten new things:

1) Orange slices and cloves can go in almost any hot beverage. 

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2) Marie Currie was Polish! At the time when she discovered and named the element Polonium she was making a political/nationalist statement since Poland did not exist as an independent country, but was divided between Russia, Austria, and Prussia. 

3) If you see a bride and groom driving down a Polish road on their wedding day you should always try to get enough people together to form a human barricade, they will have to pay you off with vodka before continuing on their way.

4) Most people speak excellent English (expect for one old woman with no teeth who sold us donuts on a street corner).

5) At one time, 1/3 of Poland’s wealth came from a single salt mine just south of Krakow.

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One of the incredible salt carvings in that mine

6) If there is a fight about to break out in the hostel dorm at 3:30am because one guy is drunk and another guy accidentally took his bed, my husband will drag himself out of bed and diffuse the situation using only about four sentences, while I fearfully pretend to sleep.

7) 85% of Warsaw was destroyed after the city tried to overthrow their Nazi occupiers in 1944.

8) The back row of the Polskibus is always the best seat in the house. 

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9) Most words in Polish look nothing like they do in English, except for three important ones: Alkohol, Restauracja, and Autobus

10) It took about 12 hours for Jakob to decide that he wants to drop everything and move to Poland, so I guess we will have to be back…for a visit though…I told him not to be ridiculous.

We came to Poland in the mist and we left in the sunshine 🙂

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