HelloEurope! Part 5: Wherein everything goes wrong at the eleventh hour… several times

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This post begins where the last one left off: with vomit. Poor Alex heaved and retched the whole ride to the airport, and I’m not going to continue this line of thought because it’s nasty and I’m about to hurl right now just thinking about it.

But hopefully you get the point, because that actually wasn’t the worst of our problems there at the Heathrow airport. Because we didn’t get out the door in a timely manner (typical, I can hear my mom say), there wasn’t a lot of time to sort out the problem of not having all our tickets printed out. Apparently, Dad had only printed his own ticket while thinking he had printed all of them. And printing the rest there at the airport would cost a ridiculous amount of money.

So some negotiating happened. Some running around happened. Some line cutting (and subsequently being cussed out) happened. It was all very stressful. Mom was ready to cut the rest of the trip off and just go home. Dad was determined to make it work as cheaply as possible. Alex was off hugging a toilet somewhere. And this was all happening so early in the morning, the sun hadn’t even come up yet.

By the time Dad finally got us checked in, our flight was already boarding. We weren’t even past security yet. Everyone and their mothers seemed to be trying to get through at that exact moment, so we coughed up some more money to use the “express” lane, like we were at an amusement park but without any amusement. We then booked it to our gate which, you guessed it, was aaaaaaall the way at the other end of the terminal. Poor Alex and Emma. I was sweating and feeling queasy, so I can only imagine what that mad dash through the airport was like for them.

But we made it. Just barely. And before we knew it, we were in Rome.

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Glorious.

I’m going to be honest and admit that I have no idea why we went to Rome of all places. I mean, it’s not exactly in the neighborhood of London, which is where we started this whole trip. Ireland and Scotland would’ve made sense, but Italy’s quite a bit out of the way. And the distance between London and Rome is roughly the same as between Fresno and Dallas, TX, but have we ever gone to Dallas? No. Well, actually, we did, later in this trip. But that’s irrelevant. Point is, there is no logical explanation for why Rome got added to the itinerary.

But the fun thing about it is that no logical explanation is needed. I went to Germany and London and Cambridge and Rome (and Vatican City, spoiler alert), all in one summer. How cool is that?!

Answer: hella cool.

Answer: hella cool.

Rather than stay in a hotel in Rome, we rented an apartment. In the big picture, this was a good idea, and something I’d highly recommend. We were in a great location, we had a kitchen and laundry room, we didn’t have to worry about maids going through our stuff…. Pro Travel Trip #5: Don’t use hotels. I don’t know what service my dad used in Rome, but I’ve heard great things about AirBnB. It’s similar to what we did. You can rent a whole place or just a room. They’re usually very affordable. You get all these amenities that make you feel like you live there. It’s just a more authentic experience.

Getting into our apartment wasn’t smooth (but don’t let our misfortune turn you away from the idea). There’d been a miscommunication with what time the apartment owner was supposed to meet us, so we had to wait around for him to hurry over. The doorman of the apartment complex, however, wouldn’t let us wait in the lobby. At least, that’s what we understood from his tone and wild hand gestures; he didn’t speak English. As the guy yelled at us and we tried to explain ourselves, a lady who lived in the complex happened to walk by and began translating for us. She calmed the guy down, but he was still adamant about us not being in the lobby. So she offered to let us leave our luggage in her apartment while we waited at the nearby fountain.

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Hanging out with the locals is more exciting than hanging out with tourists.

Practically every neighborhood in Rome (perhaps in all of Italy, as well) had its own little community square with a fountain. It’s “the” place to meet up with friends, relax in the middle of activities, or hang out with coworkers during siestas. Or wait for the guy with the keys to let you into your apartment. Unfortunately, at the time of day we had to sit there, all shade was gone. Summer in Rome is pretty much the same as summer in Fresno: dry, hot, and awful. Alex was no longer vomiting, but both he and Emma laid lethargically on the fountain edge. Dad, Mom, and I were pretty uncomfortable, too.

The guy eventually came, and we finished our day doing laundry, taking showers, and enjoying the A/C.

Our humble home for the week.

Our humble home for the week.

Our first full day was pretty chill, too. We walked around the neighborhood a little bit, finding some local pizzerias, markets, and gelato shops. Mom made spaghetti for lunch, and it was probably the best damn spaghetti I’ve had in my entire life. Dinner, on the other hand, was less than spectacular. We ended up getting suckered into a tourist trap of a restaurant that charged way too much for pasta that tasted like it had been reheated. We stuck to homemade meals and our favorite pizzeria for the rest of the week.

