Back in Europe: Rome, if we want to

Six years after the grand adventure that was Dan and Ian Wander Europe, I and a band of friends left for a trek through the Mediterranean. These are our stories.

And that old son-of-a-bitch jet lag.


The second I set foot in central London, I feel a wave of peace and happiness; the knowledge that I am, for a brief while, truly home. The second I arrive in Vancouver, I relax, because the city of Vancouver has taken the emotional place of “the house I grew up in” ever since my parents sold said house. The second I leave Cancun airport I feel… a reminder to chill because my resort is probably still like forty minutes away, and that’s after I find my transport.

Arriving in central Rome I felt… mild anxiety. Because I didn’t really feel… anything. I was in Rome. Rome. The Eternal City. Home of so much history, the setting of so many movies, the former hub of western civilization. After a year of planning, here I was! In Rome! With friends! And I felt… nothing. How could this be? I spent so much money on this vacation, now here I was, why wasn’t I happy?

Okay I know it sounds like I’m starting this new blog series on a down note so let me just cut to the chase and tell you what I told myself that first day… I was so tired. That was the problem. That’s all we’re talking about.

The problem with flying from North America to Europe is that it typically involves landing in what the clocks say is mid to late morning but your body is pretty sure is the very dead of night. If you can sleep on the plane, that helps, but as we’ve covered in the past, I cannot sleep on planes. So I arrived in Rome, having been awake for about 18 hours, very ready for sleep that would not come for many hours more. Because I wasn’t going to make the same mistake I made in Dublin (I’m not linking to it twice, I linked to it two sentences ago, click it or don’t) or Hong Kong and set myself into an untenable sleep schedule by napping mid-day. No, this time I would full-on bully my flesh cage into Italian time by staying up until at least 10 PM, then letting the fact that I’d been awake for 30 hours keep me asleep for the whole night.

So upon arrival, having stashed my luggage at my port of call for the night (I would not check into my actual hotel for another day, once my hotel mates Daisy and Ian had arrived), it was time to find lunch and wander the city to stay awake.

There were, in total, ten of us on the bulk of this trip. Myself, Ian (who I apparently have so many travel stories with that my Peru travel mates made fun of me for bringing him up so much), and Daisy; Daniel, in whose honour this trip was planned, and his essentially-wife Jenn; Daniel’s parents, Ruth and Hugh; his younger brother Noel; his youngest brother Matthew, and his wife Laura. Of these ten, only six of us were currently in Rome. And of those six, four felt they could use a break after the morning’s walking tour, particularly Jenn, who does not enjoy high temperatures, and southern Italy is very warm in June. So Daniel and I went for a stroll, got some pizza, and saw the local sights.

Just, you know simple nearby stuff.

The local sights included the Colosseum. You know, THE Colosseum. If anything aside from a designated smoking area in the airport was going to shout “Welcome to Rome” to me, this had to be it. We had a tour booked in three days, so we just did an orbit, and I lapsed into something I cannot help… the need to play tour guide. Sure Daniel had been in town a day longer than me, but this was his first time in Europe, and my… um… fourth? Fourth time in Rome? Pretty sure it was fourth.

So, yeah, as memories kicked in, everything had a story. Over there is where we saw the Ancient Rome cosplayers hoping to get money for photos (and where we’d see them later), that’s the cafe where we got gelato and mocked Patrick, and that construction site is probably where the wall art depicting the rise of the Roman Empire used to be.

I’d really been hoping to spot those. Daniel is a history buff when it suits him, though I have not been able to lure him into joining me for a binge-watch of HBO’s Rome. I guess they’re now part of a light/projection show they do by the Colosseum at night?

We also discovered an entirely new (to me) scam for tourists.

Now, I know all about the people wanting money for photos. Back in the day I had a pricey encounter with so-called “gypsy” begging women hunting in packs in London. The jags with their mixtapes seem to be a US-only phenomenon, or at least not continental Europe. And the dudes selling cheap souvenirs… in particular an item I can only think of as “splat pigs…” aren’t typically pushy, so they’re mostly harmless. But this one I’d never seen before.

