Thursday, December 24, 2009

Adventures in Germany: How I got home from Italy

Oh hey everyone,

So you might be wondering, “why didn’t Christine post on Friday like she said she would?” “Did she have a great dinner and fun last night with friends but just forget to post before bed?” Well I’m here to set the story straight, and boy is it a greaaaaat story (naht).

Friday evening, after a gorgeous hike/picture sesh/champagne popping party atop Piazzale Michaelangelo, and an overly delicious final dinner at Trattoria Casalinga, my friends and I set off for our apartments (and, of course Grom for one more gelato treat). To our wonder and surprise, it was snowing very heavily in Florence. In fact, the city hasn’t seen a snowstorm like we had in the past decade, so we’re told. This being said, flight concerns were more than prevalent in our minds. Still, we had our yankee swap, said our goodbyes, and set about packing the rest of our things. Then we checked our flights. Cancellations, delays, and the city of Florence in a state of emergency, resulting in no taxis or busses running to and from the airport. Obvious issue. I consider myself lucky because my flight was still listed as “on time” and, after a few hectic hours, I was arriving at the airport with my two huge bags, my carry on backpack, and my purse. Little did I know this was only the beginning of my interesting trip home.

I planted myself in the unmoving line of people for the Lufthansa check-in counter and waited. Meanwhile, I watched the departure screen as every flight changed from on time to cancelled…except mine. When my flight to Munich finally flashed a “check-in” symbol, everyone in line with me was astonished. Why weren’t we cancelled when everyone else was? We checked in, checked our bags (and didn’t pay any fees for overweight, so that’s a win) and got through security and to the boarding gate. It had stopped snowing at this point but the airport was a mess outside, as the Florentines really have no idea what to do in the snow. Pretty soon our flight was delayed an hour, only a small problem for someone like me, with a 5 hour layover in Munich. However, as time went on our 8:15 flight was pushed back to 9, 10, 12, and finally, when we were told that the airport was closing until it was cleaned up at 1, until 2. Now we had a problem, because with the 1 ½ hour flight to Munich, and my transfer flight home leaving at 3:15, I was left to simply pray for earlier departure or a delay.

A few hours and some free pizza later, I was boarding my plane to Munich, set to leave at 4:20. I had resigned all hope of making my transfer and simply hoped to catch the earliest available flight to Newark…or JFK, Boston, Philly, DC, anywhere really. As I arrived in Munich and called my dad, he informed me that my plane was fully boarded but still at the airport. I ran outside and spoke frantically to an employee who called inside, but it was too late. My plane had closed and pulled away, and on the bus ride to the terminals I actually watched it drive away. So not ok. I heaved a sigh, and a lot of tears, and joined my fellow travel friends in what proved to be a nearly 3 hour line for the service center. Throughout the line, the prognosis wasn’t good. With the snowstorm back home, the snow at Europe, and tons of travelers for the holidays, accommodating the hundreds of newly stranded students and getting us home asap was nearly impossible. At one point, they were telling us Thursday was our earliest chance to get home. This was not a fun treat.

My turn came at the desks and after about 45 minutes of my helper searching, my dad calling, and me half crying half hoping, I landed myself a flight to Frankfurt in the morning and then to JFK a few hours later. The airline put me in a free taxi to a hotel, with my new bff Kevin who provided lovely company. We were given a free stay at the hotel, had 3 course dinner that was so delicious, I got to take a shower and get some free internet to check back in (I’ve been running up quite a roaming phone bill with all of this mess), and slept for a good 7 hours (my first sleep since 10 am on Friday, so that was nice). And since then everything went pretty well. I woke up in the morning, met Erica for a few hours in the airport, and left on my plane to Frankfurt, arriving on time and waiting around until I could board my flight. Here’s where it gets great.

