Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Week 6: All Roads Lead to Rome

All Roads Lead to Rome... unless the metro system is on strike.

Yes. It's true.  Here's the gist of the trip if you don't want to read it all.  Rome was a great city with really cool ruins and awesome fountains.  But it was dirty, hot, and frustrating in so many ways that it was one of those experiences I just never want to relive.  I do not think that I will be returning to Roma. Northern Italy, possibly. Here we go.

Noah and I headed out of here super early Thursday morning. Our flight was at 8:40, but we decided to take the bus and left our apartments at 6.  We ended up missing the first bus because it either left early or didn't come (instance #45489023 of failed public transportation that week) and we had to wait another 30 minutes for the next bus to leave.  We got to the airport and just had to scan the barcode on our boarding passes to get to security.  At security, I set off the metal detector (not sure why, maybe from my watch?) and got to get a "free massage" as the lady said.  She was really nice, so I didn't mind.  I went to pick up my bag and found out I had forgotten to drink the last bit of my water in my reusable water bottle.  In America, I think I would have been tackled and forced out of the secure area.  Instead, the nice massage lady came over and emptied it into another water bottle that was confiscated and let me go on my way.  I was relieved but thought it was funny that I had so many issues with the security and I love flying.  Somewhere in this process, my chapstick was lost, so I spent the next 30 minutes looking for chapstick in a store.   Unsuccessful, we boarded the flight and got settled.  We were flying Lufthansa, which I am now convinced is the best airlines ever.  The snacks were all great and different.  The seats were comfortable.  Both flights we had emergency seats, so had plenty of room to spread out.  The first flight was practically empty so we had an entire row to ourselves.

We got to the Frankfurt airport for our connecting flight.  The small flight from Brussels stopped on the runway pavement away from the building and a bus picked us up and drove us to the terminal. I had never done that before! We stopped in a store where Noah got a snack and I got some chapstick.  We then continued on our flight to Rome on which we were served a cucumber, olive, feta cheese, and bean salad.  Random, but good if you like that kind of stuff.

After arriving in Roma, we had to get from the airport to the city.  We found our way (through thousands of moving sidewalks) to the train stop and started to buy our tickets from a kiosk.  We were approached by a disheveled woman asking us if we could buy the tickets from her because she had bought too many and the office wouldn't reimburse her.  We agreed and followed her through the turnstiles.  Turns out she had three cute Italian children.  Noah started to talk to them, but their English (as we later found out from the mother) is not that great because of bad teaching programs.  We did have numerous occasions of them counting to us in English.  The eight year old only knew up to 11.  So funny! They were very charismatic and wanted to know our names, why we were in Rome, how old we were, etc. As we were arriving in Rome, the eight year old started to sing Shakira's Waka Waka, which is one of my favorite songs.  Thanks to Zumba class, I knew all the words and the dance moves, so I joined in singing.  He was so shocked that I knew the song, too! Meeting the authentic Italian family was worth buying the tickets from her.

Starving, we headed to one of the first places we found outside the train station.  It had air conditioning and I was already hot, so sounded good to me.  It was pretty cheap.  We got a 4 cheese pizza which had no sauce, but had blue cheese on it.  It was good and interesting.  The crust in Italy is like flatbread, not like our crust at all.  I knew it was thinner, but it was still a shock for it to be so crunchy.

Our next stop was the hotel so we could leave our bags while we walked around Roma.  We got to the hotel after walking through a sketchy Asian district that smelled like pee.  The door to the hotel was a gigantic full wall door that you had to buzz to get into.  We got in, walked up three flights of stairs and had to buzz to get to the front desk.  The hotels (economy version) in Rome were "guest houses" that are basically elaborate apartments that people convert into hotels.  Anyway, we checked in with the young Asian guy who didn't speak the best English, but at least knew some.  After we paid for the hotel came the issue. Here's the dialogue since I'm sure you love them so much. You must imagine him in an Italian Asian accent.

