where i've been...

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Friday, February 27, 2009

the berlin wall is...

ONLY 13 feet high! What?!? Did everyone else know that but me???

So Berlin is a really cool city. It is surprisingly cheaper than many other european cities we have been in lately, which is really nice, and we are couchsurfing with an Irish-Italian guy who has been an excellent host. I know I was 12 when the wall came down...and I was old enough to more or less understand the situation, but being here has been really thought provoking for me. It is just mind blowing that overnight a government threw up a wall that prohibited people from going to work, going home from work, separating families, etc. for over 28 years. Wow. And the scarier part to me is that these so-called crazy things are still happening in our world today. It started as a barbed wire fence...then a 13 foot high structure that people could SEE over. Just not cross. Then, of course, on the eastern side they enforced a ¨death zone¨ so people couldn´t get close to the actual wall, but on the western side people could walk right up to it, paint on it, whatever they wanted. I am blown away.

So we have been wandering around what used to be East Berlin these past few days. It has all kinds of great pockets, gourmet food and restaurants (which we haven´t taken advantage of at all), super funky neighborhoods of hipsters, tons of historical buildings and monuments, and more. There is a lot of great graffiti as well, my favorite of which was a sign that reads, ¨David Hasselhoff saved the world¨. He did. Little known fact. Look it up. =)

Apart from all of that, we have been amusing ourselves with a newly invented game called ¨flattering or frightening¨. It is kind of a take on the whole ¨Would you rather...¨ game. But in this case, you present a scenario and the other person has to deem it flattering or frightening. For example, Rahima recently introduced me to the website and book of Post Secret, where people decorate a postcard and anonymously send in a secret some of which are posted on the website or in a book. They range from the simple to the heart-wrenching. One of my favorites was one where a woman confessed that when she makes her husband a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, she secretly draws a heart in the peanut butter before closing the sandwich. Cute, huh?

So here is an example of the game:
Rahima: Flattering or frightening? I secretly draw a heart in your peanut butter sandwich.
Annette: Flattering.
Rahima: Flattering or frightening? I use my dirty finger to do it?
Annette: Eww! Frightening.

Try it with your friends. It is really fun. =)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Train rides, cold, and more cold

Well, whoever said Eastern Europe was cold in the winter sure was right. We left Prague a few days back and hopped on a night train to Krakow. Most of the cars were pretty empty, so we thought we were in luck, and would be able to lie down and even sleep part of the way. Shortly before the train started on its way, we were joined by a very nice Russian or Polish middle-aged man who insisted on speaking to us in his native lanugage, despite the fact that we understood next to nothing. Okay, nothing.

It only took a few minutes to realize how intoxicated he was. Very friendly, and the saddest mess I think I have ever seen. He proceeded to drink another (I am assuming he had at least one or two prior) bottle of vodka. Then he kind of passed out. By kind of, I mean that he would not stay passed out. He kept waking up when the train slowed or stopped, and this somehow signaled him to reach for a)more vodka b)a cigarette or c) a beer (which I dumped out on his behalf once his eyes closed again). We spent a good part of the night just making sure that as he fell off of the seat he didn't hit his head too hard on the floor. About 2am, when he was pretty still, we realized there was no one in the compartment next to us and decided to move to try to sleep for a bit.

When we arrived in Krakow (very well rested at this point...note the sarcasm) we had about 5-10 minute walk to our hostel. Wow was it cold. My face actually stung as we came out of the building and headed down the street. Another note to self: Never be awake and outside in Eastern Europe prior to 7am.

We are at at great little hostel and we have exlpored Krakow quite a bit and eaten our fair share of perogis. Rahima headed to Auschwitz today, and I will go explore a bit on my own. Yesterday we went to the Wieliczka Salt Mines here in Krakow which was really incredible. They have one chamber where everything is carved into the rocksalt. The floor looks like tiles, but it is actually one big slate of salt which has been etched into. And it even appears to have "paintings" on the walls, which are also carvings, including one of the Las Supper. Everything, right down to the chandeliers are...you guessed it...rock salt. I can't post pics on this computer, but you should google it to see how amazing it is.

