March 26, 2011

Venice Pt. 4 - Finale!!!

 We woke up the next day ready to head out to the islands surrounding Venice. I had my heart set on seeing the island of Murano, which was notorious for its glass blowing. We hopped on a vaporetto bus, which to my dismay was a little more sunken than I would have liked, and took the thirty minute ride on the water to Murano.
Me by Glass Blown Art
Although this day was probably the least eventful, I’m just going to say it – it was my favorite day in Venice. Dani and I walked around the island looking in shops at all the beautiful jewelry and inventive ways they bedazzled household objects with blowing glass. We saw bottle stoppers, utensils, paperweights, cork screws, glasses, dishes, letter openers, figurines, etc. Each time I saw a new pattern or a new way that the artists used the blowing glass, I was drawn into another store. I’m not usually much of a shopper, but I was just so mesmerized by the different patterns and colors that the island of Murano definitely made me want to be one.
At lunchtime, Dani and I found this little shop that had paninis, gelato, and a bathroom that we didn’t have to pay to use, a major plus (we paid 1.50 Euro to use a public toilet the day before (FYI - paying to go to the bathroom in Europe is typical)). We got our paninis, parked our butts on the ledge of the water, let the sun beat down on us, and just talked.
Dani & Me Eating Our Gelato

If I had to pick a favorite part of a favorite day in Venice – sitting by the water, eating gelato, watching people go by on their boats, and talking in English to Dani  - would be it. I think because life is moving slower in Europe for me, I get to enjoy it more. It’s like Ferris Beuller says, “Life moves pretty fast, if you don’t stop to look once in a while, you could miss it.” I think we sat for over an hour, just taking in the fact that we were in Venice, the fact that we were getting some sun, and the fact that we were with good company. I think this is one of those times where I have to say, “You had to be there,” but looking out over the water, I felt absolutely whole, and that hour or so was perfect for me.
My First Taste of Gelato!
Before I wrap up my trip to Venice, I have to talk about one of the most important parts of the weekend– the gelato. I honestly can’t remember how many scoops of gelato I had throughout the trip, that’s how good it was. I started off with one scoop of mint chocolate chip by the Rialto bridge (which was actually my least favorite scoop and you can still see how excited I am (see right)), then I stopped for some nutella flavored gelato near San Marco Square (amazing), then I had some stracciatella, cookies and cream, cherry, chocolate, pistachio, the list goes on and on. In hindsight, the trip is one big gelato blur. I felt obligated to try a scoop for each one of my family members, friends, pets, and anyone and everyone I could think of who might never make it to Venice. Really, I did a social service I think. Or at least I helped fuel Venice’s economy via gelato :).
Rialto Bridge @ Night
The last thing Dani and I did on our trip was visit the Rialto Bridge at night. Right near the Rialto Bridge there are restaurants all along the Grand Canal where men stand outside trying to persuade you to have a meal. Attempting to have a conversation along that strip of Venice is nearly impossible, as the only thing you hear is, “Dinner for two?” “You eat?” “Eat or drink?” Venetians certainly are pushy. Gondola men are the same way. They stand on corners of the canal and try to lure you in to taking a gondola ride. The feelings these people evoked in me were similar to when I was in Las Vegas and the guys standing on the streets would hit pictures of half-naked ladies together to get my attention. I never knew a gondola ride (even after the Sex on the Gondola shot) or sitting down to eat a meal had such a sexual undertone, but in Venice, they do.
Finally, to conclude my trip to Venice, I’ll leave you with this: some people call it the City of Love, I’m leaning towards the City of Lust, but I think I’ll just go with City Worth Seeing. :)

March 25, 2011

Venice Pt. 3 - Night life

It turns out the bar we sought shelter in was none other than Madigans (the bar the waiter recommended)! Glancing immediately up at the sports television, Dani asked the bar tender, who we later learned was named Fabio, if they had ESPN America (you can take the American basketball player out of America in March, but you can't take March Madness out of the American basketball player). Fabio reached down, grabbing the TV remote as Dani and I held our breath and shot each other hopeful looks. UCLA vs. Florida appeared on the screen and we immediately decided Madigans had just earned our business for the night.

Dani & Me Outside Piccolo Mondo
Now, before you get the wrong idea, I find it necessary to explain that both Dani and I consider ourselves 'grandmas' when it comes to partying. Like the dancing until 4AM that Europeans do is really, REALLY hard for us. We both like a solid eight hours of sleep, and have no problem calling it a night before midnight if we're tired. This is the part of the trip where the aforementioned SuperMoon came into play. Like I said, the SuperMoon makes people act CrAzY, and for some reason trying a shot called "Sex on the Gondola" (consisting of absinthe, Bailey's, and Kahlua) suddenly seemed like the best idea ever. Maybe the saying should be, "When in as the Venetians do?" I had never tried absinthe before - the only thing I knew about absinthe was what I learned from the movie Moulin Rouge, and I was actually kind of scared I'd start seeing a green fairy, which I even admitted to Dani after our decision to give the shot a shot. Needless to say, after Fabio poured our shots and then proceeded to light them on fire, I was growing progressively more worried. The power of the SuperMoon took over though, and Dani and I both finished our shots leaving nothing for Fabio to do but blow out the remaining fire. Shortly after, we settled down to watch the game - which we were successfully able to do until halftime; at which point a small crowd of Italian men poured into the bar preparing to watch some soccer game.