Him: "So there is a small problem. You have shared bathroom"
Me: "Yes...?"
Him: "It is broken. So what we do is this. You come and my father he brings you to new hotel with working bathroom."
(In my mind at this point, I'm thinking he means that every time we have to go to the bathroom we have to be driven to a new hotel. I don't know why I thought that but I did. Exhaustion, maybe. Anyways, he meant that our room would be in a different hotel in case you didn't understand either.)
Him: "You come back at 6:30 because your room is not ready now."
Me: "We have plans at 6:30, that is why we are here now. We are busy until like 11."
Him: "Hmm... well" *speaks Italian to father standing next to him "11 is fine.  But I will not be working at 11 so what you do is you message me (text) when you are here and my father will then drive you to new hotel. My father, he speaks no English."
Me: ... REALLY?! Whatever.

Looking back at the event, Noah joked that it was like those sketchy scenes in movies where they say "Knock on the door three times.  There will be a package inside the door. Open the package and listen to the tape. It will give you directions to the next location where there will be a package waiting for you..." (We kept going on like this that day and then on the flight home to Brussels as well. We just thought it was hilarious. Because it really felt like that.

So we set off to Rome without a chance to use the bathroom, put on sunscreen, look at the map, change shoes, or unload the bags.  Oh well.  We went to the Spanish steps area, got really hot and went to a gelato shop where we sat for almost an hour.  I had banana gelato and then a crema gelato because Noah got it and it was fantastic.  There I got to put on sunscreen and get ready for the afternoon.  We embarked on a free walking tour about 5:30 and it wasn't as miserably hot then. Plus we got to walk in the shade of buildings most of the time.

On the walking tour we saw churches, works of art by Boromini and Bernini, the Pantheon, obelisks, columns, buildings designed in the baroque style, monuments, and the Trevi Fountain.  The Pantheon was gorgeous and has a huge hole at the top of the dome! (Done on purpose for some symbolic reason I don't remember but was still really cool. Rain comes in when it rains. There's a section marked off on the floor so you don't step there. And the rest of the floor drains there so it slopes a little bit!) It is the largest original dome in Rome (I think) and was really cool to see.  The Trevi Fountain was beautiful.  But as with all of the magnificent places we've been, there was scaffolding so you can't appreciate the whole thing.  So much scaffolding all over Europe. Oh well. Anyways, I thought it was smaller than I was expecting, but that's probably because there were so many people crowded around it.  Noah and I threw our coins in the fountain.  1 coin to come back to Rome, 2 coins to make a wish, and 3 coins to get married to an Italian.  We both threw two coins.  Lots of people around there, including random Indians taking your cameras to take your picture for you without you asking them to.  They returned it and nothing was stolen, but it was weird. Any explanations?

My absolute favorite part of Rome was also introduced to us on the tour: the public fountains.  These fountains still draw water from the Roman Aqueduct system set up 2000 years ago. They are all over the city down little side streets and can be used to fill up bottles, rinse hands, cool down, or drink straight from the faucet. You plug the nozzle with one finger and water shoots out a hole in the top of the tube just like a normal water fountain. So convenient! And refreshing. The water was just so cold and perfect in the hot weather. Not to mention that I really appreciate free water now, so it was super exciting!

We did some souvenir shopping and walked around some more around Piazza Venezia, where we found our first views of the Colosseum.  We enjoyed it from the outside and watched the sun set and headed into the depths of the metro system.  Luckily there was a metro stop right next to the sketchy hotel.  We texted our Asian friend, snuck in to the building behind some other guests, and took the elevator up this time.  There was no one at the front desk, so we just sat on a couch and waited. A few minutes in, Noah called our friend and he in turn called his father and within 5 minutes we were in his little car ready to go.  The hotel was only a few blocks away, but in a much less sketchy part of town, literally 200 feet from the train station. We were the only people staying on our floor, at least the first night, and we got a private bathroom and a queen sized bed, both of which were pluses.  The bathroom didn't have a shower curtain and we had to watch for several minutes as the father who didn't speak English mimed out to us that because there was no curtain, the water from the shower would flood all over if you weren't careful.  He didn't think we understood him, so he called his family member and she translated for us. Not that her English was much better.

