|Trevi Fountain – Rome|
The following weekend, I went to Rome! I left early Saturday morning and took Monday off to come back that evening. Adriana (one of my friends who was also an au pair in France) was coming to Italy with her fiancé, so Helena (my other au pair friend) and I decided to make the trip to Rome to see her after 8 years. Helena and I both got to Rome at about noon so we were able to check into our airbnb and have a much-needed lunch. This trip, I decided to treat myself and buy good food instead of finding the cheapest deal and being disappointed, so this food experience in Italy was MUCH better than my last. We did a bit of walking around and then found a nice cafe in front of the Pantheon to have drinks until Adriana and Jake showed up. It was so great to all be reunited again! We didn’t end up having dinner until about 11 so it ended up being a late night. The next morning, it was the first Sunday of the month so all museums were free! We went for lunch and coffee, and then decided to try out the Colosseum. The line-up was so long and we kept second-guessing whether we should stay in line or not. Luckily, it moved very fast and we ended up getting tickets within half an hour. It was neat seeing the Colosseum on the inside, but it probably wasn’t anything I’d pay money to see (which thankfully, I didn’t have to that day!). With our tickets, we also got free entrance into the Roman Forum, so we took some time walking around that and then headed back into central Rome to meet up with Adriana and Jake for dinner. That was our last night together and then the next morning, we had all booked tickets to the Vatican (at different times). Helena and I went for lunch before heading to the Vatican Museum. The Sistine Chapel seemed to be at the very end of the museum and we were forced to walk through all of the other rooms with no air conditioning. Both of us were ready to be out within five minutes! Unfortunately, there weren’t any other exits so we just had to follow the crowd. They’d have wide halls to walk through with the art on either side and then they’d just have one small door at the end of each hall, where hundreds of people had to go into. After doing that over and over again for about twenty minutes, we finally got to the Sistine Chapel! It was super quiet and we weren’t allowed to take pictures, but it wasn’t as great as I thought it was going to be. Honestly, I thought some of the other ceilings in the museum were nicer. After seeing the Chapel, we saw that we’d have to continue with the crowd to finish the rest of the museum so we snuck through the “tour guides only” door to escape. We then went to St. Peter’s Basilica, which I’ve already seen before but it was still just as beautiful. We had some gelato before making our way back to central Rome to get our suitcases and catch our buses back to the airport.
The next weekend, I went to The Kooks concert, which was great! It was at Alexandra Palace, which is on a hilltop so it has a beautiful view of London. They played all of their classic songs, so everyone got into it. However, it was a standing concert so I was definitely exhausted by the time it finished. The following day, I went to The English School of Falconry with Becky so that we could meet some owls and eagles! We had to take a train ride to Bedford (which took about two hours) and then take a bus to Cotton End, which is where the farm was located. It was such a cool experience – not only being able to hold the owls and eagles, but actually being able to have them fly to and from your arm! The day showed me just how much of a personality birds have; it was a really entertaining day!
On Monday, I went to the Close Talker concert. I remember thinking I’d be lucky to watch them ONCE while I was in London but I was seeing them for the third time! I walked into the bar and saw someone who looked familiar, but often my mind plays tricks on me when I’m abroad and I think I see people I know. However, he half-smiled at me so I was like, “Hello? What are you doing here?” (Really hoping that this was the guy who I thought he was). Luckily, he replied and said that he and his wife were travelling and decided to come to the Close Talker concert. I hadn’t seen him since high school, which was almost ten years ago! Anyway, I joined them for drinks and for the concert. On Tuesday night, I went out for dinner with the Biology department and then on Wednesday night, I went to my last musical with Kim 😦 We decided to go to School of Rock, which was really well done! The guy who played the main character was so much like Jack Black. On Thursday, I went to get my last vaccine and to drop off (what I thought was) my last bag at Kim’s, and then Friday was my last night! I went out for drinks with my flatmate and her friends before packing up the last of my stuff and cleaning my room. I was moved out by 8:30 Saturday morning. I don’t know HOW I thought it would be a good idea to plan my trip the day after my last day of work AND move out at the same time, while making sure two year’s worth of stuff was packed away. Somehow, I did it and I’m quite impressed with myself!
