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Part 9: Rome — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 8: Venice

Why Rome?

Because it’s a popular tourist destination. The Colosseum. Italian food. And anything else it had to offer.

Itinerary

  • Saturday, 1 November: Arrived in Rome in evening. Checked out Colosseum, Alter of the Fatherland, Obelisco della Minerva, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Piazza di Monte Citorio, and Colonna di Marco Aurelio. Had a gelato.
  • Sunday, 2 November: Free walking tour starting at Piazza del Popolo, with stops including Pantheon, and Castel Sant’Angelo, ending at the edge of Vatican City. Checked out St. Peter’s Square, walked around District Seven, then Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Palace of Justice, back to Castel Sant’Angelo, Alter of the Fatherland, Colosseum. Had a bready pizza.
  • Monday, 3 November: Went up to top of St. Peter’s Basilica, went though Vatican Museums, including Sistine Chapel, had more gelato with people from the hostel.
  • Tuesday, 4 November: Checked out of hostel, took tour inside Colosseum, visited Parco del Celio next door, walked around District Eight, had a late lunch at a restaurant, had more gelato, got lost near District 22, got caught in a short rainstorm, returned to hostel to pick up luggage, headed to train station then to the airport. Departed Rome, Italy, and Europe.

My Impression

Rome had a very high percentage of ancient structures. If felt like half of the city was ruins that tourists visit, and the other half was a standard urban European city. For people who love history told through old buildings, this would be the city to visit. I could only handle and appreciate so much history, so I thought Rome was fine.

Getting There

I took an ItaliaRail train direct from Venice, and it took just under four hours.

I sat at a four-person table, and people switched out at different stops. First it was two Russian ladies who kept mostly to themselves, then half of an American couple, and finally an Italian mother and teenage son.

From my seat on train to Rome.

The Italian pair were the most lively of the table mates. They seemed to have really open communication and talk about everything like two good friends. At one point, the mother grabbed a 2-liter orange soda bottle from her bags in the overhead compartment, and she tried to open the bottle but the change in air pressure or something made the cap burst out, bouncing off the wall, and landed on me. The mother immediately apologized and we all had a laugh.

I arrived at Termini station in Rome early evening, and the lobby was bustling with activity; it was exciting. Many people had less-than-positive thoughts about Termini, and I couldn’t see why it was so bad.

Based on online maps, the hostel was a fifteen-minute walk away, so I decided to just walk it. I supposed it would be slightly different and more tiring walking with a carry-on luggage on my back. But at least the walk was interesting enough, walking by shops and random sculptures and fountains.

Accommodations

There were plenty of hostels near Termini station, but I read so many mixed reviews that I decided to pick a place a little farther but had a more balanced set of reviews.

La Controra Hostel Rome was (supposedly) a ten-to-fifteen-minute walk from Termini station, and I also realized later that it was a bit out of the way from the major landmarks. Places were still walkable, but it did get tiring near the end of my stay in Rome to have make the trek back the hostel again and again. Nonetheless, the hostel was pretty good.

Rome - Hostel - LBT 2014

Almost like Venice, the hostel was in an apartment building that had a huge lobby. There was no natural sunlight on the staircase, but it was still very classy and grand. I began to realize that Italian architects really liked to establish a high standard in experience.

The actual reception was on the fourth or fifth floor, with a few dorm units attached to it. But there was also another set of dorm units on the second or third floor, which was where I stayed. It seemed that these dorm units were converted from apartment units, and each room in the apartment unit was made to be a dorm.

In my “apartment unit,” there were at least four rooms, and I stayed in a four-person dorm, so if each room had that many people, maybe more, the entire apartment unit could house about twenty people! That sounded like a lot, but to be fair, these rooms (and these apartment units) were spacious. They could very well have crammed two more bunk beds in my room to house eight people per room, and space would still be satisfactory.

The common area of the apartment unit was just a large table with a bench, and a non-functioning kitchen unit, with a half-bath tucked away. The balcony looked out to the central courtyard in the apartment building.

My Room

Hostel room.

I had a four-person ensuite dorm, with a few people staying as long as I did and others coming and going. There were two bunk beds, the same type as the ones in Venice, which led me to believe it was an IKEA bunk bed. And the storage cabinets were the same as well, except these had metal loops to put locks on.

I stayed on the top bunk, for the fourth of six times in a row on the trip. There were sheets and pillow provided, but I had to lay out the sheets myself. A first-world problem was that the power outlet was next to the bunk bed at hip height for some reason, and my cord was just long enough to rest on the edge of my bed almost completely. So if I accidentally pulled the phone, the cord would disconnect, and if I pushed my phone, it would fall off the bed.

Bathroom

The bathroom had the basics: shower, toilet, bidet, and sink with mirror. It also had a trash can from IKEA, which was the exact same model as in my bathroom. It was too mundane to be a homesick moment, but it was funny to see that, and it made me think about how much the people of the world had in common and what not.

Hostel bathroom.

The shower stall had a curved door, and it leaked water between the glass doors probably because the door was off its track. I tried fixing it, but it made little difference. I also noticed that the bathroom was on a hardwood floor, but there were no non-slip mat outside of the shower stall. Details.

Common Area

The main common area in the same apartment unit as reception. There was a dining table area, and an area with tiny floor cushions in front of a TV. There were a few laptops (with Italian keyboards!) on a desk. And the kitchen was a nook on the other side, but it was fully functional. Just a step out of the kitchen would be the balcony also looked out to the central courtyard.

Hostel kitchen balcony view.

The Staff

The people working there were pretty nice and knew what they were doing. The girl who checked me in was named Melody, had blue hair, and was probably in early-to-mid twenties. She looked like someone who would be into manga. She was from a country in the UK, but her accent sounded American. I sort of offended her when I asked “Where did you learn English?” but clarified that her accent made me thought she was from the States. She arrived in Rome recently and took a job at the hostel, and tried to do touristy things there.

Hostel Food

The hostel provided breakfast, but it was very basic: slice bread, jams, butter, cereal, milk, coffee and tea. In the morning, the small kitchen was full with food for the guests.

The kitchen was functional so people could certainly make food. But I never did so I couldn’t say how good the kitchen equipment was.

The Wi-Fi

The Wi-Fi worked, but it was only available in the hostel common area as well as the common area in the apartment unit.

Getting Around

Surprisingly, with the exception of one time when I took the subway, I walked everywhere, often going from one side of the inner city to another. The map of Rome showing winding roads may have made the city look larger than it was, because even with minor slopes, most places were relatively walkable.

With the subway, I originally planned to take the subway, even if it was limited, but upon arrival, fellow hostel mates said everywhere was reachable on foot. So I saved some money and just walked.

But one time, my hostel mate and I were in a hurry to get to the Vatican. I also wasn’t sure if he would be up for walking the distance like I was. So we took one of the two main Rome subway lines. I had heard that since Rome only had two subway lines, it wasn’t really used. But we took in a little bit after the morning rush hour, and the ridership was about medium. It was also pretty convenient, just like a standard subway system in any major city.

Climate/Clothing

  • Time of year: Early November.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

Rome fluctuated between cool and mild at this time of year. I was told that a month earlier it was still pretty hot And only recently was it just cooling down. I had a light jacket most of the time but when the sun came out with few places to get shade, a T-shirt was fine.

