Our trip destinations sound kind of like a Pitbull song, don’t they? (American pop culture reference!) We were just hopping everywhere to all these famous places… A whirlwind of international adventure. I felt like a real jet-setter.
Sunday, December 30th, 2012
We had a leisurely breakfast at our hostel in Firenze before we checked out. We had lucked out and found a super cheap train from Firenze to Rome at 19.45 euros apiece. It took 3 hours instead of 1.5, but was 25 euros cheaper. We decided to save the money and take the cheap train, which turned out to be an awesome idea.
The slow train went through some amazing scenic places. I saw a glimpse of the beauty of Tuscany—rolling hills, lakes, wine grape fields, farms, a few castles on hills… It was so fun to watch how the scenery changed from northern to southern Italy. We were also very lucky to have gotten on the train at the first station, because as the train went on, there were no seats left. People were standing by the time we got to Rome Termini.
We went to check in once again to the Alessandro Hostel, which was not far from Termini station. It was nice to come back to something familiar. It was still too early for check-in, so we left our bags there in the bag room and went to the vegetarian Indian restaurant that we had picked out for lunch. We had tried to eat there before, but there had been a sign saying it would be closed over the holiday. However, the sign did no say that it would be closed today. So we went in hopes of eating some delicious Indian food. But… It was closed. Darn it, I said. That sucked. In lieu of other ideas, we ate yet another Despar grocery store lunch and went shopping.
The was the day we had decided to get most of our catch-up shopping done. Kimberly and I both got omiyage (souvenirs) for our offices at Lindt Chocolatier. They had a bunch of things on sale, so it was perfect. Kimberly also got some more cute clothes at Mango. That store was so awesome. I didn’t buy anything there, but I nearly did!
We went to the Bee Hive Café at around 7pm, after our shopping was done. We had walked everywhere and our feet were tired. Shopping is exhausting and our feet were really feeling it after a week of walking every day for hours. We had promised the chef Aimee last week that we would be there at the café, so she had saved us each a piece of special cake that she made. The meal was great, yet again, and I savored every bite.
And I actually got two pieces of cake (since she had the one, plus a carrot oatmeal cake) drizzled with agave syrup. As we left, I also got a couple cookies from her. She was so nice! And that would be my last vegan restaurant for a while…
We went back to the hostel and got ready for bed. The room wasn’t as nice as our previous room, but it was fine. It was also inhabited by a very chatty guy from Mexico. He reminded me of my brother—just the friendliest guy who will talk your ear off if you’re willing to listen. This guy had just left his home country for the first time this year and had spent the last 6 months in Paris studying French. It was cute how enamored he was with travel and he was also very happy to tell us all about his home town. Kimberly and I were both in our bunks when he scolded himself, saying that if he didn’t make himself leave, he would never stop talking! He apologized profusely for delaying our bedtime. So cute.
Only one more day in Rome left…
Monday, December 31st, 2012: New Year’s Eve
Kimberly and I had breakfast in the hostel. We had to check out of our room, since were switching rooms yet again that night. Something to do with the hostel and certain rooms being full and whatnot. Kimberly got the breakfast that the hostel offered and I had yogurt and fruit that I had bought at the grocery store the day before.
I just loved Italy’s plain soy yogurt. It was perfect, no sweeteners added at all. Wish they had that exact kind in the US.
After breakfast, we were off to the Rome Protestant Cemetery. Why, you ask? Because of two famous poets who were buried there: John Keats and Percy Shelley. It was a kind of pilgrimage for Kimberly, lover of poetry.
The above is Keats’ grave (on the left). To the right is his best friend, Joseph Severn. Keats died at a young age (25), but Severn lived till 85. I thought it was sweet that they were buried alongside one another.
The graveyard was really beautiful in the morning light. I’m not usually such a fan of graveyards, but this one was beautiful with the sun shining.
After that, I decided that we could take the train to the ruins of Ostia Antica. Bad decision. The train ride there was nice and all, but the ruins were closed. Stupid me hadn’t thought to check if it was closed or no. Sure enough, we arrived and found out that it was closed on Mondays. Just my luck.
We turned right back around and took the train all the way back to Piazza del Popolo. We worked our way down Via del Corso once more time. It took us longer than last time. We made last trips to Zara, Mango, Lindt, etc. We also looked high and low for a scarf for Kyle. We spent an amazing amount of time in Aldo, where Kimberly found herself enamored with all the shoes. She bought three pairs at 29 euros a piece, which was a steal considering they were all 99-129 euro shoes. I was nearly tempted to try some on, but… the store was so crowded and all of the sales assistants were crazy busy, so I decided not to.