The next day we all felt rested and healed enough to actually see some sites. We bought a two-day pass that gave us access to the Roman Forum, Colosseum, and all ruins in between. That first sightseeing day we only made it through the Forum area.

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At least there aren’t any stairs…

Yes, at first glance it is just a bunch of rock and rubble strewn around in some dirt. Compared to the castles in Germany and dungeons in London, the sites here seemed almost nonexistent. But then you start to really look at that slab of rock that a placard says was the foundation of some well-to-do Roman citizen’s house, and you take in the little hole in the ground that supposedly was the burial site of Julius Caesar, and you walk along the broken columns and statues of an old bathhouse… And you realize that this is two thousand year old history. People used to live here so many generations ago that their lineage probably can no longer be traced. People used to walk through here, going about their daily business, living in a culture that is now so ancient we have to study it in school. People made decisions in this very spot with no idea that thousands of years later some random family from a place that’s not even on a map yet would come by to wonder what these now crumbling structures meant to them.

Maybe it was just the heat and dehydration that made me have those crazy, existential thoughts. But history is beautiful and mind-blowing, and if you can’t appreciate a bit of rock for what it used to be two thousand years ago, then how can you appreciate anything, honestly?

Just look at how history and present day can exist side-by-side and tell me that's not remarkable.

Just look at how history and present day can exist side-by-side and tell me that’s not remarkable.

That evening Mom led the way to St. Peter in Chains (or San Pietro in Vincoli), a church with some pretty remarkable artifacts. The chains that held St. Peter were there, as well as Michelangelo’s statue of Moses and some cool frescos and mosaics. But because this trip was still on a downward spiral, I couldn’t admire any of it because now I wasn’t feeling well.

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Like I could complain, though. Others have had it worse.

It was probably a remnant of what Alex and Em had, coupled with the heat and dehydration of walking around Rome in the summer. As we left the church to then see the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, I gave up. I took Em back to the apartment with me because she was getting cranky, and proceeded to toss and turn in bed with some weird stomach ache for the rest of the evening. Later that night I vomited.

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Mostly out of illness, a little bit out of jealousy.

I felt weak and had a small fever the next day, so my family also went to the Colosseum without me. Now, the Colosseum is more than just a bit of rock and dirt. It’s pretty amazing. I had walked by it while touring the Forum, and would later drive by it on the way to the airport, but I never got to go inside. I would feel just crappy enough for the rest of the week to not be able to go. This easily tops my biggest regrets in life list.

Looking at a picture just isn't the same...

Looking at a picture just isn’t the same…

Before coming back, my family had stopped by a market to pick up some dinner items. The story goes that some big drunk guy started threatening Dad in one of the isles for no reason. Dad says the guy was so close to throwing a punch before the store manager shooed him away. See what you miss when you get sick? An iconic historical site, and your dad almost getting knocked out in a grocery store.

Friday (I think it was Friday… keeping track of the days of the week is kinda pointless while on vacation), we all went out to the Vatican. Fun Fact: Vatican City is the world’s smallest country. So technically, I’ve been to four countries outside of the U.S. I was still feeling weak and had to sit down a lot. Emma was still struggling, too. She got a slight fever again and we had to cut our walk through one of the museums short so she could rest. What we did see in the museums was pretty incredible. Ancient Egyptian mummies and artifacts, iconic paintings and statues and tapestries…. Have I ever mentioned on this blog that I love museums? Because I do. I really, really do.

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A doorway to fun.

To get to the Sistine Chapel you have to walk through the world’s longest hallway along with, like, a thousand other people. And when you get to the Chapel, you realize it really is just a small chapel of a room and not the grand cathedral you expected. No pictures were allowed inside. And there were seriously people whose job it was to just walk around saying Shhh! any time you opened your mouth to breathe.

St. Peter’s Basilica was much more grand. We toured it in shifts so someone could stay outside with Emma while she slept on a bench. Call it a miracle or mere coincidence, but she would later wake up and feel almost 100% better for the rest of the trip.

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Incredible architecture does have that effect on people.

The Basilica really is amazing, though. I don’t want to rush past this part because it deserves to be ooh-ed and aah-ed over. So many popes and saints had their tombs in here. Statues everywhere. The ceiling itself could take hours to stare at. And then you walk outside and there’s even more.

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Marvelous.

We even found a pinecone statue.

Apparently the Vatican is a fertile place.

Apparently the Vatican is a fertile place.

