Thursday, July 29, 2010

Great Wall of China

Andrew and I have added yet more overtime to our summer schedule, so we only had Tuesday morning and all of Wednesday off this week. Tuesday morning John's niece, who is visiting from the north, came over to our apartment and taught me two traditional Chinese dishes. It was really funny and confusing because of the immense language barrier, but somehow I managed to learn to cook an eggplant dish and a fried mushroom and pork dish.

Time seems to go by so quickly here. I guess it's just the novelty of being busy again and having a full workday. Classes can get a little repetitive and boring, but they're not too bad. Usually I start my class by giving my student a speaking topic about the day's chapter. For example, if we're studying values, I'll ask her to talk about what values are most important. She will then have a couple of minutes to prepare her speech. All of my students are studying to take a very important English exam, so they need to practice their speaking skills. After she delivers her speech, we usually start the chapter, with her reading, writing, listening, and completing grammar exercises. After about two hours spent on a six-eight page chapter, we then start doing extra listening, reading, and grammar in preparation for the exam. So you see it can get a bit boring, but because this exam is so important to them, I can't really skip much or incorporate "fun" activities without taking away time from essential topics they need to cover. If anyone has any ideas on how to make it more interesting for them, I'm all ears! Since we don't have time to do fun stuff in class, we've been doing stuff outside of class. Tuesday evening after class Molly came over and watched "Stardust" with us to practice her English. She understood the story, but there were a lot of difficult accents and expressions.

On Wednesday my student Karen and Andrew's student Lily treated us to "Chinese pot." We tried to explain that maybe they shouldn't use this expression to describe what we did, but they couldn't be convinced! Chinese pot is a style of eating in which you place vegetables and meat in a pot of boiling broth that sits at your table. Once your food is cooked, you take it out of the broth and eat it with one of the many sauces offered: sesame sauce, red tofu, salty green gunk, soy sauce, vinegar, and hot chili. We cooked cabbage, spinach, lamb, shrimp, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, meatballs, and thinly sliced beef. It was a fun experience.
Lily, Karen, and Chinese "pot"

After lunch, Lily's driver showed up and took us to the First Pass Under Heaven. This is the section of the Great Wall just outside Qinhuangdao. Lily paid our entrance fees and we stopped at the interesting museum before climbing to the wall. The section of the Great Wall wasn't as impressive as I thought it'd be, mostly because a lot of it has been reconstructed, and you can't walk along it for very far. Still, it was cool to be on top of the Great Wall! I also paid $0.50 to pose with a peacock. Apparently the peacock is a very lucky bird, and the guy made Andrew get in the picture, too, because it would bring us happiness in our marriage. I guess it worked! Other animal attractions included an iguana, a snake, and a fawn.

Just a little way down the road, we stopped at the Dragon's Head, a much more interesting site. Here, the Great Wall meets the Pacific Ocean and there are many old buildings, such as temples and army barracks, that still stand today. Here I bought a cool leaf hat at an awesome price of $0.30.
Where the Great Wall meets the sea
Round doors are only for women. Me and Lily
Cool maze at the Dragon's Head

You can find the weirdest things in the supermarket here. In addition to being able to buy krill, pigs feet, and huge chunks of seaweed fresh from the sea, you can also buy 50% alcohol in a water bottle for only $1.50. Andrew has had a good time psyching out Helen and John and his students at school.

What's wrong with this picture?

P.S. I have a black spot on my camera that shows up in most of my pictures. From doing research online, I think that there is dust on the sensor. Does anyone know how to clean it out? I really don't want to have to buy a new camera, which is what all the websites suggest, especially since this camera is barely a year old!

Thursday, July 22, 2010


I went an entire meal in the presence of Chinese using my chopsticks! I have photos as proof! I can get witness statements for those who are still disbelievers. As my grandmother said, "At least now you won't starve."