It did rain once or twice though. On my last day in Rome, I was on my way back to the hostel, and it started looking gloomy and a bit drizzly. Judging from my distance to the hostel, I thought I could maybe make it back before it hit really hard.

But the weather turned really quickly. Drizzle turned into consistent droplets to pouring within a minute. It was actually very funny (though scary at the time) to see the pouring rain coming at me like an avalanche. I was crossing a bridge at that moment, and I could see translucent, diagonal lines in front of the sky and the river in the near distance steadily moving closer towards me. I could see people scattering for shelter, but I thought those people were silly running from a little drizzle. Then I suddenly found myself running for cover as well.

I got hit hard with some of the rain in the few seconds it took me to get off the bridge. But the nearest building was still too far. I only managed to get to a standalone shop that had an awning. Fortunately, I brought my rain jacket, so I put it on, zipped and fully covered (my top half at least), ready to go. But I wanted to wait it out still. At the same time, I needed to get back to the hostel, pick up my luggage, and head to the airport for my flight. After a few moments of self-talk, I walked out of the awning and paced as quickly as I could toward the direction of my hostel. My rain jacket was water-resistant but thick, so I could feel large droplets hitting my head and my arms.

At first, I didn’t know if it would stop raining soon. But after ten minutes, it eased up, and then it stopped raining altogether. The weather completely changed within fifteen minutes or so. Still, when I got to the hostel, my head was wet from the initial downpour, and Melody the hostel staff saw me and was sympathetic. I dried up a little bit in the bathroom, and saw that my head was actually more drenched and I looked more miserable that I thought.

People

In my experience, Italians were definitely more expressive than the French, which made them seem more outgoing and friendly. However, in individual interactions, at least with waiters and gelato servers, they seemed to have a straight face as if we were strangers in a professional business meeting. It made me feel like an outsider. Still, the service was mostly fine.

Language

Some people could speak English, but it’s hard to tell who just by looking. There’s a higher chance in touristy places, but even then, the staff would just default in one language (Italian) unless they were helping individual people.

I took an audio course just like the other languages for this trip. It was actually fun to learn, until I took the course for Spanish and I started getting some words, especially the numbers, confused.

While “Buongiorno”, “Grazie”, and “Ciao” could be learned without the audio course, taking the time and effort to learn more than just that really proved its worth when I had trouble finding a grocery store one evening. The places listed on the map online seemed to have disappeared in real life. I was getting hungry and desperate, and then I saw a couple walking by holding grocery bags, so I ran towards them.

In the split-second moment, I pulled from my memory the words “Dove comprare” (where to buy) and started shouting at them while pointing at the bags, “Dove comprare?! Dove comprare?!” Understandably, the woman was startled and immediately resumed pacing past me. To be fair, I would react the same way too. But I persisted and tried my luck with the guy. Thankfully, he responded and started pointing in different directions. All I heard were “sinistra” and “destra” (left, right), but I immediately forgot the order. Still, I gathered enough hand gestures to get the general direction.

Tours/Sightseeing

Many of Rome’s famous landmarks were all a hearty walk away. What helped passed the time was that the streets were often changing direction, giving me a different perspective in where I was going, and that there was often something interesting to look at along the way.

Also, because these landmarks were kind of close together, I inadvertently visited the same place multiple times.

Evening Walk to Colosseum

By the time I arrived at my hostel on the first day, it was still relatively early, even though it was getting dark. So I decided to take a walk to the Colosseum and get a lay of the land. After so many turns, I got to the Colosseum. I realized when I got there that because it was partly surrounded by modern streets and buildings, the iconic landmark felt a little less epic than what I had seen in photos. Still, it was a grand structure and I was finally able to see the details up close.

While trying to take some selfies with the Colosseum without the fence, I noticed an American couple struggling to do the same. I offered to help them out and we started talking about how we missed being in San Francisco when the Giants team won the World Series in baseball. It was kind of cool to randomly meet people like that.

Bay Area travelers bonding over SF Giants win at Colosseum.

After dinner at Café Café nearby, I resumed my walk. I got to the Alter of the Fatherland, or Altare della Patria, or Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II. I helped a Spanish couple take a picture in front of it, and they offered to take my picture too.

In front of Alter of the Fatherland.

The Photo Challenge

I continued to walk in that direction and found the Obelisco della Minerva. I was looking for this specifically because my friends were also visiting Rome a few weeks before, and they took a photo of this Obelisk. I decided to start a photo challenge then (mainly for myself) to hit as many places that they had gone to that I could find, and then recreate the photo as closely as possible.

Here was the photo my friend Leah Ferrer took:
Obelisco della Minerva. Photo by Leah Ferrer.

And here’s the photo that I took:
Obelisco della Minerva. Completing challenge to take the exact same photo as my friends from a few weeks prior. Because elephant.

And two months later, two of my friends were also visiting Rome, and I told them to do the same.

In my head, I thought it would be cool to get people, both friends and strangers, to start doing this and maybe make this a thing. With that in mind, I also took a photo of the spot where I took the obelisk photo:

Where I stood to take that photo for the challenge.

Then I got in the spirit of doing more of these, so I found more photos my friends took and tried to recreate them. I did five more that night, where most of them were at the Pantheon. Here is one of them, again, as close to my friend’s version as possible:

Pantheon.

I did a few more for the rest of my time in Rome. It ended up working out because I had very little plans in Rome, and this was a way for me to visit different places and spend time exploring. That and switching back apps on my phone between my friend’s photos and the camera to get the right shot.

Free Walking Tour

The next day, I went on a free walking tour. I learned about it from a flyer at the hostel. I reserved a spot on the listed website and received a confirmation email with a personalized note.

The instructions were to meet up at Piazza del Popolo, but that was the extent of all I read. I arrived a little early just in case, but I discovered that Piazza del Popolo was huge, and I didn’t know where the group was. I walked around the giant piazza trying to see if there were a number of people bunching up. After fifteen minutes or so, I managed to find some Wi-Fi and opened up the email to reread instructions. I still had trouble finding it at first, but I managed to poke my head around to discovered the group waiting at the entrance of Piazza del Popolo from the north side.

I met Chris, the tour guide, and he was American who was living in Rome. When I asked him where in the States he was from, he listed the cities and states he had studied and lived in before coming to Rome. He had a really laid back attitude that carried through in his tour guide style. He warned us that if he saw a big dog, he would not hesitate to run up to it and pet it. He also had a sense of humor like a beginning comedian, where some jokes earned a chuckle while some went over my head.

He knew a lot about the subject matter, as guides should, but he also had his commentary on it, which sometimes altered the way I looked at Roman history.

Starting free walking tour at Piazza del Popolo.

We started at Piazza del Popolo and made our way south and hit many places, including a few that I had been the night before, except now in the day time, like Pantheon and Piazza Navona. We made our way to St. Angelo Bridge, crossed it while listening to Chris’ presentation about the statues on the bridge, and ended right before the corridor that led to St. Peter’s Square.

At the end of the tour, Chris asked us to friend him on Facebook for a reason that I forgot. Ever since, I had seen his posts, both work- and non-work-related, and it was nice to remember for a moment my time in Rome, including the walking tour, as well as finding out Chris’ obsession with Taylor Swift and special travel adventures in Italy.

