Saturday, April 27, 2013

Europe, the living storybook.

I just got back from Eurotour, which signifies the termination of my Month of Madness.
If there's anything these past five weeks of fantasy have left in me, it is the absolute wonder and inspiration that still lingers in my soul. Gallivanting around Europe, I couldn't help but think of fairy tales and stories I have read, and how all the places I have been to now are worthy of such creations.
For instance, Krakow and Prague reminded me a lot of Kingsbury from one of my favorite movies, Howl's Moving Castle.

Krakow, Poland
Prague, Czech Republic

And now that I have seen this picture, it reminded me a lot of this picture that I took in Vienna...

In fact, Europe has so many places that are capable of providing the setting to fairy tales, there is a Tumblr blog dedicated to pictures of them. 
With its sprawling, breathtaking landscapes...

Austrian countryside
Somewhere on the ride from Austria to Italy
Somewhere on the ride from Austria to Italy
...its pristine waters...

Geneva, Switzerland
...and of course, horse-drawn carriages...

Prague other place in the world looks quite as much as a place where magic exists like Europe does. Only in Europe would one be able to cross a bridge to not only get from one side of the river to another, but from one country to another with a completely different culture and spoken tongue. 

Another thing that has made these five weeks worthy of a bestseller are the unlikely encounters I have had with people, like...

NOT my Knight in Shining Armor!?
Actually, no, that's not what I meant.
I meant to write about a girl who has recently become one of my best friends ever since Eurotour started.

The girl standing next to me is a girl named Sari, a Japanese born Canadian. Because there isn't another place to start, I will start with when we first met. 

We were walking together at the Gare de Lyon, waiting for the tour of Europe to officially begin. She asked me, "Your last name's Flores, right?" Assuming she remembered from seeing it on the list of bus trip kids on the Facebook group page, and feeling a little creeped out, I told her yes and asked how she knew. Her response took me completely by surprise: "I saw your speech on YouTube!"
I didn't really know how to react, so I just said, "Oh really?" and then she continued, "And I've read your blog too! I read all of your first entry so that's how I came across your speech, it was really good." Dumbfounded, I asked her how she came across my blog, and she told me, "Well I have a blog too, and I wanted to see if it would come up on Google, so about three months ago I typed 'France exchange 2012 2013' and yours was one of the first five that came up. I clicked on it then thought, 'Oh she's in France this year! But she lives on the other side of the country from me, and there's hundreds of us, I don't think I'll get to meet her.'" But she read my blog anyway, and when she saw my name on the list on Facebook recently, she thought, "Hmmm, Amanda Flores, that name sounds really familiar... OH! It's the girl who did that speech! I get to meet her!"
Meet me she did, and like some other girls I have met this year (hint: an Indian, a Pole, and a Dutch girl), she instantly became one of my best friends. When I wrote about Jamie, I wrote how I felt like our friendship was inevitable and that at some point in our lives our paths would cross, and it is exactly the same way with Sari. After all, I don't think it's coincidence she happened to find my blog and even get to know me a little before meeting me in person! It's really peculiar... who would have thought this would happen?

And who knows what we were laughing about in this picture from the first day...
To read more about the marvelous experiences that ought to have only been possible in works of fiction, here is a synopsis of Eurotour, the legendary trip all exchange students in Europe dream about!

France: April 15 - 16
The group met up in Paris train stations throughout the first day.

We didn't stay there too long; only enough to take pictures at the Eiffel Tower, walk through the Garden of the Tuileries, and see the city for a short bit on the bus. We spent the night at Reims then on Tuesday the 16th, we went to Strasbourg!

For lunch, Hyesoo (Korea, one of my best friends from first bus trip) had a Rotary friend who was in Korea last year direct us to a Korean restaurant. Seeing as I love Asian food, I became giddy. It had been too long since I last had it!

