Monday, December 29, 2008

Whirlwind Tour

My internet access over the last couple of weeks has left a lot to be desired. I have been traveling almost constantly since December 15. It took me 19 hours door to door from my apartment in Copenhagen to my friends' place just outside Amsterdam. I slept a bit on the train, and thankfully nothing was stolen.

Our flight from the Netherlands to Barcelona was at some ungodly hour I can´t even recall. We didn't sleep the night before, and took a train to Eindhoven at four in the morning. Discount airlines suck for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones is their association with airports in the middle of nowhere.

For the first couple of nights in Barcelona we stayed with a friend of mine from high school. He was wrapping up his stay in Europe as well, and showed us as much as he could in 48 hours. I have to say, I had never really thought about going to Spain when I thought about traveling around Europe, but I loved it. I almost felt like I could live in Barcelona. It reminded me a good deal of Los Angeles because of the weather, the terrain, and the atmosphere. It was better in some ways, thanks to good public transit and Gaudi artwork sprinkled all over the city. No Mexican food though. Very tragic. I really fell in love with the place after only four days. I will be back.

Marrakech was next. I have never been somewhere like it. Hell, I haven't even read about somewhere like it. It was the most hectic place I have seen, heard, or smelled. All three senses work overtime in a place like Marrakech. At all hours, the streets are filled with people, motorized scooters, beggars, urchins, trash, animals, smoke, and loud noises. One only manages to take their eyes off the insanity in the middle of the street because of what is on the sides of almost every street. Hundreds of shops line the twisted and unmarked rues, from old women on dirty sheets to large well-lit stores. Many places sell the same sorts of things: leather goods, handmade wooden tchotchkes, scarves, spices, teapots, bootleg movies, exotic pets and everything in between. In the main square people rush to hand you monkeys or put cobras around your neck so they can demand payment thirty seconds later.

Good shopkeepers spot Westerners from a mile away, and start calling out to you in many languages. Monsieur! Est-ce que tu veux?, Hola Amigo!, Good price! Morocco was a French colony, so knowing some Francais goes a long way, but I got to practice my Spanish too.

Then comes the bartering. At first, Marrakech is so cheap that it almost doesn't cross your mind. They use the dirham, which is about 1/11th of a Euro. A tall glass of the best tasting orange juice I have ever had was 90 euro cents. We got ripped off because we paid 13 euro for a 20 minute cab for three plus luggage when we first arrived. You quickly learn that nearly every price in the city is not only negotiable, but that the first price you hear may be 500% of what you could ultimately pay with some skillful banter. There is a certain etiquette you have to figure out, but once you have it down buying things becomes quite fun. If you ask for the price of something in a shop or stall, it is generally assumed that you are genuinely interested in it. If you end up not buying the item, even after a large drop in the item's price, it is seen as rude. Then again, this could just be another negotiating tactic.

Needless to say, I did all my Christmas shopping in Marrakech. I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the city as well. Excellent cheap food abounds, but it is a third world city. My friend got sick while we were there, and I think it was probably the water or something. We rode camels, checked out the sites, and wandered. I loved my few days, but it's unlikely that I will return anytime soon. When I do, I certainly won't stay in a hostel.

Madrid was next. We saw almost none of that city. We stayed with my friend's family and celebrated Christmas with them and their two beautiful kids. It was very nice to have some semblance of holiday tradition for my first Christmas spent out of the country. I am by no means religious, but I do enjoy this time of the year for spending time with family. We ate well, relaxed, and played with the children. I am sad to have not seen Madrid, especially the Prado. I'll be back though.

I am now in Lisbon, and have been for a couple of days. I love this city. I can't help but compare it to San Fransisco. Seven hills, on the bay with a Golden Gate-esque bridge, trolley cars, and pretty decent weather. Every sidewalk and street is paved with these little cobblestones, often in cool designs (slippery though). There are statues and arches and fountains everywhere. It reeks of the Enlightenment. Also, it's pretty cheap compared to the rest of Europe. There are museums everywhere it seems, and good views to be had from castles and skyscrapers alike. It doesn't hurt that we are staying the best hostel I have ever been in. It's called the Living Lounge, and feels like a hotel. Great design, very clean, big bathrooms, free DVDs to watch and internet to use. I'm almost tempted to leave a review of this place on the site we booked with.

Tomorrow we head to our last stop, jolie Paris. We will be there through New Years, and probably spend too much money. Our good friend who is about to begin a semester abroad in London is going to meet us there. There isn't a city I would rather be in to end this journey and this year. I will probably spend 6 hours or so in the Orsay alone. We'll be on the Champs-Elysées or the Sacré Coeur for the actual countdown, hopefully with a bottle of champagne in hand. I can't wait.

That's enough. I might throw up some pictures in a couple weeks when I get back to my real computer.

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