Fin

Today it’s eleven months after I arrived in Paris.

I’m safely back home in my adolescent bedroom, which is crammed with my adult possessions. Like the Princess and the Pea, I sit on top of my queen mattress, which is on top of a double mattress, which is on top of the double bed my mum bought for this room when I first moved out (climbing into bed is now a perilous exploit).

I’ve been applying for jobs online, finally ready to grow up and settle down for a while. I might teach again but, assuming everything in Melbourne goes to plan, it will probably be a career-break in a few years, rather than a continuation of a long and not-so-prosperous teaching career.

Consequently, not only is it the end of this journey, it’s the end of this blog. A big thank-you to everyone who read – I hope that it’s been useful, or at least entertaining, for people considering giving TEFL a try. Although I’ve loved having a regular writing project, I don’t think it’s appropriate to keep updating Jolie à Paris when Jolie is no longer à Paris. This was originally supposed to be a TEFL blog and, although writing while I was backpacking was a bit of a stretch, writing about my life in Oz is probably a stretch too far.

That being said, if I start a new blog, I’ll let you know.

So, 11 months, 23 cities, 76 students and 372 classes later, and I feel like I’m back where I started. A 24-year-old Aussie girl who has just returned to Melbourne.

Find a room, find a job, find l’amour, drink wine and be merry – should be a piece of cake, non?

Paris

Rooftops

I had a final stop in Paris before going home.

Originally I was hoping to spend time meeting up with the teachers from BTL for drinks, getting a last chocolat chaud with Mr Frog, and maybe a drink with Manuela.

But when I sent out texts, I discovered that neither Mr Frog nor Manuela would be in Paris. And of the seven teachers that I considered to be the core of our group at BTL, two had already left Paris, two were flying to Toulouse on Friday, and I didn’t have one’s number.

D was going back to London after Rome and I panicked – how could I spend four days alone with nothing planned?

Eating out has always been a social activity for me, so it was off the list. After two and a half months of being a tourist, I didn’t want to see museums and monuments. Especially not ones I’d already seen.

I didn’t want to spend the next four days agitated, especially with one of the world’s longest flights ahead of me!

So I changed my flight home and breathed a sigh of relief. I would only be in Paris for two days now (or one and a half, if you subtract airport time).

Then I reached my hostel, on a beautiful street in the 18th at the top of a tree-lined staircase, neighboured by a brasserie and an up-market boulangerie, with a chocolaterie, a couple of bars, and several fruit shops down the road. Out the window of my dorm room was a vista of lead roofs, brown chimneys and dark windows.

I felt that familiar thrill.

Oh why had I worried?

My one and a half days ended up being plenty of time, and it was probably better that I spent them alone, as I was deep in thought and my emotions rocked in waves.

When I reached the buoyant crest, I felt that Paris had revitalised me. I had a real croissant for breakfast instead of the horrible packaged equivalents from the hostels in Italy. The round tables of brasseries spilled onto the streets, with patrons lighting cigarettes over coffee in the morning, to be replaced by wine in the
afternoon. As I walked I could smell the perfumes of pungent cheese and dark chocolate when I passed open shop doors. The market produce shined brightly, colours ripening in the sun. It all seemed so familiar to me.

Whenever the breeze rose, I felt as though I was swept into a lover’s arms and waltzed down the street. I could travel for another month. Even two! There was so much more I wanted to see!

At Place des Vosges I ate a light and sweet strawberry mille-feuille and one of the best sandwiches I’ve had in Paris (courtesy of Boulangerie St. Antoine) – no need to toasting here, as with many of Italy’s day-old paninis – the bread was crunchy and the ham, gruyere and salad so fresh that no dressing was necessary. I returned the phone that a former student, Marie Maud, had lent me when mine broke in February, and learned that she was engaged and planning to move to London. When I closed my bank account, the ease of the process made me so jubilant that I did a little dance on Boulevard Haussmann once I’d surrendered my carte-bleue.

Then my mood would start to descend. When I came upon Rue du Pot de Fer and wandered down it for the first time, I wondered how many more streets like this the city was hiding, just waiting for me to discover. I turned down Rue Moufftard and decided that I liked it even better than Rue Montorgueil, my previous market-street favourite.

Paris beckoned me. She had seduced me time and time again, and now it was my turn. She smiled coyly, flashing a bit of calf as she crossed her legs, leaving her skirts below her knee. Stay a little longer – give me a look, a smile, a touch. Pause a moment, and I’ll tell you my secrets. The leaves whispered as they rustled in the wind, and I debated whether I was leaving too soon. After nearly nine months in Paris I was still an outsider – was I walking away from my chance to get in? My chance to sample a French life?