Taco night with Molly was a success, even though we had two minor last minute crises:

1) the green fruits I had bought turned out not to be limes, but a type of orange
2) Andrew's corn tortillas did not work out, so I had to, at the last minute, make flour tortillas (a much more time-consuming process as it requires yeast and rising)

But all in all, she liked the food and had a good time learning how to play "Go Fish," "Crazy 8's," "Blackjack," and "Jungle Speed," which is a French pattern-recognition speed contest that a friend gave us as a going away gift. In exchange for our humble meal, Molly brought us 6 bottles of Great Wall red wine, a huge bag of delicious fruit, and a 1994 bottle of Hungarian wine. Her gifts were super generous, especially since her parents had already taken us out to a very expensive and delicious meal the night before, and because I know for a fact that red wine in China is very expensive, about $10 a bottle. I'm not sure what made her think that we needed seven bottles of wine, but we're not complaining! I can't wait until Helen gets us the trays for our oven so that I can bake them some deliciousness to repay them for their kindness.

Yet another example of Chinese generosity was demonstrated tonight when Helen and John took us out to a Korean restaurant for dinner with John's nephew and his family. At the restaurant, we took off our shoes before entering a private room and sitting around a table. The first dish was lettuce leaves and a variety of "sandwich" fillings, such as grilled pork, garlic, onions, and different sauces. Using the lettuce leaf, you pick your fillings and then fold your leaf into something resembling a square and eat it. After that the usual food overload followed: sweet and sour pork, calamari in a spicy sauce, whole grilled fish, kimche'e, or spicy cabbage, cold noodles, black noodles, rice, tofu, a peanut dish, potato cakes, and I'm sure I'm forgetting others. All this for seven people! John's niece has offered to teach us to make some Chinese food while she's here, including dumplings! The language barrier might prove difficult, but her son Edward just started Andrew's class, so hopefully he can overcome his shyness and help us out.
John and Helen are the ones farthest on the left
Sweet and sour pork

After a very filling dinner, during which I used my chopsticks the entire time, wowing the crowds, John took us to Olympic Park, a park that was built for the 2008 Beijing Olympics (some of the competitions were held in Qinhuangdao!). It's a beautiful park, and I especially loved how all the trees were lit up with different colored lights. We didn't have much time to linger, as John had to catch an overnight train to another city in order to process our "Foreign Experts Certificates" (makes us sound important, huh?) which we'll need to continue working in China. But our students are dying to show us around town, take us out, and in short, spoil us, so Helen said one of them would definitely take us back for a second visit, and hopefully to see the nearby Safari Park, where rumor has it, you can play with elephants.

Cool reliefs at the park
I want a sword, too!
Famous Olympian's hand and footprint
We think this guy must be a distant relation to Andrew: see the similar noses?
Los Angeles!

P.S. As a side note, I know that there are many more people who read my blog than it indicates. If you read this blog, I'd appreciate it if you became a "Follower." At the top of the blog page, on the left, just click "Follow" and enter your email address and you'll receive an email notification every time I post a new entry (I promise, you'll never get spam or junk mail from Blogger). This would just be a nice way to let me know that you're out there reading this!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Monday is my Friday...

First day of school

Our last few days before classes began were spent shopping and wandering around the city, but mostly being a little bored. We were excited to actually start working, and our schedules are pretty nice! A normal work week is only 24 hours, but the school is really popular, especially right now as the students are on summer break and want to devote extra time to their English study (are they nuts???), so Helen asked us if we wanted some extra hours. Uh, yeah! At this rate, we should be able to pay off our credit card within two months and continue to pay our loans on time. After that, we can spend two or three months paying back Andrew's dad, and then we should be able to start saving money and taking some trips. Thankfully the cost of living here is pretty cheap, especially since all of our utilities and rent and even our everyday medicine (like aspirin, couch syrup, etc.) is all paid for by our bosses. They gave us a generous advance on our salary when we arrived, and we're currently living on $12/day. And this includes shopping at Tesco, the big British supermarket where we get most of our groceries. I've been cooking all of our meals, mostly because we don't have the time, money, or courage to visit restaurants yet. But we have been eating a lot of Chinese food! Here's a picture of my ginger chicken:

Our vegetable lady at the market

There are some yummy desserts available in the bakeries here, but I have to say, no one does chocolate like the U.S. or western Europe.

