The Forgotten of Florence

March 5-8

Somewhere between Rome and Florence a few things changed.

For one, whatever digestive thing was waking me up 5 times a night somehow resolved itself. After typing my symptoms into Google, I was pretty sure I had contracted a wheat allergy, and considering that we are in Italy, my life span was estimated at about 10 days. But good news, it turns out I was allergic to Rome, not wheat, so now that we are in Florence, I am sleeping through the night again.

These towel swans helped too.

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You know you’re not a real backpacker when there are towel swans on your bed

The second thing that changed was my sandwich game. After nearly two months of meat and cheese lunches hastily stashed in our mouths in coach buses, museum lobbies, and cobblestone squares, I decided it was time to return to the finer details of the lunch making art. So like a practiced flight attendant, I pulled out at least seven ingredients, and put together a lunch that would make my mom proud, all while cruising through Tuscany at about 100km/hr.

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The third thing that changed is our travel resolve. The flight sequence and car rentals of the past few weeks had disrupted our tried and true “bus everywhere” policy. So as we settled into our Flixbus seats we felt a return of the enthusiasm and energy from our trip’s early days. In fact, by the time we got to Florence, we didn’t collapse exhausted into our beds and pull out our ebooks. No, we laced our shoes tighter grabbed a quick snack and headed out into the neighbourhood.

It was nearing dark, but still we decided to check out the nearby park along the river. As we made our way down the well light tramway through the centre of the park, I insisted that we cross the tracks and find a more scenic pathway, nearer to the river. Mere seconds after we had crossed the tramway, we regretted our decision. Under the thick canopy of the trees it was closer to nighttime than evening and the path ahead was dotted with clusters of two or three men. I made a nervous joke about checking out the Florence drug-deal scene and then fell silent when I realized that my voice may tip off an eavesdropper to my tourist status. A few steps further and the clusters appeared to spread and then converge strategically. Our pace quickened and our faces deadpanned as we eyed the nearest tramway crossing back to the light side of the park. 30 very long seconds later, we were safely across and wondering weather we had been too foolish or too fearful. Either way, we decided to leave the park and find other sorts of trouble.

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Exploring in the gathering dark and rain

The next hour of exploring our corner of Florence included attempts to sneak into the Opera house to watch the prep for an indie rock show, Jakob’s rebellious proposal that we climb a fence as a shortcut home, and some casual spying on a soccer practice in a velodrome.

The real mystery was not why two foreigners were sneaking around the dark corners of the Florence arts and sports complex, but what Italian phrase found on a map would translate to “Surmountable Danger?”FullSizeRender

By the time we were done exploring we had found a Mexican restaurant. I know, we are in Tuscany, the birth place of every delicious food with tomatoes and basil, why would we want to eat Mexican food? Try going two months without a burrito and then you can judge. So we happily spent the evening snacking on overpriced guacamole and tacos while the skylight over our heads offered a front row seat to a gathering thunderstorm. We agreed that tomorrow we would eat all the pizza, pesto, and wine we could find.

Our first full day in Florence had one objective: find travel friends. It had been a while since we had met a fellow backpacker or vacationer and we were hoping to stumble across a hilarious Australian or a fun-loving American. Our number one travel friend finding plan, thanks to Elyse, was to attend a free walking tour, scope the crowd for a friendly face, and then ATTACK! So I put on some make-up for a change, Jakob flossed his teeth, and we set off for the walking tour.

The tour turned out to be a total dud. It was your stereotypical old dude rambling on about old things and other old dudes for a couple of hours. Nevertheless, we had our eyes set on a down-to-earth American(?) couple. We had made casual comments about the size of the tour group at the beginning and frequently tried to stand near them at the tour stops. At risk of being total creeps, I even practiced a few introductory lines.

“Where are you guys from?”
“How long are you staying in Florence?”

It’s a good thing I wasn’t on the dating scene for long, because those are really the only half decent pick-up lines I could come up with.

In the end, we abandoned our feeble efforts and the tour group. It’s probably not a very good Renaissance tour if even I’m dreaming about lunch rather than paying attention.