We put our stuff down and went to find some dinner.  We only made it about a block or two away where a waiter caught our eye and encouraged us to just sit down instead of keeping on looking.  We got an antipasto plate with prosciutto and salami and cheese because neither of us could fathom eating anything heavier. I know I looked like death, because I sure felt like it.  The waiter was laughing at how tired we were, in a jovial friendly way.  Point is we ate and then stumbled back to our non air conditioned room to sleep. Thus ended quite possibly the longest day of my non-marching-band life.  And as it is 2 am and I am only halfway finished with my story, I shall retire and finish tomorrow. Not that you will know any different because it won't be published until tomorrow, but now you know.

Haha woops. I didn't finish this yesterday. So here I am two days later trying to catch up.

Friday morning, Noah and I woke up and got ready to head to the metro station to start the day at the Colosseum.  I bought some croissants/danishes for breakfast and we walked downstairs to the metro.  Let me preface this with the fact that we bought an unlimited metro pass and museum pass for 30 euros the day before. We bought it for the metro, but also because we could skip the line at the Colosseum, and because several very wise friends suggested it.  Okay back to the present. We got to the metro station and it was all marked off with caution tape and signs. Turns out that there was a Metro strike all day Friday.  Buses, too, although we saw a select handful around town. The strike would be lifted from 5-8pm during rush hour.

Upset that our one full day in Rome now had to be navigated solely by walking, we headed off in the direction of the Colosseum.  We left the hotel about 9:15 and it took two hours for us to get to the Colosseum.  We went in churches and walked around back roads, but at 93 degrees, I wasn't that amused by the walking what should have been a 7 minute metro ride.  I need to enter a side note here and let you know that Noah stopped to get a block of parmesan cheese to eat while we were walking around.  He ate the entire thing by himself.  I personally thought it was strange and definitely had no appetite for that much cheese after walking around, but he was so happy to have it! Just had to share that with you.  Anyways. We decided to hurry up and do the Colosseum before noon and then spend a while cooling down inside during the hottest parts of the day. We skipped the line with our Roma pass (the real line was at least an hour long from the looks of it) and went straight up to the top for the best views.

The Colosseum was awesome! Definitely one of my favorite things about Rome.  Yes, there were lots of people there, but it made it feel more like an actual arena with all the people.  I can't even describe the Colosseum as well as the pictures do. So just go look at them and pretend you had been there with me! :)

We headed out of the Colosseum absolutely famished at noon.  Unfortunately, the area around the Colosseum is not filled with little side streets full of restaurants.  We walked a little bit and found a total of three restaurants, all with a great view of the Colosseum.  I got a menu deal for 12 euros for a drink, pasta cabonara, and ice cream.  It was really good, but I have a question. WHY in the WORLD did Italians create such heavy dishes!?!? Yes, the salads are lighter, but hot pasta and pizza in 90+ degree weather? I don't understand who would come up with that. Gelato, I understand.  That thought bothered me the whole trip, because I was always too hot and exhausted from walking around to want to eat anything heavy like awesome pasta.

We left the restaurant and headed up to Palatino Hill where we walked around for a long time without much shade, even though the map lists it as a nice shady green park. Wrong.  The ruins were awesome, but a) after a while they start to look the same, especially when you are tired and 2) I guess it wasn't what I was expecting.  The whole area and the heat and the buildings honestly made me think I was in Jerusalem.  I knew it was going to be hot, but guess I just never paid attention to what plants were going to be around. And was very dusty.  Again, this is all in my opinion.  Noah had a great time and liked it all a lot, but for me, it was far too sunny and hot to be able to enjoy walking around when public transportation is on strike.