After waiting on my plane for 5 hours do to delays including 5843996 technical issues that were then fixed, followed by a long period of de-icing during which the de-icing truck clipped the wing of our plane, we were informed that the crew and captains has reached their maximum legal limit of working and could no longer fly us out that day. After waiting for a stand by crew they didn’t have, we were taken off the plane and busses back to the airport, where nobody working there knew what we were supposed to do. I ended up waiting in like for another few hours to get to the front and get a hotel voucher for one of the 15 nearby hotels they were putting us into randomly. I stood for 30 minutes outside in the freezing cold (I only had leggings throughout this whole ordeal) wrapped in a Lufthansa blanket waiting for the shuttle. Arriving at the hotel I was given a key, booked a shuttle back to the airport in the morning, got a wake-up call, and received a lunchbox for dinner. Only plus about this place: free wireless internet so I could touch back with the family and skype them.

The next morning (Monday, by the way, in case you’ve lost track) I went back to the airport, waited for my flights, and boarded the plane. Then they told us there would be a delay because since our flight was delayed to the next day, the airport had removed it from the records and our baggage records no longer existed. Since the USA requires that every piece of luggage belong to a passenger on the flight, the luggage had to all be removed off the plane, out of the containers, checked, and put back. They actually ended up doing this 3 times throughout Monday’s delay, for various reasons, and I knew it would be one miracle if my luggage arrived in JFK when I did, and another if nothing was broken in it. After doing this we pulled away from the gate…and moved 3 gates down back into park position. Honestly, this had to be impossible. They then told us that 12 passengers on the flight did not have correct passport numbers recorded or something like that, and it took however much extra time to get someone on board to find them, check their passports, and update the information so the USA would let us fly in. After all of this passport and luggage nonsense was done, to nobody’s surprise, the captain came on and told us that the crew had again reached their limit, and after the obviously non-existent standby crew failed to arrive, we were once again bussed back to the airport.

This time, however, we were not sent out to wait in line for hotel vouchers. We were told our flight was going to fly a few hours later in the night (it was about 5 and the flight was scheduled around 11). So, we were sent back into the airport, got food, and resigned ourselves to sitting outside our gate with everyone else on the flight. Soon we were the only passengers in the airport, and we just kept watching our delay get bigger and bigger, for reasons we were obviously not told of aside from the snow piling up outside. Eventually our flight just said “delayed” with no estimated departure time (though on the website there was) and soon after the monitor turned off altogether.

So there we were, sitting. They had boarded about half the passengers onto the plane, thinking we were going to leave, and so they were stuck there and I was thanking God that I was smart enough to not want to get on the plane any sooner than I had to. So we waited, and talked, and read, ate, and napped. We were given tomato, cheese, and butter sandwiches, hot dogs with no buns, and a huge tin barrel of soup that made us look and feel like refugees. After hours of delays, we boarded for real, and our flight took off after 3 days of delays, at about 4 am. Landing in JFK, waiting for my luggage, about 50 or so people, myself included, soon realized it wasn’t coming off the plane. Typical.

So here I sit, Christmas eve, in my newly painted, carpeted room with new bedding, sans luggage. No clothes, shoes, or Christmas presents. We were told it should be arriving on a plane to Newark today because, get this, it never left Florence. So let’s keep our fingers crossed, shall we? But the good news remains: after approximately 3 days and 6 hours of traveling (12 hours of which I sat on a stationary plane) I am home safe and sound with my family.

So don’t worry, I’ll try to get pictures and video of my last nights in Florence, along with those from the airport, to you soon. They will hopefully come accompanied with my “reflections” post, and I will hopefully be able to report that I have my luggage back in my possession as well. Hope you enjoyed the story of my misery and adventures in the Frankfurt airport and beyond.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Christmas in Europe

Hi all,

So as promised I'm here to talk a little bit about the Christmas season over here in Europe. I always feel that when I'm at school it's hard to get into the Christmas spirit fully because of the stress of finals and packing and such. Even with the gorgeous Vermont snowfall, the 25 days of Christmas on ABC family, and my obsession with candy canes, Christmas doesn't always feel complete to me until I'm home.