St. Peter’s Basilica Dome

The following morning, my hostel mate and I went to the Vatican with the intent of checking out the Vatican Museums. We waited in the line that was forming inside St. Peter’s Square. After waiting for about an hour, we found out the line was to go inside the church, and not the museums. But having waited for so long, we went in anyway.

The Basilica was free, but there was an option to go up to the dome for five euros. There was also an elevator that can take visitors part way for ten more euros. After my hostel mate checked his stuff at a storage room, we paid five euros each to make our up. There were signs showing how many steps it would take to get up. And I thought it was a nice piece of trivia. The amount of scales was pretty large, and it was too many for me to comprehend, so I thought it was the general “a lot”, but I had handled “a lot” before.

At first, the steps were pretty normal. We noticed where the elevator shaft was and were pointing out the silliness. But by the point where the elevator reached its highest point, I was starting to get jealous. From there on, everyone had to walk the steps, which were starting to get more narrow.

There were stretches of long hallways and then a spiral staircase or two, and then more hallways, etc., all the while the width was getting smaller.

Walking up so many stairs to the top of the Vatican.

The stairs got 2/3 as wide as these near the top.

Getting close to the top of St. Peter's Basilica.

When I thought the width of the path could not get narrower, I was proven wrong, multiple times. Near the end, it was almost starting to get claustrophobic for me. And once we finally got out to the top to the dome, there were so many people hugging the fence trying to take pictures. Getting through and around to the other side was annoying.

View from the top of the Vatican.

View of north side of Vatican.

After taking enough selfies, panoramas, and videos, we decided to make our way down. We stopped by a large rooftop area complete with a food shop and souvenir store, and then continued getting back down. The path downward was like walking in reverse, where the halls were getting wider and wider, and it almost felt too much space. It also occurred to me that the path up was completely separate from the way down, since I did not encounter anyone coming up, nor the other way around.

We somehow exited into the church, and noticed that the Pope may potentially be in the house in a roped off area. I couldn’t tell because the Baldachin was in the way.

Crowds trying to get a view of the Pope in St. Peter's Basilica.

The church was very grand and magnificent, but I was exhausted from the hike to the dome, so after a few photos and videos, including this one of the light coming into the church, we left the Basilica.

Marveling at the light.

Vatican Museums

We for some reason decided to go straight to the Vatican Museums. We considered getting lunch, but we couldn’t decide on a place so we just waited in line again, this time for thirty to forty minutes, and with cigarette smoke from the group behind us.

When we saw the light at the end of the tunnel and were about to get inside, we noticed different roped off paths with very little people in them. Some of them were used for tour groups, but I noticed one path with the signed that said something like “online reservations.” Then I saw people holding out a piece of paper to the staff, and they went straight into the museum. That made me regret not purchasing a ticket online earlier and deciding to just wing it.

The Museums, I heard, were a collection of galleries that the different popes curated over the years. I just wanted to see the Sistine Chapel, and the museum map had a route to bypass all the galleries. I tried to follow that path but got lost immediately; the rooms didn’t seem to correspond. So without knowing, we took the regular route like everyone else.

A lot of the museums had paintings; some had sculptures. Each room was very well decorated and filled with artwork, but a lot of the rooms looked old as well. By the end of it all, everything started to look similar, so I just walked as quickly as I good, turned my head left and right, scanning the pieces and moving on.

When we got to the entrance for the Sistine Chapel, there were plenty of signs saying “No Photo.” So we went in, and it was packed and a little dim. The entire room was filled with paintings, both the ceiling and the walls. I could see the part on the ceiling where God and man touched fingers. The whole time, the security guards kept yelling “No photo!” to a point where it started to become funny to me. I kept my camera (phone) in my pocket; my roommate may or may not have taken a photo of the ceiling.

After the Sistine Chapel was a few more rooms of modern art, and that was it. There was a cafeteria in the museum but we decided to get food outside.

Colosseum and Piazza di Santa Francesca Romana

On my last day, I headed back to the Colosseum, but to finally go inside. I waited in line for a reasonable amount of time, especially for a place as famous as the Colosseum, and purchased my ticket. I also purchased a tour so I could have a better understanding and appreciation of the place.

Colosseum tour tag.

There were set times for the tours, and we were told to wait in the waiting area in the corner on the first floor. When the tour started, we received headphone packs so the guide could talk without shouting. The guide was also very good with her facts and tried to make her talk interesting with stacks of photos she waved around.

Scene inside Colosseum.

After the tour, I continued to walk around the Colosseum, taking photos and videos. There were a lot of people, but not enough to feel crowded. In an attempt to get someone to help take a picture of me, I looked for people who were struggling to take photos, or maybe a couple where one person was taking a photo of the other. When that worked, I managed to teach a fellow visitor how to take a panoramic photo of me, and then I saw him trying to do the same thing with his phone.

Panorama portrait in Colosseum.

After the Colosseum, I still wanted a good, clean photo of it. So I figured that I could enter the park next to it, which was free for the day with ticket purchase to Colosseum, and somehow get on that hill that overlooked the Colosseum. I went into that park, which was kind of serene and lovely, totally removing me from the urban-ness of Rome for a few moments.

I made my way to the Piazza di Santa Francesca Romana, and had a few really good, but windy, shots of the Colosseum.

Scene of Colosseum from Piazza di Santa Francesca Romana.

Colosseum from Piazza di Santa Francesca Romana.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

Café Café

This was a restaurant near the Colosseum. It had good rating online so I decided to try it out. It was a nice little place with six to seven tables. When I was there, only two other tables were occupied. There were a bunch of photo frames and trinkets laid out all around, with worn but still working furniture. It felt like I could be anywhere, not just Italy or Europe.

The waiter was nice and patient. I ordered a lasagna and one of the really special teas. The tea I chose had yogurt in its ingredients and I could definitely taste the subtle creamy sweetness, and it made the tea quite delicious.

Lasagna at Colosseum.

The lasagna was fresh and flavorful. Even though it was small, it was enough for me.

Gelato

I had gelato from Giolitti twice (near the Pantheon), La Romana (near my hostel), and Gelateria Oldbridge (near the Vatican). They were all good, though I learned that I liked nut-flavor gelato more than fruit-flavor. There was something about the tartness of fruits that made it too sour for me. I like the more traditional, creamy, nutty, subtle flavors that balanced nicely with the dairy. I enjoyed the Nutella flavor, though not as much as I love Nutella, and I also discovered the deliciousness of pistachio gelato.

Gelato at Giolitti.

Last gelato at Old Bridge. Nutella and Pistachio.

I also wanted to point out that La Romana, recommended by my hostel staff Melody, was probably the best, probably because they served chocolate gelato, and it was so smooth, rich, and creamy. That would be the place I need to go the next time I am in Rome.

Gelato at La Romana

Pizza

After the free walking tour, I strolled through the area, starting to feel hungry. I found a restaurant with some people but not crowded. They also had free Wi-Fi. So I went in and ordered a pizza. I ate it with a fork and knife, and it reminded me of the story Jon Stewart did on the Daily Show about New Yorkers eating pizza with their hands.

Bready pizza at O’ Pazzariello.

I wasn’t sure if it was this restaurant or if it was how Italians do pizza, but the crust was too thick for me, and it felt a little overbaked, at least by American standard. This sort of got me hesitant to get pizza in Italy for the rest of my stay.