For the moment Andrew is working 29 hours a week and I work 30. Basically my schedule is as follows: Thursday-Monday I see one student from 8:30-11:30am and another from 2:00-5:00pm. So far my week is only divided amongst three girls: Molly, Sandi, and Karen. So I see Molly pretty much every day and the other girls about three times a week. I helped Sandi choose her American name, and she chose my mother's! And on her birthday, too! Andrew has some individual classes with Sandi and Lily, but the bulk of his classes are two-hour time slots with groups of 12-15 students. The students are so serious, though! They always read through the chapter beforehand and do the exercises and they always ask for ways to help them learn. It really makes me step up my lesson plans and my preparation. They're paying a lot of money to have me as a private teacher, and they work so hard, the least I can do is be prepared and help them get ready for their exams. Helen and John are also workaholics. They don't usually take any days off in a week, especially during the summer. The language school is very popular, even though they don't do any advertising or recruiting. In fact, Helen is having to turn away students because between the three of us, we just don't have time to teach them all. Helen and John typically spend 12 hours a day at the school, Helen teaching and John handling administrative things and being a general handyman around the school. We might add some more hours to our schedule next week, and forfeit a day off. This boom will only last until the school year starts again and then we should be down to a more manageable time schedule.
Andrew's group class

Me and Sandi

Having individual classes is fun. We just sit and talk a bit, and then we read through a chapter in the textbook together, and then the last hour is spent doing exercises to help them prepare for the IELTS or the TOEFL exam, which are required English-language exams for foreigners who want to study in the states. I have a very good rapport with my students, especially Molly.
Me in front of the school

Yesterday, our first day off, Molly took us to the beach in Qinhuangdao. It was overcast and a little windy, so we just walked around and took note of the "Undersea World" and the "Dolphinarium" for a future visit. We then drove to a different beach and met Molly's parents for dinner at a very cool restaurant. In this restaurant, they had huge tanks of live seafood, including a tank with a mako shark, sea slugs, giant clams, the biggest crabs, lobsters, and shrimp I've ever seen, and even sea urchins! The idea is that you walk around and order your food. We let Molly's father deal with this part, as we were giggling over the sea creatures and too busy to pay attention to the menu. Our dinner was served in a private room overlooking the beach (private rooms are very popular in Chinese restaurants), and to begin we were served a Chinese "white wine," which was actually more like schnapps! It was so strong. In addition we were given tea and fruit flavored yogurt to drink. On the table was a large glass lazy susan, and our appetizers consisted of a strange nut, cold jellyfish salad, papaya in honey, chicken wings with chestnuts, and a bunch of different wrapped candies. Our first dish was a skewer with one giant shrimp on it. I love shrimp, so this was my favorite. Then was a skewer of an entire spicy fish. After that they brought out beef, a huge fish in a noodle sauce, sushi, and dumplings. They also gave each of us our own crab, which was pretty big and a little difficult to eat. We also tried sea slug, which was too rubbery and not very tasty. There were a couple of other dishes on the table, but I was too stuffed and nervous to eat any of it. You see, despite the fact that I've managed to eat five meals at home using chopsticks, I didn't do so well in public with them. I had a difficult time, and didn't feel really comfortable even when they brought me a fork and knife. But also, it was just way too much food! After every dish or so, Molly's dad would make a toast to us and require us to drink 1/2 or 1/4 of our "wine." He quickly gave up on me, but Andrew followed him drop for drop, which made him very interesting in the evening. To finish the meal was watermelon, dragon fruit, and cantalope. After dinner we walked around the pier and let our very full tummies digest.
Andrew, Molly, and me

Tonight Molly will be joining us for taco night at our place. We're going to make the tortillas by hand, I bought some $10 avocados for guacamole, and we have some shrimp and black beans and ground beef. The only thing we're missing is sour cream and cheese! Cheese is not really available here, which normally wouldn't be a problem for us, since we like to make our own, but you can't get fresh milk either! The only thing available is long-life boxed milk, which won't work for cheese-making.

