Plans

Formidable

When I left off last time, I was in the south of France. Well yesterday I traveled to Italy to begin my adventure here. Among the volunteers at Chateau la Merienne, it was decided to take a day trip to see Toulon, the city to which we had all taken the train. It had a beachy vibe, mixed with the urbanity of cultural pockets. This created a great place to wander, listening to many varieties of music spill out of windows and echo in the alleyways. There was a boardwalk along the port, where the locals were relaxing and gearing up to watch a rugby game. Toulon was worth visiting to see all sorts of people living a French Riviera lifestyle.

(I will add more pictures of Toulon later--I have had difficulties uploading photos recently)

On my last true day in France, I took a dip in the Mediterranean in wonderment at how warm the water was. The waves looked black with teal tips when I swam out as far as my arms and legs would carry me. I treaded water and floated in the center of the little cove for as long as possible, turning in circles, trying to memorize the mountains and beach.

It was definitely hard to leave France--its amazing how close you can become with people you live with for only a few weeks. But all the same, the boys drove me over the Italian border yesterday and I am once again on my own.

We set off early, after I had shoved all my clothes back in my bags. The plan was to get me to Ventimiglia, a town right across the border so I could catch a train the next morning at 6:30 to Rome. The drive was beautiful, though there were moments when I thought the wind might sweep us right off the road. We stopped in Monaco, excited to hit three countries in one day.

I knew Monaco was small, but at one point we were driving along the French side and I was able to see across the width of the country and to the Sea beyond. Monte Carlo was charming in a polished and pretty way. Walking around, the architecture was detailed and fancy. It reminded me somewhat of Paris, but with more mosaics and gold edges. You can practically smell the wealth of it, the yachts lined up in the harbor, each bigger than the next. We grabbed sandwiches and ate in the park near the center of town. Green everywhere, it felt like a pocket of wonderland. We realized just how posed it was when my friend sat on a rock and found it was hollow and plastic. Next we walked through a casino, simply for the experience. Green-lit and with a colorful carpet, the slot machines got more ridiculous as we walked through until we reached the 'Glitter Kitty' machine and decided to head back. With a bit more exploring all three of us decided that Monaco was fun to visit, but nothing more.

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Another half an hour driving and we were in Italy. Ventimiglia exceeded all expectations. Partially old crumbled buildings and partially modern cafes and pizza places, it sat right against a gorgeous stone beach. I know it is the same sea, yet the water looked brighter and more aqua than in France. The waves crashed here, though only around knee-height. The beach had very little sand, just rocks ranging from the size of my fist to pebbles no bigger than a pea. In the distance you could see the French coastline jutting out.

Next we crossed the small waterway that split Ventimiglia in half and then climbed as high up as we could go. Here the buildings were older and falling down. The tiny streets with their cobblestones and arches displayed underwear and dresses hung to dry. Up and down, they wound and led us to a church from 1100 that was bare of paintings. However, the house came in all colors: golden, cream, salmon, pink, lavender, and gray with shutters in many more shades than that.

Headed back towards the car and grabbed my first Italian gelato on the way. Then began the chase to find my Airbnb host for the night. This was the first time I had rented a room via Airbnb. My best tip would be to make sure all details like an address and meeting time are put in place a few days prior to arrival, while you still have plenty of access to wifi. There was some miscommunication between my host and I, as I realized I didn't have her full address. After find a free wifi hotspot and a few emails, we straightened things out and I got to my room. It was comfortable, with some great paintings on the walls and a small balcony. I said ciao to my friends from France and settled in with a piece of focaccia sitting on the balcony, listening to the scooters pass by.

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Now I am on a train to Roma. I stumbled to the train station while it was still dark this morning, forgetting my lunch on the mantle of my rented room. Dragged my bags up the steps, bought a much more expensive lunch, dragged my bags down some steps and boarded my train. In case any of you ever are hauling bags through metro and train stations, I have a bit of a strategy: if you can stack your bags, do so then face the stair rail and shuffle sideways up or down the steps, using one hand for leverage and the other clutching at the handles of your luggage. It may look quite silly, but with continued practice it can be an efficient skill. Currently I am facing another three hours of train with five already behind me. I must say that the TGV train I took in France was more comfortable and faster-moving than this, although my Trenitalia ticket was half the price for double the time. A frugal traveler must do what she can to conserve her funds, this means sacrificing comfort and gaining a leg cramp or two in order to spend a few unexpected nights in Rome.