Within a matter of minutes of hearing the Italian men talking and cheering, Dani and I got into a discussion about language. I admit (although at first I denied it), Italian sounds very similar to Spanish. Dani was able to pick out verbs and phrases that she'd learned from her year playing basketball in Spain, making it possible to communicate with our company. I tried to contribute to the conversation by hearing one guy yell "ALLEZ" (Which in French means ‘go’), only to learn that he was calling to his friend "Alex" (who was probably very confused when I kept chanting his name thinking I was adding to the cheers for the competing soccer team). Oops. Innocent mistake. Note to self: Italian doesn't have much in common with French.

San Marco Square @ Night
After making friends with Fabio, Alex, and a guy named Flanders, in entered Jira. Jira stood out to me among the room full of Italian men; maybe because he was of average height for a male, maybe because when he saw me he immediately said "Ciao Bella" and winked, or maybe because his eyebrows looked freshly waxed (there's a fine line between metrosexual and European by the way). Through the course of the soccer game Jira made his way over to where I was sitting and tried his best at international flirting. When the only phrases you can understand from someone you're talking to are "hi" and "how are you," you know your relationship is doomed from the get-go. Regardless, I sat and stumbled through a conversation with Jira, and somehow managed (through gestures and broken languages), to figure out that there was a dance club on the island called Piccolo Mondo. After conferring with Dani about a plan of action (and naturally a code word - Guacamole - for when it was time to leave), we decided to head to Piccolo Mondo for a night of dancing.

Now guys, let me let you in on a little secret. If you don't know the words to a song - don't attempt to sing it. Better yet, if you don't know the words to a song, please don't think screeching nonsense five octaves above the lyrics will contribute to your 'game.' Jira, my dance partner for the evening, was actually a good dancer. Thanks to a friend from home who taught me the basics of salsa dancing, I was able to let Jira spin me and lead me to the music without falling, stepping on his feet, or biting his head (hey Al! ;)). Unfortunately for Jira, his screeching really took away from his dancing, and "Guacamole" was announced shortly before 2AM.

Dani and I said our goodbyes to our Italian friends and hopped on the Vaporetto heading back to San Marco Square. One of the things on our to-do list was to see the square late at night when all the day tourists were gone. When we came up to the square, and I triumphed over the death step (actually I sat on it like a 5 year old and scooted my butt down into the square), 

Happily Eating our Pizza
we took notice of the lamps and SuperMoon lighting up the eerily quiet area. As hectic and filled as San Marco Square was during the day, it was its polar opposite by night.

No sooner did we say how clutch some Venetian pizza would be, than a guy carrying a slice walked by. We immediately engaged in conversation, leading us to meet my favorite Venetian of our trip. This guy (whose name we never learned) wanted nothing more than to show us where the pizza shop was. He enthusiastically talked with us as he walked us to the pizza shop, and once we found our way said a friendly 'goodbye' and returned to his friends. This hole-in-the-wall pizza place with a line out the door had THE BEST pizza. I don't know how many times in my life I'll be able to say I sat in San Marco Square eating a slice of delicious pizza at 2AM under a SuperMoon, but it happened once!

While we were eating, another Venetian man approached us, who had apparently just gotten off work at 2:30AM and was heading out for a drink. This Venetian was my least favorite on our trip, since after we said no - that we were done for the night and heading home - he continued to push, asking us for our numbers, if we would meet him tomorrow, etc., etc.  After finally getting rid of him, we made our way back to our hostel, replayed some of the night, and again, hit our pillows exhausted.

March 24, 2011

Venice Pt. 2!!!

