Traveling Light

writing and running around Western Europe

The Van Gogh Method

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been a little preoccupied with–get ready, it’s shocking–school work. For those of you who haven’t heard my long, tired spiel already, the reason I get to travel around Europe this summer is to work on an independent study abroad project. My idea was to basically retrace the life of Vincent Van Gogh. Backwards, from Arles to Zundert. Along the way, I would write my own creative stuff, trying to put his super-emotional, tortured-soul sentiment into poetry.

I have to admit, Van Gogh is exhausting. Spending even an hour concentrating on his haywire feelings and catastrophic creativity makes me feel like silly putty for the rest of the day. Confession–when I first walked into the Van Gogh Museum a month ago, I watched the introductory video, made it halfway around the first floor, and walked out. I promptly bought a bag of paprika-flavored chips at the Albert Heijn down the street, and sat in the park, loathing my own inadequacy and eating my feelings.

It would be cheesily reassuring to write that I then wiped the orange crumbs from my hands and face, grabbed my precious Moleskine, and marched back to the museum, where I wrote a 10-page epic poem that is currently awaiting publication. Unfortunately, that’s not the Van Gogh Method of problem solving. The Van Gogh Method goes something a bit more like this:

1. Feel surge of positive energy from nature

2. Come up with new project idea

3. Tell all your friends and family that you are half-way to success

4. Begin project

5. Good-naturedly muddle through early obstacles

6. Expect praise from friends and family about how good-naturedly you’ve been muddling through obstacles

7. Begin to feel unsatisfied with friends, family, and project

8. Blame as many other people as possible

9. Abandon project and go walking for 40 miles without shoes and/or remove ear

10. Repeat

You see why it’s hard to get work done.

The last week or so in Amsterdam, I was having about as much success as Van Gogh himself, circa 1880. Luckily, I was able to relocate, just south of Barcelona. Being a bit farther away from my combined research topic and source of inspiration is proving to be very beneficial. Barcelona may have nothing to do with Van Gogh exactly, but he was a big believer in traveling and working outside. Granted, he preferred to talk punishingly long walks alone in the winter, and I took a high speed train, but hey. That’s just my method.

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Smith & Naifeh’s biography of Van Gogh (AKA: my bible)

P.S. Since that first day, I have been able to make it up to the third and final floor of the museum on two separate occasions.

Blogging Fail

After an enlightening FaceTime session with my mother, I discovered that I had accidentally been publishing my drafts prematurely. Whoops. Sorry about that. My last post wasn’t quite finished, but I finished it now! And as for all the other posts you may or may not have read in some partially completed state, again, my bad.

To make it up to you, I found a funny (fully completed) meme to share with you:

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#AmericanGirlProbs

Last night, I was standing next to my friend as she busily texted away, trying not to look too bored. I noticed this guy walking toward me, and I did one of those accidental-eye contact things, where I remembered to look away just a millisecond too late. He came up to me and said something which I genuinely could not understand.

“I’m sorry, I can’t hear you!” I raised my voice over the music.

“Oh, you’re English? Never mind.” I thought he was just going to walk away, so I returned to the business of checking my cuticles and waiting for my friend to finish typing her short novel.

“I’m just kidding!” he said. Super. “Where are you from?”

“New York,”

“Really? You’re American? Shouldn’t you be happier to see me?”

“Ummm, why should I be…?”

“Well…because American girls are like that. Like, you know “Oh my God, that’s so cool, I LOVE you!”

“Oh, yeah…sorry, I forgot…Omg how ARE you!?!?”

I’m not trying to start a pity-party, because I feel like the last people who need sympathy are the privileged American girls who get to travel to Europe. But I do feel like this stereotype merits a little discussion. Like any stereotype, parts of it are offensively generalized, parts of it vary depending on the person you ask, and parts of it are eerily accurate.

I’ve gathered some visual aids to really capture the essence of what I’m talking about:

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So, there’s that.

I’m not trying to brag or anything, but A few times, I’ve been mistaken for a European. After my cover gets blown, people exclaim things like “But where is your makeup?” “Why aren’t you orange?” and “Can you do a Texas accent?” From responses like this–as well as flat-out statements–I’ve gathered that people expect Americans to be extraordinarily superficial. You might say it’s our defining characteristic. At least, that’s what they are saying about us.

Is it blasphemous? Is it true? Does it apply to all Americans? Well, my dear reader, here is the profound philosophical answer I’ve cooked up for you: kind of.

Stay with me here. The way that (most) Americans interact with one another goes beyond mere politeness. Americans are really friendly. College-age American girls–such as myself–are the prime example of this. We are queens of hyperbole and hyperventilating. When things are good we LOVE them, and yes, sometimes we jump up and down. We’re talkative, and aren’t very good at keeping our opinions to ourselves. We grew up idolizing Cher Horowitz and quoting Regina George ad nauseam. High school was like that. Being well-liked seems equivalent to a superpower. When popularity is paramount, it makes sense that we go a little overboard sometimes, trying to make people like us.