We kind of glanced over the Roman Forum, but decided we wanted to move on and keep walking since we still had a ways to go.  We walked past some very beautiful buildings and fountains and ended up at the Bocca della Verita, the Mouth of Truth. Legend has it that if you tell a lie while your hand is in the mouth of this stone, it will bite off your hand.  A woman was thought to be cheating on her husband and they were going to prove it with the Bocca della Verita.  Well right before she put her hand in, her lover came running up to her dressed as a beggar and kissed her.  She then confidently placed her hand in the mouth and said "I have never kissed anyone except for my husband and that beggar" and avoided her hand being cut off as well as a probable death sentence.  That's the story about that.  We waited in line for that for quite a while, but we got to have fun pretending our hands were getting chopped off. :)

We then walked up the hill to see the Circus Maximus, or Circo Massimo.  It was used as the arena for chariot races and could hold something like 175,000 people, which was way more than the Colosseum.  That was the only important landmark that we saw that really didn't hold up that well.  It basically looked like a gigantic ditch with dirt and weeds. There was definitely a path set so you could see the track, but the sides of the bank of the ditch where people would have sat were just completely dirt and grass. It was really hard to picture much happening there, although I had seen illustrations of it before.

Noah and I crossed the Tiber River to get to a section of Rome called Trastevere (literally "across the Tiber")  We were told this was a great place to eat and/or go out for fun night time activities.  Unfortunately it was 4pm and we were across Rome and wanted to get back to the center of town before the Metro system stopped completely.  We went to a snack shop to go to the bathroom and Noah ordered a coffee and I got the best gelato in the world. Homemade. Yum.  The waiter was a typical older Italian guy and didn't speak any English. He was so sweet and when we left I even got a "Ciao, Bella"!!! It was exciting!

We walked around for a little bit and then headed back across the river to get to the closest metro station (which in reality wasn't that convenient).  We metroed back one stop past our hotel stop so we could walk back and find something to eat.  It was only about 7pm, so places were just getting ready for dinner. We just sat down at an open place and I got a margherita pizza.  The menu made the place seem really cheap, with an entire pizza for 6euros, but Rome had a way of getting you. They automatically serve you bread without you asking and then charge you for it. We didn't completely realize this until the last few stops, and the bread was good then. This place for dinner also tagged on a service fee. Guess that's how they keep their menu prices so low!

I know it's completely lame, but I was back in the hotel room by 8:30.  I was hot, sweaty, sun soaked, exhausted, knee sore, feet sore, and just generally ready to retire.  Noah went out for about another hour while I watched TLC's Four Weddings in Italian and then we both were asleep by 10:30.  Friday night in Rome? So eventful haha.  If the public transportation hadn't been on strike, we would have been in Trastavere checking out a wine bar or something.

Saturday was a better day with much less frustrations. Probably because we were only in Rome for 4 more hours.  We took the metro to the Vatican.  There were so many people around because Friday was the metro strike and Sunday the Vatican is closed, so Saturday was the only day to do it.  Because of the time it would take us to get back to the airport and the fact that the lines were so long, we only were able to do St. Peter's Basilica OR the Sistine Chapel.  We chose St. Peter's because I wanted to see it more and it was free. Can't argue with not spending money!

We had to go through security to get in as well as a dress code check.  No one is allowed to wear shorts or have their shoulders exposed. Plenty of people were being turned away at the door after waiting in line with us.  Thank goodness my friend Katharina warned me before hand so I could wear capris instead of shorts!  St. Peter's square area was absolutely beautiful and huge. I could have stayed there for a long time (in the shade).  And the Basilica.  Wow.  I mean, I know that the Vatican is the head of the Catholic Church and therefore should definitely be the best church in the world, but it was just GORGEOUS. Again this is one of those things that I can't describe all the way, but I doubt the pictures do it justice either.  Everything was just sculpted and crafted to perfection. It made me proud to be Catholic!

After finishing admiring the Basilica, we walked towards Rome again and to Piazza Novona where we had planned to get lunch.  On the way, we found a delightful little restaurant (with air conditioning) where we decided to eat. So glad we did because it was our favorite meal from the whole trip (minus gelato stops)!  Noah had an amazing salad and I had homemade spinach ravioli.  And the bread was fantastic, too. We didn't mind that 3.50euros charge!  We just really enjoyed our meal and left so full we didn't think we'd have room for any food the rest of the day (false).