Now, 3 days from my departure, I'm trying to assess how Christmasy I'm feeling. It's still not the same as being home with my family, decorating my tree and drinking hot chocolate. However, the "not quite fully Christmas feeling" is a bit different over here in Europe. I'm resisting the urge to say they're more religious, because I think that's probably just Italy. Still, I feel like the vibe of Christmas in Europe is less material and more just a magical feeling in the air. When I walk down the streets (or run, because I'm freezing) it makes me smile to see the lights everywhere and the decorations on every shop and corner. The city is brightly lit with different Christmas lights on every street, and even though it's not obvious it's Christmastime (no snow here in Florence) I can still feel the magic of the season. Even though crowds cover the areas of the city where the markets are, I still don't get the sense of crazed commercialism I feel when I have to make a trip to the mall at home.

In the other countries I've visited, Christmas has been similar. Germany and Austria are both known for their huge Christmas markets. I must say I've never spent so much money and had so little to show for it, but all of my money was spent on food and drinks. I've had everything from a marshmallow pastry and hot chocolate to a huge baked potato covered with everything possible and warm apple punch in a collectible mug. Still, despite this food consumerism, I still felt the warm feelings of Christmas. Booths are littered with decorations, ornaments, and everything in between. People are gathered together sharing, talking, and having fun.

I'm not trying to put down Christmas in America. I think it's an amazing time to be spent with family and friends. I'm just trying to give everyone a feel for what Christmas is like over here in Europe, because it's a bit different. So I hope all are well, finals are finishing up nicely for those who are taking them, Christmas plans are running smoothly, and everything else is good. I can't believe I'll be home in three days. It doesn't seem real. But more (hopefully not too much) about that later in the week. I've got to get some sleep, as one class and one final stand between me and my frolicking in Florence for my last few days.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Munich and Salzburg

Hi all,

So amidst all of the craziness of our last days in Italy and finals on the way (or started for some) Erica and I still found time in our last weekend for a final trip to Germany and Austria. We headed off on our least-favorite type of transportation, the overnight train, on Thursday night, and were in rainy, cold Munich early Friday morning. Since nothing was open, we took a seat in Starbucks (oh, how we miss it) and spent about two hours talking to each other and to a really nice guy from Croatia on his way up to the environmental conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. Josh is studying there and has written a few posts about the events.

Anyway, after that we spent the day in and out of warm locations, because we had to carry our bags and it was raining and snowing and all kinds of things. We stopped in a vintage store for a long time and tried on some of the most ridiculous dresses they had. We went into the toy museum and looked at Barbie, teddy bears, robots, cars, trains, and everything in between. In addition, we explored the local Christmas markets and a few churches, consuming too many potatoe pancakes and bratwursts. Then it was off to Salzburg on the train.

We slept in Salzburg and woke up the next morning to go on the SOUND OF MUSIC TOUR! It was so much fun! They bussed us to and from different locations where the movie was filmed, we got out, took pictures, and moved on. On the ride we also got to listen to the movie soundtrack and sing along, and we made a friend from the hostel too. We saw the Do-Re-Mi steps, and the garden where more scenes from that song were filmed. We saw the Von-Trap Villa, the lake where the boat tipped over, the chapel where the wedding took place, and the gazeebo from "sixteen going on seventeen." In between, the bus drove through the countryside and we saw amazing lakes and mountains covered in a fresh dusting of snow. It really was so beautiful and Salzburg joins Dublin and Venice as my top visits of the semester. OH AND we had warm apple strudel with a hot vanilla sauce in the town of Mondsee, where the church was. There are no words for how good it was, or for how much food I ate on this trip.

Once back in Salzburg, we explored some more, visiting the fortress that looks over the city and has amazing views. We saw some of the larger plazas, more Christmas markets, another church, and the famous Glockenspeil (though we weren't there for it to chime). We then headed back to Munich for dinner and beers at the famous Hoffbrauhaus beer hall.

We continued our friend-making at the beer hall, and met 3 or 4 German guys and 4 older Irish ladies who most definitely knew how to party. I had a HUGE plate of "noodles" and it was amazingly delicious. And, of course, washed it down with a giant 1 liter mug of their origional beer. It was all fun and games from there on out, and we talked, laughed, and even danced with our new friends (even the ones that didn't know English). The night was a success.