Then I would sink into the troughs, tormented by worries about going home, and haunted by ‘what ifs’. As the afternoon crawled in, I started to feel as though I was losing a loved one and at some moments the grief was so acute that I ached to curl up and lick my wounds.

And then I would be happy again, soaring on the crest of another wave.

That day I walked around Montmartre, down to the Parc Monceau then Boulevard Haussmann, past Madeleine and Place de Concorde to the 5th and 6th arrondissements, then to Bibliothèque François Mitterrand and Parc de Bercy before heading back through Bastille, Le Marais, Les Halles and up Rue Montorgeuil and Rue Montmartre. In the evening I left for another walk around Montmartre.

That night I collapsed into bed exhausted. And I worried about my return to Australia.

When I returned from London in 2009, it took me some time to find work, and then I’d only done it with help from my mum and her contacts. I’d never imagined that I’d have trouble finding a job – it shattered my confidence, and this affected several areas of my life.

I was determined that this wouldn’t happen again, and formed a plan of attack as I fell to sleep.

The next morning I woke, feeling at peace. In the few hours before my flight I strolled. Yes, Paris was still alluring, but I didn’t feel as I’d felt the previous day. I was no longer torn.

Paris and I had had a brief and beautiful affair. But it was over.

And I was ready to go home.

Rome

Foro Romano

“Is not possible.”

This could have been the slogan for our stay in Rome.

Wifi in our hostel? “No.”

Directions to a supermarket and Laundromat? “Sorry, I’m not from this area.”

We weren’t having much luck.

Foro Traiano

I first went to Rome three years ago. On my second visit, the impressions left by the first were still fresh – I remembered the graffiti (though Rome was sparkling clean in comparison to Naples), the dismissive attitude of sales girls and the persistent men. I remembered how relaxed life seemed to be here, and felt as though Rome was a coastal city. I fell in love with the city when I sat reading on a patch of grass in front of the Foro Traiano and a man told me I had skin like mozzarella.

Colosseum

I remembered being blown away by the size of the monuments – I’d never seen anything as large as the Colosseum, each of the arches in the walls at least three or four times my height, and the walls metres thick. Surrounded by parks and the Foro Romano archaeological site, I was shocked to discover that it wasn’t on an empty, sandy plain.

Saint Peter's and Piazza

This time we sat outside the Colosseum (the line was too long to go in, and we didn’t want to pay for one of those ‘skip the line’ tours) and an old New Yorker sat next to us. Apparently he and his wife visited Rome 45 years ago – back then the Colosseum was free, the arches were completely open (now bars line them) and there were about ten people there feeding spaghetti to 300 cats.

Pompeii scavi

Saint Peter’s Basilica was the largest church I’d ever seen, sitting behind Rome’s largest piazza, walled by a colonnade and with fountains and an Egyptian obelisk in its centre. Like Saint Paul’s on steroids, it was beautiful with elaborate mouldings of angels on the walls and ceiling, and light streaming in through the arched windows lining the top of the walls and circling the dome. The cavernous crypt below the basilica was like a maze – each pope’s tomb housed in a separate arch, and each unique.

I loved the history. Europe abounds in history, but this was the first time I’d seen ruins, both in Rome and a day trip I did to Pompeii.

Foro Romano

The ruins of ancient Pompeii cover an area of about 70 acres, which means some places have large tour groups standing around, and other places where I could be completely alone. I spent four hours getting lost there on my first visit, never before having realised that this was a fully functioning city with streets, houses, spas, arenas, a brothel, parks and a beautiful villa. I loved that I could get so much closer than in any museum – being able to walk around the houses and under the arches, to touch the marble pillars and the fossilised furniture.

So my favourite part of Rome was the Foro Romano, Rome’s own archaeological site.

I was curious to see whether D would be as awestruck as I was.

To be honest, he didn’t seem to be (though he might just express it differently – after all, we can’t all walk around with our jaws hanging slackly and our eyes as wide as saucers). Not having internet had put a damper on our stay, and in Italy we’d started feeling swindled by entrance fees and the limited access they provided (can we see the Vatican City? Is not possible. Can we skip the line to look at prices? Is not possible. Is there a youth price? No).

However, the main objective for this trip to Rome was to eat well, and that we did.

True, we had some unfortunate supermarket food, and an old Panini, but when we ate out it was always a pleasure.