I don’t remember what we did on our last day, probably because I still wasn’t feeling well and thus just hung around the apartment like a lazy sack of potatoes. Sorry, can you tell I’m really upset with myself? Pro Travel Tip #6: Don’t get sick. I know it’s not exactly something you can control, but it really does ruin the whole trip. So maybe a better tip would be pretend you aren’t sick. Take some pain meds, get over yourself, and make your expensive flight to the other side of the planet worth it.

Here's a quick reminder to check back at my gallery of food pics. Newly added: homemade Italian food in Italy!

Here’s a quick reminder to check back at my gallery of food pics. Newly added: homemade Italian food in Italy!

And now we come to the end of our journey, but it’s not quite the end of the craziness. The big problem of the day was figuring out how to get to the airport. Both of our flights (Alex and I would fly separately from the rest of the fam) were early in the morning, and because you have to be at the airport even earlier, there was no way we’d be able to take the underground or get a taxi. We ended up getting a nearby hotel to talk a taxi driver into picking us up late the night before, and we spent an uncomfortable night in the airport.

Right beneath this weird sculpture that everyone felt compelled to take pictures of. Awkward much?

Right beneath this weird sculpture that everyone felt compelled to take pictures of. Awkward much?

What made things even worse was Alex losing his bag, which contained his passport, wallet, and camera. He had accidentally left it on a hook in the bathroom, and by the time he went back to get it, it was gone. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a such a look of panic and despair than on my brother’s face at that moment. Dad talked with security while Alex ran up and down the terminal, looking to see if anyone had it. I don’t know how long this went on for; time sort of disappears in moments like these. It seemed like forever.

Alex decided to take another look in the bathroom, just in case. After some time, he emerged … miraculously, thankfully … with his bag. He had just happened to look up and notice the strap hanging out of a panel in the ceiling. His theory is that the janitors, who had been cleaning when he first went in, stashed it up there and planned to come back for it later. All the contents were still inside, and we once again dodged disaster.

Alex and I eventually left Dad, Mom, and Em to board our own flight. Ours had layovers in Heathrow and Dallas, but it was the stop in Heathrow that put the icing on this whole let’s-make-everything-difficult-for-the-Edins business. For one, Alex got pulled over by security for an extra pat down because, you know, gingers don’t have souls so they must be terrorists. Then, we sat on the plane for half an hour before being ushered right back off. There was something wrong with something, I don’t even remember anymore, and we had to wait back in the terminal while they changed planes. No one would give us any answers as to when everything would be worked out, but we were given free food vouchers because that solves problems.

Hours went by, and I was losing it. So much had happened and all I wanted was to go home. To see my cats. To sleep in my own bed. Alex paid money to use a computer and send an email to Mom and Dad, and Grandma, so they’d know what was going on. That was our only communication.

When we finally got to board a new plane, Alex was pulled over yet again by security. Like he was going to turn into a different person with different motives while waiting a few hours in the terminal? Whatever. We fly off to Dallas but don’t get in until midnight. Because pretty much everyone on the plane with us missed their connection flight out, we were given free accommodations at a nearby hotel. We paid to call Mom and Dad, who didn’t sound as worried as we’d expected, and ended the long day watching the Olympics closing ceremony on TV.

Now, we’d been told upon landing that only two flights were leaving for Fresno the next day, one in the morning and one in the evening. Obviously the one in the morning was booked, so we were scheduled for the evening one. This created more problems, since we were required to check out of the hotel by noon and didn’t want to wait around at yet another airport. So, we took a chance. We checked out early, went back to the airport, and spoke with this classically old southern lady about possibly getting on the morning flight instead. She called us dears and sweeties and looked about ready to give us a hug and feed us apple pie. I don’t for sure remember her name, but I want to say it was Phyllis.

So Phyllis put us on a waiting list for the morning flight and told us to try our luck and hang out at the gate. She said sometimes people cancel last minute or don’t make their flight and seats open up. We went ahead to the gate, waited a little bit, and wouldn’t you know it, we got on! We wanted to skip and dance we were so thrilled. Our flight to Fresno went off without a hitch, and in the blink of an eye, we were HOME! And I just want to add, it is a really bizarre feeling to come back to suburban California after being in historic European cities for so long. I definitely felt some reverse-culture shock for a while.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is the end of the Great Europe Adventure of 2012. I mentioned all the way back in Part 1 (posted circa a decade ago) that this trip was the best thing to ever happen to me. Though now that you know the details, you might wonder if that was a joke. I can understand. Crazy mishaps with your family in foreign countries are rarely seen as “the best thing ever.” And that’s okay. If there’s any lesson to be learned here, it’s that whatever happens, happens. And you can get upset and turn those experiences into regrets and refuse to talk about them with your relatives at Christmas. Or, you can move past the in-the-moment feelings of worry, boredom, and fear, and look back fondly on all the moments that came together to make up your life.