Rialto Bridge
Dani and I eventually made our way to the information center and picked up a map, which assisted us in finding our way to the famous Rialto Bridge and market. On our way we both stopped and each snagged a stromboli from a street vendor. There is this kind of meat in Europe, unlike anything I’ve ever had before in America and I love it. The taste lies somewhere in between bacon and salami, but it is just jam-packed with flavor.  Anyways, that meat (which might be serrano, but I’m not positive) was extra delicious coming from a street vendor in Italy. At the Rialto market we walked along fruit stand after fruit stand until we found ourselves standing along the fish part of the market. I think it’s a good thing I have a strong stomach, because the smell of the fish was so stringent I struggled to refrain from gagging (and I actually like fish). Come to think of it, there were certain corners by certain bridges throughout Venice that really reeked of fish. Needless to say, Dani and I walked hurriedly past these areas. On our way back through the market we each bought a piece of fruit and scouted an open spot to sit and eat.
Dani and Me Eating our Fruit
I know it may seem weird to talk up a piece of fruit, but I have to. Before coming to Europe I never took the time to sit and think about something as simple as an apple. As we sat and watched some market workers go about their normal day loading things off the island onto their boat and noticed the gondolas and water taxis going by, I enjoyed the best apple I’ve ever tasted. The funny thing is, I don’t think there’s a single apple tree on the main island.
After our fruit was gone (and we bought a kilo of clementines for later (because they were just as good as my apple – if not better)), we made our way to the vaporetto to head to a church I had my eye on. Now, Dani and I’d noticed a few homeless people laying on stairs with cups in their hands asking for money. I’d even read that Venice had its fair share of pickpocketers and beggars. I really do try to be aware of my surroundings, but honestly sometimes, especially when you’re really tall, it’s a lot easier to look over/past/through people you don’t know or you know you don’t want to engage in conversation with. Regardless, I mistakenly took out my wallet to grab my vaporetto pass, only to be immediately harassed by a homeless woman. I didn’t want to be mean, but I was really taken aback when she started speaking really fast Italian at me, and when I said “No” and tried to move away from her, grabbed at my arm. I was really glad Dani was with me in that moment, because although I know I can take care of myself, it was nice when Dani came to my aid and said a much sturdier “No” than the one I could get out. After that incident, I kept my vaporetto pass in my pocket and out of my wallet for the remainder of the trip.
Marble Floor in Basilica Della Salute
Anyways, we made it to Dorsoduro where the church I wanted to see was, and after walking all the way around the little island we finally figured out how to enter the Basilica Della Salute (or Santa Maria Della Salute or Basilica of St. Mary of Health, pick whichever name you like the most). Baldassare Longhena built the Basilica Della Salute in 1681 in honor of the Virgin Mary. The church was built with the hope that the plague, which was devastating the city of Venice and its surrounding lagoons, killing over 46,000 people (1/3 of the population of Venice at the time), would pass. The inside had beautiful altars, mosaics, and a gorgeous red and white geometric marble floor that we both got to walk on.
Oh! I almost forgot. While trying to figure out how to enter the Basilica Della Salute, we stumbled across this little art museum. There were two things that really struck me about this museum. The first was this box of water that had a projector above it showing a clip of people (reflected in the water) moving buckets around in a cave and then climbing into a hole/water well (this sounds bizarre trying to explain). The middle of the box of water, where the hole/water well was, was rippling. I was completely dumbfounded when I looked up and didn’t see a bucket or anything dripping into the water. If I were that water box’s creator, I would just sit next to it all day counting how many people looked up stupefied. At least I didn’t feel overly gullible because Dani said she looked up to see what was making it ripple too. The second thing was another piece of “art” I saw. I am purposely putting quotes around the word art because it literally looked like a beat up pillow. I’m sorry, but a pillow with a rip in it IS NOT ART. If that’s art, I’ve got a pair of jeans they can put on display.
After our excursion to Dorsoduro, we decided to head back to San Marco Square to go up in the bell tower. Oddly enough, once we got up there, it wasn’t as high as I thought it was going to be, which was kind of disappointing. Looking down at the square reminded me of the scene in The Hunchback of Notre Dame where Quasimodo watches everyone hustling and bustling about below him. It wasn’t necessarily as busy as Time Square gets, but it was pretty close; and I’ll tell you what – Europeans think they own the streets of Venice comparably to how New Yorkers think they own The City. When we looked out from a different part of the bell tower we could see the roofs of all the city’s buildings – but shockingly – no canals (well, other than the Grand Canal)! The canals are so small and the buildings built up so high and close to each other that from an aerial view you would never even know that complete pathways are blocked off by the small canals; it just looked just like a regular city from above.
After successfully descending from the bell tower we headed into Basilica di San Marco to check out the mosaics. The whole inside of the church was covered in images from stories of the Old and New Testament. I was particularly mesmerized with the mosaics of the Washing of the Feet and Jesus’ ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (it is Lent, after all). I found it interesting how there were numerous sanctuary lamps to the right of the altar, which caught my attention because we have one in my church at home, and could only remember seeing one in the Cathedral of Notre Dame too.  So much of the cathedral was made of marble, and outside there was this gorgeous marble wall of all different colors and patterns, which was quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. It’s amazing to think about how people built these types of architectures in their respective time periods, knowing that they didn’t have the types of tools or resources that we have today. In general, I think that is one of the most incredible things about Europe – taking a second to look at a sculpture, gargoyle, or a statue and thinking about how much work, talent, and time went into creating the trimmings that really accentuate the main dishes of European architecture.
Basilica di San Marco Marble
Exhausted from half-a-day’s adventures, Dani and I headed back to the hostel to relax for a little and get ready for dinner. We decided we’d hit up the Campo Santa Margherita area of Venice for dinner, with the hopes of seeing some of the Venice nightlife afterwards. We put on our evening outfits and headed back out the door as the sun was setting along the horizon, lighting up the sky as a backdrop to Venice’s buildings.
After getting a little lost again (ha! Dani was still leading – I think), we decided on a little restaurant along one of the many canals. We both ordered Bellini’s and a delicious pesto ravioli dish, and had a private dinner in the restaurant’s back dining room. On our way out, Dani asked our waiter if he could point us in the right direction to get to Campo Santa Margherita. Our waiter was incredibly helpful, speaking broken English with an adorable accent and becoming increasingly excited in recommending a bar where there would be loud music and (based on his enthusiasm) a good time just waiting for us!
As we headed out the door, map in our hand and a tiny piece of paper with the letters L – R – and a picture of a couple bridges on it, we were determined to find the little nightlife there was to discover in Venice. Within minutes of our walk I noticed some rain drops on the ground (up until this point I had been ecstatic about the weather being so good). Shortly after it starting raining, and I snuck under a doorway while Dani fumbled trying to open her umbrella. Squeezing under the umbrella together, we searched for the bar our helpful waiter had mentioned. Since I’d already taken a spill, the ground was wet and slippery, and we were both in dress boots, we vowed not to sprint regardless of the weather. Naturally, as we turned a corner and saw a bar with neon lights about 100 feet in front of us, the rain turned into a downpour; we disregarded our vows and ran into the bar immediately to our right, taking shelter from the storm. 