We rounded the corner and found Piazza Novona and got to see the monuments and fountain there.  We stopped for gelato, of course.  I got Nutella flavored (which was a lot like American moose tracks with nutella instead of fudge) and Noah got hazelnut.We rounded out our time in Rome by passing by the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain again before heading to the metro stop.  Which was another almost 20 minute walk.  There was even a sign down some stairs that said "metro this way" so we walked down and into a sketchy book store.  We kept following signs and ended up above ground, just across the street from where we were. And still 5 minutes walk from the metro. So weird.

We said goodbye to Rome and bought train tickets back to the airport and headed back.  The airport check-in was super easy and we had plenty of time to kill in the terminal before we left.  We got to fly on another wonderful set of Lufthansa flights and I got to sit by the window both times, which I loved. They served us some sort of pumpernickel-sweet bread sandwich with cheese and pink stuff on it (after describing it, Jamie thinks it was pate).  I ate the cheese and pink stuff and Noah ate the bread.  On the next flight we got a cracker and pretzel mix called "happy snacks".  By this point we were pretty delirious from exhaustion, and we were playing with animal crackers and laughing about the German language that we didn't understand every time they announced something. The bus ride back to our apartment was just as entertaining as we basically recapped the entire Rome trip. One of our amazing revelations was that Saturday we used 5 different modes of transportation and none of them was a car. Crazy! (Metro, train, plane, bus, feet) We got home about 11:30pm. And now you're caught up with that trip.

Analysis of Rome: Just as dirty as people have said.
People were nice, but not the nicest I've met anywhere.
Spoke English, but not as well as I expected them to! Especially after coming from Paris where everyone spoke English. Probably doesn't help that we knew absolutely zero Italian...
Monuments, fountains, and ruins were awesome, but after 2 days we felt that we had seen it all and didn't need to see any more.
Food was good, but honestly we have just as good of Italian food in the States. So don't stress yourself out over having to get to Rome to eat some pizza. Go to a local Italian restaurant at home and you will be even more satisfied.
The aqueduct fountains were the best things ever. Just saying.
The end!

OH! also, If you are my friend on Facebook, you probably saw me mention that we were going to get a scooter and scoot around Rome. It would have been very helpful, especially Friday. And I didn't think the drivers were too bad. But we honestly didn't find a single place to rent a scooter and by 2pm on Friday we decided to abort the mission.  Would have loved to do it though! Just so you know. :)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Week 6: Last week of class

Just wanted to briefly tell you about the last full week in Brussels.  We had a field trip to NATO on Monday, which was really interesting! Unfortunately we were in Timbuktu and it took almost a full two hours to get home via public transportation. And we had a test the next day to study for...

Tuesday was an interesting day.  We went to school, barely paid attention in Islam class (actually, I presented a project that part of the day so I did pay attention a little bit), and were supposed to have a guest speaker for the second half of class.  She ended up canceling, which was really sad. I was looking forward to something different in the class! Anyways, during lunch, Lissette accidentally spilled coffee on her pants and burned herself.  I volunteered to go home to get her a change of clothes because I know how uncomfortable that can be.  Also I needed to study for EU class and was completely up for missing some of Islam class. I was the only person in the group to be finished with my presentation, as well. So off I went.  I had to wait almost 10 minutes for EVERY SINGLE VEHICLE that takes us home. A tram and a bus each way.  The wait at our apartment took so long, my professor for the EU class showed up and thought I was just getting to class early.  It was ridiculous.  But on my bus ride I finished studying, so that's good!  So over an hour later I arrived back at class to find the professor sitting right next to my stuff.  He finally realized that people were playing games and on Facebook in his class. It was not a good day for them.  We had the EU test, class after and then headed home where I probably ate a burrito and played on the computer. I don't remember.