After shoes, we were famished. We decided to eat at the one place we know would not be closed on New Year’s Eve…
The Hard Rock Café. (Yes, this was our 3rd Hard Rock Café in 3 cities in one week. And no, we were not sick of the food yet.)
It was our last American food hurrah. We had to wait a bit since the place was packed, but there was free wifi to keep us entertained. Our server was a Texan from Corpus Christi, can you imagine that? It’s certainly a small world.
After our late lunch, we went back to Via del Corso so that we could finish going down the street in its entirety. We ended up finding a very nice scarf for Kyle! And last, we went to United Colors of Benetton once more…
This is a story in itself.
I’d been eying this one coat for a few days. It was on sale and everything, I thought. I needed a winter coat, but my frugal brain told me I didn’t really need it. I could get by with what I had… (Which was the raincoat that my parents bought me in 2007 when I moved to Tokyo. It was a thin waterproof shell that I just layered with sweaters.) But this Benetton coat was such a beautiful toggle coat. I had wanted a toggle coat for forever. And this one fit me right off the rack perfectly, something that happens once in a blue moon. So… I decided to be brave and buy the coat. I’d also found a present for my Secret Santa recipient at Benetton.
I brought both items up to the register. It was then that I learned that the coat was not on sale. Another style, very similar, was. I panicked, because without the sale sticker, the coat I wanted would be very expensive instead of just plain expensive. I must have looked crestfallen because the salesperson working the register talked to her manager right next to her and said, smiling, “We will give you the discount if you show us your shoes.”
She pointed at the Aldo shoebox I was carrying for Kimberly, thinking that they were mine. When Kimberly showed that she had two more pairs, the sales girls got so excited. “Show us! Show us! We love that store!”
So we got out all three shoeboxes out on the counter and showed the ladies the beautiful high heels Kimberly had bought a few hours ago. They practically swooned over them. The one girl who was ringing up my purchases even called her friend/co-worker over to see them. It was hilarious watching these Italian women oooh and aaah over the shoes. “You’re lucky these are not our size!” she said.
I thanked them profusely for giving me the discount and (although I think it had more to do with the manager wanting to move more inventory before the end of the year) I also thanked Kimberly for buying so many shoes.
It was now dark and shops were closing up for the night. It was New Year’s Eve, after all. We went back to the hostel and checked in to our new room, which was girls-only again. That was nice.
First on the to-do list was packing our bags for the plane tomorrow. We were still only doing carry-on again, but there was still the matter of fitting everything inside our rolly suitcases. I was okay because I was going to wear my new coat on the plane, but I worried about Kimberly’s poor little suitcase. I suggested we do this teamwork-style and dump everything our and start from the beginning.
As we emptied her carry-on, we discovered yet another pair of shoes from home that she had put in, forgotten about, and never had a chance to wear. So now we had the daunting task of trying to fit FIVE pairs of shoes inside a carryon (along with her other clothes). We put the shoes in first and fit all the clothes around them… It was a success! What a feat! I was proud of us. I still couldn’t get over the fact that we had fit 5 pairs of shoes in that bag.
We hung out in our room, showered, ate a dinner of popcorn and chocolate, and met the other girls staying in the room. So far on our journey we had shared rooms with people from China, Mexico, the Netherlands, Korea… But no Japanese. I pondered this… All the people we had met from other countries were traveling on their own. And all of them were at least at a conversational level in English. I realized that all the Japanese people who had come with us on the same plane were on a tour. It is pretty well-known that Japanese people love their tours. Most are afraid to travel internationally without one. Is it partly because of their poor English ability? I can’t say for sure, but it is rare to find a Japanese person who travels internationally without a tour.
After packing, snacks, showers, and conversations, we both laid down to take naps. The plan was to wake up at 11pm-ish and walk to the Colosseum in time for midnight fireworks.
We did just that, arriving at the Colosseum around 11:30pm. People were everywhere. As you got closer to the Colosseum, you could barely move in the congestion of people. We didn’t want to be so close that we couldn’t exit early, but we wanted to also get a good view. Our spot was pretty good, I thought.
I couldn’t hear anyone counting down, but suddenly were was a loud cheer and people spraying champagne everywhere. I was glad we were out of the range of the champagne sprayers, because we had just showered and I had no desire to send my coat to the dry cleaners already.
The fireworks were small (by American standards), but what made it so scenic was the combination of the fireworks, Colosseum, and Christmas tree. Where else in the world could you see that? We stayed there for a little while, then decided to head back to the hostel to get some Zz’s. It was a little scary walking back because there were drunk people everywhere and firecrackers/fireworks going off every which way. It was nice that the police were out, though. That made me feel a little safer.