Pastas

After the Vatican Museums, my hostel roommate walked for some more before deciding enough was enough: we needed to just pick a restaurant and eat. We went to a standard looking Italian restaurants and I ordered a pasta with carbonara sauce, because I had heard good things about carbonara sauce. Little did I know it was a white sauce, when I was expecting and mentally preparing for a red sauce. I still ate it of course, but the pasta was, like in Venice, really al dente.

Carbonara

On my last day, I walked around some more after the Colosseum visit, and I got hungry and went to Da Francesco because I had heard good things from multiple sources. I order a spaghetti (with red sauce). It was decent. Again, Italian al dente. The sauce was light; I wish there would be more sauce.

Spaghetti from Da Francesco.

Limoncello

With my spaghetti I ordered a limoncello. The waiter asked me if I wanted it at the end, and without knowing much about drinks like limoncello, I said sure. The limoncello is like wine and beer; an acquired taste that would take time. I had a lot of trouble enjoying it. It tasted like margarita mix, except it felt more strong.

Limoncello at Da Francesco.

Getting out

I took the train from Termini station to the airport. It’s a general-use ticket that I bought at the station, and I took the next available train. The ride took about half an hour and costed fourteen euros.

From My Travel Log

28 October 2014, 5:26pm, France, on TGV to Nice

  • In one week, it will be 11/4, and I will be leaving Rome for China. One week from this moment, I will have been in three new cities. This is the most tight section of my trip, and it will be interesting. It may go terribly wrong, or very very fun. Or a combination of both. As long as I stick with my travel safety basics, I should be fine.

3 November 2014, 12:48pm, Rome, in line for Vatican Museums

  • Weird mix of current and really old, sword of a worn out city, with the typical city problems. Walk tour guide says the majority of Rome’s economy is tourism. So what makes Rome Rome without the ruins from before? There will be less reasons to come back.

4 November 2014, 2:59pm, Rome, Da Francesco

  • I would try Scandinavia again, but not that far north because of the weather. It’s the most modern of the places and speaking of which, I’ll have to try Germany next. And Netherlands. Paris and Rome are actually equal in most ways, except I would come back to Paris for the Eiffel Tower.
  • London and Rome I’m least likely to come back alone because London feels too similar (with English language) but it’s not the same and everything smaller, though it has its benefits. Rome is half ruins and historical sites, where I haven’t even taken effort to learn about the first time around. But maybe I should start in Rome and do day trips or quick trips in the area, like Naples and Florence. Europe 2.0 is already unofficially in the works.

4 November 2014, 6:02pm, Rome Termini -> FCO train

  • 11/3: Ibrahim and Salvador already got ready, but I wanted to join them to Vatican. Ibrahim was not to be found. Also checked Viator emails but didn’t get any. Walk to metro with Salvador at Reppublic. Salvador doesn’t speak much, probably because he doesn’t know that much English. I bet he talks more if he spoke in Spanish. Long line at Vatican, found out it’s for church and not museums, but went anyway. Went to dome, lots of steps and circular staircase that gets narrower as you go up. Came down to Basilica, where Pope may or may not be conducting some ceremony. Walked to Vatican Museum and waited longer (40-50 minutes). Also getting hungry. Long route to get to Sistine Chapel, and it was a little underwhelming. Funny guards kept telling people to not take pictures. Then walk to 433, had pasta with carbonara sauce and milkshake, then to Giolitti and got raspberry and lemon gelato. Crowd was restless and disrespectful and worker handled it well. Ate it at Pantheon and then left Salvador and I went back to hostel. Did some online time with pic backups and try to check into flight but couldn’t. Also bought an iceberg salad before getting to hostel and ate at the main hostel floor. Melody (receptionist) was there, Telling me she did the walking tour and I found out I called her the girl with the hair. She also suggested gelato at La Romana, and I invited Paoline then also Ibrahim and Salvador. Walk to La Romana was nice and gelato was pretty darn good! Went back to hostel and started getting ready for Beijing. Gelato flavors: pistachio and dark chocolate (ciocolato fondente). Kenny came back and talked about his goals and future.

Thanks

  • Mom and son on train to Rome who have a really open communication relationship, even though the son is around 16-18. Funny how mom’s giant orange soda bottle cap popped off and landed on my hand.
  • Melody who semi-awkwardly took care of my hostel onboarding.
  • Brigitte the French woman who so friendly but also a bit lively, and her farm stay friend for recommending places in Rome
  • Waiter at Café Café, who is so nice even though I was only a table of one
  • Couple from Seattle(?) who took pic of me at Colosseum
  • Guy at Giolitti who helped me by telling me to get ticket
  • Woman who sold me ticket at Giolitti
  • Ibrahim, hostel roommate
  • Salvador, hostel roommate
  • Chris the free city tour walk guide
  • Couple who took pic of me at Vittorio
  • Lady who served me at that pizza place
  • Pope (maybe?)
  • Sistine Chapel security, who kept yelling “No photo!”
  • 433 waiter for ordering my milkshake
  • Kenny the 18-year-old hostel roommate who’s into hardware engineering (from Minneapolis?)
  • Colosseum tour guide
  • La Romana servers
  • Kyle and Emily (?) from Seattle at hostel about to leave and work for environmental law company
  • Pauline from Finland, who loves gelato
  • Guy left his job and travel to a bunch of different places (from Vancouver?)
  • Guy who exchanged my extra euro to yuan
  • Homeless lady who I yelled at (I’m sorry!) to wait while I get unexchanged money to give her
  • Woman at customs who didn’t even really check my passport before stamping on it
  • Italian guy next to me on plane who makes big expressions but is nice to me
  • Couple in front of me who reclined before flight started and expanded across the aisle in the empty seat, and the woman putting her leg up the window
  • Air China flight attendants who are nice enough to shoot me despite them looking miserable.

Tips

  • The long line in front of St Peter’s Square is for the basilica and the top of the basilica, not the Vatican museums where the Sistine Chapel is. If the line curves half way around the square where you’re standing directly in the middle divide of the square, the wait time should be half an hour-long maybe twenty minutes. The Vatican Museums entrance is on the side, around the tall walls.
  • Buy tickets to the Vatican Museums online. In my experience, people who bought tickets online seemed to just pass right through the lines. I had to wait 40-50 minutes in line to buy tickets.
  • This is common in Italy: If you see a little faucet-like structure on the street endlessly flowing water onto the ground, and there is a hole at the top of the spout, you can take a sip of the water by plugging the bottom hole with your finger to make the water flow up towards you.
  • If a gelato shop is just a store front, you can buy gelato just by ordering what you want and pay the worker. But if the gelato shop is indoors, you have to pay for the amount you want (one scoop, two scoops, etc.), get a receipt, and then head over to the counter where they serve gelato, hand the worker your receipt, and pick the flavor. I don’t know why the process is separated.

Links

For More

If you have questions about specific experiences of Rome, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.

Part 4: Tromsø, Norway — Little Big Trip 2014

Part 3: South Africa (Kruger National Park)

Why Tromsø, Norway?

The northern lights. In my research, there were a few places one could go to have a good chance of seeing the lights, like Iceland, Norway, and Finland. I chose Tromsø after reading brief reviews of each of these places.

