Tokyo: A place of people and propriety

Two things stand out in my memories from when I travelled to Tokyo in July of 2014. The rules and the massive amount of people who live and work there.

As soon as you walk toward the exit of the Narita International Airport you see a sign that reads, “Welcome to Japan. Please respect the rules.” The Japanese people love regulations and follow them even more determinedly than Germans. There are signs everywhere in Tokyo explaining and illustrating the proper behavior they expect citizens and guests of the city to follow. On the subway there are signs explaining that there should be no swinging from the handlebars, no whipping wet umbrellas around and hitting fellow train riders, no eating food or drinking alcohol, no large luggage, no public displays of affection, no loud music, no applying makeup.

The rules seemed never ending and once you exit the subway it continues. Clean up after your dog (or cat), walk on your left side of the sidewalk so as not to collide with oncoming pedestrian traffic, no smoking on the street, and most importantly, no littering.

Tokyo is one of the cleanest cities I have ever been in despite the lack of public trashcans. If Japanese people have trash they keep it with them until they can throw it away at home or the office, unlike in the U.S. where some people think it is acceptable to throw bags of trash out of car windows. It is quite a feat that Tokyo is one of the cleanest cities in the world because with a population of over 35 million it is the world’s most populous metropolitan area.

Nowhere was the massive population more obvious than in the Shibuya shopping district. In Shibuya there is a crosswalk that is hailed as the busiest crosswalk in the world. Not only can you cross the intersection in a typical square shape, you can cross it diagonally, causing what one would expect to be sheer chaos, but somehow works with no pedestrians getting struck by cars. I crossed it multiple times, a blonde buoy in a sea of dark haired Japanese citizens, to achieve the closest sensation I will ever have to body surfing. You glide along, as the crowd becomes one giant amoeba that splits and reconnects to avoid a crash with other organisms.

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Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo is hailed as one of the busiest intersections in the world with approximately 100,000 people passing through the crosswalk each hour.

After experiencing the crowds of Tokyo, I realize the reason for all of the rules. Deprived of regulations, it would be impossible for the city and all of its inhabitants to function without falling into mayhem. So instead of fighting the rules or the crowd, I learned it is sometimes wiser to go with the tide.

Speaking English at the Spanish Dive School in Thailand

As Americans, we are spoiled. We speak English and do not usually feel compelled to learn another language—myself included—as most other countries and societies do. Since I have been too lazy to learn a foreign language, I am always grateful for the patient and kind people I encounter when traveling who are willing to help me with directions, find the bathroom, or get the correct change back. I’m also lucky that English is the “universal” language and I am able to connect with people from all over the world because they, at least, had the ambition to learn another language—English.

There was no instance more distinct in my memory when I was grateful others were fluent in English because it allowed me to have an experience that cannot be duplicated.

While traveling in Thailand two years ago I visited the small island of Koh Tao. Koh Tao (meaning “Turtle Island”) is renowned for its scuba diving and has over 50 dive schools; an impressive fact given the island is only eight square miles. I planned to spend my time on the island taking lessons to become scuba certified.

I visited many dive schools to find which one I liked the best. Australian beach bums with shaggy bleached blonde hair ran a majority of them and I did not trust the hungover, laid back young men with my life while diving. I had almost given up finding a school when I came upon Pura Vida Diving; the Spanish dive school.

While the majority of classes were taught in Spanish, they did teach one class in English. My diving class consisted of Torben and Miriam, the Germans; Quentin, a Frenchman; Gorka, our Spanish instructor; and me, the token American.

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My dive class at Pura Vida. Torben, Gorka our instructor, Miriam, me, and Quentin.

Even though I took the English course, all of the students (mostly from South America) taking diving lessons at Pura Vida went out to sea on the same boat. That’s how I celebrated my twenty-fourth birthday—on a boat among strangers turned friends who sang “Happy Birthday” to me in their Spanish, German, and French accents and kissed me on the cheek.