I bought gelato at L’Ourso Bianco, where you can get three flavours for €2.50, catching dribbles of the melting ice-cream running down my cone on my tongue. The biscotti flavour was divine. It was so much better than Rome’s oldest gelato shop, Palazzo del Freddo di Giovanni Fassi, in business since 1880. There the flavours weren’t labelled, and I felt rushed by the impatient sales girl who gave me strawberry sorbet when I wanted strawberry ice-cream.

Piazza del Popolo

When we searched for a decently-priced restaurant near the Spanish steps, we walked past Piazza del Poplo and found a place near Flaminio, which didn’t seem to have a name.

Flaminio Restaurant

We entered and, immediately sensing we were tourists, the barista pointed us upstairs. We reached a restaurant filled with square tables covered in red and white checked tablecloths, the patrons largely Italian – a group of elderly ladies behind me, and a group of business men who could have been the mafia in a US television series behind D.

The bread was served with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. We were seated on the second floor, surrounded by tables of locals. D ordered a mozzarella and prosciutto appetizer, a tomato salad, and a penne arrabiata. I ordered a spaghetti carbonara and decided to see how I was feeling afterwards before considering the home-made tiramisu.

I’m so glad I did – it was the best carbonara of my life. The bacon was salty, smoky and crunchy. The spaghetti was still chewy in the middle. And the sauce was scandalously runny, steam escaping whenever I stirred the pasta. My mouth sang as I ate, and I tried to decipher the recipe, wondering how something so simple could taste so good.

D’s mozzarella was wonderful and the tomatoes were a deep, sweet red. And his pasta served the same dilemma as mine – I dipped some bread into his sauce and tried to figure out the ingredients . . . “tomato?” I suggested weakly. “Salt, sugar, chilli?”

The tomato sauce was as sweet as the salad and, although I didn’t get any chilli flakes in my sample, the spiciness had bled through the sauce in its cooking.

Halfway through my dish and I was stuffed, and mournfully declined the offer of dessert.

Realising that the cheapest restaurants were near the Colosseum, on our final night we returned to a small restaurant called Luzzi’s. The first time we were drawn to it by the blackboard on the street advertising their €5.50 lasagne (I don’t recommend it – picture a stack of cooked lasagne sheets with a tomato and meat sauce poured on top). However, D had an incredible beef Carpaccio and we decided to try it a second time before we left.

“Can I get the Bacala?” D asked, the one dish he wanted that he hadn’t found so far in Italy. It was on the menu, but last time it hadn’t been available.

“Is not possible. Only on Tuesdays.”

“Okay, then I’ll take the minestrone soup and the beefsteak,” he said.

“The minestrone is not possible,” the waiter opened the menu and pointed. “Only the soup of the day – is a bean and pasta soup.”

“Okay,” D shrugged, “I’ll have that then.”

“And can I get the prawn and cream risotto?” I asked.

“Is not possible. There is no rice today.”

“. . . okay,” I frowned at D. “Then I’ll have the spinach and ricotta ravioli.”

The waiter nodded and left.

Later I paused, my fork halfway to my mouth, “isn’t today Tuesday?”

D looked up as he thought, “yes, you’re right.”

“I thought he could only do your fish on Tuesdays.”

D shook his head with a grin, “I think we can safely assume, is not possible!” he cried in an accent that was closer to French than Italian.

I later ordered a tiramisu and, despite the lack of possibilities, it was blissful. Instead of using sponge, like I’m used to, they used some sort of biscuit – cake-like in the centre and crisp around the edges, like Madeleines, but thinner. The contrast between the crispy biscuits and the creamy mascarpone was heavenly.

As D finished, the rain bucketed down and we schemed a way to stall as the people waiting for tables glared at us.

“Coffee?” I suggested, as I’d promised to try it before we left Italy (as you’ve probably guessed, I’m a hot chocolate person.

But when we ordered: “is not possible. The machine is broken.”

We left laughing in the rain, me sheltering under my suede cap and D using our plasticised tourist map for cover, crying “is not possible!” at regular intervals.

An umbrella-seller approached us and sold D a baby pink umbrella for €5.

A few minutes later, the rain stopped.

So clearly, some things are possible.

View from the Spanish Steps

Naples

When we left Naples Central Station at 10pm, the soundtrack of my life played two deep notes of foreboding.

What have I gotten us into?

Before us stretched a large square. Half construction site and half dump, black rubbish bags piled against the inside of temporary wire fences like reinforcements. The streets were awash with trash – white shopping bags blew along the pavement as it started to spit and brown pieces of cardboard grew soggy around the edges. The ground was awash with foil and plastic food wrappers, cigarette butts lined the creases between concrete slabs, and dented cans lay in the gutters.

We waded through the sea of waste as I wondered what I’d done.