Itinerary

  • Sunday, 19 Oct: Arrived in Tromsø, art museum, northern lights tour
  • Monday, 20 Oct: Tromsø Bridge, Arctic Cathedral, northern lights tour again
  • Tuesday, 21 Oct: Tromsø Museum, bus ride to Tromsø University and back.
  • Wednesday, 22 Oct: Depart Tromsø

My Impression

Tromsø was a lovely city. It is an incredibly normal city, because it is. People just lived out their lives. It’s apparently a college town, and it’s also known for tourism for northern lights. It is pretty cold, especially in more remote areas in the region at night.

Part of me wants to find a reason to return and just stay for a little longer to get a better sense of normal life. I think checking out the midnight sun on Summer Solstice would be a legitimate reason to return.

Getting There

From Johannesburg, I took three flights:

  • Johannesburg to Frankfurt on Lufthansa
  • Frankfurt to Oslo on Lufthansa
  • Oslo to Tromsø on Scandinavian Airlines

The whole route took about 17 hours.

From the small Tromsø airport, I was going to take the bus across the island to city center, but it was Sunday and the buses either don’t operate or were much less frequent. So I resorted to use the shuttle service offered at a booth at the airport. It costed me 70 kroner, which was about $10 USD at the time. I thought it was expensive at the time because 1) I had heard that Norway and Scandinavian countries were expensive, which was true, and 2) my research showed that taking the bus would’ve costed only 40 kroner or so.

Accommodations

Since I had heard it was expensive to be in Norway, I briefly looked up hotel prices before moving on to Airbnb. Fortunately, there were enough options to choose from, and my final choice ended up pretty good. Location-wise, judging by the maps, I thought it would be a bit too far from city center. But as I found out once I got there, it was really close and totally walkable.

The listing I booked was someone’s house. It seems that the owner wasn’t there, but her late-teen/early-twenties son was, so he opened the door for me, showed me the room, and left me alone for pretty much the rest of my stay. Actually, he opened the door for me, asked me to wait in the living room while he went back to his room to finish doing whatever he was doing that involved typing loudly on his keyboard, then he came out and showed me my room. Regardless, I was just very grateful to have a place to stay.

Room

My room was pretty basic. It had a bed with sheets and comforter, a nightstand, and a window with somewhat broken curtains. There were closets and armoires, but they were filled with the owner’s stuff so I assumed it was off-limits. So there was limited room to hang clothes, but I somehow made it work. I had brought portable collapsible hangers and I just hung my clothes behind the bedroom door and on the door handle. I also brought a rubber clothesline with suction cups so I stuck it on the mirror on the closet and hung my laundry to dry.

Space Heater

There was a space heater right outside my room, which was the exact model I had at home (small world moment), and while it wasn’t so cold that I need it at night, I used it to dry my clothes during the day. But it sort of stopped working at some point so I thought I broke it, but it worked again the next day, so maybe it overheated.

Bathroom

The bathroom seemed like a normal house bathroom, except I noticed and LOVED the floor was heated. Even though this was the only home I had been to in Tromsø, it must be standard to have heated bathroom floors. It just made the place feel even more homey.

The shower was also worth mentioning just because the powerful water pressure combined with the hearty hot water totally warmed up my cold bones from being outside; it was almost an experience. I almost didn’t want to leave the shower, partly because I would have to feel cooler air by contrast.

Another thing I did notice was that the trash can was very full. I figured because with just a young man staying there, keeping things clean was probably a much lower priority. It would’ve been nice to make sure the communal areas are decent enough for Airbnb guests, though.

The bathroom also included the washing and drying machines. There were so many nobs and button on the washing machine that I had to look up the obscure brand and model online to try to find an English version. Finally, I managed to select the most basic one and just made sure my clothes at least get some sort of rinse.

Wi-Fi

So far on my trip, I had experienced “slow” Wifi by American urban utility standard. I was relying on the Internet to backup my photos and videos from the trip because I knew I would take more picture and videos than my phone could store. Plus, I wanted to have a backup just in case I lost my phone.

My Digital Storage Plan

I had set up personal cloud storage as well as Dropbox and Google Drive, and even Microsoft OneDrive if I really needed to. And during the trip, I would upload my photos whenever I had access to wifi and power source, so basically my hostel or hotel. When I got to South Africa, there were so many days of files I had yet to backup because the internet speed was so slow that my phone was approaching its storage limit. I even bought a flash drive at the Johannesburg airport, hoping to find a computer somewhere in the next few days and transfer my files more quickly.

Sweet European Wi-Fi

When I left Johannesburg and landed in Frankfurt airport for a connection, I tried to get on the airport wifi, expecting the typical, spotty, basic Internet speeds that airport wifi had. Instead, when I turned on my personal cloud app, I could see the progress bar for each file zoom by every two seconds or so, and I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was unfortunate that my connection was boarding soon, so I tried to milk the service as much as I could until I really had to board. I didn’t know if I would get such fast Wifi again. I was desperate and thirsty, clinging on to the wifi. It was a bit pathetic but I didn’t care. Sweet, sweet Wifi!

So when I got to the Airbnb house in Norway, I was equally happy to find out the Wifi was also fast. Hooray, European utilities! For a brief moment, I contemplated staying in the house the whole time and use the Wifi, but I knew that was silly and not realistic. Still, I took advantage of it as much as I could and backed up my files whenever I had the chance.

Getting Around

Downtown is relatively small; it’s very walkable. The streets were also pretty empty, not too many people or cars. It’s as if everyone went out of town for the week. Maybe it’s like that all the time, I don’t know.

Tromsø is a long-shaped island with large hills toward the center. To get from one corner to another, driving is recommended, especially in the cold. I bought a multi-day bus ticket from the bus station downtown the day after I arrived (because I arrived on a Sunday), and I just took the bus everywhere. One time I crossed the bridge to check out the Arctic Cathedral and other things, another time I took it to the southern tip of the island to visit the Tromsø Museum, then I took the bus in the wrong direction and got a tour of the other side of the island and ended up in Tromsø University.

Climate/Clothing

  • Time of year: mid-October.
  • My body composition: 29 years old, 160-ish pounds, 6 feet tall, prefers high 70s/low 80s, primarily sweats during exercise only.

During the day, it’s “comfortably” cold. By that, I mean I wore about three layers of long sleeves with a good pair of leather gloves and was okay when I was continuously moving. It was okay to keep the head uncovered for a short period of time outside. But a beanie or hat should be worn for longer duration. My face, exposed to the cold air, got a bit numb after a while, especially when there was wind. The wind definitely gave me a good fight to keep the warm in.

"It's, uh, pretty cold in Tromsø."At night, especially out in the middle of nowhere during a northern lights tour, when we stood in place outside waiting and watching for the lights, it was much easier to get really cold. Clothing wise, I wore an extra top layer; that was sufficient. For bottoms, I wore thermal underwear. The fact that I felt normal in my legs meant that it was a good thing I had them on.

Shoes — Bring Good Boots

I arrived in Norway a little bit unprepared in terms of footwear. For my six-week world trip, I brought a pair of breathable hiking shoes and a pair of loafer-type shoes for versatility. Let’s just say if I were to go to Tromsø again, or anywhere very north or very south, I would invest in a pair of well-insulated boots. On my first northern lights tour, after standing for ten to fifteen minutes, my feet started to really feel the cold. There were multiple stages of them going numb and more numb, and when I thought they would become better if I just shuffle my feet in place, I was very wrong, and they just became more numb than I thought were possible. And then they got even more numb, to the point where I was wondering if I still had those legs, if they would recover if I ran back to the bus right then.