When I traveled to Thailand I held a python, swam in a waterfall infested with ravenous fish, learned to scuba dive, carried all of my belongings in a backpack, and met friends from Thailand, Austria, Germany, Canada, Spain, and Argentina.

While I am glad I grew up in a country whose first language is English, I am also grateful to foreigners who speak English and are able to communicate with me as I have learned an invaluable amount from them.

Meeting monks in the morning

At 6 a.m. on the island of Koh Pha Ngan (pronounced in my head as “ko paw gone”) as the partying tourists were just getting to bed, I was out for a jog in the soft, warm fog. It was already 75 degrees and the fog signaled it would be another muggy Thai day.The streets were quiet as I made my way down the uninhabited lanes as the native Thai people began to open shops and cook food at their stands. Among the calm I began to see men wrapped in bright saffron clothe wandering from home to home carrying baskets. The men stood out against the green, brown, and gray landscape. They were quiet as they shuffled from one person—who bowed low, and placed a food item in the basket—to the next. I was witnessing the food offerings that occur daily for many monks in Thailand.

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Thai Monks smile for the camera. Image courtesy of my friend Meghan who, unlike me, was not too shy to ask them for a photo.

94% of the population in Thailand follows Buddhism. Specifically Theravada Buddhism, in which monks do not build monasteries, but depend on laypeople in their community for food. The giving of donations is not thought of as charity because it is believed to create a spiritual connection between monks and regular people. The people believe they have a responsibility to physically support the monks, who support the laypeople spiritually in return.

I watched, trying not to stare. With the fog and the quietness of the morning the monks looked mysterious. Continuing on my run, I imagined the serious and intense daily lives they must lead.

I did not see another monk until I was on the ferry heading back to the city of Surat Thani on the mainland. Standing near me was a pair of young monks looking out over the Gulf of Thailand. Shy and nervous, I kept my eyes down.

All of a sudden I heard someone speaking English to me in a Thai accent. “Hello! How are you today? Isn’t this beautiful?” asked one of the monks. Unsure of the protocol when talking to a monk I smiled and replied, “It is beautiful, but it’s so hot. I don’t know how you can stand it all the time.” “Where are you from?” asked the other monk. I responded, “The United States. America.” At that the two monks began laughing hysterically. I felt my face warm with embarrassment; unsure of what I’d said that was so funny. “We thought so, because you have such nice teeth, but you’re so small.”

Just as I had the preconceived notion that monks were always serious, they had the preconceived notion that all Americans have nice teeth and are large. I learned that monks are not nearly as intimidating as they seem and a smile remains universal.

Roma

The past weekend Steve and I took the train from Pordenone to Rome. I had been to Rome a few months ago (it was our first stop on a cruise from Genoa) in May and was fortunate enough to visit the Colosseum as well as Vatican City, where I, along with thousands of other people, got to see the Pope! Who cares that I could barely see him in his balcony and I couldn’t understand a word of what he was saying?! It’s the Pope!

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Flashback to May 2015 when I saw the Pope!–from half a mile away.

Prior to our trip we had been contemplating going to Florence. I had already been to Rome and I had liked the visit, but it wasn’t a city I had loved at first site/visit, so I was still leaning toward Florence. However, after my second visit to Rome, I realized why it’s one of the most visited cities in the world.

We arrived in Rome at about 11 a.m. and after sitting on a train for almost 6 hours we did the most rational thing–took a nap because we were so exhausted (to be fair we had woken up at 4:30 a.m.) After our lovely nap we (by we I mean Steve) decided it would be a good idea to go for a run through the city. I complained almost the whole time, but in hindsight it was a fantastic way to see a lot of the city in a short amount of time.

We ran through the gorgeous Villa Borghese gardens, the Piazza del Popolo, along the Tiber River, past the Castel S’Angelo, through the famous Piazza Navona, and the Pantheon.