Hope you are all nice and warm while reading this! :)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

gnomey's blog

Well, Rahima and I are thoroughly enjoying our adventures, but so is Gnomey. He has started his own blog, to share his side of the story as well. He has just started writing, so be patient with him, but you can find his blog at www.throughagnomeseyes.blogspot.com


(yes...we have that much time on our hands!)

Most of us remember Prague...

for its castle, its toy-like charm, or its cheap beer. But for me, Prague will always hold a deeper and more personal connection. Prague will be the location of the discovery of my first, real, official grey hair.

Yes. It's true.

Yesterday I went walking around Prague with Alan, a real Scotsman (kilt and all which he donned for us the night before) to see most of the sights. As I knelt down to take a picture of a swan on the river, Alan said, "Hold on! I see something here!" A second later there was a sharp twinge of pain as a single hair (or maybe a few and that is what hurt so much!) was yanked out of my head and presented to me for the viewing. Yup. Unquestionable proof. Grey.

And yes. I saved it. :)

So there you have it. The latest development and milestone in my life. And now the thoughts running through my head include: because I plucked it will seven really grow back in its place? How long have I really had grey hair, but covered it up with my incessant hair-dying addiction? Will I look as good with grey hair as Maria Rosa does? God, I hope so.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

We finally made it to Munich

Manarola. One of the five towns of le cinque terre. Sigh.

Wow, I can´t believe it has been almost a full week since I have sat down and blogged! Believe it or not, we finally dragged ourselves out of Italy. It was so difficult! We really got used to our lazy little lives, living just above the waterfront, waking up to good breakfasts, then long beautiful walks, good people in town, frisbee in the public square with the little old man who watched from his window, and then three course homecooked meals for dinner. Seriously, if anyone had previously tried to tell me that some of the best food on this trip would come from inside a little apartment with two guys from Pennsylvania while in Italy, I would have told them they were crazy. But it was true.

Paul, Me, Rahima, Jason on one of the trails between two of the towns. Not a bad view, huh?

We played cards, (Briscola being my new favorite card game, but unfortunately I didn´t buy a deck before I left...), drank wine (lots of it) and ate and ate and ate. The Italian way I guess! Pesto-broccoli riosotto, pasta with a mussle-clams sauce, ribbolita, eggplant parmesan, gnocci, omlettes galore, more pasta with meat or fresh vegetable sauces, and the list goes on and on. Fresh breads, meats and cheeses everyday as well. Yummy.

One of our nice dinners, in our tight quarters. By the end of our stay, we had a total of 11 people in that apartment. Yes, you are looking at one of the bedrooms (4 beds) and the kitchen-dining room! The other seven beds were in an adjacent room, about the same size!

But like I said, we did manage to leave. It was hard, but I know I will be back there someday, hopefully soon. And maybe in the summer, but maybe I don´t want to ruin the sleepy little vision that I have of that area. Imagining it overrun with tourists and packed doesn´t make me think I´d like it all that much.

So off we went to Munich. We arrived at 6:30am and my cousin, Holger, was all smiles at the train station, ready to greet us. His apartment is only a few blocks away and so we walked through the icy cold back to his house. Everything here is covered in snow. It is cold, and beautiful. We certainly have not packed for snow, so all layers are on at every moment! Holger and his girlfriend, Isabel, are the two nicest people, who have completely spoiled us. We have been showered with so much love and kindness, advice, and food, it is incredible. In the past week, we have done so much, and we could be here for a few more weeks and still not see or do nearly enough.

The first day we kind of took a day to recover and plan our time here a bit. Since then, we have been on a walking tour of Munich, a Third Reich walking tour of the city, Rahima went to Dachau (I couldn´t stomach the thought, considering I broke down and had to be led out of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in D.C. a few years back), but she said it was really powerful.

My other cousin´s son, Yannick, came by to meet me because he left for an internship in the US a few days later, and it was our only chance to meet. He is 15 and much taller than I am! He is so nice and smart and wonderful. He and Holger cooked us spinach dumplings for dinner.