On Saturday, I flew to Vilnius, Lithuania. Apparently that day, the IT system crashed in both Gatwick and Heathrow airports so most of the flights were delayed or cancelled. Lucky for me, I flew out of Luton so my flight wasn’t affected (although it was 20 minutes late). I got to Vilnius at about 7:30pm so I went out for dinner and had some amazing pea soup. I wish I got to explore more of the city because it was really cute, but I had an early morning the next day and had to get up at 4:30. I caught an uber to the airport (which only cost me 2 euro!) and then flew to Kyiv at 7am. I arrived at 8:30 but by the time I got to my hostel, it was about 10:30. I couldn’t figure out where my hostel was located or how to get in because there weren’t any signs and my phone was almost dead. I ran to McDonald’s to get wifi and found out I had found the right place but had to put in a code to get in. I finally got in, went up the four flights of stairs and pressed the doorbell about 15 times but no one came! I ended up sitting on the steps for about a half hour and then tried again, and was let in! The hostel had a brand new kitten, which was good and bad cause I couldn’t breathe most of the time I was there, but she was so cute and playful so I couldn’t resist.
|St Andrews Church – Kyiv|
That day, I was determined to find perogies and borscht so I looked up one of the cheaper places to go to and walked there (which took about a half hour). The thing with Kyiv is they’ve really preserved their culture, in that they don’t have signs written in English and not many people speak English. Unlike many other major cities, where they’ve changed their ways to get more tourism. I admired this about Ukraine, but it also made me feel somewhat ashamed because I didn’t know the language, and I couldn’t even understand the alphabet. Lucky for me, the restaurant I went to ended up having an English menu so I got my borscht and perogies! After lunch, I decided to go on a walking tour which focused on the Soviet history. I ended up being the only person on the tour, and the tour guide said I looked more Ukrainian than a tourist (yay!). She also was really surprised when I knew about all of the foods, but I spoke English. That evening, I went for sushi cause it was so cheap! I was able to get two sets of sushi, a cider, and dessert for less than ten pounds (less than it would cost for ONE set of sushi in London!). The next morning, I went on another walking tour, which covered the ancient history of Ukraine. I then went for lunch with a bunch of people on the tour and we went to a buffet-like Ukrainian restaurant. There were four types of perogies and I asked for the ones that looked most similar to home and the lady gave me seven(!). However, when I cut into the first one, I was disappointed to see that there was meat inside. I tried it anyway and it wasn’t too bad! However, when I cut into my second one and an Australian girl sat beside me and asked if I knew what was inside, she informed me that it was liver! I was then thrown off of the perogies cause my mind took over my tastebuds. After lunch, I went to a cave monastery with a couple of the guys but the caves closed as soon as we got there. We decided to explore the monastery grounds for a few hours since we were there, and then we went for dinner. I went to bed early that night cause I had to catch my train to Lviv at 7 the next morning.