March 23, 2011

Venice Pt. 1!!!

This past weekend, Nyon Basket Feminin had off from basketball. Knowing this, I’d decided a few months ago that I’d take the opportunity of an off-weekend to visit another European city I've been dying to see: Venice. Like all the places I've been traveling to this year, Venice was a new mark on my map, and I had been anxiously waiting to see the sinking city. I boarded my train in Nyon, with my typical Swiss-looking comrades, eager to get to my destination. I had two train changes, one in Brig and then again in Milan before making it to Venice Mestre, where I had one final train switch, taking me to the St. Lucia station in Venice (or as I call it, the main island).

As soon as I got off the train at St. Lucia station, I swear the collective height of my riding companions dropped to at least a foot shorter than it was at the beginning of my journey (and I thought I stuck out in Switzerland :-0). The number of animated talkers, however, increased tenfold. I immediately thought of my Italian friends from home, and I can now say that seeing first-hand Italians definitely explains some of their mannerisms a little bit better :).

First View of Venice :)
My friend Dani, who plays professional bball in Germany (and luckily, also had the weekend off from basketball) and I, decided to conquer the city of Venice together. Unlike my trip to Paris, I was looking forward to a) having someone to help me when I was bound to get lost, and b) be able to talk to someone in my native language! Needless to say I was super excited for Dani’s train to get in. While I awaited Dani's arrival, I slowly ventured further and further out around the train station. I'm always weary of new places, and it usually takes me a while to convince myself that the odds of doing something illegal and getting thrown in jail are slimmer in reality than they seem in my mind (although seriously, you never know what the laws are in all these different countries). As I cautiously exited the train station, my first view of Venice was breathtaking. The almost SuperMoon (Wikipedia says this is when the moon is new or full and is at 90% or greater its mean closest approach in its orbit around earth – oh and also makes people do crazy things, but more on this later…) was shining down on the Grand Canal with lampposts and building lights sparkling off of the water.
Now, I want you to picture a little boy throwing a temper tantrum in the middle of a supermarket. You got it? Good. Please add thirty years to the boy’s age. Give him a telephone. See his arms flailing in the air. Make him Italian. Get rid of the supermarket and add the backdrop I just mentioned. And finally, make the now thirty-year-old Italian man pace back and forth along the square in front of the train station. Awesome. You are now envisioning the exact scene I watched while waiting on the steps in front of the train station for Dani's train to arrive. If you are wondering, the answer is yes; I have this on video.