Wednesday was the 4th of July! It's like my 3rd favorite holiday and I didn't even get to celebrate properly.  Hopefully when I get home I can recreate it minus the fireworks. Hot dogs, chips, lemonade, swimming pool, and ice cream. Of those things, I had none here.  Instead, we spent 6 very long hours in class.  I think it was the longest day of class we've had since we've been here.  Our Islam professor had decided we were going to have a debate in class.  It was nasty.  Mostly it was us yelling at the teacher because we all agreed on the topic and he kept trying to prod us to debate each other.  Well debating only works when people argue another side. But seeing as it was based on our opinions and we all agree...  He said at one point he was going to take off points because our opinion was wrong.  Last time I checked you can't grade someone on their opinion.  It was just a gigantic frenzy of frustration with people yelling across the room and the teacher annoying everyone and all of the pent up disgust for the class coming out.  Several of us were waiting to walk out of the room.  If he had said one more thing that was completely crazy, like calling out a student for giving her opinion and then saying she wasn't an expert in the subject so what did she know (um, hello, we're all not experts, including you!).  It settled down a bit because we all knew we had less than 20 minutes left of class.  Then I was in a bad mood for the end of EU class. But walking away from school that day was the best. Sorry for the venting, but unless you were on Facebook chat or in the room with me while I was working on these assignments, you don't understand how frustrating that class and the professor was. Just have to write the final essays now and then I will be finished with that class forever.

Anyways.  We had originally had plans to meet up with a group of students from Missouri who live by us at a square/place area.  Then because of the threat of rain, they moved the party to their apartment.  I ate dinner at home and decided I didn't want to go out anymore and enjoyed an evening at home.  Some of the other people on our group were grilling on our roof, so I joined them for a bit and ate the European apple pie we had bought earlier that day.  And that was my 4th of July.  I also researched stuff for Rome and packed and went to bed reasonably early.  The end!

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Week 6: Another Trip Analysis

We are at week 6 with a little over a week until the flight home.  I thought I would share another list about the differences between Europe and America and what has changed since the last one.

The public transportation has started to become a hassle. Train system works great, metro too, but the buses have been late SO many times in the last two days that I could have gotten places much faster by walking or biking. Oh well. Even though I don't like cars, I'm going to enjoy the convenience of them when I get home.

The food here is still great, but I can't wait to get back to my Tex-Mex. I'm used to eating it several times a week. It's not a huge thing here.

The sales: Awesome except that a) I don't have any more room in my suitcase to bring things home and b) the sizes are different here and c) stores and streets are really crowded, making it not a desirable place for me to be...

The architecture and style of cities is still fantastic, but they are starting to look the same to me.  I was much less interested in how Ghent and Bruges looked because I have seen quite a bit of it in the last few weeks.

Also tired of museums and art.  I'm not much of an art museum person anyway since I don't understand any of the symbolism of anything. I basically like landscapes. But regardless, I'm pretty museumed out.

I'm also pretty finished with city living.  Waking up every morning to honking and sirens and such is just annoying. I'm writing this at 11:30pm and a crazy maniac just went down our street and you can hear everyone talking and yelling and it's just eeeeh. I will be glad to get to my little Gainesville.  And then in the future, just anywhere that is not the city.

Still love Europe, but I was not made to stay here forever.  Maybe in a small French town when I speak fluent French.  I think I could live there. But not here.

Still really missing the 4th of July. Wish I could be home for that!!

Got the lemonade craving satisfied, so that's good.

Ready for a break from school but also to return to UF with a higher caliber of teaching requirements (I didn't like my class sponsored by Western Kentucky University and their professor. For various reasons. One. Day. Left.)

Dryers for laundry. Yes. Air drying is great and all, but when sharing a room with someone, there's really not that much space for a drying rack.

Tex-Mex food as stated above.

T-Shirts. Can't wait to just be able to wear t-shirts again without being looked at like I'm a dumb American. And flip flops for that matter.

Air Conditioning. Again, know we don't really need it here, but on those rare days that it IS hot here, I have definitely missed it. Especially in school, confined in the same room for 6-7 hours a day. Ugh.

English TV and Radio (although a lot of radio stations have American music) and other people speaking your language around you.  Seriously, every time I hear American English being spoken, I freak out.  It's only been like twice in Brussels. And it was on campus so doesn't count.  It's just nice to know that when you walk into a grocery store (CAN'T WAIT TO GET BACK TO PUBLIX AND ITS COOKIES!!!) that you're going to understand when they tell you something.