Unfortunately for Naples, the impression was made. Although I enjoyed walking through the old town and we visited Pompeii, the image that will stay with me is me dragging our suitcases past the transvestite prostitutes on the first night, hoping that my expression was one of polite indifference.

Florence

Florence was crammed with people. At first I thought it was just Easter Monday. But Tuesday was almost as bad. And Wednesday. Even the pedestrian areas needed traffic lights.

As always, turning down the streets away from the main monuments was when I really got to taste Florence (admittedly, the entire historical centre is quite touristy).

Duomo

The Duomo (main cathedral) was beautiful, and so big that, even at the opposite end of the square, I couldn’t fit it all into my camera. Made of white marble and decorated with stripes of pink and green, reminiscent of the Italian flag.

Piazza of the Duomo

Street scenes

Street scenes

However, we had more fun after turning away from the Duomo to Via de Martelli, where we discovered Lombardo’s, one of several shops in the area that sell traditional Tuscan food. The shop was divided into three sections – the first had one wall of wine, one wall of sliced meat, and a central table filled with Italian cheese and sausages; the second had a wall lined with jars of sauces, olives, roasted capsicums, stuffed bell-peppers, marinated garlic and other mysterious things I couldn’t identify with labels I couldn’t translate; and the back of the store was filled with chocolate, dried pasta coloured in ribbons of white, red and green, and biscotti that smelled heavenly through its plastic bags. On the central table in the first section, there were two cake stands with clear plastic covers. One held five saucers with cubes of different cheeses, and its neighbour displayed samples of different salamis and a cured ham. Like children in a chocolate shop, we went crazy on the samples, tasting every type of meat and half the cheeses. When the saleswoman came to help us, we were all ears (tongues?) as she told us about a traditional sweet balsamic dressing, and poured the black syrup into teaspoons for us to taste – like the tang of balsamic vinegar mixed with the sweetness of honey, it was divine with a mild cheese and she also recommended it for salad and ice cream. Later she recommended wines, and we tried one white and three reds before walking away with a bag of goodies for dinner.

So when we strolled through the centre we avoided the huge churches, instead navigating streets lined with shops and restaurants. D kept having to drag me away from the Easter displays with 50% off signs in the windows (even the Lindt store had 50% off! Unfortunately all of their Easter eggs were so big that I don’t know where I would have packed them), while we both slowed whenever we saw interesting cheese and salami, or to compare prices on menus. The restaurants were predominately self-service places and, although the pasta, pizza and salad looked like they’d been sitting for a while, the desserts looked scrumptious – glasses held individual servings of tiramisu, fruit salad, or layered fruit, cake and cream topped with wafers. And the gelato! Yes, you can find it everywhere in Italy, but here giant creamy mounds towered in their tubs, and all of the fruit flavours were topped with slices of fresh fruit – cantaloupe, pineapple, strawberries, banana – while other flavours were drizzled with sauces or sprinkled with crushed biscuits. My criteria for a good gelato place became whether or not I could smell waffle-cones cooking, and then I found myself drawn to the shop by my nose.

Ponte Vecchio

It was the same thing when we walked around the colonnades of the Uffizi Gallery (where Michelangelo’s David now rests, and which we avoided due to the discouragingly long line) to the river to see the Ponte Vecchio. Although Ponte Vecchio was charming – a patchwork jumble of pink and yellow houses stacked on top of a bridge, reaching from the Uffizi to Via de Guicciardini, a large street of shops, mostly jewellery boutiques and gelatarias aimed for tourists – my favourite part of going to see the bridge was being on the river and looking at the buildings on its southern side. Many of them were painted in warm yellows, oranges, reds and pinks, some of them peeling around the edges and others vibrant in the sunlight. In the evening sun the hills were an invitation to explore more of Tuscany.

Night-time was quieter – the stone streets glowed in the warm lights and smaller crowds gathered around street performers – one a busker who destroyed Boulevard of Broken Dreams, and one a magician with a Charlie Chaplin moustache and a costume to match. We must have joined the audience after he finished a trick, because he was making a yellow balloon animal for a tiny, blonde girl standing with him in the centre of a square of people. He held it out to her, and then snatched it away as she reached for it. She lowered her arms and he lowered it to her, and snatched it away again. When he finally gave her the balloon dog, he held out his hat to her, and she tried to hand the dog back. He shook his head, tweeting a whistle for emphasis and pointed into the hat. She held out the dog again. He gently pushed the dog back to her and pointed to the hat with a tweet. She held out the dog.