With some help from Google, we made our way to the best pizzeria within 500m and translated most of their menu items. We immediately picked out danger words like: mushrooms and anchovies. Yuck. We were seated at the same time as another English speaking couple at two tables barely an inch a part. As we mumbled back and forth our thoughts on the pizza list we couldn’t help but overhear each others’ commentary. Jakob finally broke the awkwardness.

“I think that blue cheese one looks great too, I’m tempted to get it.”
The guy pondering blue cheese broke into a smile.
“Ya I think I’m going to go with that one. I heard you mention it and now I think I am going to have to get it!”

Any sort of imaginary barrier between the tables disintegrated and we began giving our input on each other’s choices. Margarita for her, blue cheese and pear for him, pesto for me, and prosciutto for Jakob.

They were Masters students from the US in the midst of a 15 month MBA program in Florence. He was from Seattle and she was from San Diego (?) …to be honest I stopped listening after he said Seattle and our travel-friend radar exploded.

Once our pizzas arrived we took turns telling our stories. They met three years ago when they agreed to be roommates in a mutual friend’s house. Before he even moved in, they were dating. The day he moved in, he decided to forgo his room and just move into hers. She agreed on one condition, that they return to Italy some day. She had fallen in love with the country during a semester abroad in undergrad. Without hesitation, he agreed to be the number two love in her life.

By the time we paid the bills we realized we hadn’t even introduced ourselves. So we shook hands, exchanged names and wished each other happy travels and studies.

With out day’s objectives fulfilled we only had one thing left to do. Actually enjoy Florence.

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The centre piece of Florence, a magnificent marble Duomo.

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Couldn’t get enough of the magnificent views from Piazzalle Michealangelo

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Florence really did feel like it was nestled right in the Tuscan country side. I was pleasantly surprised to find that even a big city could still have a rural vibe.

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Florence is filled with fortress-like palaces from the time when people were less likely to trust their neighbours and more likely to have a personal army.

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Florence is a city of high fashion, including the founding Gucci store. Not to be out done, Jakob had to show off some of his moves.

Day two in Florence was International Women’s Day, and that means all state museums in Italy were free for women! After extensive research I settled on spending the day at the massive Gallery d’Uffizi. With 90 rooms full of medieval and Renaissance art, I was sure that I wouldn’t be disappointed. Jakob needed a bit more convincing.

Here was my solution:

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Jakob was both thrilled and nervous. In fact, the day before museum day, first thing he said when he woke up was: “Just so I can prepare myself, will I be doing a scavenger hunt today?”

Turns out he had no reason to fear, he found three within the first 10 minutes:

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#5 Gentile da Fabriano “The Adoration of the Magi”

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#4 Piero della Francesca “Duke and Duchess of Urbino”

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Sandro Botticelli “The Birth of Venus”

The first two on the list proved a bit more difficult and they were also the two that I was most excited about. Clue number two was for the artwork of a nun from Florence, Suor Plautilla Nelli. The museum had chosen International Women’s Day to unveil (pun intended) their new three room exhibit dedicated to one of the Renaissance’s many forgotten female artists. Jakob wandered past the portraits of nuns without drawing the connection to his scavenger hunt clue.

The first clue on the list was for the one work that I couldn’t leave without seeing. When we reached the exit without laying eyes on it, I balked and immediately began moving against the flow of the museum goers. Searching for the nearest security attendant I fumbled through a mispronunciation of the artist’s name, Artemisia Gentileschi.

The attendant shrugged and looked away with a mix of nonchalance and exhaustion, “well it’s closed.” She gestured briefly towards the 90th room which was roped off. I stared in disbelief and the attendant turned away.

“No, no, no, this isn’t possible,” I pushed further back into the museum and Jakob followed reluctantly, “I’m not ready to leave.”
“Let’s just sit down for a minute,” Jakob suggested.
We sat down and I told him that he wasn’t going to be able to find the first clue in his scavenger hunt. He seemed okay with it. So I started at the beginning of the story, so he could share in my devastation, as he often did when I failed to grasp the gravity of a particular sports upset or victory.