We've found we can get most other things at the store here. The only things we're lacking are western-style spices, such as rosemary, thyme, basil, oregano, etc. We also can't find vanilla for baking or baking cocoa. We have a little oven so we should be able to bake some things, once we get some key ingredients. We're going to try the big supermarket in Beijing when we go next month, so we'll see what they have there! There's also a real shortage of English books here, so we're hoping to find some good reading material, too.

For those who'd like to send postcards or care packages, here's our address:

Nicole and Andrew Wallace
Ao Jia Language School
351 Wenhua Ave
Haigang District
Qinhuangdao City
Hebei Province
China 066000

We found the DVD "store" yesterday, and were able to score the Vampire Diaries, Season 1, Heroes, Seasons 1-4, and Spartacus Season 1, as well as all three Indiana Jones movies, for about $1.20 each! Yes, they are all pirated copies, but the quality is good and after a while you learn to ignore the Chinese subtitles. We also have a couple of English channels on the TV, including one that plays bad, never-even-knew-it-existed films, like Fair Game with Billy Baldwin and Cindy Crawford, and the Witches of Eastwick! Vampire Diaries was obviously my pick, and I actually enjoy it more than Twilight. It's not as awkward. Also, Stefan is HOT. But seriously, how did they get away with so blatantly plagiarizing Stephenie Meyers? Spartacus was Andrew's choice, and it really only has two types of scenes in it: very graphic sex scenes and very graphic battle scenes. Perfect for men.

Tomorrow it's back to the grind. I have to say, after working an almost-normal work week, I HATE it. It sucks being at work the entire day and not having any time or energy by the time you come home in the evening. This only makes me more freaked out to return to the states and "grow up" and "get a real job." It sucks working the 9-5! Anyone know of a part-time job that's fun and dynamic and pays a lot??? Seriously, my job is easy and fun, but it sucks when 90% of your waking day is taken up with work. The real world sucks. How do you all do it???

Here are some random photos from the past week:

View from our apartment at night
Crazy crosswalk
Near our apartment
Pretty tree

How's our Chinese coming along, you ask? Not very well. We don't have an official teacher, and anytime someone tries to teach us something, we can repeat it but it's always in such an informal setting that we can never remember it later. Andrew has been reading through a book, but even he can't really use what he learns. He can recognize some characters, but in terms of speaking, we're pretty incompetent. Luckily, body language works pretty well at getting what we want. I asked for some chili peppers at the market today, and when I asked how much (in Chinese) she responded with something that wasn't a number (I know the numbers, kind of). It took me forever to realize that they were a gift. Chinese is hard! I also think I'm a little worn out from language learning, and I'm not that interested in becoming fluent. But maybe when I get on a regular schedule and have a little more time to study, I'll pick things up. The pronunciation is the hardest. Andrew does a much better job than me. I still keep thinking in Bambara or French!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Another Country, Another Language

My arrival in Beijing, China marks my 25th country visited, my fifth inhabited, and my tenth language attempted (none of these include the U.S.). Wow.

After a long flight, we were greeted at the airport by Helen and John. Helen is the owner, principal, and fellow English teacher at Ao Jia Language School in Qinhuangdao, a medium sized city (of 3 million!) located about three hours east of Beijing. John is her husband and our resident fixer-upper, handyman, and Chinese teacher. John speaks about three words of barely recognizable English, but both are so sweet and welcoming. They met us at the airport with a huge bouquet of flowers, bottled drinks, and snacks for the long trip back to Qinhuangdao. We arrived at our apartment around 8pm. It's an awesome space! We have big leather couches, internet, a big TV, a really nice bedroom, bathroom, air conditioning, the works.
Our bedroom
View into the bathroom from the bedroom
Living Room

They then took us out to dinner at what can only be described as a "meat restaurant." There's no ordering; you sit down, and a procession of waiters brings out different meats on a skewer and cuts you off a piece of each type (be sure to say no to the chicken hearts). It was a fun and tasty experience, and thankfully the norm was to eat with a fork and knife. I wouldn't be so lucky in future days.