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The Pantheon is an amazing structure, and its giant dome, with oculus, was the largest in the world for 1300 years and remains the largest unsupported dome in the world. The diameter of the dome is 43.30 meters or 142ft (for comparison, the United States Capitol dome is 96 feet in diameter) and is in perfect proportion with the Pantheon by the fact that the distance from the floor to the top of the dome is exactly equal to its diameter. (I did not get a good photo of it, so I borrowed one from my friend-the internet).

That night we walked around the city and it was splendid, you can round almost any corner in Rome and see a new, ancient site that’s lit up with warm, amber floodlights that make impossibly beautiful architecture even more mind blowing. We saw the Trajan Markets, the Largo di Torre Argentina (where Julius Caesar was assassinated), the Trevi Fountain (which Steve hates because it’s a little too touristy), and the Forum of Augustus. I especially loved all of these sites because there were so few people around (minus the Trevi Fountain that was extremely busy like always) it felt magical.

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The Forum of Augustus was built because the existing forum was too crowded and couldn’t handle the amount of legal cases that the city and empire were generating.

Day two in Rome consisted of hitting the big three: Colosseum, Forum, Palatine Hill. I won’t go in to detail about those because 1) there’s so much to say and this post is already very long 2) it would probably be more educational to google them. Suffice it to say Rome was a wonderful surprise–it’s hard to believe (and a little embarrassing to admit) I thought one visit would be enough.

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A panorama of the Forum with the Colosseum in the distance on the far right edge of the image.

 

Eastern European Eye Opener

Steve and I recently drove from Pordenone, Italy to Ljubljana, Slovenia to Zagreb, Croatia, to Belgrade, Serbia, and back to Zagreb and eventually Pordenone. The trip was about 900 miles and countless hours of driving–ok, it was about 14 hours–and I can say I didn’t mind the drive (ok, the drive back to Zagreb and then Pordenone was a little long) because I feel lucky to get to see the scenery and landscape of these countries in a way I normally wouldn’t if I was to fly directly there.

Surprisingly, eastern Croatia and western Serbia are similar to eastern South Dakota. Basically, few trees (although still more than in SD, very little forest compared to other parts of Europe) and flat, farmland. I think Steve got a little sick of me yelling, “TINY TRACTOR!” or “TINY COMBINE!”, every single time I saw a farmer in his field, but I couldn’t believe how small they were! I have no idea if they have smaller fields or they just don’t produce large tractors over there, but the tractors were the size of a large pickup! Ok, now that I have sufficiently let my farmer flag fly, I’ll move on to the actual city of Belgrade.

I knew nothing about the Yugoslav Wars between 1991-2002. To be fair I was a child during that time, but I don’t even remember learning about it during history class. I suppose it’s because it didn’t directly affect the U.S., but when I started researching before we drove there, I felt so ridiculous for not evening knowing it happened! Steve had mentioned something on our drive that I took as a kind of joke (making fun of how behind the times Eastern Europe can sometimes seem), “You’re not supposed to take pictures of bombed out buildings because it’s rude.” I forgot about the comment for the next three hours as we travelled across the farmlands of Croatia and Serbia.

I became slack-jawed when we entered Belgrade and within the first five minutes of driving in the city,  I saw a building that had, in fact, been bombed out. We saw several more as we made our way toward our hotel.

The buildings had been bombed by NATO because, according to NATO, the operation sought to stop human rights abuses in Kosovo, and it was the first time that the organization used military force without the approval of the UN Security Council. While I understand little of the actions leading up to the bombing and have no feelings whether it was justified or not (there are always two sides to a story), the bombing ended up killing between 489 and 528 civilians, destroyed bridges, industrial plants, public buildings, private businesses, military barracks and installations.

After seeing the buildings and realizing that Serbians might not be the most friendly toward Americans (we had a pretty big hand in the bombings) we decided that if anyone asked where we were from we’d go with the safe stand by, “Canada…eh!?” (I’m kidding, we obviously didn’t say “eh”).  