La Vie Quotidienne

The moonlight beat down on the waves. The night was brushed in a silver varnish as my toes made contact with the water. Before my brain could comprehend the chilly sea, I splashed in and slipped under. It was Wednesday night and the moon had lit up our yard in a way that drove us to don swimsuits and hasten to the beach. Purpled clouds glided across the sky. When the moon slipped through a hole, it radiated surreally onto our faces. We laughed and hollered, breaking up the stillness of the town. I laid on my back, the salt water tickling my tongue and keeping me afloat. My vision was filled with stars and sky. I stayed like that for a while as the sound of the boys murmured and mixed with the sound of rushing sand with each falling wave. When the bout of lunar madness ended and the icy water set in our bones we ran out of the sea and headed home.

Just a day in the life of a volunteer worker: a cup of coffee in a sun-soaked yard, an hour of cleaning in the chateau, another four or so hours of weeding and crawling through the garden, before whipping up some lunch and accomplishing some personal tasks, sometimes finished with an adventure. The work is enjoyable simply because of the setting. I can ignore the twinge in my back and the sweat on my neck when the breeze blows and the palm trees rustle. I've learned how to cook different dishes with the same veggies for five days straight and that you aren't supposed to cut down bamboo with yellow stalks because it might be an expensive strain of ornamental bamboo.

My time here is flying by. I only have a few days left of hacking at huge weeds and watching the azure sea pull and push. I will miss the whistling of my coworkers and the constant argument on who will have the pleasure of doing the dishes (I'm not even being sarcastic--we all want to) and the jumping around and waving big sticks that happens when a wild boar comes along. I love this place, with its singular grocery store that is closed a third of the time and the rodent in my wall that wakes me up with its incessant chattering. But my tourist visa only allows me in the Schengen zone (most of Europe) for 90 days every six months and I want to see a little more of the world than this. I had been planning how to get to Assisi, Italy my next Workaway, when I impulsively decided to fit a few days in Rome into my schedule. So my next few days are the last in France, a country that has exceeded all expectations in its beauty and its people.

I've been enraptured in the secluded natural beauty of the South of France, where I can visit little towns and small cities and return home to the bump in the road that is Cavalière. Two of the volunteers and I hike in the surrounding forests and towns. We visited the ruins of a temple in the mountain behind the chateau, where a wealthy man had hidden his lovers. We revisited Saint-Tropez and found it quiet after the regatta, but just as pretty. We met the coolest guy in the center of town, we saw him walk into the square where a party was playing boule, known as bocce ball in the States, and set his pack and 'Walking across Europe' sign and pulled out a bottle of wine. Approaching him, my friend introduced himself and led him over to meet us. Mikhel is an Estonian who saw a video of a man who walked across China and set off on his own mission to walk 5,000 miles across Europe two days later. He bought a few pieces of gear, shouldered his pack, and set off from Sicily with five euros in his pocket. His story of people's kindness and his own survival skills amazed our group of travelers. Mikhel definitely has a unique view on life, planning to experience many places and get everywhere on his own two feet. You can check out his blog to hear about his escapades. Also we have stopped in the next town over from the chateau, Le Lavandou to climb through the alleys and see the locals lounging in cafes.

Check back tomorrow to hear about my unchartered adventure into the Gorges of Verdon.

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My First (and last?) Adventure

imageI watched as the carefully packed suitcase and backpack were quickly taken apart; my clothes, camera, and back-up box of mac and cheese sprawled on the desk. I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, I was never going to get my luggage to re-zip. In the previous days, I had packed four months worth of clothes and personal items into a 21" carry-on and my high school backpack that would double as my 'personal item.' It was a feat of hard-work and ingenuity. My mother and sister had found "Roll Bands" on www.thegrommet.com, a site that features clever inventions. I rolled up my clothes into categorized bunches and shoved them in my suitcase. I used a vacuum bag for my coat and sweaters, knowing that I would be returning in December. I planned to buy a winter coat, while I wore my long leggings and short boots on the plane. I managed to fit my purse into my backpack along with a sketchbook, my iPad, and other necessities. (See my packing list here.) I may have wobbled a little as I walked in my heels with a bulging backpack and carting a rollerbag, but I was able to say goodbye to my mother and father and go through security.

I had almost three hours to kill in the airport before boarding my overnight flight to Edinburgh, which would connect to Heathrow. It was not a particularly comfortable seven hour flight and we were delayed by a half an hour, yet I was glad to be on my way.