Some people I’ve met say they love Americans because they’re so friendly. Others get irritated by the phoniness of it all. I’d never considered acting that way to be anything more than being polite, but apparently it can seem a little over-the-top. For now, I’m just practicing keeping the enthusiasm to slightly below sorority-girl level. Besides, the less I say out loud, the more people mistake me for a local.

13 Lessons from Getting Lost

Here is a brief list of things I have learned during my travels thus far:

1. The 6-Day Paris Museum Pass is designed for marathon art connoisseurs. That is, you must be qualified to see and appreciate thousands of priceless works of art at lightening speed. Because its supposedly the best value for your money, 6 museums in 6 days will not be enough. You will feel tempted to go to 8. Or 10. Or even–God help you–12. Every night you will return to your hostel bed a weary shell of a tourist, and develop a slight case of delirium that causes you to believe the ceiling tiles are pointillist masterpieces. You’re better off with the 2-day pass.

2. You cannot be a foodie, a fashionista, and a party animal all at the same time. Unless you are prepared to take on heaps of debt, you’ll have to pick one. Otherwise, in about ten days, you will end up broke and sleeping in the metro station like a well-fed, well-dressed, popular hobo.

3. This one is for Americans only: the metric system. It’s not just a myth. People really do use it over here. And while they may all be able to speak some level of English, they can’t all instantly convert distance and volume into the spectacular CF that is inches-and-feet. Try to familiarize yourself at least a little bit. The same goes for Celsius. If you wake up and say “Today’s going to be a beautiful day in the high 80′s!” people will make lots of jokes about melting to death. It’s funny the first time, but spare us all the redundancy and get a converter app for your phone.

4. Munich is the most expensive city in Germany; Berlin is the cheapest.

5. Make the most out of those ,50 public toilets. Wash your face, change your shirt, maybe ask for the wifi code. It’s up to you to get your money’s worth.

6. My personal list of free wifi by city goes like this: Antwerp > Amsterdam > Dublin > Paris > Munich. Plan accordingly.

7. Always carry a hair tie, some tissues, and a sandwich.

8. Apparently, Dutch people consider Heineken to be their version of Rolling Rock. Strange, I know. Just something to keep in mind if you’re picking up beer for a party.

9. It’s pronounced “weeeeeeeee-feeeeeeee.”

10. If you download a google map while you have Internet, it will still work when you don’t.

11. Google a little something about your current country’s political situation. Maybe it’s all been out of courtesy to me, but people have been very keen to talk about American politics. If they venture into a territory where they’re far better informed than you, pull the ol’ switcheroo. Good luck.

12. Grocery shop. I can’t say it enough. You can get a whole host of delicious carbohydrate confections for under 1€. It’s a no-brainer.

13. Leggings ARE pants.

The Bicycle Diaries

Well, I’ve arrived in Amsterdam. Finally. I’ve had June 29th written on my calendar for so many months, it seemed like a mirage, getting further away every time I tried to move closer.

But no. I’m really here. I’m staying in IJburg, which is a new suburb just outside the city center. It consists of seven, man-made islands. To say the least, it is not the historical district of downtown, but it is still beautiful. There are canals everywhere–just outside my room for instance. And it’s only about a 30 minute bike ride from the center. Rumor has it, more experienced bikers can make the commute in 20 minutes, but I prefer to take my time, appreciating nature and breathing heavily on the uphill sections.

I bought my own bicycle today. I wish everyone who mocked me in high school for being the only kid to ride my bike to school could see me now, swooping around the streets of Amsterdam like a total badass. I also wish I looked like more of a bad ass, and less of a sweaty tourist.

Getting lost on a bicycle is not that different from getting lost walking. Except, you’re going faster, so you’re going farther. And when you’re walking, you can stop at any moment and turn around bewilderedly. In Amsterdam, you cannot just stop biking at any moment. There are twenty more bikers behind you and they will not stop to ask you if you need directions. They will continue biking, through you, if necessary. In the immortal words of Charlotte, our EF Tour Director from 2009: If you hear the bell, run like hell.

That is a particularly apt expression if you are hearing the high-pitched, rusted tinkling sound of the bell on my bike. If I’m ringing the bell, it’s because I’ve already lost control and you are going to get hit. Luckily, I haven’t really made contact with any pedestrians yet. And Amsterdam natives, while serious about cycling, aren’t exactly Hell’s Angels. I have yet to be cursed at or threatened. I was the victim of one particularly withering stare, but if that’s the worst thing that happens to me on this trip, I’ll consider myself fortunate.

When I bought my bike lock today, my landlady suggested I keep it as a souvenir. In the States, I really have no need for a bike lock, because 1.) I have no bike, and 2.) There are no convenient bike paths to get anywhere, because no one else has a bike either. I can’t quite tell why the US hasn’t hopped on biking the way we hop on every other trend that comes out of Europe. Probably because biking is more than a trend. It’s a sustainable, economical fitness regime. It’s a time saver! Thousands of sorority girls bike millions of miles on the stationary bikes at the gym–imagine if they could use that energy to actually go somewhere. If Americans agreed to make the switch to taking biking more seriously as a form of transportation, we could simultaneously help our environment, our economy, and our waist-size.