On our first full day in Belgrade we did a free walking tour (I highly recommend doing free walking tours whenever you’re in a new city, the guides help get you get oriented, teach you a ton of history, and help you find good places to eat, drink, party, etc.) and when asked where we were from Steve and I tucked our naïve American tails between our legs and said, “Canada.”

Here’s some of our tour group with the Belgrade Citadel in the background.

Throughout the tour there wasn’t much talk about the most recent war, but past wars (Belgrade has been the site of over 140 battles—the most in any city) until the end of the tour when Jovanna (our guide) started to mention the Yugoslav wars. She was 27 years old and had lived in Belgrade her whole life. It was extremely interesting hearing from a young person who had lived through four different forms of government. One line about living in a communist nation really stuck with me. She said, “As a kid, it’s fun to sit around the table and play board games by candle light, but then, that’s your life every day. It gets a little sad when you realize that’s not how every one lives.” It’s hard for me to imagine someone so close in age to me, living such a different life. Needless to say, I was in awe during the whole tour. But our history lesson didn’t end during the walking tour. It continued on into the night when we met many Serbians at bars and clubs later in the night.

When I told my dad Steve and I were going to Zagreb and Belgrade he said, “Those don’t sound like tourist spots…” It’s true, I never would have put Belgrade or Zagreb on my must see list, but I’m so ecstatic I got a chance to see the two largest cities in the former Yugoslavia. In fact, all the travel books we looked at before our trip raved about Belgrade and how tourists are starting to realize it’s an “outspoken, adventurous, proud, and audacious” city.

Indeed, the residents of Serbia were some of the most 1) friendly 2) outgoing 3) beautiful (seriously cannot stress this point enough. Everyone was happy, young, and six or more feet tall—ok, maybe not but even the women dwarfed me!) people I’ve ever met.

A lovely pedestrian only area with many bars and restaurants.

It was through our conversations with these young Serbs that Steve and I (after admitting we were from the U.S.) learned from a gorgeous (probably a model) woman, “No! We don’t hate Americans! We love Americans! We have no problem with the people. It’s just the government we don’t like!” I felt reassured, although, I’m still not entirely sure how to take her comment. Throughout the night we asked several other Serbians how they felt about Americans and they all vehemently agreed, “No, we don’t hate Americans!”

So many lessons learned. My advice? Go to Serbia ASAP before it becomes the newest tourist hotspot and prices skyrocket.

Herculaneum

Most people are familiar with the archeological site of Pompeii, but fewer know about Herculaneum, another city devastated by the infamous explosion of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

Herculaneum was a wealthier city than Pompeii as demonstrated by mosaics and colored marble. I guess there’s a belief that Pompeii was also a town full of prostitutes? I don’t know; explore that theory on your own time. The Pompeii site, from what I’ve heard, is MUCH bigger than Herculaneum, but the city of Herculaneum (located closer to Vesuvius than Pompeii) was covered in volcanic water, ash, and debris, and experienced a much greater state of preservation for the 1600 years it was buried. The first thing I noticed about the site (aside from how well preserved it was) was how deep it had been buried.

The tops of the buildings just reach the height of today’s landscape. It was truly mind blowing to wander around the site and see completed, immaculate mosaics on the floors of some of the homes or paintings on the walls that retained their original colors. We continued around the site for two hours before ending at the boathouses (six can be seen on the bottom right of the above picture near the grassy area).

At the time, Steve and I didn’t realize the little alcoves we were seeing were boathouses (we had to look it up later), but we definitely understood that inside the stone arches were skeletons; many, many skeletons.

The people of Herculaneum had clearly sought refuge in this place, but hadn’t found it. I read that the 1981 excavations of the site revealed more than 55 skeletons on the beach (in AD 79, the beach was right next to the city, which is not the case anymore) in the first six boathouses. Earlier excavations had uncovered only a few skeletons, so it was assumed nearly all of the inhabitants had made it out of the city before the volcanic eruption. This was clearly not the case; as the last citizens of Herculaneum waited for rescue by boat, they were killed instantly by heat; the temperature when they died was over 900°F. Later excavations revealed at least 300 skeletons huddled together in 12 boat chambers. It was very eerie to notice that most of the skeletons were smaller—most definitely women and children.