|Bell Tower to St Sofia Cathedral|
The trip to Lviv was five hours and I’m not kidding – it looked exactly like Saskatchewan the entire time! I was shocked as to how much it resembled home. I got to my hostel early that afternoon and then I went for lunch where I again had perogies. I then explored the little city, but it rained most of the time I was there. Lviv is a small and charming city and most people I met raved about it, but I ended up getting quite bored while I was there and I think I preferred Kyiv more. I spent the rest of the day wandering around, and made my way to the highest point of the city, where it started to pour! The next day, I looked for souvenirs and filled up on more Ukrainian food. I made my way back to Kyiv on Thursday morning. This time, I had booked first class and even ordered a tea (which I never got), but the seats were a hundred times worse than my third class seat on the other train. I was in another Harry Potter- like carriage but there were five of us in the six seats so our legs had to be moved to the side cause there was hardly any space between the two rows. Two people ended up pulling the beds out from the walls and lying on those so that the rest of us would have more space. It’s always difficult being in those compartments when you’re the only one who doesn’t speak the language though! I arrived in Kyiv that evening and finally found some cabbage rolls for my final meal in Ukraine. I then went to the hostel and went for drinks with a couple of people. On Friday morning, I went to a random cafe and after I ordered my meal, a man from the table beside me asked where I was from. He was from North Carolina and probably my dad’s age, but we had a good conversation during the duration of our breakfast. Towards the end, he got up and then came back to shake my hand and ask my name. He said his name was Bob and he paid for my meal(!), and he really enjoyed our conversation. That was a nice surprise! I did the last of my souvenir shopping. I got my own embroidered shirt (called a vyshyvanka) and I was once again told I had all of the Ukrainian features. The lady there was so friendly and told me how her son lived in America but she wants to move her daughter there too so her family can be together. She said how the last thirty years have been so difficult and that she’s hoping for victory and she burst into tears. I could feel her pain and it made me sad what all of the Ukrainian people were having to go through, and I started to cry as well. I then sat in Independence Square for one last time, where I had quite an emotional time. I was really sad to be leaving Ukraine, knowing that it likely wouldn’t be the same if I were to come again. I then took an Uber to the airport and went back to London. I had some time to kill so I went to my flat to get my last bag, went to Kim’s to drop it off, and then went to Becky’s cause I was staying at her place for the weekend. On Saturday, we went for breakfast and watched a movie, and then I headed to the Elton John concert! He had just finished going through his life-threatening illness and said how he was glad to still be alive. I think he was still getting better, as he seemed to really struggle the one time he walked across the stage, and he didn’t even do an encore. He may have, but I couldn’t tell if it was actually one cause he literally went off stage and was back on five seconds later. The best part was when he sung “Don’t let the sun go down on me” and it started pelting rain. We all had to get out our rain jackets and everyone else just danced in the rain. The rain stopped as soon as the song ended; it honestly felt like special effects. However, it was a good concert and the atmosphere was great! The next morning, Becky and I went for breakfast again before I made my way to the airport for my European trip.
I flew to Sofia, Bulgaria and arrived at my hostel at about 10:30 that night. It was a pretty cool hostel and had a treehouse feel to it. The next morning, I took the free walking tour and then wandered around for the rest of the day. On Tuesday, I took a free hiking tour, which took us to Sofia’s closest mountain (Vitosha). We walked about four or five hours, and it was a nice way to get out of the city!
|The brick (and glass) from breaking the bus window|
On Wednesday morning, I got up nice and early to catch a cab to the bus station with an Australian girl. We were both planning to go to Skopje (scope-ee-ah), Macedonia but they informed us that the 7am bus was full. Luckily, there was a 9:30 bus, so we killed time at a coffee shop before catching the five hour bus ride. I met a Canadian guy (from Ottawa) as soon as I got to the hostel so we went out for a late lunch/early dinner and walked around Skopje. Skopje is a city that reminds me of no other place I’ve seen before. It has such random statues (over 200) and buildings, which makes it very unique. It “copies and pastes” from a lot of other cities, so it has an Arc de Triomphe, random roman columns, red London buses, a couple of pirate ships in the river (which are restaurants), and now they’re in the middle of building a London eye. Also, Mother Theresa was born in Skopje! So as you can imagine, most Balkan main cities have a Mother Theresa Square, and at least one statue as well. We went back to the hostel, where I met two more Canadians (also from Ottawa, and who had been living in London for the past two years) so we exchanged our horror stories of working in London. On Thursday, I went on a walking tour, which was probably one of the best ones I’ve been on. It went for about 3 hours and 20 minutes but you hardly noticed cause the guide really knew his information. The coolest thing about many of the Balkan major cities is that any of the stray dogs who have tags on their ears (like cows) have been sterilised and vaccinated, meaning they’re safe to pet. And a lot of them are so loveable! We had tons join us on our walking tours. After the tour, a few of us (people from the Netherlands, Croatia, and England) went to Matka Canyon. In order to get there, we had to take a bus that only came once every 1.5-2 hours. We went to where the guide told us to wait and we waited for about 30-40 minutes. While we were waiting, some taxi drivers came over and offered to drive us there for ten euro but we declined. When the bus finally came, it just drove right past us! So we went back to the taxi drivers, who then decided they’d drive us for 15 Euro! We declined and decided we’d just wait for the next one and started walking to the bus station. Once we got over a block away, one of the taxi drivers had come running after us saying he’d take us for 10. So we took the taxi to the canyon, which was gorgeous! We did the hike through the canyon, which took an hour each way, and then we took the bus back to Skopje. However, about five minutes into our bus ride, the rear door window completely shattered into a million pieces. Glass flew everywhere, and there was a huge brick in the aisle! The guys behind me informed me that if it was half a second later, the brick would have hit me! So that was reassuring.. I went for dinner with some of the same people, and then the next day I went to Pristina, Kosovo (Prish-TEEN-ah, KOS-uh-voh).