We collapsed into bed and slept until 10:30am the next morning. We met Helen and John at noon when they took us out to yet another restaurant, this one more "Chinese." I had the best sweet-and-sour pork I've ever had, and the dumplings were delicious. Here I showed my real ineptitude for the chopsticks, which would become the bane of my existence, and after some pathetic attempts to put food in my mouth, they took pity on me and dug up a fork from a dusty drawer somewhere. After lunch, one of my students, Molly, met us and took us to the giant supermarket, Tesco, to help us with our shopping. Tesco is really awesome and has Skippy peanut butter, brown sugar, and pretty much everything but pasta. Oops. Did I mention that pasta is a staple of our culinary life? I think monthly trips to Beijing might be needed to remedy this situation. I wouldn't mind making my own, but I doubt I can find semolina flour here.

After shopping it was time for yet more food, this time at a seafood restaurant. Did I mention that Helen's entire family accompanied us? This restaurant was a seafood buffet and hot pot extravaganza. The idea is, you take as much raw fish as you want, including eel, octopus, ray, shark, etc., and you give it to the cook, who then cooks it for you. While you're waiting, you take easy things like shrimp and mushrooms and lots of unidentifiable stuff, and you throw it into a pan of simmering water that sits on your table. When your food is done, you scoop it out and eat it. I found this so overwhelming, especially since they didn't have any forks at this place! I was so embarrassed and ended up eating pretty much nothing but shrimp, as it meant I could use my hands to peel off the head and shell and legs (very appetizing, I know).

I spent the next day trying to master the chopsticks, but to no avail. In frustration, I threw the chopsticks at the wall and packed a fork in my purse for future use. I'm planning on ordering some rookie chopsticks like I used to have in the states, as soon as I can find someone to ship them to me.

Today was spent at the police station, validating our visas, and completing a training with Helen. We looked through the dozens of books we're supposed to use in our curriculum and received our schedules. I will be teaching all individual classes for the summer at least, while Andrew will have mostly group classes. I'll have one student for three hours in the morning, and another for three hours in the afternoon, for a total of 24 hours a week. Classes begin on Thursday.
Our textbooks

I haven't taken many pictures, because it's been rainy here and very hazy, and because we're still in the process of unpacking so the apartment is a little messy right now. Also, we haven't been out much because we've been so jet lagged, so there isn't much to show. For the moment, here's a picture of the park near our place. You can see all the skyscrapers in the background.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Italy on a Budget

Somehow Andrew and I managed to complete a 20 day vacation through Italy on about 1,500 . That's the total cost, not individual costs. Granted, we didn't have to pay for airfare, but even still, the purpose of this post is to offer everyone out there a cheap alternative to visiting Europe.

Here's a breakdown of what we spent, by city (again, costs are for the two of us):

Venice (Day 1):
Train tickets from southern France to Turino to Padova (near Venice): 107.00.