“This piece of art appeared in every one of my women’s history classes. One of my classmates even made her own version of it for an assignment. It was painted by a woman in the Renaissance! That’s incredible because most women didn’t get to participate in the Renaissance. People talk about it like it was this great time of new ideas and the birth of modern society, but really only a tiny fraction of people were privileged enough to take part. We remember the names of the men like Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Michelangelo, but we have forgotten the women and children and minorities and so many other people who also lived at that time. This painting is one piece of evidence that women could be just as talented and creative as the men of their time, we have just forgotten about them.”

I rambled on for a bit longer until Jakob nodded in agreement. He suggested we go find some gelato to help us cope with the ongoing injustices of our world and I reluctantly agreed. Walking past room 90, I craned my neck hoping for a fleeting glance of Judith and her maid servant’s strong arms transgressing the boundaries of gender and overpowering Holofernes. But like so many strong women, past and present, they remained hidden.

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Artemisia Gentileschi “Judith and Holofernes”

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10 Reasons You Should Travel Central Europe in the Winter

  1. No lines.

    Except for one 10 minute wait to get into a palace in Vienna, we waltzed freely into every tourist trap or treasure with little to no wasted time!

  2. The epic pre-walking tour bundle.

    There’s nothing that makes you feel more like a medieval knight than spending half-an-hour layering pants, sweaters, scarves and mittens (yes, I even layer my mittens) before heading to the nearest castle.

  3. No strangers in my pictures.

    In the winter you can actually snap shots of iconic castles, famous graffitied walls, and beautiful bridges without Wanda World Traveler or Sandy Snap-Happy messing up your perfect shot.

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    Usually a busy garden outside the Bavarian State Chancellery…not in February

  4. Cheap accommodations.

    Who visits northern Hungary in January? Only the bravest souls. So Airbnb hosts and hostels have to pay their guests to stay. We found a beautiful quiet room in the centre of Budapest (surrounded by more restaurants and bars than we could count) for €15 a night–that’s a quarter of the summer price! What a steal.

  5. Hot drinks.

    If you are traveling Europe in the winter, you will not get to choose when to take sightseeing breaks. No, you will be forced to seek refuge at your body’s discretion. The good news is there are more hot alcoholic drink options than you can count. My favourite, so far, is rum and Early Grey tea. I kid you not, the cup was so hot I had to set it on the floor for a bit while carrying it to my table.

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    One of the many cappuccinos that keep my travel companion alive

  6. Historical empathy.

    Ever wondered what it feels like to be a medieval peasant? Take a three hour walking tour in minus fifteen degrees and helplessly watch as sleet begins to fall from the sky.

  7. Window seat views.

    Nothing is so beautiful as a snow capped Slovakian mountain or an ice crusted German forest, especially when they can be experienced from the warmth and comfort of a bus or train. Summer tourists may find public transport or travel days inconvenient, but winter travellers know how to count their blessings.

  8. Extended Christmas.

    In Poland, Christmas cheer stretches on into January. So if you haven’t had enough of Christmas carols and evergreen boughs you will find plenty of both in most town squares and some restaurants.

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  9. Ice skating and sledding.

    Choose an iconic building and then instead of paying the entrance fee, go skating or sledding in front of it!Here are just a few of the winter fun locations we noticed or experienced:

    Skating:
    Warsaw, Poland – Palace of Art and Science and old town square both have picture perfect rinks.
    Krakow – Galeria Krakowska near the old town.
    Prague – Any one of these eight great options.

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    Skating rink in Old Town Warsaw

    Sledding:
    Kassel, Germany – Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel (Here I speak from experience)
    Slovakia – A short walk off of almost any roadway in the beautiful High Tatras mountains

  10. Ego boost.

    Pat yourself on the back, you could be laying on a beach in Thailand, trying to surf in Australia, or tasting exotic food in India, but instead you are carrying a feather light backpack (since you are wearing every piece of your clothing) and wondering if these castle grounds would be prettier in the summer. You have chosen the road less travelled (at least this time of year) and for that you should be proud! Locals will smile and thank-you for gracing them with your off-season presence. Every restaurant server will forgive your inability to speak their language (due to your incessant shivering). Congratulations, you have earned yourself a travel badge…now get yourself to Istanbul.fullsizeoutput_2cd

Dinner in Prague

February 5-9

The story of our time in Prague is best told by food. Not because we ate out at so many amazing local restaurants, but because we didn’t. For the most part, our meals were had around a large family style dining table. Perhaps it was meant to seat fourteen, but we managed to fit at least twenty around its worn wooden surface.