Tuesday, January 1st, 2013
I woke up early and got ready to go catch the train to the airport. As I brushed my teeth, I noticed that someone was taking a shower in the girl’s bathroom. But… The shower had flooded and the water was streaming out of the bathroom and into the hallway. And that particular shower stall was dark, no lights on. Kimberly got up and noticed as well. She said to me, “I hope whoever’s in there is okay…” which kicked-started my “take care of people” attitude. I approached the shower and knocked several times. No answer. I began to worry. Then I started to open the door with trepidation, fearing the worst… What would I see? In the dark I saw a girl lying on the floor of the shower, still fully dressed in jeans, shirt, and a sweater. To my huge relief, she moved.
“Are you okay?” I asked cautiously as she stirred. Her movement activated the motion sensor to turn on the light in the shower stall. She didn’t answer me, but got to her feet unsteadily, walked past me, and went back to her room. She was completely sopping wet from head to toe, but seemed quite out of it. Maybe she had been drunk and passed out in the shower? Anyways, I reached inside to finally turn the water off for her, and went downstairs to check out.
We boarded the Leonardo Express pretty early and were at the airport in no time. Compared to US international airports, check-in, security, and customs in Italian airports are a breeze. I didn’t even have to take off my shoes.
Our flight to Milan was uneventful. I got to use my limited Italian to order some sparkling water from the flight attendant. The only bad thing was that we then had a long layover there. While waiting to board, we met the Japanese man who had sat next to us on our original flight from Tokyo to Milan on December 22nd. That was a funny coincidence.
The flight from Milan to Tokyo was, in my opinion, better than the one to Milan. For one, our TV screens worked and I was able to watch some movies. Thank goodness for that.
The food was alright and I managed to sleep a bit.
And then we were back in Japan.
Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013
We arrived at Narita in the late morning, freshened up, and then caught the Keisei express to Tokyo proper. We tried to find coin lockers for our suitcases in Tokyo Station, but it was already past noon and there were none to be had. All taken. So we were stuck with our rollies in Tokyo… Great. This put a damper on our plans for shopping. It was not fun lugging our suitcases around.
We made it to an old favorite Indian restaurant in Shibuya where Zandra and I used to eat frequently. We also went to Mandrake, so I could show Kimberly the world of doujinshi (fan-published magazines/comics/novels.) We used to visit that store all the time back in my Waseda days. Good memories.
We walked to Harajuku from Shibuya towing our luggage, which wasn’t very fun. As I looked at Takeshita street, it was apparent that shopping would be near impossible in that crowd with our bags. I was more than a little disappointed because I had so been looking forward to showing Kimberly some of my old haunts. The purikura place wasn’t that far away, so I suggested we go there to take some purikura, at least.
Then, we had a stroke of luck. This is just a testament to how observant I can be… As we were about to enter the purikura place, I noticed a sign on the elevator near it. I’d never been upstairs before, but there it said “Coin Lockers” in Japanese. We were saved! Possibly! If there were any lockers left…
We got upstairs and were doubly lucky. There was one locker already available that would fit my suitcase. And just as we arrived, there was another foreigner leaving and taking his things out of a locker that would fit Kimberly’s suitcase. Finally! Were able to unburden ourselves and shop in Tokyo!
We didn’t have too much time before the nightbus, but we still managed to cram in some fun in the hours we did have. We fit in purikura, crepes, bubble tea, a walk to Waseda campus (which was closed), my old dormitory, and some Korean food in the Shin-Okubo neighborhood, otherwise known as “Little Korea.”
Here are the pictures of our brief Tokyo experience!
We planned it just right and made it on the bus that would take us back to Aomori. I didn’t sleep at all this time, which really sucked. Next time I will have to try the earplug/eyemask/neck pillow option. I exited the bus to stretch my legs and/or use the restroom, which was every two hours. I had nothing better to do and it was torture just sitting there on the bus, not sleeping.
As we headed north, I noticed the temperature drastically begin to change with each rest stop. And then, suddenly, there was snow. I wasn’t ready for a world of white… It had been so nice to be in a place where it did not snow in the winter. Plus, we hadn’t had any rain in Italy at all. We had been without precipitation for over ten days! Stepping off the bus in Hirosaki was a blessing and a hardship. I was happy to be in my own home again, but the cold was definitely a shock to my system.
We were finally home and it was January 3rd, 2013.
I am so thankful to Kimberly for being my traveling partner and willing to go along with my crazy (?) plans and ideas. And also, I am grateful to my parents for telling me to go to “Spain, Italy, or somewhere” instead of going to Chicago to visit them.
It was an amazing trip, one I will remember for the rest of my life. I will always be able to say, “When I was 25 years old, I spent Christmas and New Year’s in Italy…”