Sari and I shared this bulgogi...*mouth waterss*
Our group! Me, Yuto (Japan), Hannah (USA), Corinne (USA), Fifi (Indonesia), Eleanor (France), Hyesoo, Shin Hae, and Jane (Korea). Sari was the one who took the picture.
After that, Sari really wanted to climb up the steps of the cathedral, so she, Fifi, Corinne, Hannah, and I braved the flight of 330 steps up a spiral staircase to reach the viewpoint at the top. It was really demanding on the leg muscles.

What goes up must come down...
The ice cream reward made it all worth it!
That evening, we stayed at a youth hostel in Strasbourg. While lying down on my bed writing in my journal, I looked up and saw this message scrawled on the upper bunk:


I would say that it's coincidence that I ended up choosing that bed, or that these boys were in our room on October 1, 2011, but my life IS a story constantly being written, so I say it was meant to be.

Germany: April 17, 2012
For my third time in Germany, we had lunch at a rest stop restaurant again. Once again, I successfully placed my order in German! A schnitzel never tasted so good.

After seeing the Nazi rally grounds and getting a guided tour of Nuremberg, my friends and I walked around and found a quaint little café on an island on the river to have some drinks in. 

Erika (Japan), me, Sari
We continued our promenade, and I found some time to goof off.

That night at the hostel, I was in a room of six with Sari, Hyesoo, Corinne, Hannah, and Fifi. We were especially excited because we had a huge room! That night, we profited by having a lot of people over for a game of Jungle Speed and a singing session, accompanied by Jerry (Taiwan) on the guitar.

The Czech Republic: April 18 - 19
For my second time in the Czech Republic, we got to see Prague, the capital! I went into Prague thinking of the manga I had just read, Monster by Naoki Urasawa. The story's main focus is a young man named Johan, an extremely attractive murderer with a mysterious past. In one of the chapters, he looks deep into the eyes of one of the other characters in the middle of a blazing library...

...and he tells him:

The next development in this suspense-filled drama is when the protagonist, Doctor Tenma, learns that Johan was born in Prague and his mother still lives there.
That made me even more excited to go to Prague.
(Unfortunately, I haven't yet started the section of the story when it takes place in Prague... I have to soon!)
As was routine, we had a guided tour of the city and then free time.

The Astronomical Clock that chimed every hour
Me on the Charles Bridge
I had goulash, a traditional Czech dish, for lunch! (Hahaha at Corinne's face next to me...)
For some afternoon drinks, Sari and I wanted to find an out-of-the-way place. What could be more out of the way than this?


The restaurant's interior
Our view on the deck
After spending a significant amount of time in Prague, I found that photos just don't capture its splendor and majesty. To really appreciate Prague, the town of fairy tales, you only have to be there. I found that the paintings people have done were more accurate depictions of the aura that the city emanates and how it makes you feel when you are in it. Like these ones, check them out!

Prague was the favorite city of many of the group. While I adored it, it wasn't my favorite. That's coming up a bit later!

Austria: April 20 - 21
Austria was a country I had been hearing very much about for as long as I can remember. When my father was a young man, he spent four years studying violin at the Music Academy in Vienna, the most prestigious music school in the world. Knowing I would see this city, I was super excited to see the place my dad called home for an important part in his life. However, we barely got an afternoon there and basically no free was disappointing, but a great excuse to return one day!

We got to ride the Ferris wheel.
Sunday, the following day, was spent driving from Austria to Italy. The drive was extremely scenic, and lunch by the hills was especially gorgeous.
My friends and I dined on a terrace with this view...

Photo op taken advantage of
That night, we arrived in-

Italy: April 22 - 23
I'll tell you now that Venice was my favorite city, so I have the most to say about it. What a day I had there, too!
There's no other city in the world quite like it; a city on the sea, with little islands surrounding it, canals as streets, and boat taxis. The entire time I was there, I couldn't believe it. I thought of one of my favorite books when I was young, The Thief Lord, and I mentally made a note to read it again, for it is set in Venice.
In the morning, we had a two hour guided tour then had lunch. Being in Italy, I chose to have one of my favorites, pasta alla carbonara!