We asked one of the site staff if they were going to continue excavating, since you could tell there was more to the city. She confirmed that only 30% of Herculaneum has been uncovered! What?! Why wouldn’t you keep digging? Well, the modern city of Ercolano is directly above the site. Huge bummer! Maybe someday they’ll figure out a way to uncover the full site, but until then I’m going to speculate that there are definitely skeletons of aliens, unicorns, and/or dragons in there.

Herculaneum in the foreground, the modern city of Ercolano above/behind it, and farther back, the ominous looking Mt. Vesuvius shrouded in cloud cover.

Back to Europe: Starting in Naples

I’m back in Italy (for now)! This time I flew an equally convoluted route as last time…Sioux Falls to Chicago to Paris to Naples. After over 24 hours of travel I arrived at our hotel in Naples. Finally got to see Steve after 147 days (but who was counting?)!

First impressions of Naples: Dirty, loud, HOT, diverse, social, people everywhere, shopping, crazy traffic! Naples is unlike any city in Europe I’ve ever been to. I can only compare it to Bangkok in its hectic, lunatic attitude. The people who live here have to be nuts or stupid. I don’t mean to be rude, but I could not deal with the traffic on a regular basis. Mopeds and cars fly by, sometimes stopping at red lights, sometimes not, whatever strikes their fancy at the moment.

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Ah! Smell that smoggy city air!

Apparently car theft is at its worst in Naples and I noticed that almost every car had at least one ding or scratch on it (most had much worse looking injuries). It’s also similar to most tourist cities in Thailand as there are people everywhere on the streets trying to sell you selfie sticks, cell phone cases, and sunglasses. However, I loved that about the city. Yes, it was dirty, yes it smelled a little funny, but it was alive. I kept catching moments of what I (stereotypically) imagine Italy to be like. People stopping each other on the street to say ciao, people fighting over the cost of a fish at a small market, children playing soccer in a courtyard (I did not appreciate when one of them almost ran me over with his bike—damn youths).

Naples as seen from Mt. Vesuvius. It's much bigger than I imagined

Naples as seen from Mt. Vesuvius. It’s a lot bigger than I imagined

Prague and the Fear of Being Alone

After Bucharest, I made a solo journey to Prague for three days.

I arrived in Prague and the first thing you realize when you’re traveling alone versus with at least one other person, is that it is easy to get overwhelmed.  You can’t lie down and start crying in the streets (even though you might want to) so instead you’re forced to figure things out. I didn’t have Wi-Fi, so I was relying on an offline map I had downloaded—thank goodness for apps. I got turned around several times (I have never experienced such winding, confusing streets as in Prague), but eventually made it to the Old Prague Hostel where I would be staying. I couldn’t check in yet, so I dropped my bag off with hostel staff and headed out to Hradčany, the Castle District.

Instead of taking the quick way to the castle, over Charles Bridge, I decided to explore farther south in the “New Town” area of the city. I saw the National Theater, a spectacular building with an ocean blue roof covered in shining, golden stars. After crossing Legions Bridge I came across a café I had read about and stopped in for a bite to eat.

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Map of the city. The Castle District is in the upper left and the National Theater is in the lower right.