We ate at the Hofbrauhaus one night and made friends with a bar-owner who showed around to some of the Munich nightlife. We were up until about 4am and rang in Valentine´s Day right with lots of loud music and treats. Rahima bought me an oversized gingerbread cookie on Valentine´s Day, and I returned the gesture with a pack of ferrero rocher candies. Can you tell food (and consumables) are the way to our backpacking hearts? :)

Look at the size of those beers!

Neuschwanstein Castle

After a few hours of sleep, Rahima and I headed out to Tutzing, where my aunt lives and left Isabel and Holger to enjoy their Valentine´s Day. We got to see my other cousin and her family who live there as well. I come from good people. They are all always on the go, and always joking around about something. We went to see the Neuschwanstein Castle (the one Disneyland is modeled after). Wow. We drank gluhwine (a mulled wine) to keep warm and Sebine, my cousin, properly engaged me in a snowball fight. I turned around at one point to be met dead on with a snowball to the face. Rahima caught some of it on video, which is even funnier because you can quickly see who grew up with snow. While I try to make cute little snowballs like they do in cartoons, my cousin expertly sweeps armfulls of snow directly at me. I think I got one good shot at the end there though! (sadly, I can´t figure out how to get sound on here!)

My family. Isable, Rahima, Holger, Tante Inge, Me, Rene, Sebine, Finn (the dog)
The next day Holger, Isabel, my aunt Inge, Sebine, her husband Rene, thier daughter Marie, and Rahima and I all headed out for a beautful hike in the snow. We rented sleds so that after two hours up, we could sled down. I have never been sledding before, but it was so much fun. For some reason I kept taking facefulls of snow (similar to my previous day´s snowball fight) but had a blast.

Wait, where´s the sled? :)

That night my Tante Inge taught me how to make a lovely Bavarian dish, Kaiserschmarrn. It is amazing how many sweets, or dumplings covered in melted butter make up the main dishes here. There is a reason I love those types of foods...it is aparently in my blood! :)

Me and Marie. My second cousin? Is that what you call your cousin´s kids? She is so great. Really funny, and sarcastic, like the rest of us!

Yesterday, sore as could be, Holger and I went skiing. It was so much fun. The weather wasn´t sunny, but there was very little wind and the snow was absolutely PERFECT! It was great. We skied, drank more gluhwine, and had a really, really special day. And finally, I am sitting down, able to tell the tales, via my blog. Being with my family has been such a treat. I feel so lucky to be across the world, and yet to feel absolutely and completely at home. I only wish I had more time here, but I keep reminding myself that a plane ride makes me a lot closer than I think. :) I will be very sad to leave tomorrow, but I am really grateful for all the fun things we were able to do in such a relatively short amount of time.

Monday, February 9, 2009


So as I am wandering around this cemetary, looking for my great grandparents' graves I come across an old lady who comes into the cemetary and walks over to a particular tomb. She slowly lowers herself down on her hands and knees in the wet gravel in front of the tomb. She methodically and lovingly takes out the old flowers, tossing the old water, and replaces them with new ones. Then, she takes a rag that she has brought and washes down every square inch of the tomb with water so that the white marble really shines in the light. She stops, observes her work, fidgets with the flower arrangement to get it just right, and then takes a moment for herself. She collects her things, and leaves. Don't we all just want someone to love us that much?

I can't stop the tears streaming down my face.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I'm in love

Well it's official. I am in love with this small town of Italy. We are staying in the town of Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the five towns that make up la cinque terre. Since it is off-season it is a sleepy town, glistening from the rain and drizzle. It is right on the coast, and we are in a hostel/apartment about 30 stairs from the little dock and right next door to some type of distillery. The guys came by to move some of their wine and do what they do and filled up a 2 liter bottle for us to try! Delicious. Most of the stores are closed or only open a few hours a day, at the owners discretion of course. This area is famous for the hiking trails that link these five towns together.