|Pristina Newborn Sign|
Kosovo is the second newest country and is less than ten years old (in terms of independence) but it’s still having a lot of difficulty being accepted by the EU. Serbia also makes it very difficult on them since they gained independence, so they don’t actually allow direct public transportation from Kosovo to Serbia. They all love Americans since they played a big part in stopping the war, so they have a statue of Bill Clinton in the city. Anyway, I caught the bus with one of the Canadian people and the person in front of us asked where we were from. He was from Pristina, so when we arrived he took us for coffee and then we met his girlfriend and we all went for dinner. That night, I went out with some people from the hostel (from Mexico, Germany, France, and the Netherlands) so we got back to the hostel at about 2:30 and then ordered pizza (which ended up being 1.80 euro per pizza!!). The next day, I just did a lot of walking around. They didn’t have a walking tour since they’re still not used to having many tourists. I covered everything easily in a day though!
|Skanderbeg Square – Tirana|
|Through the bunker|
On Sunday, I took the bus to Tirana, Albania (teer-AN-ah), which took about five hours. I got there just in time to do the walking tour during the evening. I learned all about its history in being a communist country under a dictatorship. The guide compared his country to North Korea and said they were convinced that they were the best country, but had no contact with the outside world. They could only watch Albanian television, which was all propaganda and most people weren’t allowed to leave. He said they’ve only had vehicles for 23 years and they didn’t even have bananas until after 1991! The next day, I went to the cable car, which went up Tirana’s tallest mountain (Dajti). Because it was so hot, I didn’t wear my runners so I didn’t get a chance to hike, but it probably would have been too hot anyway. After heading back down, I went to BunkArt, which is a museum made in one of the bunkers. The museum basically went through the entire history of Albania, from fascism to communism to liberation. It was very interesting, and it definitely makes me want to read more about the history. Tirana is now a very colourful city because they painted all of the buildings from the dull grey communist period.
On Tuesday, I went to Podgorica, Montenegro. I got there mid-afternoon and took a walk around the city. I was told not to go to Podgorica because there’s nothing to do in the city and it’s much better going to the coast, but I wasn’t able to cancel my hostel reservation cause it was too late. While yes, Podgorica is quite a sleepy city with nothing to do in terms of tourism, it seems like most locals spend a lot of their time sitting in cafes or restaurants, so I joined in! The next day, I decided to go to their Niagara Falls, which is only 10km outside of the city. It’s called Niagara Falls because the restaurant that it’s beside is called Niagara. I took a taxi to the Falls and the hostel owner had said it should be maximum 5 euro but it ended up being 9! Scammed by another taxi driver, which is why I normally avoid taxis at all costs. Anyway, I spent the morning and most of the afternoon at the Falls. There’s a swimming pool area, which just looks like a river that doesn’t really flow. But then as you walk along the river, it literally just falls into the start of a canyon. It was really gorgeous, and a nice way to spend the afternoon in 33 degree weather! However, I was sitting in a rock in the water at one point and I happened to feel something brush against my side, which I thought was just a stick. When I looked down, there was a huge frog on my lap (like the size of my hand!). I’ve never jumped in the water so fast! Anyway, I caught a taxi back to Podgorica (which only cost 3.70 this time), and then I had dinner and hung out with some people at the hostel.