When Dani's train pulled in we purchased our discounted (woohoo I'm still recognizably younger than 29!) three-day vaporetto passes and boarded the water bus (Side note: it is normal for the vaporetto bus to hit and shake the platform waiting area; I advise people to prepare for and anticipate the impact). After forty minutes on the water seeing nothing but darkness, we got off at San Marco Square and used the online directions I wrote down from the hostel's website to try to find our way. Naturally, since I was leading, we got lost. But I decided, after much thought, to claim that it wasn’t my fault. Apparently, there is more than one vaporetto stop for San Marco counting three bridges (which is what the directions said) and then trying our luck at going over the fourth to find our hostel was unsuccessful (FYI: two bridges was the way to go). Anyways, after following a random man who helped us stumble across our hostel, we checked in, mapped out a game plan for Saturday, and hit our pillows after a long day of traveling.
Dani and Me on One of the Many Bridges
We rose Saturday morning with the game plan of hitting up San Marco Square, Doge’s Palace (which I didn’t – and still don’t know how to pronounce, so I re-named it the “Puppy Dog Palace” and referred to it as such), to get lost in the back streets of Venice, eat gelato, and whatever else we could fit into the day.
During our research about Venice before our trip, we found that the location of where you stay is everything. Some people try to save a few bucks by staying off the main island and coming in on a train in the morning, which can add up to be just as much as staying on the island anyway, but also adds hassle. Plus, if you stay in a very touristy area you are likely to get touristy (a.k.a. not real) Venetian food. Everything we found said the best way to find good food was to get lost in the backstreets of Venice, where the year-round residents lived and had businesses. Casa Linger (our hostel) was about a five-minute walk from San Marco Square, but definitely in a more residential area. We stopped in a cafe right outside our hostel, waited five minutes for the people working to stop ignoring us (I guess our height, fair skin, or uncertain feet-shuffling gave us away as foreigners), and then stood at the bar drinking our coffees and eating our croissants.
After our coffees we headed out towards the Grand Canal to make our way to San Marco Square. The Venice I saw by day was nothing like the Venice I’d imagined the night before. First of all, Venice is not laid out like any major city I know, it physically can’t be. The canals twist and turn throughout the city, making it impossible to lay a grid out in your mind. You can see where you want to go and try to get there, but then a lack of bridge or walkway forces you to turn around and recede inwards to come out at a different opening and try again. We successfully (probably because Dani was now leading) found our way back out to the Grand Canal. We crossed bridge after bridge over mini canals, taking a second along each one to realize how incredible the city on the water truly was. We eavesdropped on a tour guide who explained that the slates of metal along the bottom of doorways was there to keep the water out of the buildings, although we did see a number of abandoned buildings where it looked as though the water had won the battle.
San Marco Square was already filled with people waiting in line for the Campanile di San Marco (the bell-tower) and to get into the museums, so we decided to walk around for a bit and cross ‘get lost’ off our to-do list. The shops around the San Marco area of Venice were absolutely ridiculous. Armani, Gucci, Prada, Versace, and tons of other big-name designers were around every corner (I was definitely gawking at all the beautiful clothing, bags, and shoes sitting in the windows and told myself that maybe one day I’ll maybe be able to own one of them). After forty-five minutes, we headed back again to San Marco Square to situate ourselves so we could find the information center.
San Marco Square & Bell Tower
I don’t remember what I was talking to Dani about as we headed back towards the square, but whatever it was had enough of my attention to distract me from the ONE STEP that led into the square in front of me. Down I went, all six-foot-three of me, in slow motion none-the-less, in San Marco Square, in Venice. I mean it wasn’t so bad that I was sprawled out and Bertha (yes I brought her on this trip too :)) spilled all her contents, but it wasn’t so graceful that the people walking behind us didn’t look stunned and couldn't help but feel the need to express their concern about whether or not I was okay. So what if maybe there was a little blood shed? I checked my scraped knees, reassuring Dani (and myself) that I was okay, and trucked onward.

March 16, 2011

Only Me…

By now, most of you have probably picked up on the fact that I’m not super fond of children. I don’t know why I seem to be lacking that maternal instinct, but for whatever reason it’s not really there. Whoever I marry is going to have their hands full until our kids (if we have kids) are in middle school. Then, and probably ONLY then, will I take over. My Swiss teammates have learned this about me, my coach knows it; it’s kind of an ongoing joke actually. A little kid walks by and my teammates look in my direction waiting to see what will happen. I actually can’t remember how they figured out I’m not a fan of children, but maybe it was when I helped out one of the practices for the young kids and this little boy refused to do every drill, pretty much bullied all the kids smaller than him, and then told me, “After this [practice] you WILL give me your phone number.” Sorry buddy, you’re seven.
Like I said, I’m not sure what led my teammates to know I didn’t love children at first, but if they had any doubts about my feelings, this past weekend solidified my stance.
On the way to our game against Bale we stopped at a rest stop to have our pre-game meal (Side note: the rest stop restaurants aren’t McDonalds and Burger King with Sbarro on the side; they actually have a restaurant to eat at, and usually it’s buffet-style. For example, some of us had pasta; others had rice and chicken, etc.). Anyways, I was standing in line for pasta with one of my teammates, and I noticed this little blonde kid around four years old, standing behind me with his mom. I’ll admit, I was trying to pay attention to the German words (we were in the German-speaking part of Switzerland) my teammate was teaching me, but I definitely had my eye on the little boy. After a little while, I turned my back to him and fully engaged with my teammate in our conversation, thinking I was in the clear. WRONG. Within a few seconds I felt a little tap on my buttocks region. I quickly turned and saw the little boy run and hide behind his mom, who was, no doubt, absolutely clueless to what her kid just did. I gave him that good ol’ Hillary glare that makes people who don’t know me (and maybe the ones who do?) shake in their boots. I thought my glare signified our understanding, that the touching of the booty was not appropriate behavior.
I returned to my teammate, wishing that the pasta guy would hurry it up so I could get the heck out of there. Ugh, to no avail. Shortly after I turned around I felt a cuppage of my booty. No longer just a tap, cuppage. That’s right. Two hands cupped around my buttocks. I again turned around and looked at him and his mother, to let her know what was up. I thought the language barrier wasn’t an issue, since she immediately turned to him and said, “No,” which is pretty much understood in every country in Europe. I nodded and again thought I would be able to wait out the rest of the pasta making in peace.
After a few minutes I felt not a tap, no, not cuppage, uh uh, but a firm squeeze. You may wonder how firm a four year old’s squeeze could possibly be – I’ll tell you. It was definitely firm enough that if he were around my age he would have gotten seriously freaked out on (i.e. like the snappy “Don’t touch me” that I yelled at the guy in Paris) and possibly slapped for (if I was a little feistier). I turned ONE MORE TIME to find his mom already scolding him and apologizing to me. I don’t think I accepted her apology (in any language).
My teammate was unsuccessfully holding back giggles while all this was going on, knowing that I already didn’t love kids. You might say that maybe I should be happy the little boy thought there was something worth grabbing, and take it as a compliment. But I think the luck of the draw was probably that my butt just came up to his eye level. My teammate should just be grateful she’s 5’4” and didn’t have to deal with being harassed by the four-year-old. Needless to say, this kid didn’t put add any pros to my kid pro-con list.