Sunday morning we got up and took the subway out to Daschau, the concentration camp. We knew it was going to be a sad experience to visit it, but it was also super interesting and I learned so much. I learned that it was the first concentration camp there was, that it wasn't an execution camp like Auschwitz, and that it was mostly men. One of the origional buildings was turned into a museum, and Erica and I used our maps, audioguides, museum readings, and the short film they showed to spend the morning and early afternoon learning all about the concentration camp. Even though it was a sad and sobering experience, it was more than worth it and I'm glad I went.

After that we needed a little pick-me-up so we headed to Weisses Brauhaus, a smaller beer hall with a cozy feel. I ordered a Schnitzel, thus completing my goal of having all of the traditional foods, and a wheat beer (one of Munich's best). A man came up and asked if he could sit with us, but I don't think he realized we didn't speak and German. He knew about 10 words of English but somehow Erica and I were still able to have a nice lunch talking to him. It was truly amazing. We finished up lunch, walked around and bought some treats, had some kind of delicious dough covered in vanilla sauce and cinnamon sugar for dessert, and went back to the hostel where we spent another few hours talking to a guy from Galway, Ireland. I mention all of the people we met because later this week I plan to bring them back up in another post.

We headed home last night and arrived early this morning, and I've been doing work for finals ever since. It's my goal between studying and packing this week to get two more posts in: one about Christmas is Europe and one as a reflection of my time here, which I can't believe (or accept, really) is almost over. But I've got to get back to work. Here's some of the videos I took this weekend. Enjoy!


Riding the oldest Funicular Railway in Austria

Sound of Music Tour

Bells in the Munich Clocktower

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Dirty South

Ciao ciao everyone!

So as my time in Italy nears closing (whaaaaat?) I'm doing my best to get everything done while still traveling around to some last-minute places. This weekend I returned to Rome to see the Sistene Chapel, since it was closed when we were there with the program. The Vatican Museum was very impressive and I spent a huge chunk of the day there, along with a short trip through the tombs of the popes under St. Peter's. Eliza offered her lovely hospitality to me for the night and we ate out at one of the 2 places in Rome claiming to be the creators of Alfredo Sauce. We broke the bank eating there but it was sooooo good. After a chill night with Eliza, I set out for the northern tip of Italy's dirty south: Naples.

Upon arrival in Naples I hopped right on the circumvesuviana metro line around Vesuvius en route to Pompei. I spent about 3 hours there exploring, following the map, getting lost, and seeing a TON of cool history. It was a little sad to see the preserved people, because they're there just as they died, and they were in pain, but the fact that they're so well preserved was amazing. AND I got to pet all the dogs all around the city, because they're everywhere.

On my way out of Pompei, before hopping on the metro back to Naples, I bought a HUGE lemon (see the picture in the slide show) about the size of a cantelope. I'm not sure what I'll do with it, but I had to buy it.

Upon returning to Naples, I walked around a little but didn't explore too far because it was getting dark (wish I had another day). I walked to one of their busiest quarters and was vastly unprepared for the number of people there. The Christmas markets were up, which I didn't anticipate, and I actually ended up getting funneled through the narrow streets like I was on a crazy conga line. Still, I hopped off my conga to join a huge mob for one of the best pizza in Napoli, which I got for 1 Euro. I later got a delicious Neopolitan pastry for another Euro. Gotta love the south.

On my way back to the train station I solidified my status as a safe traveler, even when alone, because a guy tried to pickpocket me. I noticed him touch my backpack and immediately turned around to stop him. Lucky for me, even if I hadn't noticed him, I had everything important packed away in my coat in various places, so the best he could have made out with was my makeup kit or a pair of sweatpants. So yay me for being smart. Still, it jumped my senses and made me remember how much less safe it is down south.

Anyway, this is my last week of classes, which I'm not sure I accept. We've got a long list of things to do before we leave, and we WILL get it done. Lots of studying and last minute homework is also in the card. As for today, I'm slowly accomplishing my to-do list and heading to the Santa Croce Christmas Markets later today for some Christmas shopping for everyone at home.

I'll keep you updated on my activities these last 12 days (ahhhhhhhhh), especially after I head on my last trip this weekend: Munich and Salzburg! OK byeeee