Back To the Bus

At one point, probably thirty minutes in, I couldn’t take it anymore. The lights were really pretty and everyone was expecting better ones to come. So I got back to the tour bus where there was a heater going. As I tried to warm up, I grabbed the plastic shopping bags I got from my souvenir shopping earlier that day and double wrapped my feet and stuffed everything back into my shoes. I had also worn two pairs of wool socks already. After maybe ten minutes, I hesitated leaving the warm tour bus but I still made it back to the group to try to enjoy the lights, but they were mostly gone. My feet were still numb, probably less so but I could feel them quickly getting back to where they were before. The plastic bags didn’t feel like they worked.

End of Misery

Fortunately, soon after I returned the guides decided to head to another location so we got back on the bus, and I got a bit of a chance to warm up. The second night, I was smarter, in that I wore the plastic bags before starting the tour, so I had time to properly insulate it better, so I suffered less. It may also have been that the temperatures were slightly warmer, or that it was more cloudy, or that we went more inland and away from the sea breeze.

Losing the Airbnb House Keys

When I checked in to the Airbnb location, I was given two keys with a wooden keychain with “Airbnb” written on it. I thought that was cute. On my second northern lights tour, we stopped on the side of the road to catch the northern lights flying above us. I took out my phone from my pocket to take pictures. For the trip, I got a heavy duty double layer phone case and attached it to a retractable keychain clip. So it was kind of bulky and taking it out of my pocket took some effort at times. The pocket also had the house keys in it, and I think that was when I dropped it. I may also have been wearing gloves and would not be able to feel the things falling out of my pocket.

I noticed that my keys were missing in the middle of the tour. In typical fashion, I checked and rechecked my belongings, every nook and cranny of my bags, around and under my seat. I also started thinking about how I would be able get back into the house, especially if I would get back to town from the tour at around midnight and the host’s son would probably be in bed and I would feel bad for ringing the doorbell.  

What to do?

I knew that if I were to have a better chance at getting back into the house, I had to act fast and contact my host, which meant I had to be sure I lost the keys and give up a little bit of hope that I could resolve this myself, and also pride for having to admit I lost the keys. I agonized repeatedly over whether I should write the message to my host or I should risk it and ring the doorbell after midnight to get the host’s son to open the door. I also thought about how much of a hassle it would be, let alone costly to replace the locks on their doors. The thoughts in my mind were starting to get out of hand, so finally, I decided that the right thing to do was to contact my host as soon as possible.

Corresponding with the Airbnb Host

Fortunately, the bus had Wifi and I contacted the host through the Airbnb app, writing a long message thanking her for hosting, and explaining the situation and apologizing many times. After sending the message, I continued the tour and tried to enjoy the northern lights. But it was difficult with the incident on my mind, along with an uncertain near future. It reminded me of Albuquerque after I lost my wallet and I tried to enjoy the balloons but it just lacked the shine of pure happiness. To my surprise, about an hour later, the host responded and told me she arranged with her son to leave me a spare set of keys. I felt so lucky. It improved my mood for a few minutes, and then I reminded myself that I still lost the keys, and I should make up to my hosts somehow.

Second Chance

With the new set of keys, I guarded it very closely. I attached it to my retractable belt clip and made sure it’s still in my possession throughout the following day. That evening, the host’s son asked me for the keys back, and as I gave it back to him, I apologized and he straightly said it’s okay and that it’s not like I did it on purpose. I appreciated his lightheartedness at the situation.

Thanking the Host

Earlier that day, I went to the souvenir shop, “The Best Souvenir Shop in Town”, and bought a few keychains, one wooden and one plastic to give my host a choice to replace the one I lost. Then I got a card and gift bag from a bookstore. Finally, I went to the grocery store to get some chocolates. I also included some cash meant to cover the cost to get new keys. Right before I left the house to head to the airport, I gave the gift bag of things to the host’s son, who seemed really surprised. He either really was speechless or didn’t know the English words to express his thoughts, but before he had a chance to express them, I left the house and headed to the airport.

People

The people are generally very nice. Some have better customer service than others. There were also different levels of patience as well as ability to communicate in English. No one was particularly rude, although there was this one time when I went to the cable car station, hoping to get up to the top of the mountain, and finding out it was closed for the week. I still managed to get into the lobby with no one inside, until a man came out from his office, and I asked in English to confirm that it’s closed. The man said yes with a stern face so I left the awkward situation and made my way out of the parking lot. I turned around and noticed the man watching me from the window.

Language

Even though I was only going to be in Norway for four days, and that I heard people in Norway spoke English (which they do, maybe at 80-90% ability and speed), I still wanted to learn Norwegian so I can somehow put it to good use. Like with the other languages that I learned for the trip, I had little chance or time to practice speaking it with other people beforehand. I only listened to the audio lessons and practiced in private. I jotted down the words and phrases that I learned so I could be familiar with how they looked and get a better understanding of the grammar structure.

As I said, since I heard most Norwegians could speak English, it was a bit difficult to 1) figure out who could speak it, and 2) have enough confidence to speak Norwegian instead of giving up and default to English. Every new interaction started with the awkwardness of those two factors, but that quickly went away when I just made the call to speak English, or that the other person seeing my appearance rightly assumed that I would be more comfortable with English. It was also easy to default to English when the casual greeting “Hi!”was pronounced the same in Norwegian (“Hei!”). Once in a while, I threw in a “God dag!” (“Good day!”) and then proceed with English. And I got pretty good at the end of an interaction with “Har det!” or “Har det bra!” which was a common phrase equivalent to “Have a good one!”

Knowing when and how to use phrases like that sort of redeemed the hard work I put in to learn the language, and to me, it showed the other persons that I made an effort, and hopefully threw off one or two people a little bit to wonder if I really knew Norwegian.

Tours

Photo Slideshow: Norway - Northern Lights - LBT 2014

I looked up tours for northern lights and there were a few companies who did them, and a lot of search results tend to lead to TripAdvisor reviews. So I used them to help narrow down the companies to choose from. I ultimately chose NorthernShots Tours because of the great reviews as well as their promise that if they couldn’t see the lights that night, we could return the next day for half price.

Actually, originally, the package I bought promised a second tour for free if I couldn’t see the lights the first night. But on the day of the tour, I was contacted by the company asking if I wanted to switch to the less expensive package. I agreed to it, and because I got a reissued credit card, they couldn’t refund to my old card, so they had to refund me in cash.

I walked to the pickup spot that evening, which was right outside of the office near downtown. As I was going through the process to get my cash refund, I learned that the company was created by a couple of young passionate photographers who wanted to share their love for the northern lights by driving visitors around the area and take pictures. I thought the guys were really down to earth and genuine, and they made the experience as pleasant as possible. Judging by their accents and brief chats, I also learned that they were from other places in Europe, like France and Italy.

The Bus

We rode in a big charter bus, which was much larger than I thought. Based on my experience on the trip so far, I thought I would be in a large van with uncomfortable seats. But instead, only about half of the large bus was full, so I got to sit in my own pair of seats. I noticed that there were a few groups of middle-aged Chinese tourists on the tour as well, which surprised me because Tromsø seem like a place Chinese people would visit, and it’s so cold that all I could picture were middle-aged Chinese people like my relatives scoffing at the idea of traveling to such a place and would prefer to go elsewhere warmer and with more landmarks to see in the daytime.