And as always, just excited to get back to my friends and family.  This was not a planned out blog, so excuse me for randomness. :)

Week 5: Close to Home

Sorry haven't written! I had a lot of school work this week and had to catch up after an unproductive academic weekend. :)

This last week was full of day trips around Belgium and just hanging in Brussels.  I had so much fun not traveling more than 1 hour each way!  The week was pretty normal.  Thursday Jamie and I went to Ghent, 30 minutes outside of Brussels.  We just walked around (a lot) and had a delicious lunch! I had macaroni and cheese with ham baked in and Jamie had the meatball special.  It was so good and relaxing.  One of our favorite meals in Europe.  We went to the grocery store and I bought several drinks (including their closest relative to lemonade) and got a glass container full of a Nutella-like substance (which I now know is mousse texture) but the container has cool Belgian designs on it!

We visited a castle in Ghent. And by "visited" I mean I sat on a bench in the entrance to the castle under the shade while Jamie went in because she is still young enough to get in for free.  She took pictures, came back and showed me, and her final analysis of the castle was it was cool, but lots of stairs and I wouldn't have liked it. What a good friend!  We then went home. Exciting day, right? The great thing about these places is you really can have a great day just walking around and eating outside.

Friday we stayed in Brussels.  Jamie and I headed out while Marianne was at her internship to buy our tickets to the Opera that night.  We got to the box office and the guy told us getting seats for that night would be hard. Here's a little bit of the conversation:
Him: "OOH! Some seats opened up since yesterday. Good ones, too, right in the front." (A.K.A. 100euros)
Us: "Do you have anything cheaper... like 10eur?"
Him: "yes, but you can't see anything"
Us: "Perfect! Three Please!"
Him: "Honestly, it's opera. You don't need to see anything anyways. And this one's really not that good. Also there's a free introduction starting at 7:30 but you won't want to go to that because it's all in French or Dutch. Enjoy."
Us: "... Thanks"

Don't you love intriguing dialogues?  Anyways. Going to tell you about the Opera now since I know you want to know all about it.  We got there and climbed like 8 flights up to our seats at the tippppyyy tipppyy top row.  Surprise! There WERE English subtitles! Unfortunately you had to lean sideways the entire time to see them. Guess who did that? Me. And the guy wasn't lying. The plot was terrible. I was so confused and I read all of the captions. The music was great, but the story just didn't make any sense. It was 3 hours long, too. After that we all decided we had enough Opera for the rest of the year. Or longer. Hooray Culture! The opera was called "Il Trovatore" if you would like to learn about it from Wikipedia.  You should really read the description. The opera had witches being burned, a psycho count brother ex-boyfriend, 4 murders, babies dying, fake children, gypsies, a sacrificial love, poison, a convent, wine, scripts to a play, bare feet, veils, and confusion. The confusion was on my part, not the singers...

Okay, back to earlier Friday.  Jamie and I walked around for a little bit and found ourselves almost to the metro station. And then realized we were in a not-so-good part of town. We booked it out of there and headed to the military museum at the Parc du Cinquantenaire. It's free! Yay! We passed a bunch of mannequins (seriously think they got a huge deal on them), guys with mustaches (mannequins and pictures), airplanes, helicopters, swords, guns, shields, uniforms (SO many), hats, tanks, a few horses, and more mannequins. Definitely got our money's worth, i.e. not a lot of value when you can't read the signs because they are in French and all the uniforms and mannequins look the same.  But the great thing about museums is that a lot of them hold your purse/backpack for you while you walk around! YAY not having to carry things!

Do you know about the sales in Western Europe? No? Well they only have sales a few times a year, and stores can't technically call something "on sale" unless it's during these times.  The sales started Friday and will last for at least a week, maybe two or three.  Apparently they usually don't start this early. Anywho, Jamie and I shopped a little bit on our walk home from the metro, just checking out what is in all the stores.  I got to go into H&M and Zara for the first time. Exciting day.  Came home and got ready for the Opera.  We went to dinner at a "BBQ" place downtown.  It has the most awesome decor ever. It's called Amadeo's and there are tons of books on the wall (like book cases of them) and there are Chinese looking lanterns and lights all over. Then the music is classic 30s and 40s music. Just going inside was truly an experience.  Jamie got all you can eat ribs, I got a plate that had four meats on it including a mini steak, pork chop (gross and fatty), a kebob, and a half rack of ribs.  Marianne got smoked salmon by accident because the menu wasn't in English and she just quickly picked. Sad day (she doesn't particularly like smoked salmon).  We had told Jamie earlier in the evening that we didn't think she could get passed 1.5 racks of ribs.  She proved us wrong and ate two whole racks and could have started on another, but we had to get to the opera.  Our meals were served with baked potatoes with some sort of curry something condiment on them. I'm not one for any condiment, so that was weird. But I enjoyed my meal a lot!  Then we sat through 3 hours of confusion and chaos as explained above or on Wikipedia.