March 10, 2011

Makin’ Friends…

Seven years ago I was introduced to some really good friends: Kate, Jack, Sawyer, Hurley, Sayid, Jin, Sun, Charlie, and, of course, John Locke. Say what you will, but I learned a lot from these guys, and I miss them regularly. Whatever was happening in my life during the six years LOST aired on tv – be it studying for exams, starting a relationship, ending a relationship, going to the Final Four, or falling off a moped – I knew that I was regularly going to see my LOST friends through the good times and the bad (and hey, if the show was on a break, I would just repeat episodes to find the hidden images in the black smoke monster or try to figure out time travel, you know, the important things in life). I’ll admit, LOST helped me through some really difficult times, and I still think about the show and it’s characters probably more than I should be willing to admit.

Anyways, I could write a whole blog about LOST, maybe even a whole book, but I’m not going to. I did, however, want to talk about some of the new friends (some fictional, some real – let’s just be glad I can still tell the difference) I’m making over here.

I was a little hesitant when I first came to Switzerland; I think back to that third day I was here and got ‘lost’ :) on my way to the gym. I tried to ask a bunch of people where the gym was, but they only responded with irritated shoulder shrugs. I kind of understand that now, I mean, I was asking them in English and I couldn’t even give them the name of the gym I was looking for. I am so glad that I now know the names of my gyms, and can listen to French answers without having my head spin (most of the time). But other than that, I’m learning that the Swiss are very helpful, nice people. They are especially nice if you look friendly and responsive, albeit confused.

Today I went up to St. Cergue (the town on the mountain that I watch the sun set over every evening from my kitchen table). Because I own a car in NJ, I hardly ever take busses or trains anywhere, and so the whole ‘zone’ part of public transportation takes me a little while to figure out. Well, there was an older man who saw me studying the map before I bought my ticket, who came up to me, asked if I needed help in French (which, I actually understood – I think), and then showed me how to figure out the zones. He told me how many stops I needed to wait, asked what I did in Nyon, etc, etc. Before he got off the train he looked back at me and gave me a head nod, which I’m hoping meant, “You can do it! You’ll be great!” but may have also meant, “God I hope she doesn’t get ‘lost’ :).” Either way, he was very kind and helpful.