Then her sister strode into the arena and gave the little girl a coin. The magician followed her back to the audience and pointed to his hat with a shrill squeak. The sister gave him a coin. See? He displayed his hat to the audience with all the polish of a Wheel of Fortune woman.

He returned to his assistant, the little girl, and whistled at her to put the money in the hat, and she happily obliged.

He then patted her on the head and blew the whistle, pointing her back to the audience. She began to walk and he blew the whistle again – I think it was supposed to be a cue for applause – and she took this as a summons and walked back to him. He shook his head, smiling around the whistle, and pointed her back to her family. She turned, and he whistled again! She marched back and forth as he squeaked and pointed, starting to look a bit dizzy. Eventually he pointed her back to the audience one last time. She stared at him uncertainly – was it another trick? He whistled and pointed, stamping his foot. She stood still. He whistled and gently pushed her away, and prompted the audience into another round of applause.

The next day we left and, looking over my map as I write this, I can’t believe how little we saw. Although we walked around most things in the centre, I can’t identify them by their names. And despite staying right near the enormous Ex Fortezza da Basso, I never saw what was inside its walls. Oh for one more day in Florence! Maybe even two.

Suitcase

 

Suitcase Update:

On the train between Florence and Naples, one side of the top handle came out. Ironically, the other side is clinging on with such determination that I can’t even cut it out.

Le meilleur chocolat chaud à Milan?

Bar Manhattan

I may have found it. On my first (and only) try.

The afternoon after we arrived in Milan, my friend D and I stopped for a late lunch at Bar Manhattan, a bar/café on Corso Buenos Aeries.

With shiny walnut counters, little down-lights in the ceiling, and red backed chairs and table-tops, the café was the embodiment of understated European elegance. Burgundy-vested waiters didn’t bat an eye when we asked for some menus in English, and frequently checked in on us.

I was served a hot chocolate in a glass, the top half piled with whipped cream and dusted in cocoa. At the first teaspoon I was won – the cream was sweet and velvety, not like the airy stuff you spray from a can. I dipped my long-stemmed spoon lower and was delighted to discover a thick goo, the same colour of the one at Café de la Paix. It was delicious and dark, like a block of 90% chocolate.

I stirred in some of the cream, as with Angelina’s hot chocolate, sweetening and slimming the beverage (though I couldn’t resist lapping up spoon after spoon of it plain – like pillows on my tongue, I felt as though I was burrowed deep into a cocoon of feather-light mattresses and doonas).

Unlike the chocolat chauds de Paris, this one wasn’t served with a glass of water, and I slowed as I sipped, struggling to finish as I grew tipsy on cocoa. The chocolate began to solidify around the circumference of my glass, globular as it rested in my silver spoon somewhere between a liquid and a solid. Soon I would have to chew it!

At €4.20, it’s far better value than any of Paris’s famed hot chocolates, and is the main thing I’d recommend to anyone going to Milan.

Washington DC

Capitol Hill

I arrived in DC at 7:40pm on April 16.

I was supposed to meet my parents, my sister and my cousin (who were all doing trips of their own) at 7:00, and I anxiously wondered if they’d still be there as I dragged my suitcase across Greyhound bus station to the exit.

I got outside and realised that I didn’t know what car they’d be driving – not the make, or the model, or even the colour. After a couple of minutes of no one honking or shouting, I went back inside.

I circled the station, but couldn’t see anyone I knew.

But wait! There was another exit!

I walked like the wind out the second exit, and once again didn’t know which car to look for. A minute passed. And a second. After five I started to worry – my phone didn’t work in the States, so I had no way of contacting them. Were they waiting for me to tell them that I’d arrived? Had they been waiting at another bus station since 7:00?

Or, had I arrived on the wrong day?

I didn’t know where we were staying, or even how to get to the city from where I was. Would I need to sleep in the bus station overnight? I looked inside – on this trip I’ve slept in hostels, on couches, on trains, on an airport floor, and have stayed awake on planes – if I had to, this would be my most unsanitary night yet.

After waiting for another five minutes, I went inside to a payphone. My last $3 weren’t going to get me far (especially since the phone only accepted coins), but look – there was a call-collect number!

I dialled the number, then that of my mother.

And got her answering machine.

I dialled the number again, and tried my sister’s phone.

“Hello?” she said as the recorded voice told her that she had a collect call from me.

“Oh, I’ve got a call from Jolie,” she said to my parents.

“Rhiannon, if you can hear me, would you please press ‘one’ to accept the call?” I asked, hoping that she could hear me through the recorded voice.

She didn’t, and the recorded voice asked if I could pay instead.

I called again, but this time it didn’t get through.