There was also wifi on the bus, which felt like such a luxury, even for the States. And a small bathroom was in the mid-section of the bus, right next to the mid-bus exit door. It surprised me that a bathroom could fit in that little nook, but it did! It’s small but very usable. These guys were prepared, and they got the right equipment.

The Tour Starts

The tour started at around 6pm, and one of the guides explained the agenda of the tour and then gave a history of northern lights. The ride to our first spot probably took 45 minutes, and right before, the guide explained how to set the cameras settings to capture the lights perfectly. I didn’t pay too much attention since I was going to use my basic iPhone 5s camera, and the settings were quite limited.

Literal Cold Feet

The first place we went to was by the water somewhere west of Tromsø. We had to get around a rocky and muddy hill in the dark to get there. Once there I started feeling the cold setting in, most notably my feet, partly because I was underprepared with footwear and wore my breathable hiking shoes. Basically, my feet felt numbing cold like I never thought were possible. They experienced alternating phases of cold and numb, but every phase more intense than before. Shuffling my feet did little to help.

It got to a point where it was too uncomfortable to think about anything else and my brain started wondering if my feet were still there, as if they had been disconnected from my body. I worried I did irreparable damage to my feet, so I decided to get back to the bus to try to warm up. The tour package offered professional northern lights portraits by the guides, and since all I brought was my iPhone 5s, I wanted to get a good photo of me and the lights to remember the experience. According to the guide, the lights were pretty good but less than optimal, so I took that as a good time to warm up in the bus for a little bit and come back out when it supposedly got better and get the portrait then. Still, the guide said to not go for too long because I might miss it.

Back to the Bus

Another visitor who also wanted to warm up in the bus made the little dark hike with me back to the heated bus, where the driver was comfortably waiting. I expected immediate relief once I stepped inside, but it was much more gradual, and actually slower, than I thought. I took the opportunity to take the plastic shopping bags from my souvenir store visit earlier that day to wrap my feet, which already had two pairs of wool socks. I figured it could probably seal in any heat that was escaping. It felt really silly but I had to do everything I could to keep my feet alive.

I waited in the bus for probably ten to fifteen minutes, watching faint streaks of green in the dark sky through the tinted windows. I imagined the hassle and discomfort I would experience if I had to put my layers back on and step out of the warm cocoon of the bus and into the chilling cold outside. My comfort was more important than a bucket list goal at that point. But finally, I snapped out of it, telling myself that I had traveled all this way not to sit in a bus. Actually, it was also because the other visitor wanted to go back outside again. So we rejoined the group, and my feet quickly restarted the process of becoming numb again. The plastic bags were of little help.

Apparently the conditions were not improving, and the lights were starting to move away. I missed my chance when everyone was getting their portraits taken, and I missed the last of the good lights while I was in the bus.

Snacks and Hot Chocolate

Some time in the middle of the tour, we took a break as the guides went outside to prepare hot chocolate. They had brought large containers of hot water and packets of powdered hot chocolate, and they were mixing them one cup at a time as quickly as they could. I was impressed at the level of service these guides were providing. They seemed to genuinely care for their customers. In the mean time, trays of cookies were also being passed around on the bus, where people could take as many as they want and there would still be enough left over.

After the break, we resumed the tour and visited other locations, stopping on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. The lights didn’t seem to be getting better, so I asked the guides if I could get a professional photo. The guide said the lights weren’t ideal, but he would try his best. At that point, I just wanted some visual proof that I saw the lights.

Northern Lights in Town

By the end of the tour, I became relatively good at spotting the lights and distinguishing it from long streaks of clouds, because they looked very similar, especially if the lights were weak. So after we got dropped off from the tour, I walked back to my Airbnb house and to my surprise, I saw thick streaks of green right above the street, freely dancing in the sky. I thought it was just clouds at first because I thought it was hard to see the northern lights with light pollution. But it moved and changed form too quickly to be clouds.

Seeing this made me feel so special and lucky, partly because there was no one around to confirm what I was seeing nor to share this moment with, so the lights felt like a private show, in public, just for me.

The lights were visible in town!

Second Tour

Aside from the freezing feet, I had a good time on the tour with these guides. And since I had nothing else planned the following night, and I got the refund from the previous night for going on the cheaper tour (which was half the price of my original tour), I figured I should do the tour again for a second chance to get a good portrait.

The second night had a much smaller group than the first; there were only five or six people, but we still took the giant bus. We went to the opposite direction toward Finland, but it was a cloudy night so seeing the lights would be more difficult regardless.

Since this was my second consecutive night, I had more experience spotting the lights from inside the bus earlier in the night. At one point, I asked the guide to confirm that what I saw were the lights, and he confirmed that it was. (Teacher’s pet moment). Actually, the lights were so active that he decide to make an impromptu stop on the side of the road to take pictures.

I got my professional portrait but it was next to the front of the bus with its lit sign. Still, learning from the previous night, I had to take what I can get. I also tried to take some selfies with my phone using a camera app that could adjust the aperture and shutter speed. Of course, the quality was lower and more blurry from my ever-so-slightly moving arms, but it actually turned out better than I expected. Also, it was the wrong time to experiment not smiling in pictures and being more pensive and dramatic. That was also the place where I believe I lost my Airbnb house keys.

Professional photo:
Professional shot (Second night)

Selfie with iPhone 5s using ProCam app:
Overexposing the shot on my camera to make sure I get something.

Later in the tour, we went to an open field and the sky was partly cloudy. We were probably there for an hour or so, and the clouds changed just as much as the lights. We were excited to see the clouds part or the lights become stronger, and then became disappointed whenever either of those improvements reversed. I helped a friend take photos of him and his girlfriend with his commercial camera, and he returned the favor and emailed me those pictures. That was also when I was dealing with the lost keys and thought more deeply and philosophically about life and the cosmos while being in the middle of nowhere looking at the lights.

Overall, both nights of tours were good. The guides were really cool folks who were passionate about photography and treat the patrons as special guests. I would do it again, and I would try to be more prepared with footwear and camera gear.

Museums and exhibits

I occupied my time during the day by going to different museums and exhibits throughout the city. Some were really abstract (Tromsø Kunstforening), some were very contemporary (Perspektivet Museum) and current with recent events around the world, and some were more standard museums, like the Tromsø Museum, which had a permanent exhibit on the local Scandinavian natural history. It had really simple but effective models illustrating specific ideas, like the comparison in scale between a particular whale and human being. The image alone said a lot without words. American museums should take note.

Simple yet effective display at Tromsø Museum.

I also visited the Arctic Cathedral, an iconic building in Tromsø. The admission was 40 kroner which was around $5. I felt that it was a bit pricy because it was more or less just one big room with unique architecture. There was very little else to do, unless one was religious. I stayed there a bit longer than I needed because I paid so much for it and I should at least enjoy it a bit more.

Inside the Arctic Cathedral.

Food

A note about my relationship with food: I am more of a “eat to live” type of guy. In my regular daily life, I try to eat very healthy, and I splurge a little bit once in a while. When I’m traveling, I loosen my restrictions a bit and eat what I can get, while still trying to select the healthiest choice. However, if there is a dish or a food that is well known where I’m traveling, and it’s within my taste preference and budget, I would put in extra effort to try it. And my weakness is desserts.