Why have I never read Treasure Island before? I’ll tell you what, that Jim Hawkins is one spunky kid. I like him, I think he’s adventurous and naïve enough to remind me of myself. So, when I open up my Kindle and put on my Pirates of the Caribbean music (to get in the mood to imagine the Jolly Roger waving in the wind, “fifteen men on the dead man’s chest,” and seafarin’ men with missing limbs), I feel ready to read about ol’ Jimmy Hawkins going head to head against Long John Silver. I’m not done reading yet, but Jimmy has been keeping me company during meals, and has yet to ask for anything as cliché as eggs, bacon, and rum…
The conductor on the train ride back down from St. Cergue thought I looked a little ‘lost’ :). He told me the train heading down to Nyon was getting ready to leave and showed me how to open the door (What? They have really fancy buttons to press, okay?) When I got off at my stop I turned to look back at him and saw him give me an energetic wave goodbye with (I may be projecting here) a hint of pride in his eye (probably because I figured out how to open the door to exit the train).
Jane Eyre is, what we call in sports, a stud. Talk about executing a play! The way she tells Mrs. Reed exactly what’s up, how she won’t settle for anything less than what she envisions, she has stud written all over her. Yes, I think Jane and I (if I can remember and hold on to what she’s taught me) will be good friends for a long, long time.
Back when I had tweaked my quad, the guys’ trainer took a look at it for me. I have since seen him at my lifting gym and working out during our noontime practices. He went to college in The States and speaks very good English, which has made it possible to have conversations about books, school, and basketball. It’s becoming really nice to see a familiar face who always comes over and talks to me (note to self: it helps to take out your ipod earbuds when someone is talking to you, that is, if you want to answer them in a coherent fashion).
Gloria from Modern Family is my new best friend. You can judge me for this, but anyone who is scared to ride a bike because they’re afraid to be ‘grabbed’ or who thinks the phrase is “It’s a doggie dog world” deserves best friend status in my book. She makes me laugh out loud at least once an episode.
On Monday during my relaxation circuit, I was in the sauna and met a man from the Netherlands. Hanz was an older man who used to run, but once his back started hurting him his doctor told him to stick to swimming. He could tell I wasn’t Swiss (from my height I hope, and not my awkward nature), and asked what I did in Nyon. I find it kind of nice and yet sad that everyone is always incredibly astounded to hear that Nyon has a basketball team (only nice because they always seem really, truly interested after learning about it). He told me how his daughter was 1.80 meters or so and married tall, his grandson was already over 2.0 meters (I’m listed as 1.91 meters on our team’s roster as a reference point), and was already playing basketball. While I was sweating bullets in the sauna, well over my usual eight minute max where I start to feel thirsty and light-headed, I listened to this man also tell me about how when he was younger, he belonged to the “saving lives club for the beach”  (hey, I was just happy he was speaking English). Apparently, around 1938 or so, when television first came to the Netherlands, he had a scare with his lifeguard partner going under water in a 'water boat' (? – it was hot, I was dizzy, he wasn’t talking about sports or LOST...), and he made television because he made it out alive!!! He seemed truly sad to see me go when I got up and told him I was melting, but was happy to have met him and would surely see him around.  
I begged my sister to let me borrow her copy of Les Miserables for a bubbler book. Les Mis is, after all, my favorite musical. I really wanted to learn about the real characters from the unabridged, translated version of the book. I am 700 pages in, almost halfway done. Jean Valjean is definitely a valiant man, but Victor Hugo is longer winded than myself, and making it hard for me to like him. I will however, give him props for straying what seems like hundreds of miles away from the actual story line, and finding his way back within a page. Kudos Victor Hugo, kudos.
Every day I go to the Coop, the local grocery story adjoined to my apartment complex. There is a cashier at the Coop who knew right away that I was the Nyon Basket Féminin foreigner and went out of his way to speak with me. I am more than used to the “Au revoir bonne journée” that the cashiers say as they hand me my receipt, but Mr. Coop (knowing I speak English) always says, “Byebye, good day!” I really want to thank Mr. Coop and all the other hospitable Swiss, for being so much friendlier on day (insert # of days I’ve been here) than I found them on day three. Maybe it helps that I don't get 'lost' :) quite as much anymore. 

March 2, 2011

The Things I’ll Do for a Crêpe…

Back in the year 2007, I went on spring break down to Clearwater Beach, Florida with two of my basketball friends. In my opinion there is only one version of spring break that people talk about - the ‘Let’s get wasted, do Jell-O shots off someone’s body, and then go streaking!’ version. My friends and I decided to add a second version to that ridiculously short list and included a ‘Let’s lay by the pool, hit up Dino World, rent some jet skis and mopeds, and kiss my friend’s grandmother goodnight!’ version. I’ll tell you what - that latter version sounded more than perfect to me after a very trying sophomore year. All in all, I was ready to have a tranquil spring break, enjoy my friends’ company, and come home in one piece.

Little did I know…

I believe it was the fourth or fifth day of the trip when my friends decided they wanted to rent mopeds. I feel obligated to sidetrack for a moment; growing up, I led a very sheltered life. For example, I wasn’t permitted to watch Dawson’s Creek (although I occasionally stole glimpses when my older sister was watching it – sorry Mom :)), had to have all the right answers to the questions, ‘where are you going, who are you going with, will there be a parent there?,’ and knew all the dangers of cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and motorcycles. I would call this being sheltered, but I would also call it good parenting (high five Mom and Dad). Okay, back to spring break 2007. Naturally, I was a little nervous about getting on a soul-sucking death bike, but as I was the first kid in my family to go on an upside-down roller coaster, I thought maybe it was not as big of a deal as I was making of it, and that I’d love it.

I was wrong…

Me on moped, spring break 2007
After signing a waiver saying if we died we wouldn’t sue (this really eased my nerves…), the guy renting us the mopeds asked if we’d ever used one before. My two friends had, hopped on the big gas mopeds, eager and ready to go on their expedition. I, however, hadn’t, so he gave me a little moped (I swear its horsepower was similar to the Barbie car I used to drive when I was six) to practice out on. After feeling the weight and driving around the parking lot for five minutes, my friends were anxious to get going since we were renting by the hour, so I told the guy I thought I was ready and switched to a big girl bike.