This table was found in a warm and lively shared kitchen in downtown Prague, only a hundred meters away from a magnificent fifteenth century city gate. While I am irresistibly drawn to all things medieval, I have to admit that we spent far more time at this simple kitchen table, than we did exploring the thirteenth and fourteenth century wonders of Prague. So before you start judging my historical indifference, let me tell you more about this very special table, and the conversations that were had around it.

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The Powder Tower gate, just down the street from our home sweet home

First, it is worth noting that these experiences were only possible because our home in Prague, Hostel One Home offered FREE family style dinners EVERY night…if only all hostels were like this.

I have to start this story just before our first dinner. After arriving in Prague, I had collapsed onto my carefully chosen lower bunk bed in our ten bed dorm (for the full TMI account on why I was exhausted I must refer you to my previous post). After a forty-five minute nap, I woke up to the sound of Jakob recounting the details of our life to a complete stranger: “We met when we were in grade five. I dated Meghan’s best friend in middle school. Then in grade eleven we started dating. In her second year of university, we broke up for like one week, maybe two weeks and then in 2013 we got married…” I dragged myself out of bed. I should probably meet this person who now knows far more about me than I do about her. Jakob’s new friend’s name was Kate. Like all other Kates we have every known, Jakob got along with her immediately.
“She reminds me of someone,” he told me as we walked the few steps to the kitchen for dinner.
“Ya totally, maybe Tiegan? or maybe Veronica?” I had been trying to figure it out too.
“No…not quite…Anna Kendrick! yes Anna Kendrick!”
Great, Jakob had just found the doppelgänger of his celebrity crush. Guess I’ll say my goodbyes now.

Stepping into the kitchen for our first dinner, we were each greeted with a large bowl of bacon Alfredo pasta and told to find a seat. Immediately, I felt about eight years old again. I didn’t have to cook, shop, clean, or even think. The food found me and all I had to do was eat it with a grateful heart. The table quickly filled up, there were three young American women who were on a week break from their semester abroad in Montpellier, an American computer programmer with an Economics degree from Harvard, two Americans on a long weekend break from their English teaching jobs in Austria, and Kate (also an American…but from the west coast, so we claimed her as one of our own.) So if you missed that, we were surrounded by a lot of Americans. Despite our vast differences in culture and language, we all became fast friends.

About twenty two hours later, we were back together again in the dorm common area counting down the minutes until dinner. Some of us were on couches, others on bean bags, a few seated on the floor leaning against the brightly painted walls. It reminded me of high school days, when we had nothing better to do then lounge around waiting for the bell to ring and the next thing to begin. We all had a story to tell from our day in the city. Perhaps it won’t surprise you that after the late night on the town (see Jakob’s latest blog post) everyone else’s days hadn’t been much more successful than ours. One stayed in bed until noon, two got sort of lost, and three went thrift store shopping. We all were relieved to know that dinner would, once again, magically appear in a bowl in front of our seats around that family sized table.

This time, the bowl bore chilli. The best chilli. Made with love by Nick-from-Spain (who happens to have the same birthday as Jakob). Also there was a massive silver mixing bowl with fried tortilla chips at the bottom. As we ravenously shoved chilli and chips into our mouths, an intense discussion arose.
“What are the spices on these chips?”
“I taste cinnamon.”
“Cinnamon? Who would put cinnamon on chips?”
“Maybe some paprika?”
“I just taste salt, a lot of salt.”
“They are in such a big bowl, I can barely even see over the edge. The real question is why are there so few chips in such a big bowl.”
“I think it was for mixing the spices.”
“Oh no, there are only like three chips left.”
“You’re kidding me, how can the chips be almost gone? They’re so good and the bowl is so big!”
“Quick, none of the staff are watching their bowl.”
“Hurry, hurry, they’re coming back to the table.”
“Fewf, nice steal.”