Venice (Day 2):
Train ticket into Venice from Padova: 2.90
Coffee: 7.00
Entrance to Ducale Palace: 26.00
Lunch at a restaurant: 30.00
Train to Padova: 5.80
Venice (Day 3):
Train into Venice: 5.80
Vaporetto ride: 6.50
Lunch: 5.00
Masks: 9.00
Train into Padova: 5.80
Dinner: 13.00
Florence (Day 1):
Train from Venice to Florence: 46.00
Hostel (Ospitale delle Rifiorenze): 32.00
Bus fare: 2.20
Train tickets to Pisa: 25.00
Dinner: 9.00
Florence (Day 2):
Entrance to the Dome: 16.00
Groceries: 8.00
Lunch: 7.00
Hostel: 30.00
Breakfast: 1.80
Boboli Garden Entrance: 10.00
Florence (Day 3):
Entrance to the Uffizi: 10.00
Groceries: 8.00
Lunch: 6.00
Siena (Day 1):
Train from Florence to Siena: 12.60
Hostel (Camping Colleverde): 45.00
Lunch: 15.00
Dinner: 12.00
Bus fare: 2.00
Siena (Day 2):
Hostel: 45.00
Entrance to the Cathedral: 6.00
Gelato: 4.00
Dinner: 17.00
Bus fare: 2.00
Mantua/Ravenna (Day 1):
Train from Siena to Faenza: 22.70
Lunch: 8.00
Mantua/Ravenna (Day 2):
Lunch: 8.00
Dinner: 25.00
Mantua/Ravenna (Day 3):
Train tickets Ravenna to Mantua: 21.00
Entrance to Palazzo Te: 10.50
Lunch: 5.00
Dinner: 16.00
Train tickets from Mantua to Ravenna: 21.00
Mantua/Ravenna (Day 4):
Lunch: 10.00
Dinner: 5.50
Naples (Day 1):
Train tickets from Rome to Naples: 21.00
Hostel (Hostel Pensione Mancini): 32.00
Naples (Day 2):
Hostel: 32.00
Train tickets from Naples to Pompeii: 6.60
Entrance to Pompeii: 10.00
Lunch: 17.00
Train tickets from Pompeii to Naples: 6.60
Dinner: 4.00
Naples (Day 3):
Hostel: 32.00
Train tickets from Naples to Sorrento: 7.20
Lunch: 3.50
Bus tickets: 2.20
Train tickets from Meta to Naples: 5.80
Dinner: 3.50
Rome (Day 1):
Train tickets from Naples to Rome: 21.00
3-Day Metro Pass: 22.00
Hostel (Camping Tiber Roma): 22.00
Lunch: 7.00
Dinner: 14.00
Groceries: 9.00
Rome (Day 2):
Hostel: 22.00
Medicine: 18.44
Breakfast: 5.00
Entrance to Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine: 7.50
Souvenirs: 7.00
Lunch: 4.50
Headphones: 5.00
Dinner: 10.50
Rome (Day 3):
Hostel: 22.00
Catacombs: 16.00
Lunch: 6.00
Dinner: 26.00
Photos with Gladiator: 5.00
Rome (Day 4):
Hostel: 22.00
Entrance to Vatican Museums: 23.00
Lunch: 11.00
Metro tickets: 8.00
Dinner: 19.00
Rome (Day 5):
Train tickets to the airport: 28.00
Lunch: 10.00
Gelato: 5.00

Total cost of trip, (excluding random expenses, such as: souvenirs, gelato stops, and bottled water): 1,363.44, or $1,716.43. Average cost per day, including lodging, food, transport, and all admission fees: 68.17. Not bad at all for two people! So how did we do it?

General Money Saving Tips:

1) Couchsurfing: For those who don't know, Couchsurfing is a free database of hosts around the world who offer a free place to sleep to travellers. It may sound a little shady, but serious CS'ers have their identity verified as well as a ton of personal references from travellers who have stayed with them. We weren't too lucky in our searches, as we only found a CS'er in Padova to host us, but still, three nights of free lodging is pretty awesome! The best part of this is the cultural exchange. Our host cooked for us, took us to hard-to-get-to sites nearby, and gave us a wealth of information about visiting Venice. And because we were CS'ers, we were able to stay one night for free at our hostel in Florence! It also helped that our friend Meagan hosted us at her place for four nights. Thanks to her, we were able to save a bundle on lodging, got a chance to cook in her kitchen, and, most importantly, got to see a familiar face from home!

2) Regional Trains: In Italy, fast trains are expensive. The slow trains that require you to change stations several times during the course of your journey are much cheaper. Sure, it was a pain in the butt with all our luggage, but it was worth the money we saved. Also, the rail passes that exist are NOT worth it if you want to travel cheaply. If you're concerned about saving time as opposed to money, these work well because you can travel on the faster trains, but the expense wasn't worth it for us.

3) Campsites: These are usually located a little bit out of the city, but it's not impossible to reach them, just a little inconvenient. They also are more likely to have a swimming pool, laundry facilities, and their own market, bar, and restaurant. And of course, they're usually cheaper than hostels or hotels located in the city! Sometimes they'll even have kitchen facilities so you can prepare your own food, a double discount bonus. You can find some great deals on HostelWorld and

4) Being under 26, a student, or an E.U. teacher: One good thing France gave us was our teacher cards, which scored us all sorts of discounts at museums around Italy. Sometimes, they also offer discounts for students or those under 26 who live in Europe. Even if you're just studying abroad, the visa in your passport is often enough proof to get you this discount.