Smørbrød

The one thing I wanted to eat in Norway was a smørbrød, which is an open-faced sandwich. It’s a simple and common dish in Norway and Scandinavia; it’s probably so commonplace that I was making a big deal out of it. I learned about it in my Norwegian lessons, where I had to repeatedly order “et smørbrød” and “te” (tea). I became fascinated by it and looked up its significance in the culture. Smørbrøds could apparently get really fancy, but I just opted for the regular version, at a cafe near downtown.

I chose that cafe because I could tell from outside that they displayed the smørbrøds in a glass display case so I could just point and order. When I went up to pay, the language thing really made it awkward as I said what I wanted in English in a soft voice, a little embarrassed, and the cashier had trouble understanding. I wasn’t sure if she couldn’t hear me or if she didn’t understand English. There was also a problem with using my card. My card wasn’t the problem; it was me using a chip card on a chip-reading machine. It was the first country that I had use it, and the screen was displaying Norwegian, which I could recognize and could probably understand if I took some time deciphering each word. I think I did after the fact, as I pieced together the translation of the phrase by each word “TA KORT UT” (“Take card out.”), which I had learned in my audio lessons.

Finally, I got my smørbrød along with a hot chocolate. I grabbed a fork and a knife because I heard that’s how it’s supposed to be eaten. The smørbrød was really simple; it was a piece of buttered bread with a piece of salmon, hard-boiled egg slices, and some veggies. It tasted exactly as it looks. It was a bit underwhelming but I felt proud that I finally ate something that I set out to eat on the trip!

Other Foods

Photo Slideshow:

Norway - Food - LBT 2014

Since I was staying at an Airbnb, food was totally on my own. For snacks, I went to the grocery store and got packaged cakes, nuts, mini bread rolls, chocolates, and dried fish (which seemed to be locally produced). They were decent. Standard grocery store food quality, although the nut clusters (“Nøtte Godt”) were especially tasty, probably from the salt content.

I had trouble finding bottled water at first, so I bought a bottle of flavored water and winced every time I take a sip. The grocery store I went to twice was named “joker” at a street corner by the church. Ironically, I found out the evening before I left Tromsø that the building with the giant “Eurospar” sign two blocks from my Airbnb place was a big chain grocery store. I saw the same logo across the bridge earlier and noticed a parking lot in front with shopping carts. So I went inside and found a much larger selection of foods, including bottled water! I also got some chocolates for my hosts as a gift as well as souvenirs.

For meals, I went to places I felt familiar with. One evening, I went to a Thai restaurant near my Airbnb place (across Eurospar, to my ignorance) and tried to warm up with some spicy soup, though that didn’t work. I went to a medium-fancy burger place called Flyt and that was decent. Other times, I just went in convenience stores and bought pastries to bring with me.

Getting out

I had an early flight out Wednesday morning, so I walked to the 42 bus stop in the morning cold and crossed the island through tunnels to the airport. It was relatively convenient.

From My Travel Log

20 October 2014, 2:31pm, Tromsø Bibliotek (Library)

  • Tromsø is a lovely city. It’s cold but it’s real. Streets remind me of video games when you walk down a street and only a few people are there minding their own business. The bridges remind me of Macau’s bridge and the “small city” quality. The bridge walk reminds me of walking on the Brooklyn Bridge. The side of the Arctic Cathedral reminds me of the side of the Sydney Opera House.
  • Regarding languages, people at places I’ve visited have a high enough probability of speaking English that I have yet to really need to force myself to speak the local languages. Maybe after the fact I go over the expression over my head. Also, I don’t know enough to complete one interaction; if I knew how to ask the question, I might not understand the answer, which feels stupid to have asked in the local language in the first place.
  • I also seem to have trouble going into restaurants myself, and also not knowing which restaurants to go to. I’m relying heavily on the Internet to find good places to go. And when I’m on the road, I just choose whatever I find. * Languages I should learn: Dutch, German, Portuguese. Even though I feel very foreigner in all these places, I could see myself having a life anywhere, even cold Tromsø, but I don’t want to. Everywhere I can get used to provided I have enough time. I can imagine living in Europe for a while and just be a local. Maybe I do that for a year, four countries, three months each. We’ll see how I feel at the end of this trip though, to see how homesick I feel.
  • I realize I really like showers. I love good water pressure, warm water that hit the spot and heat up my bones. So far the two showers from my Airbnb hosts were good.
  • Tromsø, third international spot. I have yet to FEEL being in a foreign place. I either am really in my head during the moment or that it doesn’t exist anymore, the feeling of being in a place. Every place feels similar in some way; I am just at a spot on a typical Earth, no matter how beautiful the view is (like right now at the library looking at the mountains and the Arctic Cathedral). I think I feel it the most when I’m in “God mode” and can see from really high up, like a plane, but outside, or less contained. That’s why paragliding sounds like a good goal to achieve.

21 October 2014, 4:40pm, Flyt

  • Two and a half weeks ago, I saw hundreds of hot-air balloons fly into the sky. Just under two weeks ago, I witnessed the majestic view that is the Machu Picchu. Six days ago, I went on a safari and saw cheetah on a hunt. For the past two nights, I had seen the northern lights dance above me. Whatever happens for the rest of this trip, I must admit that I have been a very lucky guy so far.
  • One frustration I’m having in Europe, or Norway, is the credit card machines. It seems like most people use it with ease, but I’ve often had to let the other person copy the three digits in the back of the card, or sign the receipt when other customers didn’t need to. What makes it worse is the display reads out in Norwegian, and I was only able to decipher one of the gajillion messages they have, “Ta sort ut.” which mostly doesn’t help me make the purchase. Hopefully, I get more practice in England with English so I know what to do in France and Italy.
  • Took an accidental tour of Tromsø when I didn’t realize there’s a bus in the opposite direction when I left the Tromsø Museum.
  • Tromsø Museum’s exhibits are pretty good. Good for children with some parts.
  • Went to Thai restaurant last night. Didn’t know until I went home to check that you don’t tip in Norway. Oops.
  • Lost the house keys on northern lights tour. Apologized to host Ellen and fortunately got another set. Bought a bunch of stuff as gifts to make up for it.
  • Also, I don’t think Ellen is there, just his son Gunnar. I felt awful and it made the northern lights tours unenjoyable until Ellen replied that they have another set of keys.

Thanks

  • Shuttle saleswoman and driver
  • Shuttle riders who are serving in the army
  • Airbnb hosts, Gunnar and Ellen
  • Nazarene saleswoman who inadvertently helped me feel comfortable in Tromsø
  • OSL -> TOS flight attendants
  • Francesco x2, Helder (sp), Pedro (northern lights guides)
  • Julia and Harold (northern lights tour drivers)
  • Sales clerks (both really friendly and “real”)
  • Edwin and Christina (northern lights tour patrons)

Tips

  • Eurospar is a chain grocery store.
  • Bring well-insulated boots, along with layers
  • It is very cold.
  • The northern lights looks like they move slow but in twenty seconds they could disappear.
  • The northern lights also look brighter in photos because cameras can capture more light than the human eye can.
  • Listen to your northern lights tour guides; they knew what they’re doing. At least mine did.
  • Buses are nicely heated.

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If you have questions about specific experiences of Tromsø, feel free to leave a comment and I’ll try my best to answer.