I tried my mum’s number, thinking that she might have turned her phone on after what happened with Rhiannon. Nope – answering machine.

Then Rhiannon came through the door next to the payphones – I was saved!

We spent the next few days looking at the sights, shopping and eating too much. So I ended up with new clothes that fit me when I tried them on . . . but probably don’t anymore :p

I was surprised by how quiet DC was. A long belt of parks runs through the south of the city, and as I went through the memorials at one end and the Smithsonian at the other, I felt like I was at the edge of the world. Even back in Washington’s grid of streets, the streets seemed far too wide for the few people who strolled down them. Yes, the White House, Capitol Hill and the National Spy Museum were all very crowded, but these were the exceptions, rather than the rule.

Smithsonian Castle

As dad had planned the first couple of days, we made our way through the city in a much more methodical method than I’m used to. On day 1 we started at the White House (just looking at the outside – apparently you need permission from your consulate to visit, and because so many Aussies go to the US the Australian Consulate has stopped signing the forms in protest), then made our way through all of the war memorials and presidential memorials, and finished with the park of Smithsonian museums.

WWII memorial

The WWII Memorial comprises 56 granite pillars forming two semi-circles around a plaza and pool with two 13 metre arches on opposite sides. Each pillar holds a grey wreath and bears the name of a state, and the two arches each house four angels holding another wreath. At 103 metres by 73 metres, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a large war memorial.

Korean War Memorial

The Korean War Veterans Memorial is a long triangle of grass intersecting a circle, walled in black granite with over 2,500 photos representing troops sandblasted onto the wall. Standing on the triangle are 19 stainless steel statues of larger-than-life-sized soldiers on patrol. At the end of the triangle is the Pool of Remembrance, a shallow pool of black granite that looks like a giant sundial, and is surrounded by trees and benches. And American flag waves behind the pool, reflected in the water.

Roosevelt Memorial

Roosevelt Memorial

Next were the presidential memorials. Although the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials were impressive, my favourite was the Roosevelt Memorial. It is like a garden of stone – walls with large bricks are marked with quotations from Franklin D Roosevelt and small waterfalls and pockets of trees punctuate the maze.

Roosevelt Memorial

On day 2 we visited Capitol Hill, the Library of Congress and then Chloe and I went for a wander around the city while my parents and sister revisited the Smithsonian museums.

Although Capitol Hill is incredibly impressive from the outside – largely recognisable due to its appearance in countless films and television series – it was crawling with people. As we were unable to get a ticket, we needed to wait for 45 minutes for five to become available. If I’d been alone, I would have turned back as soon as I saw the mass of tourists. As I was with my family, and my father and sister really wanted to see it, I had to wait. Seeing it was interesting, our guide was quite entertaining and the dome is beautiful, but I didn’t think it was worth the wait.

Library of Congress

The Library of Congress, on the other hand, was exquisite. The entrance hall is made of white marble, with two staircases leading up to the first floor, each of them lined with statues of little boys who each represent a different trade. The ceiling is painted in red, gold and black, with circular paintings of . . . And the actual library made me yearn for one of my own –

There were four exhibitions on in the building – one of the discovery of the Americas, one about the creation of the US as well as the Declaration of Independence and its constitution, one on Civil War portraits, and Thomas Jefferson’s Library. The Library of Congress was free, there was no wait and it was fairly quiet – excellent value.

After shopping on day 3 (I finally have new runners – my feet can function normally again!), I had day 4 to myself. I visited the Neuseum.

Neuseum

The Neuseum is a museum dedicated to news, including:

Neuseum - Berlin Wall

  • The history of news (including the creation of the printing press, the introduction of radio, TV and the internet, and significant stories), with examples of newspapers dating back to the 1500s
  • The front pages of the development of Hurricane Katrina as well as individual stories from the event
  • The front pages from September 11, a piece of the satellite antenna from the north tower and video footage from the day
  • Seven pieces of the Berlin wall (each weighing three tonnes, this is the largest portion of the Berlin wall outside of Berlin) as well as one of the guard towers
  • A temporary exhibit about the relationship between the FBI and the media, including famous cases
  • Information about different media, including video interviews
  • News ethics (there was a game on a touch-screen table here – you needed to tap the front-page story and decide what you would do in different ethical dilemmas, like whether you would pay for a story or cover something up, etc.)
  • A 3D film about different historic news stories (3D doesn’t really do much for me, but if you’re into that sort of thing you might like it)

At $21.95 (plus tax), it’s the most expensive museum I’ve visited, but with six floors and a ticket that’s valid for two days (so theoretically you could give it to someone else to use for the second day), I thought it was worth it.