With our bellies full of chilli and chips, we waited around the table, like children, for the next thing to happen. Sure enough the same hands that had provided our food pulled out a game board and passed around some beers and we all joined in. Part way through the game, three awkward young asians walked in to the room. More Americans? Their English was perfect but slightly British. Nope, they were from Singapore. Finally, a little diversity for this crowd! One hour later, we were bundling up and wandering our way through the tourist-free version of Prague’s streets. All I knew about our destination was its GPS location (I, for one, am not getting lost in a foreign city) and that it was nicknamed “the dog bar.” I was beside myself with excitement. I pictured a massive Newfoundland(?) with a mini keg around his neck wandering around and nuzzling the patrons with his soft wet nose.

Only a few short minutes after arriving, I let out a small shriek.
A fur blanket drapped over a couch in the corner just moved. Wait, that’s an animal. That’s a massive dog! His hair was matted and grey and his sad eyes roved the room aimlessly.
“How does a dog in a bar get so dirty,” I exclaimed angrily.
“I think it’s dirty BECAUSE it lives in a bar,” Kate replied with an equal level of disappointment and concern.
“We have got to break it free.” I devised a plan using my llama herding skills and Kate’s stunning good looks. She would distract the bouncers and I would rush the dog out through the small entryway…wait is that a ladder? Are there people sitting on the rafters?It didn’t take long for Kate and I to become distracted from our plot. We shimmied our way up the rickety wooden rungs and perched ourselves above the bar going crowd.
My first thought was, “if this breaks, who do I sue?” The first thing Kate said was, “I guess insurance policies aren’t a big deal in the Czech Republic.”
No one else up there looked too concerned. After a few photos, we were ready to put our feet back on solid ground. Perfect timing, one of the hostel staff, Matt, came sprinting around the corner, “I just found a brilliant (I don’t know if he actually said ‘brilliant’ but he’s British, so in my head he said ‘brilliant’) spot for us all right by the live music stage.” We snatched our coats and raced off into the maze of underground rooms and bars.

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Kate and I scoping the bar for hotties from the rafters

The table was situated on top of a graffitied wooden structure about three feet high and with about three feet of clearance above it. We all crawled up the stairs to the upper platform and got cozy. Wait are there people sitting underneath us too? Yup, sure enough there were people packed into the little space underneath, what is this? Jakob didn’t bother climbing into our little table cave. He was glued to the live music, which was one level below us and behind a layer of what looked like soccer goal netting. To prevent falling drinks? People? It’s anyone’s guess, but at least some one had thought of safety.

I spent most of that time chatting with the Singaporeans.
“I have my masters in French history and I want to become a professor, but the job prospects aren’t great. Nobody is hiring history professors these days.”
“Actually, in Singapore people love that shit.”
“Ya the arts are really big. They closed a court house recently and turned it into an art museum.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. There is a place where people actually value and even respect an arts degree??? By midnight I was interested in visiting Sigapore, and by 2 am I was filling out my paperwork to become a teacher in the safest country in the world.

Ok we did some things other than have dinner, here are some photos from our walking tour on day two:
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A somewhat spooky statue of Jan Hus. He was a church reformer one hundred years before Martin Luther! I love that his story is such a focal point for the city of Prague. In the words of Jan: “People gotta know what they believe, can’t be having church in Latin.”

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A cool house found in Prague’s jewish quarter. Our walking tour guide said it is used for weddings and other ceremonies.

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Twilight view of castle hill

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Some fake medieval stuff on top of some real medieval stuff

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Charles bridge

Now back to the story…

That evening, as we gathered for dinner, Jakob mentioned, “so we want to move to Singapore.” Hands flew up in defence and eye brows expressed concern.
“It’s very expensive.”
“We are not representative of Sigaporians.”
“Ya, just because you like us doesn’t mean you will like our country.”
“Not everyone is as nice as us.”
“Ya we know,” I admitted, “but you guys just make it sound so great, maybe it would be a good option for us for a few years.”
In the back of my mind I knew this would be one of just many work abroad whims, but why not embrace the adventurous fantasy and see where it goes?