I wasn’t ready…

I got on the big gas moped, gave the guy a nervous smile, kicked up the stand, took my place in the middle of my two friends, and hit the gas. Our first turn out onto the road was a left hand turn. There was traffic coming from both directions. I could hear my one friend (who must have seen me hesitating) say, “Hill, just hit the gas and go, it’s worse if you’re unsure of what you’re doing.” ‘Alright,’ I thought, ‘I’m a confident, strong, adventurous woman – I can do this.’ I hit the gas and made it across the first lane of traffic about to fill in behind my friend and hit the open road.

I wish I were lying about what happened next…

me after fall off moped, spring break 2007
While completing my turn, I hit the gas instead of the break (they should have mopeds for lefties…), I ran right into the curb, I went down, the bike came down on top of me, my aviators went flying, I started cursing, some old man laughed at me, my friend in front of me saw a ball of green go down in her review mirror and kept driving straight to CVS to get me Band-Aids and Neosporin, and my other friend was hysterically laughing behind me and telling me to pick up the bike quickly (since we had to pay for any damage we did to the equipment). After I bandaged myself up and calmed down (about 1/3 of our time was already up), my friends took off on their bikes while I pulled into a development and practiced driving straight-aways. For the rest of spring break 2007 I walked with a swollen knee and a limp. I vowed never to get on a motorcycle or a moped ever again.

Spring break 2011…

Okay, so I’m not exactly on spring break, BUT my alma mater has their spring break next week so I thought this was fitting. One of my teammates invited the team over to her house last night for a crêpes dinner and to go see a movie afterwards. I’m sorry, but I cannot turn down crêpes. The way the Swiss make crêpes is seriously wonderful. You can start your meal by putting ham, bacon, cheese, (you know- the things that make up a dinner) in your crêpes and end your meal with chocolate, honey, bananas, etc. (the things that make up dessert) in your crêpes. How cool is that? Unfortunately for me, the only way I could get to my teammates house was by getting on my coach’s moped (okay, so I just looked up the definition of moped…Wikipedia claims that in most countries, “mopeds are typically restricted to 50 km/h (30 mph)”). Since my coach’s moped went up to 115 km/h, I will from hereon out, refer to my coach’s moped as a ‘death machine.’

My coach had tried to get me to ride on her death machine before, where I informed her of the basic reasons why I refused and she let it go. So, when I sent an email confirming my attendance to my teammate’s dinner if someone could drive me, and received an email from my coach saying there would only be four of us and she would promise to drive safe, I replied that I would practice balancing all night in preparation for the next day.

My teammate and me after my first trip on death machine
There were three different trips I would be making on my coach’s death machine: from the train station to my teammate’s house, from my teammate’s house to the movie theater, and to the theater back to Nyon. The first trip was pretty cool actually; we rode up into the mountains and my coach told me, “I know you’re stressed, but try to keep your eyes open; it’s really pretty.” I kept my eyes open. Switzerland is so incredibly beautiful I cannot put it into words; you’d just have to be here. The fields, castles, mountains, and sunsets are quite unlike anything in New Jersey. I survived trip one, maybe even started to get a little cocky, enjoyed my crêpes, and was ready for trip two. To the movie theater! Trip two was a little darker, a little windier, and a little scarier. Still, I took deep breaths and triumphed. We saw Largo Winch 2 – if anybody has heard of Largo Winch, please tell me. The movie was primarily in French (although a bit of it was in English), and by the end of it I was French-talked out.  After the movie came the big test:

The ride home…

We would have to go on the highway. It was nighttime, it was even windier, and we were going even faster. I found out what goes through my mind when I think I’m going to die, it’s personal – so I’m not going to share, but it’s surprisingly calming. As the wind swerved the death machine, I envisioned the bike flying out from under us and our bodies rolling across the highway as I could see an oncoming car unable to stop and running over us. At one point I got so nervous I let my head drop. YOU NEVER LET YOUR HEAD DROP ON A DEATH MACHINE. I lightly tapped my helmet against my coach’s and envisioned me knocking her out, and then repeating the aforementioned scenario of bike flying, us rolling, and cars running over us. I kept thinking how cold my legs were (although I was wearing sweet windbreakers), tried valiantly to suppress them from shaking because I could startle my coach, and then repeat the aforementioned scenario once more. When I finally let go (not physically, dear God, but mentally with all my worrying), I looked up, saw Orion’s belt, took a deep breath, and did my best to enjoy the rest of the ride. I won’t sugar coat it…I survived that ride home.

You know the saying, ‘when you fall off, get back on that horse?’ I understand why people say it, it’s supposed to be inspirational and prove how you can overcome anything you are willing to keep trying. I mean, I got back on the moped in Florida, and I got back on the death machine last night, but I don’t really know if I feel like I’ve reached a major milestone in my life by doing either. I suppose it’s just one of those things, when you want something as bad as I wanted crêpes, you just do what you need to in order to reach your goal.