|Memorial for the Children|
On Thursday, I went to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. I got there in the later afternoon (it was about a 6 hour bus ride), and then I had dinner and an early night in. The next day, I went on a walking tour, where I found out about the city. I then went for lunch, went back to the hostel, and then a bunch of us went on another walking tour, which was focused on the 44-month war, which was from 1992-1995. When Yugoslavia was composed of six countries, some of the countries started becoming more nationalistic. When Bosnia decided to break away from Yugoslavia, Serbia wasn’t very happy about it because a high percentage of Serbs still lived in Bosnia. The Bosnian Serbs were supplied with weapons from Serbia and because Sarajevo is in a valley, the Serbs only had to go on the surrounding hills and mountains and continuously launch missiles. The tour guide was 7 when the war started and she said that everyone had to move to the basement, and her building had 70 people. And she said that some of the people who went to go shoot could have been your neighbour or friend your entire life! Oddly enough, life still continued – people still went to school and work, they just had to run through the streets instead of walk. They got used to hearing and recognising the sound of a missile being launched, as well as it flying through the air so she said it gave them enough time to find shelter before it hit. However, many people weren’t so lucky. 1600 kids were killed in Sarajevo. In total, over 100,000 people were killed during the war. The UN supplied them with food each week but it was mostly canned meat, stale bread, and rice that was covered in dead worms. She said the medicines that they were supplied with had expired in the 70’s! People were kidnapped and put into concentration camps, where thousands were killed. Many of the people who were responsible are still on trial today. Bosnia now has three presidents – a Serbian president, a Croatian president, and a Bosnian president. They all have to agree unanimously before anything can go through. The unemployment rate for people between the ages of 25-35 is 62%! It just blows my mind how this was all happening during the early years of my life, and I was completely oblivious of it until now. The Balkan history is so recent and the effects of it are still evident. That evening, I went back to the hostel and hung out with some of the people there. The next day, I spent most of the day with a guy from America. We tried pretty much all of the Bosnian food possible: the ćevapi (sausages in pita), the Bosnian coffee (which is similar to Turkish coffee), and two desserts called kadaif (a thin ball of noodles, stuffed with walnuts and syrup) and tufahije (a baked apple filled with walnuts, sugar and cream, and topped with whipped cream). We also went up to the Yellow Fortress, which gave a great view of Sarajevo, and then we went to a war museum, which literally laid everything out in the table. Even the concentration camp museum I went to in Germany wasn’t this morbid. It was quite devastating to see how people were treated. Human beings are cruel. We are all brainwashed in one way or another to believe certain things, and we are convinced that other people aren’t living the “right” way. As I’ve said in another post, I really respected when I went to Germany and saw how open they were about their history, admitting the wrong that they did because they didn’t want it to happen again. Little did I know, it happened again 50 years later in Bosnia. People were delivered to concentration camps and tortured to death while I was innocently playing in the safe streets with my neighbours. Along the same lines, the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996! If you ask me, residential school is just a fancy name for concentration camp. Some Canadians still don’t even understand what happened at these schools, or that they even existed. And all three of these situations stemmed from religion. The Holocaust against the Jews, in Bosnia against Muslims, and residential schools were run by the church to convert Aboriginal peoples to Christianity. Ethnic cleansing. Whatever you want to call it. And believe it or not, that is STILL occurring. Trump. Brexit. “Cleaning” different nations and getting rid of what doesn’t “belong.” Who are we? History continues to repeat itself over and over, and it’s sickening. I have never questioned my beliefs and religion more than at this very moment.