Jakob’s sense of adventure came to an abrupt halt a few minutes later while sitting around the family dinner table.
“Babe, are you ok?” I probed nervously
“Ya, I’m fine.”
“You don’t like the food do you?”
“I haven’t even tried it yet.”
If I know one thing about my husband, it is that he does not, under any circumstance eat couscous. So don’t blame me for jumping to conclusions. Sure enough, ten minutes later, I was finishing off his bowl, and that of one of the Americans. I certainly wasn’t going to turn down fresh veggies. Let me remind you, we have spent the last two weeks in central Europe in January, I was beginning to forget what a cucumber looked like. Yet the saddest part of the evening was not Jakob’s inability to be gastronomically adventurous (yes I am still talking about eating couscous), but saying goodbye to the Sigaporians and most of the American crowd. I could hardly believe it had only been between 24 and 48 hours since we had all met.

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Our last day was spent exploring the castle hill with Kate. Their job was navigating, my job was making up fun historical facts.

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The view over Prague from the castle hill

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Sometimes it’s hard to take sightseeing seriously

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Doing a little bad ass graffiti at the John Lennon wall

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These Czech Trdelníks (known to our hostel crew as turtlenecks) were just as delicious as they look. Yes I got chocolate on my nose.

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Just three westcoasters checking out Prague.

The next evening there were more veggies in our bowls mixed with the tears of goodbyes. It was our last night. I ate not one, not two, but three bowls of Zach-from-Edmonton’s amazing chicken stir fry. I ate as if rice and peppers alone could keep tomorrow from coming. Tomorrow, when we would have to pack our bags and say goodbye to the most fantastic hostel we had ever stayed at. Yes we did manage to say goodbye, fortunately Kate’s train left only thirty minutes after ours, so we could offer each other moral support as we walked away from that warm kitchen full of loving people. Good bye friends, good bye table, good bye Hostel One Home. We will miss you!

Canadians, Carrots, and Ruins

January 30

With bath time out of the way, there was one more Budapest experience we knew we couldn’t leave without—the ruin bar. Now, if you know me, you know that I’m not exactly the bar hopping type. A few beers with friends, nice background music, maybe a bit of dancing, and in bed by 11pm is my idea of a wild night out. So I was apprehensive to say the least. Fortunately, our path to a ruin bar was set into motion before we had any idea and much before sun down.

It was 10:10am and I was hurriedly stuffing my face with yogurt and granola (cheap + filling = breakfast everyday). Jakob was pulling on a pair of socks that, 3 weeks into the trip, were already full of holes. Then we were dashing out the door and racing down one of Budapest’s busiest streets, full of bars, restaurants, and hostels. We were just in time for our free Budapest walking tour. Jakob had to stop to tie his shoe laces or something, but I was too eager to learn so I hurried on towards the gathering crowd. Suddenly, something didn’t seem quite right. Why can’t I understand a word anyone is saying? Finally, a clear sentence: “Is anyone here for the English language walking tour.” I eagerly raised my hand and glanced around. No? No Americans? No Brits? Not even any Aussies? I thought the Aussies were everywhere! Suddenly, feeling very alone and beginning to worry that they would shrug their shoulders and force me to join the Spanish tour, I glanced around urgently. “Um, my husband is here too somewhere!” Great now they think I have an imaginary husband.

Before long, Jakob showed up and one of the guides hustled us off to a secondary meeting point where we were relieved to find a crowd of English speakers. By the second stop on the tour, we were happily chatting with our guide, when there was a voice from behind us, “Did I hear you say, you’re Canadian?” The voice came from somewhere inside a 5 foot high parka wrapped in a fashionable mustard coloured scarf.

“Yes!” We whipped around simultaneously, “are you Canadian? Where are you from?” We could barely contain our excitement.

“Toronto,” she responded.

I grinned to hide the disappointment from my voice, “o Toronto, awe-some!”

She either didn’t notice or chose to ignore our snobby west coast attitudes. We told her we were from Victoria in British Columbia and she responded with, “o great, Vancouver is a beautiful city.” Classic Toronto.

We chatted a bit more as we walked, but mainly let our prejudices speak for themselves. About two hours later, the walking tour came to an end at the top of a scenic lookout (if it weren’t for the suffocating layer of smog). While Jakob and I were wandering the lookout area, the parka and scarf appeared again, “hey, do you guys have plans?”