The interior was beautiful, but at first it was hard for me to notice because I was so conscious about the fact that I was about to eat alone at this lovely spot. As humans, we are typically social creatures. When we do things alone they’re usually not done for fun, but done out of necessity; getting groceries, going to the post office, walking to work. Therefore, when we go to do fun things alone, we are horrified! Go to a movie alone?! Sit in a park and have a picnic…alone?! Enjoy a brunch sitting alone?!  Nope, never, absolutely not going to happen. Somehow, though, travel allows me to pretend I’m not the shy little introvert that I am. So by god, I sat alone at that restaurant and enjoyed every single bite of my eggs benedict with a twist.interior was beautiful, but at first it was hard for me to notice because I was so conscious about the fact that I was about to eat alone at this lovely spot.  As humans, we are typically social creatures.  When we do things alone they’re usually not done for fun, but done out of necessity; getting groceries, going to the post office, walking to work. Therefore, when we go to do fun things alone, we are horrified! Go to a movie stag?! Have a picnic with me and my shadow?!  Enjoy a brunch sitting solo?! Nope, never, absolutely not going to happen. Somehow, though, travel allows me to pretend I’m not the shy little introvert that I am. So by god, I sat alone at that restaurant and enjoyed every single bite of my eggs benedict with a twist.

This beauteous brunch (apple juice included) was under $7.

This beauteous brunch (apple juice included) was under $6.

I even managed to learn a thing or two about the history of Café Savoy by talking to an old man sitting at the table next to me (a regular).  He told me the cafe was opened in 1893 and became famous for both its service and its Neo-Renaissance ceiling.  It also has an ideal location: near to the National Theater, Kampa (a city park), Old Town, and New Town.  However, during World War I, socialists took over the space and used it to recruit new members.  Luckily, the owner had decided to cover the ceiling in order to protect it.  His smart thinking saved the ceiling during both World Wars and since then has been restored to its original design.

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I can only hope I look as good as Cafe Savoy when I’m 100…

I slowly enjoyed my meal, chatted with the friendly fellow next to me, and learned some history. These are all things I probably wouldn’t have done had I been with another person. I would have felt the need to go and see as much of the city as possible, running from one historical venue to the next to squeeze as much in as we could. Instead, I may not have seen as much of the city as I could have, but because of my interactions in Café Savoy I felt more connected with the city than I otherwise would have.

Bucharest

I’m not sure what I expected from Bucharest. Perhaps I had imagined a small city that wasn’t quite as developed as the rest of Europe, a city overrun by wild dogs (as most guide books would tell you), and one who residents were small, dark haired, and reserved. The city at first appears like any other when you’re first entering it from the Otopeni airport. There are large grocery stores and several up-to-date malls beside BMW dealerships. However, once you enter the city itself you begin to notice the Communist influence. A communist nation as short ago as 1988 (the Romanian Revolution began in December 1989), the city itself has huge, domineering buildings surrounding large, empty squares. The buildings are beautiful, unlike others I have seen, but you can also see many abandoned buildings covered in giant, cloth advertisements, as if the ad will cover up the decrepit building it is strung on.

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Standing in the middle of a large, empty square surrounded by big buildings.

Since we arrived in the evening, we went straight out to the “Lipscani” district to get some food and experience how Romanians do weekends. We walked along the unfinished (construction was halted in 1989 due to the political upheaval), but still beautiful Danube-Bucharest Canal. We had asked our hostel hostess where we could get some traditional Romanian cusine and she suggested “Caru’ cu bere”. First opened as a brewery in 1879, it started in an Inn and was eventually moved to the Lipscani area on Stavropoleos Street. We were skeptical at first because we almost gave up on finding the restaurant after asking locals and wandering around for twenty minutes with no luck and then finding the outside covered in scaffolding and tarps. However, when we walked in, a lovely waiter and a beautiful interior, which we enjoyed the view from our table on the upper level, greeted us.

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Our view from the upper level of Caru’ cu Bere.

We were asked for our drink orders and left with the extremely large menu. After trying to decide for ten minutes and finally asking our waiter his favorite, we ordered “samale”, which is “mixed minced meat rolled in cabbage with polenta, sour cream and a chilli pepper on the side”. We love variety and getting the biggest bang for our “leu”, so we also ordered the “Platou ‘Caru’ cu bere’”. It was basically a plate of mixed grilled meat with chicken breast, pork fillet, Kransky and smoked sausage, “Mici” (famous Romanian dish–sausage without casings) and turkey breast with oven roast potatoes with bacon and red onion. The excitement I felt as our plates of food approached was a little inappropriate, but we had walked for over two hours (we get lost a lot) and hadn’t eaten since that morning at the airport in England.