And with some free time and a couple turns of phrases, you can then dump those memories into a blog and pretend that other people want to read about it.

Good times. Good. Times.

Good times. Good. Times.

HelloEurope! Part 1: Wherein I embark on the most epic adventure of my life with only 4 hours of sleep

HelloEurope Let’s take a trip down memory lane, shall we?

I’ve never considered myself, or my family for that matter, very travel-y. Sure, we’ve done the Disneyland thing a few times, and ventured out-of-state to the wild and distant land known as Oregon. But I’ve never been to Yosemite. Or the Grand Canyon. The one time I went to Vegas was with my dad on a business trip, and it was pretty freaking boring. My family’s “big vacation” every year was to the same small town on the coast – which is my favorite place in the world, mind you, but the only part of the Pacific Ocean I ever saw for the longest time. And this is just typical West Coast stuff. Forget cross country road trips and time zone changes. As a family, we just didn’t go anywhere.

That’s why the summer of 2012 was a pretty big deal for my family. For some reason, as soon as it was announced that London would eventually be hosting the summer Olympics, my dad had it in his mind that we were going. As the years went on and we began to save and daydream more, the plan expanded to include “nearby” places like Rome (a weekend in Paris was on the list at one point but we later opted for the less-stressful Cambridge, which – foreshadow alert – ended up being stressful anyway). My uncle had recently moved to southern Germany as well, so Dad decided to send my brother and me over there two weeks ahead of the rest of the family, because why not? In the year of turning 18, graduating high school, and acquiring a driver’s license, this was supposed to be the best thing that had ever happened me.

And, spoiler alert, it pretty much was.

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Though poor Luna would probably consider it the most tragic thing to ever happen.

Now, I considered London to be the heart of the trip, so that was what I talked about and planned for. The other places seemed cool, but I didn’t know what to expect (and didn’t really feel like researching) so I figured I’d let Germany and Rome surprise me. But in retrospect, I could have really done with some research on Germany. I knew nothing about the country outside of history lessons. The only German word I knew was hallo, and I’m pretty sure a two year old could guess what that means, so it doesn’t count as any level of language proficiency. I didn’t even know what we would be doing the whole time. German things? It was a mystery, and added a level of ambivalence, to be quite honest.

That said, I was still pretty excited to be traveling, and thus barely slept at all the night before. Later, as I would begin to get my feet wet in college and try a whole assortment of new experiences, I would find this to be a pattern with me. First day of school tomorrow? No sleep tonight. Job interview the next day? Not gonna sleep. Whether I’m excited, nervous, or a little of both, the thought that something new is going to happen, something I have no experience with, just sucks all the sleepiness right out of me.

But anyway. No sleep. Airport early in the morning. I felt great. Completely clueless about what was coming, but eager to embrace whatever it was anyway. Alex and I sat around the Fresno Airport Terminal (a stunningly bland name until you look at the initials and burst into a fit of juvenile giggles, which I totally did not do) with Dad for what seemed like forever, only to go through security and then wait around some more. Apparently that’s the thing about airports, if you’ve never been in one. It’s all about waiting. Check in early, and then wait. Go through security, and then wait. Board the plane, and then wait. Land, and then wait. It’s pretty insightful to see how certain people handle their impatient-ness, because let’s be honest here, nobody is perfectly fine with that amount waiting. For example, there are the pacers and the fidgeters. Then there are the snackers, and closely related, the I’m-just-going-to-keep-going-to-the-bathroom-until-it’s-time-ers. You’ll also find the sleepers, the talkers, the gamers, and every once in a while, the complainers. It’s all very fascinating to witness. Maybe that’s why I later ended up being an Anthropology major….

I don’t remember the exact times or anything, but eventually we got to board the plane. It was just a small connecting flight to LAX, where a much longer flight awaited, but memories were still made on that little puddle jumper. Once we took off, I discovered that I loved flying. All the other flights I’d take on this trip would just reinforce my enjoyment. I can’t explain what it is, but I just really, really love flying! The rollercoaster-like thrill of gaining speed and taking off. The occasional turbulence that reminds you of being in the heart of Mother Nature. The perfectly portioned sugar and cream packets they give you to pour into your complementary tea. Mmm. I’m getting warm fuzzies just thinking about it. Of course, this particular flight also provided a beautiful bird’s eye view of California, which if you remember from like an hour ago when you began reading this post, I hadn’t previously seen much of. I’m sure my plane ticket price went toward things like aircraft maintenance and worker salaries, but I’d like to think I really paid for the view.