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It had been hard to leave my family and friends, knowing that they would change as much as I did in the next four months. However, I had put so much effort, time, and money into this trip. And I knew I wanted it. Probably more than I had ever wanted anything before. My best friend had written me letters to open at different points in my trip, and her encouragement to not leave behind regrets gave me a small shove of courage. I had dreamed of traveling, of seeing new places and learning new things from different people. I was not going to give up because I was kind of nervous.

So by the time I landed in Scotland I was ready to take on my gap year. I was second off the plane, knowing that my layover was cut close with the delay of my first flight. I fast-walked to border patrol, my heels clip-clopping in the empty halls. When I arrived at border patrol, I was already a little flustered. But then the questions wouldn't end: Where are you going? Why? A month is a long time to travel; what do you plan to do? Who bought your plane ticket? Who are you volunteering for? In exchange for what exactly? What kind of chores around the house will you help with? Is it a private or public garden you will be working in? How big is this garden? What do they grow there?

I knew at this point that the possibility of making my flight was quite low, so I tried to answer all the questions precisely. I got a little tied up though; I didn't know how big the garden was and no, I didn't have any documents to prove that I was volunteering there. I was told to sit on a bench as my boarding passes and passport were taken away and the border patrol agent went to call my hosts in England.

After much waiting, I was moved to another room where I waited some more and tried to contact my hosts and parents using wifi. I was finally removed from there and taken to a hallway between border patrol and the baggage claim. Empty desks lined one side where I placed my two bags and they were undone. He flipped through my French phrasebook and cryptography puzzle book like I was some sort of fugitive--he even read the notes I had opened from my best friend. Then we [the border patrol officer and I] spent a good fifteen minutes trying to repack and close my bags.

Next was the interview room. The officer asked me many of the same questions as he had before, now recording both sides of the conversation and having me confirm and sign each page. We called one of my hosts, the partner of the woman who I had been in contact with in Greater London. He helped fill in some holes in the interview, but the officer then told us both that I would be sent home since I did not have a visa. He said that he needed to know not only why I was coming into the country, but why was a UK citizen hiring me [even if it was volunteering on private land] and what conditions I would be going into. When explained this way, I replied that yes, I did understand although I did not particularly like it in this case.

Lastly, my dreams and plans were crushed as he told me that border patrol would find me a hotel for tonight for which I would pay. Then of course they would have to use the other half of my round-trip ticket in order to ship me home tomorrow.

I can't lie and say that I did not shed a few tears. I regret that I barely looked into a visa, putting it on my to-do list, but forgetting it and pushing it aside as no one mentioned needing one. Workaway does state in a very brief sentiment that they are not responsible for such arrangements. My host did not mention it because workawayers coming to stay with her rarely had visas.

It took four hours in total before they released me, after fingerprinting, photographing, and patting me down. All of the officers and workers in the detainment office were quite nice; however, the process was painful. When released, they said they booked me a hotel. Then they told me it would be 235 pounds. I asked them for something cheaper, but they told me that there were no other rooms nearby, as the Fringe Festival was going on.

I was allowed out of border patrol with a very empty stomach, my bags, and a letter that will act as a boarding pass tomorrow. I went to the travel agency in the airport and they found me a room for a more reasonable price on the outside of Edinburgh, farther frm the airport. I grabbed a bus there and was pleased to find my room at the Tune Hotel small, but modern and comfortable. Honestly, any bed would have sounded good after a night on a plane.

I gathered up what was left of my courage and decided to do a little exploring since I was in a strange city, even if it was not the one I planned. I downloaded a map of Edinburgh using the ingenious app Ulman CityMaps2Go. I highly recommend this app because you can view maps without wireless internet or cellular. Your GPS will still work and you can search places and businesses while roaming the streets and not racking up international fees. (P.S. I have completely turned off my 3G and Data Roaming so I can only access internet with wifi.)

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So I took my camera and a bit of money and went out. I visited St. Mary's Cathedral, where I saw an interesting embroidery exhibit and listened to an angelic children's choir practice. I ate a tuna melt in a corner cafe, where I found that I like eating alone as long as there is people-watching (a counter seat by a window is perfect.) Then I made the decision to hightail it up to see Edinburgh Castle while I still had energy. It was late enough and I had had a long day so I didn't get too close to the castle--I just couldn't imagine coming to the city and not seeing it perched, golden-brown, on a cliff. With aching feet I went back to the hotel for a much-needed shower and rest.

My host in England did invite me to stay with her and not volunteer, simply visit. I will happily present this to border control tomorrow morning, yet I am not feeling to optimistic about their response. If not I will return home, but only until I can figure out where I want to pick up in my journey. And after I get a visa.imageimage

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