5) Grocery Stores: Know where they are. One of the first things to ask when checking into your hotel is "Where's the nearest grocery store?" Here, you can stock up on bread, meats, cheeses, and most importantly, alcohol. We usually ate at least one meal a day from a grocery store, and it saved us tons of money.

6) Free water fountains: These abound in Italy, France, and I imagine other European countries, if you know what to look for. Much cheaper than buying bottled water, perfectly safe to drink, and has the added bonus of allowing you to drink from a dog's snout faucet or a gargoyle shaped fountain.

7) Street food: While it can get tiresome, eating slices of pizza or a quick panini is much cheaper than eating in a restaurant. Basically, if you don't need to sit down to eat it, it's cheap. I'm talking fat pizza slices for 1.50, paninis for 2.50.

8) Walk: Instead of taking the metro, tram, or bus, walk around the city. It's a much better way to see the sights, get a feel for the city, and save money in the process. Alternatively, you can try your luck by hopping on public transit without paying. Conductors rarely check your ticket, though the fine is hefty if they catch you. To save on transport money, book your hostel near the train station so you don't have to pay money for transport to and from with all your luggage.

I hope someone eventually finds this useful, and maybe some of you now have the desire to travel, seeing how cheap it can be?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Rome, FINALLY!!!

Yes, quite possibly the cutest couple EVER

We arrived in Rome around 9:00am after a three hour train from Naples. We checked into our hotel, a camping site outside the city, and were pleasantly surprised to find that the separate dorm beds we had booked at a steal of 11 euro a night were overbooked. The hotel offered us instead a private room at the same price for the four nights we were in Rome. This was great news, not least because Andrew was still up all night coughing his lungs out and was worried about keeping 19 other guys awake all night. Instead, he just kept me up. ;)

We weren’t able to check into our room yet because it was so early, so instead we headed back into the city center, about a 20-30 minute train trip.

Trevi Fountain

We stopped by the Trevi Fountain first, and then tried to have lunch at a restaurant nearby, but when they found out that we wanted to share the menu of the day (not a cheap menu, either) they wouldn't let us. Andrew was really sick and didn’t have much of an appetite, and we were trying to save money, so sharing a three course meal seemed the best option. We were pretty peeved when they said we couldn’t share so we walked away and instead grabbed some sandwiches to go. Our next stop was the Pantheon, which was a tad disappointing to me.

Back of the Pantheon

It’s one of the best preserved buildings in all of Rome, and the inside is beautiful, but I was expecting more of a classical mark on the place. Because it was eventually converted into a Christian church, all the Roman statues had been replaced with Christian ones. Like I said in an earlier post, if I ever see another Madonnna and Child or a statue of Jesus on the cross, I’m going to throw something across the room. Here, we also saw the tombs of the first president of Italy and the artist Raphael.

After cooling off in the Pantheon, we re-entered the heat and walked to Piazza Navona. This was a pretty square with the famous Bernini fountain, The Four Rivers.

At this point, I, too, was feeling really sick so we took the long trip back to our campsite to spend the rest of the afternoon recuperating. Unfortunately, our room was like a little furnace, which made napping difficult. We managed a little bit of rest before splitting a plate of tagliatelle, clams, mussels, and calamari in a cream sauce at the wonderful (and reasonably priced) restaurant on the campsite. Around 9pm we called it a day and went to bed.

The next morning began with a stop at the doctor’s office in Rome for Andrew. I was feeling much better, but he was considerably worse. It took us a while to find the place, but thankfully one of the doctors spoke English and the entire staff was really friendly. We were seen within a couple of minutes of arriving, and after examining Andrew they gave him some steroid shots to allow him to breathe a little better and a prescription for antibiotics and an anti-inflammatory. The medical visit was free, and the medication at the pharmacy was only 18 euros. Feeling better, we made our way to the Colosseum and joined the long line to get inside. After about an hour’s wait, Andrew decided that while he could breathe better and wasn’t coughing as much, he felt really out of it and wanted to return to the hotel. He left and I entered the Colosseum on my own.