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Hey look, the Hollywood sign! I wonder what landmarks I’ll see in Europe…

We arrived all too soon at LAX. I remember Dad going over with us the week before how to get from our landing terminal to the international one. Something about an island and a shuttle? It all seemed very confusing, but ended up being incredibly simple. That’s the other thing about airports: they are full of long hallways and signs with big arrows that are really hard to misinterpret. Though it’s foolproof in getting you where you need to go, for someone like me who likes to get a “big picture” look of wherever I am, it’s a little disorienting to blindly follow arrows all the while ignoring all the other hallways and doors and places because if you dare feed your curiosity about them, you’ll get horribly (and probably illegally) lost.

The LA airport involved, you guessed it, more waiting. We couldn’t even go through security and stay at the gate for a while, so we just hung around the terminal. Sparing you the more boring details, we basically just ate at an overpriced Panda Express and browsed through random shops (I bought a discount copy of TRON: Legacy on DVD, because adding an extra, unusable item to my luggage was a smart thing to do, obviously). We were also convinced, for some reason, that we would see someone famous there. LAX is a popular airport so surely a celebrity will be going somewhere international while we’re here, was our line of thinking. It turned out to be very wishful thinking, and this was the closest we got to making it come true:

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A motorcycle racer nobody’s heard of. This will go far in the bragging circles.

After going through security (which, I’d like to briefly mention, is not as bad as everyone likes to believe) and finding our gate, Alex and I discovered that our seats were in completely different parts of the plane from one another. That’s right, ladies and gentlemen. My dad, who has more travel experience than the rest of our family combined and then some, somehow overlooked the seating arrangements when booking our tickets. I personally wouldn’t have minded sitting all by myself, but Alex insisted we get it sorted out. Through some sweet-talking, and more waiting, we were able to snag two seats smack in the middle of the plane. No legroom. No window seat. No problem. Even through a long flight, I was happy. We were flying British Airlines, so the flight attendants had accents and wore ascots. Every seat had its own screen, so Alex and I took advantage of this independence by choosing the exact same movie and hitting play at the exact same time. I don’t remember anything else about the flight except that I still couldn’t sleep, and that Alex got a special vegetarian meal that smelled weird.

We landed in Heathrow, and would later rub it in my parents’ faces that we, technically, were the first ones in London. I don’t remember the exact timing anymore, but I do know that a whole day had passed despite having only been in the air for… well, I don’t remember how many anymore, so let’s just go with ten. Ten hours, but it was the next day. Time zones are trippy, man. We followed some more arrows and passed through another security check and did some more waiting, and then we got on our final flight to Stuttgart, Germany. On board with us was a troop of young British teens, part of a school trip it looked like. They screamed practically the whole time. It was very annoying. (And a detail that will become relevant again, so lock it in your memories, folks.)

The view, however, more than made up for it. The biggest thing that struck me about entering Germany was how green it was. Trees everywhere. Even the farms had sprawling grasses and hills. Land in California (especially here in the Central Valley) seems to consist of a few spotty patches of green, surrounded mostly by various shades of brown. We also noticed several solar farms, large areas filled with rows of solar panels. I’d never seen anything like it. Germany would prove to have many more beautiful, novel, and somewhat odd sights see.

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Guess the country by color.

As I (finally) wrap up this introductory post, I would like to point out that these airport exchanges for us went very smoothly. Alex and I were pros at figuring things out calmly and cooperatively. The two of us hadn’t really fought since we were in the single digit age range (though “fighting” really just meant throwing slices of bread at each other and tattling to mom; we were very mature for our age). So there was no drama, no communication issues, no public scenes being made. Just a brother and a sister making their way through the world hand in hand. Not literally, of course, because that would be gross. But figuratively, because that’s sweet and touching and will later help prove a point when we join up with the rest of our family and all hell breaks loose.

PS: You probably didn’t expect to read a whole post about airports, not after being tempted with a such a juicy title. But if you’ve managed to wade through and get to this point, hopefully you’ve seen how the journey can be just as important as the destination. From here on out, though, it’ll mostly be destination stories with just a few journey anecdotes. Promise.

Up next: mouthfuls of letters

Up next: details about the German train system you’ve always wanted to know