Suitcase-ing

  • Suitcase-ing – backpacking with a suitcase
  • Backpacking – travelling with a backpack, usually on a low budget

Conclusion? Those who backpack with suitcases are probably travelling with budget suitcases.

I would like to have travelled with a backpack and, after my first trip (December 2006-February 2007), I decided to buy one. It was beautiful – sturdy with cushioning on the back and a strap for my hips. Unfortunately my eyes were bigger than my strength, and it’s so big that I can’t actually carry it when it’s full (well, not if I want to stand up straight). It’s a bit impractical.

So I’m travelling with a suitcase I bought from Auchan at La Défense for €20.

As I packed, the lining (attached to the suitcase by a zip) pulled away from the suitcase frame.

When I left Paris, I discovered that the case rocked from one wheel to the other as it rolled.

One week into my trip, the little stand on the bottom of the case fell off, at a metro station in Budapest.

Two weeks into my trip, the plastic grips around the top handle snapped off.

Three weeks into my trip, I realised that the corners of the plastic frame of the case had started to crack. From then on I watched them crumbling before my eyes, piece after piece of loose plastic presenting itself every time I opened the case. I began to think that this was not the best €20 I’d spent to date.

Four weeks into my trip, the Marc Mallory logo popped off. Don’t ask me how. I was looking at the departures board at Lisbon airport and heard a little “ping!” I turned around and my suitcase’s badge of honour was on the ground.

After this, the plastic frame continued to break, and the grips around the side handle started snapping off.

It was time for an intervention.

Six weeks into my trip, I used packing tape to reinforce all of the corners.

Freshly returned to Europe from the US and approaching week eight, today I discovered that the damage had spread – the tape was holding together dislocated fragments of plastic that flexed back and forth when I poked them, and white fractures squiggled across the grey plastic from under the tape.

I slotted a new loose piece into a gap, and attacked the suitcase with the packing tape, mummifying its insides.

16 days to go – will it last?

Stay tuned.

Philly – Magic Gardens

Magic Gardens

Having travelled a bit, sometimes I think that I’ll run out of interesting things to see. The main example I think of is Gothic cathedrals – when I visit these now it’s usually out of a sense of obligation, as they have stated looking very similar to one another.

But the more I travel, the more I encounter things unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

In Philadelphia, it was the Magic Gardens.

Located on South Street, the Magic Gardens include an outdoor mosaic sculpture garden and a completely tiled indoor space, designed by Isaiah Zagar. Like Philly’s Gaudi, Zagar’s mosaics decorate buildings around the south of the city centre and are instantly recognisable.

The garden is a mini-labyrinth – there are low arches and tunnels leading to tiled courtyards, and walls are constructed from bicycle wheels, blue and green glass bottles, old bricks, plates and concrete. The concrete is painted in pastels and the tiles are plain, fragments of patterns, letters or shards of mirror.

I loved the mirrors in the mosaics – in the garden they glittered as they captured the sun, whereas others created the illusion of transparent windows in the walls. It was only when I went into the indoor basement that I realised I could see glimpses of my reflection in the mosaics – a collarbone here, a nose there, an elbow, my pockets . . . I had become a part of the masterpiece.

A wavy line of mirror fragments snaked down one wall, and my eyes were transfixed by it as I walked out – the mirrors flickered up and down my body as I stepped, the flashes like frames from an old film. I resisted the urge to return and walk past it again, and then sat in the sunny courtyard one last time.

Philly and general reflections

Philadelphia

When I first started planning a trip around the world, I was in my early teens and made a list of destinations with my then best friend, Andy.

She added Philadelphia to the list.

“Why Philadelphia?” I asked.

“Because that’s where the cheese comes from.”

As you can see, we were very well educated.

Then, when I was in Egypt, I told the others I would be going to New York City and Washington DC, at which Richard, another student, said I should check out Philly if I had the time. “Philly’s great.”

The former capital of the US (well, for ten years), despite being a city of 1.5 million, I thought Philadelphia had the charm of a small town.

The people had an old-world friendliness and politeness – they acknowledged me on the street with a nod or hat-tip. Customer service people always asked “how are you today?”, “how can I help you?” and always finished with “you have a good day.” It’s strange – meeting men who behaved like complete gentlemen made me feel more like a lady.

Elfreth's Alley

Independence National Historical Park

I stayed at Apple Hostels (which was awesome – they give you free earplugs and nasal strips. Brilliant! Why don’t all hostels do that?) in the historic district, not far from Society Hill. Society Hill is the wealthy part of town – a collection of beautiful tree-lined streets of red-brick buildings with shiny wooden doors and shutters coloured in black, dove-grey, cream, eggshell, wine and green.