Soon after lunch, all the exchange students got to ride gondolas.
They called for groups of six, so my lunch group (Sari, Hyesoo, Corinne, Hannah, Fifi, and I) stuck together. For 30 minutes, the gondolier navigated through the narrow canals, past submerged walls caked with algae, their steps leading down into the water, alongside other gondolas and taxi boats in front of the Rialto bridge.

Like most enjoyable experiences in life, it was too short.
However, we had two and a half hours of free time after that! I stuck with the girls for the first hour or so, intending to go to the Rialto bridge but getting sidetracked along the way with souvenir shops and gelato. At the gelato stand, I overheard some Asians speaking in French. Because that doesn't happen everyday, I initiated a conversation with them in French. I found out they were Taiwanese exchange students on a university exchange to France for the year! (Fifi told me later she saw them again in Milan... wow.) French speaking Asians for the win.
Soon after that, the rain that had been intermittently coming and going throughout the day picked up velocity, and just as we were about to enter the boardwalk that would take us to the bridge, it came down in torrents, nearly soaking us through. We only had two umbrellas between the six of us; I was sharing with Sari, and as the four other girls decided to go back to the restaurant to find Corinne's umbrella that she had left, Sari and I decided to brave the rain and walk up the bridge. We stayed under cover looking out over the grand canal, listening in disbelief to the rain falling ceaselessly from ash gray clouds.

The grand canal below our umbrella
In disbelief by the Rialto bridge
We wanted to find a place to sit down and dry ourselves off, so we got off the bridge and headed towards a covered, heated, sidewalk café. We felt really posh sipping our earl grey lemon tea, appreciating our view of the grand canal and the Rialto bridge.

When we had an hour left, we decided to head back to the Piazza San Marco. Deciding not to go back the way we came, we ended up losing our way. Venice is really rather complex, with its little pathways heading every which direction, random courtyards, and of course the canals that are themselves streets.

Where are we??
Sari was starting to feel a little disconcerted, and when we came to a fork and didn't agree which direction to take, some French speakers just happened to walk by us so I asked them if they would know where it was (in French). Luckily they had just come from there, so they pointed out the direction they believed it to be in. We kept walking, following the road, and eventually we found it, relieved. The bells from the tower were chiming loudly, echoing across the square as we entered. We had about 30 minutes left for that point, so we took the elevator up the tower. Once it opened, we gasped in awe at the panorama that was visible to us; it was absolutely stunning.

Venice was a lot bigger than I thought, seeing all of it from way up there, and we really could have gotten horribly lost. But we were so incredibly happy to see that city, all of it, and how magical it is with the main square and the little satellite islands equally covered in old buildings. The only things we couldn't see were the canals and streets, which goes to show how tightly compacted the houses are.
In short, I love Venice.
Even under the rain, it couldn't have been more beautiful.
Glad to have spent a sufficient amount of time in Venice, we left on Wednesday to go to Milan, where I had arranged to meet a special friend of mine.
Throughout this exchange, I've had several sweet reunions, such as the ones with Aurore, Clay, Natalia, and of course my family. I love the feeling of elation that wells up inside you once you see somebody dear to you that you haven't seen in a long time. However, the most mind-blowing of these reunions would probably be the one I had with my friend Francesca in Milan.

Picture dating the end of my freshman year
Francesca was an Italian exchange student at Tualatin high school two years ago, and since she was in my digital arts and drawing classes, we became good friends. I knew she lived in northern Italy (Turin this year), so a few months ago I told her when I would be in Milan in the hopes that we could see each other again.
And, as it works out...

We did!
As the bus pulled in in front of the castle in Milan, I saw her sitting at the edge of the fountain at its entrance. Anxious to get off, I made a beeline down the stairs once the door opened, and she stood up as well. Once I was off I ran toward her, and we gave each other a tight hug. She joined my friends and me for lunch! We separated a bit for our guided tour of the afternoon, which started at the fountain.

I do believe it started well for everyone...

Jerry blowing a kiss to his adoring fans
It was a short walking tour of the castle and the city, which ended at the cathedral square.