Secret passageways under the Colosseum

I thankfully had an audioguide to keep me company during my afternoon in Paris, as I spent hours wandering the Colosseum, Forum, and Palatine Hill. My favorite part of the day was the Forum. I got to see where the Senate used to meet, and where Marcus Anthony made his famous “Friends, Romans, countrymen…” speech, and where Julius Caesar’s body was burned after his death.

Caesar's burial

Roman Forum

Around 5pm I was starting to feel a little sick again, probably from dehydration and heat exhaustion, so I returned to the hotel and checked on Andrew, who was feeling loads better. That night we ate at the restaurant again, sharing a plate of linguini with calamari and lobster in a red sauce and a glass of Chianti. Andrew finally slept the night through with very little coughing, so the next morning we headed to town early.

On the itinerary was the Via Appia (where Spartacus was crucified, if you remember) and the catacombs of St. Callistus. The catacombs were where the Christians buried their loved ones in secret back when the Romans declared Christianity illegal. They cut into the tuffa stone little niches just big enough for the body and then covered the outside with a piece of slab. There were lots of spaces for babies. About 500,000 people have been discovered buried there in the 20km (of 300km!) of the catacombs that have been excavated thus far. We were both disappointed in the tour, as we weren’t actually able to see any of the bodies. We just saw the empty crevices and a mosaic or fresco here and there.

Catacombs of St. Callistus

It took most of the morning and afternoon to get to and from the catacombs, so we returned to Rome in the afternoon pretty late, around 2pm. The real catastrophe of the day is that I somehow lost my sunglasses during the day and had to buy new ones. Once we were back in Rome, we stopped by the Colosseum to get some (cheesy) photos taken with “gladiators,” who charge a ridiculous 5 euro to pose with you.

We also stopped by the once-great Circus Maximus, or racetrack, but it’s just a stretch of dirt now and there’s nothing to see.

We popped across the Tiber River to the Trastevere, a trendy little neighborhood with not much to do. Along the way we saw the world’s smallest inhabited island, Isola di Tibernina. It’s home to a large hospital that used to be a temple to Asclepius, god of healing and medicine. Rome’s oldest standing bridge, Ponte Fabricio, connects the hospital with the left bank. Nearby you can also see the remnants of Rome’s first ever stone bridge, which stands eerily out of the water like some tall, stone island.

Ponte Fabricio

Andrew also found the “Mouth of Truth,” a giant ancient manhole cover that has an interesting legend to it. If you stick your hand inside the mouth and tell a lie, the mouth supposedly bites off your hand.

We ended our long tour for the day at the Spanish Steps, a large staircase commissioned by the French, leading up to a French church. Not really sure where the name comes from…It’s a popular lover’s spot.

From there, we discovered a cheap, popular Chinese restaurant and jumped on the chance to eat something that didn’t belong to the holy trinity of Italian food: Pizza, Pasta, and Panini. We told ourselves we were getting ready for our big move to China, but the truth of it was, we were just sick of Italian food (and prices!). We returned late to the hostel that night, and unfortunately, Andrew was literally up all night coughing and hacking, again. Neither of us slept more than two hours.

Since our last full day in Rome was to be a trip to the Vatican (notorious for its long lines), we ignored our burning eyes and tired limbs and climbed out of bed at 6:00am. The rest of the day we were both a little like zombies as we moved through the Vatican Museums and St. Peter’s Basilica, which took all the morning and a good part of the afternoon. I wasn’t overly impressed with the exhibits, though it was neat to see the Pope Mobile!

Still not over our aversion to the three P’s, we stopped at Burger King for one last taste of home before our departure to the east. We said goodbye to Rome and headed back to our hostel around 7:00pm, where we showered off the humidity of the day, mopped up the freak rainstorm that had poured through our window during the day, and repacked our bags. We threw out everything we possibly could, in fear of having to pay the 47 euro/kilo charged by our airline. We ate a nice dinner in the restaurant, Andrew having a plate of canneloni, me the tagliatelle with seafood in a pesto sauce, and a pitcher of cold white wine. Andrew bowed out early from dinner and went to bed, and thankfully was able to sleep through the night without disruptions. This morning we grabbed our bags and made it to the airport in plenty of time to catch our flight, which is where our Europe blog ends. The next time I post, we’ll be in Asia.