Small square parks surround black statues of American notables, bordered by cherry blossoms and 18th and 19th century buildings.

Sights include the Eastern State Penitentiary, South Street and the Independence National Historical Park.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Following the 1787 establishment of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons Eastern State Penitentiary was opened in 1829 as part of a movement to change the behaviour of criminals through “confinement in solitude with labor”. With a wheel-and-spokes floor-plan (the central guard-post being the hub and each of the cellblocks forming the spokes), it quickly became one of the most copied buildings in the US, with an estimated 300 buildings worldwide based on its floor-plan. Originally each prisoner had his/her own cell with a private walled exercise yard behind the cell (about eight by ten feet, I think) and a trap-door in the cell for food to come through. The theory was that solitude would make the inmates regretful and penitent (hence ‘Penitentiary’) and the entire design limits the inmates’ contact with the guards and other prisoners. However, soon this became very expensive and the prison started bunking inmates together, and officially abandoned confinement in solitude in 1913.

Eastern State Penitentiary was abandoned in 1971 and is now a museum with an audio-guide voiced by Steve Buscemi (I love that there are celebrity voices in the museums here – Meryl Streep narrated a video on vertebrates at the Natural History Museum). It’s really something to see – long-arched cellblocks with peeling paint are lit in white, with door after door leading to the individual cells. You can almost feel the ghosts there.

South Street is a street that lines the south of the city with vintage shops and the Magic Garden (more on that next entry). Several of the buildings are decorated in mosaics, including mirror fragments, and the entire street has a relaxed, bohemian atmosphere.

Independence National Historical Park, in the historic district, is where you’ll see most of Philadelphia’s sights associated with the American Revolution, and comprises Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center, the Mint, Franklin Court and several other historic buildings.

Independence Hall

National Constitution Center

Independence Hall is where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and is also where the Liberty Bell originally hung. It was a lot of fun – after getting a free ticket from the visitors’ centre you get a free 45-minute tour about the history of the building and the Declaration. Our tour guide broke the ice by asking, “who here is from the original thirteen states?”

No one raised their hand.

“Okay, where are you from?” he pointed to a young boy.

“New South Wales?” the kid said uncertainly.

“Okay, you’re not one of us yet.” The guide looked for someone else. “What about you?”

“France.”

“You?”

“Germany.”

“Okay, you,” he pointed to another boy who was wriggling around in his chair, trying to get his hand higher in the air.

“California!”

“Okay,” the guide shook his head, “not one of the original thirteen, but let’s say you’re from New Jersey . . .”

Afterwards we got to see the rooms where the Declaration and the Constitution were drafted and signed.

The entire area is a celebration of American history. The last thing I visited was the National Constitution Center, which is a museum with information about the US Constitution. They have a 17-minute multimedia and theatre presentation called Freedom Rising, in which the actress/presenter discusses the Constitution and talks about the definition of “We the People”, its first three words. As the presentation drew to a close, the music swelled and the actress’s voice rose in pride, and my eyes started to water.

I can’t think of anything like this in Oz (admittedly, I haven’t done these sorts of touristy things there), and I felt sorry about it. I’m incredibly proud of my country, yet there don’t seem to be these displays of patriotism there. I couldn’t imagine the average Aussie family with their hands over their hearts watching the flag rise on Australia Day (why would they do that? The sausages might burn!). There aren’t an abundance of Australian flags in suburbia, most people don’t know the second verse of the Australian anthem, and images of Paul Hogan and Akubras with dangling corks are more likely to cause cringing than flushes of nationalism.

Maybe it’s because the United States had to fight so hard to gain their independence. Maybe it’s because they had to fight so hard to define and defend it once it was won. Whatever the reason, the nation and its government are celebrated in museums, music, art, television and film.

Because of this, most Australians can name more American Presidents than Australian Prime Ministers. There are no popular dramas (that I know of) about Australian politics. There are some songs that instil pride in their listeners, We Are Australian and I Still Call Australia Home, but the celebration of Australia and her history is a fraction of that of the US.

I think many Aussies are proud of where they come from, so maybe we’re too laid-back (read: lazy) to go in for all those theatrics.

Yes we’re a young country, but not that much younger than the US. However, unlike the US we haven’t had a revolution or a civil war. We are a constitutional monarchy, so never claimed our independence and broke free from Great Britain. When we formed a federation in 1901 it was done peacefully.

This raises another question – isn’t creating a united nation through peaceful means something worth celebrating? Or is our nation’s value less because nothing worth having should come easily?