We are sharing the apartment with two guys from Pennsylvania (one of whom is an excellent cook) and a girl from Calgary who left this morning. Yesterday she and I took the train to the northernmost town and attempted to walk the whole way home even though the trail is officially closed. We would have made it if we hadn't taken an hour long trek down (and back up) what we thought was the trail at the time! After sliding down a muddy slope on my butt (not intentionally), being attacked by the same vines I am now convinced were the inspiration for the ones in the Harry Potter stories and trecherous river crossings, we decided that maybe we had wandered off the real trail and retraced our steps until we found it again. It was raining in the morning when we left but then stopped raining and even though it was overcast we had spectacular views of the ocean and these amazing little towns.

My granfather was from a town just north of this area and I have made friends with a brother and sister who own a bar and shop in town and who both used to live in San Francisco. Just the nicest people. Sandra has offered to help me find any decendents or relatives of my family and I spent this morning with her calling all of the Tosos in Sestri Levante on my behalf. She should have been a PI the way she works! We will keep calling tomorrow, but at least some people are familiar with my great-grandfather's name, Giacomo Toso. Hopeful!

So today Rahima and the boys went walking in the rain, and I am here, stuffing myself full of nutella, cozied up in a warm apartment overlooking the sea, thinking about going to take a few pictures before walking up to the local market and buying fresh ingredients for dinner and maybe stopping by the bar for a drink or a coffee. Oh, how rough it is. :)

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

life in the tuscan countryside

So I guess I haven't written much since we got to Italy, which means we haven't slowed down much in the past week! First off, Italy is amazing and I wish I spoke Italian. There are definitely similarities to Spanish, but I only get about every fifteenth word if I'm really lucky. But it just sounds so good that I am mezmerized just hearing it all around me, all day long. Note to self:learn Italian.
So first off, we took a ferry from Greece to Italy and we were, quite possibly, the only women on the ferry. We felt like we were back in a Muslim country for a minute! Being the low season there weren't many people on the ferry at all, but the majority were truck drivers. We made friends with two English guys and a group of Italians (who spoke about as much English as we do Italian) and played cards and talked most of the overnight trip. When we landed, we hopped on a train to Rome (the eurail pass is MUCH better now being in Italy and having an eraseable pen!). Rome was as incredible as I could have imagined. Rahima had been there before, so the next day she did laundry and slept in while I rapidly depeleted my bank account running around and paying ridiculous, but necessary, entrances to Vatican city, the Sistene Chappel, and the Colleseum. It was incredible. Once again I was awed by what people were able to build so long ago and how well it has staved off the effects of time.

The following morning we headed to Pisa, but ended up getting in touch with a gal from SF that we met in Sevilla who is now travelling in Italy (are you all still with me?) and is in Florence. So, with our backpacks in tow, we took a city bus to the leaning tower, took pictures as the sun set, jumped on another train and headed to Florence to meet up with Chloe and the people she had been couchsurfing with.

So, we ended up staying the last three days up in the hills of Tuscany, with a bunch of Italian hippies. As one of them described Galiga, it is a fraction of a fraction of a town. It maybe consists of five houses on a hillside. The house where we stayed has eight bedrooms, one bathroom, a kitchen, a foozball table, and a great fireplace in the livingroom/diningroom (which also doubles as an oven for bread and the waterheater!). At any given point there are between 8 and 25 people there. Some are students, some have jobs in Florence, one is the mayor of Galiga, and so on and so on. When someone cooks, they cook for everyone. Somehow there is always food (most likely pasta). The anarchist philosophy just seems to work. It is "rustic" (aka dirty) but someone is always cleaning something up. They were all so welcoming and really, really nice. One night the parents of the girlfriend of one of the guys (once again, are you following?) came and cooked dinner for everyone. They made delicious polenta and even brought homemade bread and wine. Italians seem to be the happiest people on the planet as long as they are eating, feeding someone else and in a big, loud group. :). I love my people!

So yesterday we spent the day wandering around Florence in the drizzling rain, saw most of the sights famous to Florence, drank some coffee, ate some gelatto, and had an apertivo for dinner. Best deal in Europe. For 7 euros you get a drink, and then all you can eat appetizers which are really good. So Rahima and Chloe and I got to sit around, stuff our little faces and enjoy (and I mean really enjoy because we could afford it!) good company and good food. La dolce vita!