Francesca met my friends and me there, and she joined us for about two hours in the afternoon. 

This one random lady joined our picture to the right...
We got gelato, walked around, and sat in front of the cathedral, and I conversed with Francesca about then-and-now. 

It was so unbelievable to see her again; it's almost like nothing changed between the 22 or so months we had been separated, even though so much has happened. Shortly before our rendezvous at 18h, we said good bye to her. I told her that when we meet again, I will be able to speak in Italian with her. That's a promise! 

France: April 24
We went to Chamonix, a ski town nestled between the Alps, for lunch. 

Spring is truly here!
We had over two hours of free time to eat and walk around, so on our promenade, my friends and I bought some macarons, a classic French specialty!

Sitting pretty eating praliné, my favorite flavor of everything sweet
Later, we took a small train up the mountains to see the Mer de Glace (sea of ice), a glacier. 

Wow! A real glacier!
Not only that, but we took a cable car and descended 380 steps to actually go IN the glacier. There was a grotto tunnel carved into it, and it was unlike anything I had seen before.

A close up of the ice
Fifi and me
My Canadian friend Dylan and me
We spent the evening in a French town called Aix-les-Bains. For those of us that wished, there was a fair going on and we were allowed to go. The evening was very clear, with a full moon shining over the fairgrounds and the lake right next to them. I went with Hannah, Corinne, Shin Hae, and Sari.
There was a haunted ride that Sari chose to sit out of, so we went in two by two. I was with Corinne.

Because (letters flashing what appears to be) German makes everything scarier!
Typically, in the US during these kinds of attractions, the props/actors aren't allowed to touch you. However, here, that didn't seem to be a rule. Thus, in the pitch darkness with monsters popping out at us and following us around with chainsaw noises, the fact that things crept up behind you and actually touched you made this place especially terrifying. This is how Corinne and I looked coming out of there.

After that, we did another ride, and I almost regret having done it. It was like a swing on steroids.

I FELT LIKE I WAS GOING TO FALL OFF AND DIE. It rocked back and forth 180°, and it spun around, and just when I thought it was going to end it picked up its pace more vigorously than before. There were moments where I was suspended in the air and couldn't breathe, much less scream. The world around me was literally spinning out of my control. Still though, the engineering of the contraption really impressed me. Fabricating something like that is extremely risky, so I truly applaud those who took part in it! 

Switzerland: April 25
That morning, we had the best guided tour of the trip, the tour of the United Nations' headquarters in Geneva. Seeing the grounds and the huge conference rooms reminded me of the good old speech and debate days.

Sari and I left feeling super inspired, speculating about being colleagues there one day. After the tour, we had a little free time to explore the city.

Jane, Sari, me, Dylan, Corinne, Fifi, Hannah

Which then brought us to the last night of the trip, which we spent in-

France: April 26
Back on home ground for good!
There was a small dance that last night, but my friends and I spent most of it hanging out in our room, trying to get the most of our last few hours together, gossiping and pigging out on Swiss chocolate. The next day, everyone had to say good-bye. Well, I'll say that it was brutal- physically and emotionally draining. We had just finished the most spectacular trip of our lives, a lot of us not knowing each other previously but becoming brothers and sisters at the end. Having to abruptly end the dream like that was more than we could bear. We refused to say "adieu" because that meant saying good-bye forever. However, I know that it's not truly the end. Eurotour was only the beginning of some lifelong friendships, friendships that will stay dear to me and last no matter where the winds take me. We're all still young and have the rest of the world to explore, and I know we will meet each other again someday, somewhere.

I arrived home in Parthenay at around 6 pm, and as I walked back to my house after leaving the bus, I couldn't help but smile with relief. The Month of Madness had reached its end, and I could finally get some REAL sleep with no schedule of when to get up!
Today I spent much of the day relaxing in my room and working on this blog entry, sharing memories with my friends on the trip.

Now it's time to revert back to everyday, ordinary life in France, and I'm satisfied. 

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