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The food!

Once we had demolished the plates of meat (all of which was fantastic) we headed to the streets to watch the Romanians (who are not reserved at all, but quite loud and rowdy) enjoy their weekend. As we walked by a restaurant we saw two young girls (early 20s) standing outside of it trying to convince pedestrians to come in and eat. We spoke to them about the state of Bucharest and Romania. They both wanted to leave Bucharest as soon as they finished university because the pay in Romania is terrible. They told us a McDonald’s worker who works eight hours a day five days a week might make $400 a month, while a doctor in Bucharest can make about $1000 a month. One girl went on to say that she wished Communism was still the political system in Romania because “if you look at all the big buildings and all of the industry in Bucharest, it’s from the Communist era. My grandfather always talks about how good things were then”. It was an eye opening statement to hear and I would have loved to speak with her more, but she had to get back to work and we had to go get some rest for our next day of exploring.

Duck & Waffle

Steve and I only spent two and a half days in London, but I could spend two and a half days talking about our short trip.  However, I prefer to focus on one of my favorite and less known (compared to the London Eye, the Tower of London, Big Ben, etc.) attractions.

Having conquered the Soho, Piccadilly Circus, and Covent Garden areas during our St. Patrick’s Day pub crawl the previous night, we decided to take the Tube to Shoreditch for the much talked about nightlife in that part of the city. It was a Wednesday and there wasn’t much “nightlife” to speak of.  After walking for twenty minutes, we discovered one or two fairly empty bars.  After having a beer and asking the bartender where the “hot spots” were and getting the response, “Honestly, there’s not much going on because it’s a Wednesday,” we headed back toward the station we had come from.  We met a lovely man along the way and asked where we could get some late night food (it was already 10:00pm and we hadn’t eaten dinner yet), he recommended a spot near Liverpool Station called “Duck & Waffle”.  He didn’t really elaborate about the place except that it was “right ahead”.  It turns out that “Duck & Waffle” is the highest restaurant in the UK, located on the 40th floor.  We arrived and ordered some drinks while we waited for a table near the window to open up.  Twenty minutes later (which seemed like a long time to a hungry girl) we were called over and shown our table.  The wait was worth it.

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The view from our table at Duck & Waffle.

Once seated, our waiter came over and he was the cutest little Italian. He was originally from Lecce, where we had been the previous weekend, so it was good to talk about his city with him!  We ordered more drinks and scanned the list of offered food.  They had a special late night menu that included such items as, “bbq spiced crispy pig ears”, “duck egg en cocette”, and “wild Cornish pollock meatballs”.  We ordered “oxcheek grilled cheese” with smoked, shredded oxcheek meat, onion jam, sriracha, and a fried egg.  We also ordered the restaurant’s special, what else, “duck & waffle”, with crispy leg confit, fried duck egg, and mustard maple syrup.  My stomach was grumbling and my mouth was watering as I watched other patrons daintily drizzling the mustard maple syrup on their own suppers.  It is a wonder that when our food arrived I even took the time to snap a picture of it before devouring it.

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Oxcheek grilled cheese on the left, Duck & waffle on the right.

Even though I was ravenous, I forced myself to eat slowly and savor all of the flavors.  I was a little nervous for the oxcheek, but it was shredded so thin and flavored so well I soon forgot my fears of eating “cheek meat” and enjoyed the meal.  The mustard maple syrup was so genius I had to keep myself from licking the plate when I had finished. We could have spent £20 each to sit for thirty minutes in the London Eye to enjoy the same view while not eating, and more importantly, not enjoying a few drinks. Once again, Steve’s inability to settle for a restaurant earlier during the day paid off and we had a memorable last evening in London.