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The icy Danube. All the locals we talked to said that this is the coldest winter they’ve had in a long time. Our walking tour began at the cathedral you can see in the distance.

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We can’t seem to escape the fog wherever we go.

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The gorgeous Hungarian parliament buildings, as viewed from the end of the walking tour…I’m sure they look better on a clear day :/

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Matthias Church and the square from where our story will continue…

A few minutes later, the three of us were sitting at a café just off the square, sipping hot drinks, and actually getting to know each other. Her name was Elyse and she had been teaching English in Istanbul for the past seven years, but was taking a short vacation in Budapest. As she continued to tell us a bit about her life and travels I interrupted, “wait, you live in Istanbul?”

“Yup, I love the city!”

“This is amazing,” I could barely believe the timing, “Jakob and I were just discussing last night whether or not we will be able to fit a trip to Istanbul into our travel plans. I really want to go, but Jakob is a bit more apprehensive, I think he is more comfortable in western Europe.” Jakob looked like he was about to protest, but instead gave a slight nod and had another sip of beer.

Elyse spent the next half an hour convincing us that Istanbul is a must see—Hagia Sophia, falafel, Topkapi Palace, shawarma, Blue mosque, kebab, so much history, so much food—we were sold.

As we left the café and began the 20 minute hike back to where we first started the walking tour, Elyse noticed my hands firmly jammed into my coat pockets. Instantaneously, she produced a pair of knit gloves from her sizeable handbag.

“Here, let me mother you for a second,” she explained. I laughed and gratefully accepted. The conversation shifted to evening plans.

“We’ve been thinking of checking out a ruin bar,” Jakob confessed.

“Me too!” Elyse responded with enthusiasm, “let’s go together!”

We exchanged contact info and agreed to meet up at 8pm… at a visible and safe-looking bank (as one does when partying with strangers in a foreign city). I tried to return the gloves, but Elyse refused. “Keep them, they cost like one lira.” Ok maybe she just thinks my hands are gross, or that my massive fingers must have deformed the fine knit, but I never say ‘no’ to free stuff.

The ruin bar did not disappoint. It was a massive “establishment.” And I use the term “establishment” loosely because it was not very established. The walls were crumbling beneath an array of second hand oddities. There was a toboggan covered in Christmas lights hanging from the roof, a “wall” made completely of old doors, and vintage street signs holding windows in place. Not a single chair or table matched anything, and not a single table could touch the floor with all four feet. Noticing some spillage on our chosen table, Jakob offered to get a cloth to clean it up.

“Darling, this isn’t that sort of place,” Elyse laughed.   Just a little graffiti that reminded me of my UVic friends

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A glimpse of the decor

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Just a little graffiti that reminded me of my UVic friends

We started the night off with a round of what our tour guide called Hungarian Vodka (also known by the locals as Palinka). My loving husband had made sure to get me the 40% alcohol option instead of the 50% that he and Elyse braved. Not long after, the coolest Canadians in that bar were deep in discussion of the Holocaust. Yup, not your typical party topic. We found out that Elyse is Jewish and we loved hearing her tell her grandpa’s stories and imitate her grandma’s voice. We laughed and enjoyed a round of delicious Hungarian beers. Before we knew it, 5 hours had passed, we had sat at 4 different tables in the sprawling ruin bar, and met exactly 3 Spanish guys. It was almost 2 am and Elyse decided she didn’t like the guys.

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Trying some Palinka

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The bar sold carrots?

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So we all HAD to have one

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Just three Canadians having a great time drinking beer in the cold

“Something about them is off,” she whispered hurriedly. We nodded, if momma Elyse says so, then it’s time to go. So we bundled up again and set off in search of some late night eats. Sure enough, half way between her hotel and our Airbnb, we found corndogs. None of us could remember the last time we had eaten corndogs, but that didn’t stop us from declaring them the unequivocal best corndogs ever! After a round of hugs, we wished our new favourite Torontonian a good night and headed home.

Six hours later, I woke up to a text from Elyse. “Want to go to the market today?” Yes Elyse, the answer is always yes, we will eat bizarre food and drink delicious drinks with you in a foreign country any day. Can’t wait to see you again in Istanbul!