By approximately the fourth week into my first semester of ECLA’s Academy Year Program, I had decided that the coming seasons should constitute a “European experience” for me. Though in hindsight I only vaguely knew what that meant, I still vainly pronounced my “European Year,” at the very least aiming for it to be upheld by brave choices, honest hopes and modest discoveries.
Fast forward to four weeks into my last semester, and I had made only a few forays out of Berlin’s perimeter. Whilst I could add Leipzig or Dresden to my travel resume, my grand “European” experience had been monotonously German up to this point. I had hammered into my head one defeating belief: flimsy wallets do not aid the geographically courageous.
Digressing over an afternoon’s brunch conversation, one amongst the many jet-setting ECLAns spoke of her daring European adventures. I realized that despite proclaiming the need for an experience, I lacked the courage to actually “make it happen.” All along, I had been worrying about financial security – or rather, using it as an excuse not to travel. Most ECLAns (this one in particular) choose to travel with a courage to experience, not to spend. As I was to find out, nothing can stop you from traveling, as long as you have the necessary immigration documents. Inspired, a solution came to me: Spring Break!
On the night after that travel-enlightening brunch, still riding the adrenaline from my submission of the semester’s midterm paper, I mustered up a plan for Italy. Scavenging through the internet, within 15 minutes I already had a rough itinerary in mind. All I needed was a companion who would willingly share the whims of being broke. The next day, I mentioned the idea to a friend, who joined with much spontaneity and excitement. She proved to be the perfect traveling companion; as I was to find out, it is only the friendliest and wittiest of conversationalists who can truly wring out some joy from the most dire of situations.
Naturally, a tight budget meant a lot of compromising – but somehow, finances were not the geographical barrier I had thought they would be. Italy allowed for three major cities: Milan, Venice and Florence. We would reach Italy via budget airplane, and then a bus trip franchised by the Czech Company “Student Agency” proved cheaper than any available returning airfare, so the itinerary now included a 16-hour bus ride from Florence to Prague. After going on a mini ticket-booking rampage, the trip was set: 7 days, 2 countries, 4 cities; all connected by plane, train and bus.
But not everything was pre-planned. Around three weeks before Spring Break, we still could not find hotels that fit our budget. So we made some changes. Because of Milan’s sky-high rates, our time in the city would remain within the cover of day-light. Luckily, we chanced upon a site that listed apartments converted into hostels. Though slightly dubious, we couldn’t argue with Venice at 20 Euros per night. For Florence and Prague, we settled on youth hostels. With all the larger details taken care of, my conscience still buzzed through our limited finances. What were we to eat? What if we need a cab? What about emergencies? But all this was to be tackled in impromptu fashion…
MILANO: March 30th
We set off for spring break at around 4 am in the morning, backpacks and spirits primed for adventure. Departing from Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport, the constant murmur of Italian throughout the Milan-bound flight felt reassuring. I was finally crossing a cultural boundary. Compared to the chilly Berlin weather, landing in Milan felt like a refuge. Despite the mist and drizzling rain, donning only two layers of clothing instilled a certain sense of cheer. After a tedious bus ride to the airport’s train station, we were greeted by a less-than-amused train employee who charged us 10 Euros per ticket. From then on, Milan was to be an expensive city.
Minutes past leaving Milan’s Stazione Centrale, we were bombarded by umbrella vendors and their slogan chant, which sounded something like “Brillo, brillo! Brillo for Bella?” Escaping central Milan’s pouring rain, we tried to find something more appetizing than our stock of German grocery store rice cakes. We found a sandwich shop and decided not to leave until the rain subsided. Despite Milan being fairly easy to navigate, our budget confined us to touring the free but monumentally impressive block around the Piazza Del Duomo. Past the Piazza, agony came to us in the form of the glittering windows of Milan’s most expensive shopping district, the Quadrilatero d’Oro. We were constantly reminded of the condition of our wallets. Fulfilling our touristy mission, we managed to view the central Duomo and the magnificent Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle II. Close to the Duomo, the Museo del Novecento – or the Museum of Twentieth Century Art – proved to be a less crowded shelter. Seeing the entry cost of 5 Euros, we could not deny ourselves the chance to be dry. A stroke of luck, the receptionist granted us free entrance (either because he pitied us or took us for children). With Modigliani and Picasso to keep us company, the rest of the day in Milan was taken care of.