I know I can’t take my bike home with me (my suitcase is cumbersome enough as it is), but I will definitely be bringing home my bike lock. I’m sure I can find a dirt cheap bike someplace in Pittsburgh, since no one in American realizes what a potential gold mine biking could become. Even though relentless teasing left me scarred from biking to school as a child, I will once again arrive to class flushed with the glow of perspiration and productivity. Theoretically, by the time the American Bike Revolution comes, I might even be a better biker.

Read more about IJburg here!

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Hostel World

I’m sticking by my method of splitting cities between couchsurfing and hostels. Both are such great ways to meet people, but they are different kinds of people. Couchsurfing, you meet locals. They know all the best coffee places and where to get the cheapest beer. They have cinema cards and bike passes, and never worry about getting lost. I’ve been to two birthday parties, and I’m still waiting on an invitation to an acclaimed CS wedding–there was an open one in Denmark, but I didn’t have time to get there from Arles.

I love CS, but there is still something very special about staying in hostels. Everyone you meet is on holiday, like you. There’s an unspoken agreement not to get ready too much, and never to be embarrassed by changing in a room full of strangers. It’s easy to retain a flexible independence–you can spend the whole day with a group of people, and then go off by yourself for a few hours, no guilt, no questions asked. After you read in a park or eat MacDonalds or wander aimlessly, you can go back and find another group of people, ready and eager to hang out together.

I can’t tell if this is because I’m American, but Americans I’ve met in hostels are incredibly friendly. And even in our giant country, the accent is impossible to mistake. People from Idaho don’t sound so different from Floridians. It’s got me thinking that the big fuss I made over the Pittsburgh accent was all in my head. Yes, even the Southern accent doesn’t seem so thick compared to the flood of Franglish and other combinations of languages I’ve heard. To hear Americans talking is like flipping the channel to a Simpsons rerun–I don’t always know which episode it is, but it’s familiar and doesn’t take any effort to get caught up. “Where are you from?” always comes before “What’s your name?”, and the best conversation starter is to point to someone’s logo T-shirt and say “Hey, I know that college/summer camp/band/bar/show/lake/team/ice cream!” Next time I travel, I have to pack a W&J shirt and some DG letters, just to see who I meet.

Unplugged

Dr. Bilsky told me it was good to be without the Internet for a while, to really appreciate new cities and get to know the culture. I thought leaving my laptop at home would be a good start, but having my iPhone with me constantly would be like a nicotine patch. I could still FaceTime and iMessage, and make international calls when absolutely necessary.

As it turns out, I can only make international calls about 15% of the time. No idea why, and I apologize to all my hosts who can never get in touch with me and worry about me getting lost or kidnapped by Martians. Try not to worry too much. I’ve only been lost for three hours at the most, and the Martians refused to take me because I speak Martian even worse than I speak Dutch.

For iMessaging and FaceTime, well, that’s been pretty difficult too. Antwerp is by far the best city I’ve found with free wifi, but even there, it’s only available about half the time. So mostly I’ve had to learn to survive without the Internet. This must be what it was like when my parents were my age, and the Pony Express was the most reliable form of communication.

I’m so GPS-obsessed at home, that I sort of forgot that maps existed. Therefore, I don’t always remember to grab one when I get to a new city. This is when most of the getting lost happens. I’ve found the best thing to do is walk in around a block repeatedly until people start to recognize me and wonder if I’m deranged. Then I go into a friendly looking business and ask for help. In Arles, a nice lady at a pharmacy even went in the back, googled the address of my hostel, and printed me a little map. It’s better to ask people in businesses, because sometimes locals on the street think its funny to send tourists off in completely wrong directions. My host in Nice told me about some guests of his that were looking for the beach, and received perfect directions from a helpful man on the street–all the way to the police station. If you have to ask someone on the street, ask as many people as possible.

My use of Facebook has been reduced to a messaging service, and extra storage space for photos. Instagram was initially just for the photos I wanted to show my mother, but a few days ago I cracked and friended her on Facebook, just to avoid the painfully slow uploading and editing process on Instagram. There is no Pandora in Europe, and I’m too conservative with battery life to waste energy on Temple Run.

Now that I’m blogging semi-regularly, I’m less nervous about posting Twitter. Before, I barely tweeted at all because I was too nervous people would subtweet about me, saying my posts were moronic and a waste of precious Twitterfeed space. I’ve since learned that most tweets are moronic, and at least mine say ‘Sent from Munich’ at the bottom. However, when I do manage to get on to Twitter, I generally don’t read anything anyone else has posted. Battery life is precious, after all.

I’m about to get even more unplugged, because my hostel in Munich does not have outlets in the dorm. You can only charge things in the reception area, which will be closed by the time I get back from dinner. I’d tell you to stay tuned, but it may not be necessary.

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