I thought about starting another post for Saturday, but think I can fit it in here.  Saturday was our UF trip to Bruges.  It was paid for in our program fee, so we didn't have any extra expenses for the day! My favorite :)  We got to Bruges, which was beautiful, and walked along the streets and canal for a little bit.  Then the professors took us to the main plaza with a huge belltower looking over it.  We had some extra money, so they told us to buy tickets and go to the top of the tower.  I think it was a trick to get us out of their hair for a little bit ;).  It was a 20 minute wait for tickets and then 366 spiral-staircase-stairs to the top.  We got about halfway and a sign shows you where you are and I literally sat down on the landing and said I would wait for the rest of the group. It was so difficult constantly winding up and then having to hold on for dear life as other people tried to come down.  Not to mention the stairs were pretty slippery.  The rest of the group made me go with them and we got to the top and enjoyed a beautiful breeze, gorgeous view, AND got to hear the bells chime, which was awesome!  We headed back down which was definitely more difficult and dangerous, but quicker.  My legs were shaking the rest of the day.  I don't recommend it for people with knee problems like myself. But oh well!

We ate at an Italian restaurant, wandered around the shopping district looking at the sales there, then met back up to go on a river boat cruise.  It wasn't the best cruise we've been on, but our professor bought us truffles right before we got on the boat, so I was super happy!!  We headed towards the train station after the cruise and stopped in a square to have a drink.  Our professor found someone he knew and had worked with when he lived in Brussels. Just randomly while we were sitting in Bruges! It was hilarious.

That's it for Saturday, as far as I can remember.  Sunday was a great day. Jamie and I woke up early and headed to the train station to go to Liege, a city in the French part of Belgium called Walloon (Ghent, Bruges, and Antwerp are all in the Flemish part called Flanders). We arrived and followed the crowds to get to see.... le Tour de France!!!  It was awesome! We got to see the caravan (aka parade of sponsored floats) and the team buses full of cyclists.  Then we staked out a spot about 30 feet from the start line.  It was a great spot to be in.  All of the official professional people for the race were right next to us before it started, like the race director who gets to actually drive in front of the race.  It started without me even knowing it was going to and I got a quick clip of it on video.  Then we raced over to the other side of the loop to get our spots for a few minutes later.  This spot was even better. Everyone just lined the streets and you could have touched the cyclists (I wouldn't have wanted to because you would have gotten injured, but still). Within 20 seconds they were gone again. And the whole city kind of stopped its vibrancy.  We headed home and were back by 2:30.  I settled in, took a nap, uploaded pictures and watched the EuroCup finals.  Sadly, I was rooting for Italy and they lost 4-0 to Spain (in case you missed the chaos).  It would have been amazing to be in Italy after they had won, which is a big part of why I was rooting for them, haha.

The End!
Except not. Plans for the future: Tomorrow: last day of classes! Fourth of July celebration with fellow Americans in front of the EU buildings
Thursday-Saturday: ROME!
Sunday: Free National Museum? and exam work
Monday: Exam work
Tuesday: Turn in final exam for Islam class, completely finished with assignments, go to see Waterloo
Wednesday: Day trip to Durbuy, Belgium with Marianne
Thursday: Everything I haven't gotten to do in Belgium crammed into a short few hours while also enjoying all of the food one last time: fries, chocolate, waffles, beer; packing
Friday: Leave early in the morning and get back to Tampa about 2pm; sleep in my own bed
Years from now: come back to Europe!!!