VENEZIA: March 31- April 2
Having spent only 17 Euros in Milan, we confidently boarded our train to Venice. Upon arriving, we found the apartment (turned into hostel) within a 5-minute walk from the Mestre station. Other guests at the apartment included an American language teacher, a Swiss couple, and a Singaporean girl. Without a doubt, having a shared kitchen proved to be the best greeting. Naturally, kitchen conversations included a fair share of advice and travel jokes. I even tried to impress the Swiss couple with my obnoxious German skills. They were gracious to say the least. Another benefit of the apartment was its location in Mestre (a 30-minute bus ride away from Venice city). Venezia Mestre has a fairly large Bengali immigrant population. Having lived in Calcutta, the history of shopping with my mother in the local bazaar proved to be of some use in Venice. I managed to use my Bengali skills to pay for our first square meal: 3 Euros worth of eggs, broccoli, tomatoes, bananas and rice. After eating our share, my companion and I boarded a bus to the city. In the afternoon, after a long time strolling past cathedrals and wells, we saw our first European summer sunshine. It seemed like luck was on our side, as the weather forecast predicted not a single rain shower. We also attended an Easter Sunday mass at the famous San Marco Cathedral. With its Byzantine architecture and dulcet choir, the Eucharist proved to be a worthy experience. Again, our budget narrowed our Venice experience to strolling past the Jewish Ghetto through the many wells, cathedrals, gelato stores, wooden bridges and piazzas. Finally settling on a park, we decided to have some gelato. This strolling became routine for the next couple of days. Gelato from then on became our go-to emergency Italian breakfast.
FIRENZE April 3- April 5
After Venice, Florence’s size made the city easier to handle. The hostel proved to be clean and hospitable. The only trouble now was that we’d already managed to munch through the last of our Rewe rice cakes. Food was a luxury. With our last designated change we managed to buy two more packs of rice cakes each; we would have to struggle through the nutritional aspects of our trip. It was not altogether true that we’d been completely penniless – we were just not willing to miss the Renaissance gems that the city had to offer. So we sacrificed food for art. But first, the sunny weather absolutely had to include a tour.
We decided to walk from one end of the city to another. With our “Plus Hostel” being well located in Piazza Indipendenza, we could walk through the central market (Mercato Centrale), the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, and the various other piazzas, each with at least one cultural or architectural point of interest. Past the Ponte Vecchio, we kept walking until we found our favorite affordable luxury: gelato. The Tuscan sun and spicy pepperoncino made for an eclectic experience.
Botticelli having always been a personal favorite of mine, we set off an entire day of masterpieces at the Uffizi Gallery. Almost eight hours into our art-intake, the Vasari Corridor started to make us woozy with hunger. We stepped outside the museum and a waft of prosciutto directed us to a sandwich shop. About ten steps away from the gallery, this sandwich shop just happened to be a celebrity staple. Though we could not see any celebrities, pictures of the store-owner arm in arm with Lenny Kravitz were proof enough. Though I could not remember the place’s name, their custom sandwich at 5 Euros just happened to be our best value meal in Florence. Maybe someday, I will go back and hunt for the place.
On our last day, we decided not to visit the famed statue of David. This was because at some point, I’d lost my wallet on the way home from the crowded sandwich place. Misfortunes, despite cautiousness, can never be escaped. So we decided to make the most of our last day by having a euro’s worth of gelato and more scenic walking.
PRAHA: April 5 & 6
By the time we boarded what would be our sixteen-hour bus ride, we were more than ready to relax. On the way to the Czech Republic, through tunnel after tunnel, we were welcomed by different landscapes. From Tuscan to Bavarian hills, we somehow managed to sleep through. On reaching Prague we were too tired to do anything. We managed to pull ourselves through Wenceslas Square and by the time we got to Charles Bridge, we were completely exhausted. We surrendered and decided to trek back to our hostel for the last off-campus sleep of the trip. The next day we bused back to Berlin and ECLA.
Thankfully, I had both the blessing and delight of a traveling companion who was above all a friend who strived to make every situation a pleasure. Be it sitting by the street whilst munching on rice cakes or sitting through an Italian mass, there is something to be said about an attitude that is dedicated to viewing things positively. It is even more special to share such situations with a friend who appreciates the experience as well. Overall, I spent less than 150 Euros for Spring Break. I had an amazing time, but couldn’t have done it without the encouragement that we shared.
Now that the final weeks at ECLA are approaching, the pre-Italy angst and fear are almost distant memories. Despite the financial constrictions we feared at first, we did manage to have a fairly good trip. The experience of spring break gives me hope that I will forget the constrictions I placed upon myself and remember that nothing is quite as much of a challenge as finding the courage to do something you didn’t think you could. I suppose, now that I have the time to reflect, that courage is what should have been the theme of my “European Year” all along… but then again, these are the things you don’t learn until you try!