Near the Colosseum, where tourists were thickest, lurked a few black guys. They’d make eye contact, smile, and say “Hey, black and white! Africa!” then zoom in right next to you and try to get a handshake.

We don’t know what happens next. We treated this handshake attempt the same as I treated the mixtape jags after that first run-in… no eye contact, no physical contact, a brisk walking pace is your best defence. So I don’t know what happens if you accept that handshake, but I’m willing to guess it costs at least five Euro. More if you’re not great with confrontation.

Once returned to the hotel, there actually was something close to a nap as I drifted in and out for about half an hour, then dinner at a nearby restaurant, where I saw mozzarella and prosciutto in one dish and said “I’m having that,” and it was one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.

Literally prosciutto on a blob of melted cheese, what’s not to love?

I cannot believe we never went back there.

Following dinner was a walking quest to find internet-recommended gelato, a quest well worth taking, because I’ve never had spicy ice cream before but this place had it, and man it delivered. They called it “Dracarys,” after Game of Thrones, something that will last shorter and age better than anyone who named their children “Daenerys” or “Cersei.” I didn’t think to get a scoop for myself that night, as I’d discovered the flavour “creme de leche,” or milk cream, which was like ice cream and cheesecake in one creamy package, and I would not be denied another hit.

By the end of that excursion, I’d done it. I’d stayed up (more or less) until 10. And faffed about until 11, so I was sure to acclimate to local time.

Next page: The thrice-visited ruins

Writers Circle Confidential: Who Ya Gonna Call?

Hasn’t really sunk in yet that this is our penultimate episode. Gonna miss talking about this show with you every Friday. Well… here’s the episode…

Let’s get to it.

Where it all began

This is the first episode of Writers Circle that was ever written. It’s also the shortest, and those two things might go a little hand-in-hand.

People close to the show must be getting tired of me mentioning the train in Switzerland, but it’s not only where the series started, but where this episode was written.

It’s not a short train ride from Venice to Zurich. And while Switzerland is really pretty to look at, all mountains and lakes and waterfalls… god damn it somebody start paying me enough money that I can take off to Switzerland on a whim, ’cause I really want to right now… sorry, I’m back. Anyway, as I’ve said before, when I’m far from home with little to do but think (Ian was napping or journalling or a combination of the two), it tends to spark creativity. In this case, I thought of all the videos Ian and I had shot together, and wondered why we hadn’t started doing more stuff. Especially given all the times Keith had said “We should be shooting stuff for the internet.”

So I decided that the three of us should make a series out of Writers Circle. And, since we were still somewhere other than Zurich, I decided I may as well break out a notebook and do a proof-of-concept episode. I just needed something to write about. And what I came up with was giving Jeff a crazy on-again, off-again sex-buddy named Claire.

So before Ted, before Brent, before our fourth lead Zoe… there was Claire. Which is why it feels a little odd it’s taken this long for everyone to meet her.

That’s why Phil drags Becky along and not Zoe, by the by. Because Zoe didn’t exist when I wrote this.

The episode’s a little short, all told, and I’d like to blame that on the fact that I wrote it by hand on a train, and was trying to keep the premise as short and simple as I could because, well, internet. It did turn out shorter than I expected, though. It’s… kind of a simple bit.

I also could have done another pass on the episode to reflect the strained relationship of Phil and Jeff, or at least acknowledge that things were weird, but that Phil is still Jeff’s first phone call in a crisis. But honestly, I liked the simplicity.

Creating Claire

The “crazy girlfriend” is kind of sadly cliche. There needed to be something specific to why Claire was seen as “crazy.” So I picked a specific adjective to define Claire, and that adjective is “volatile.”

Claire likes to live on the edge, like a less self-destructive version of Danny Devito’s character from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. She’s into things that are crazy and dangerous. She likes a thrill. And simply calling Jeff and asking if he wants to hook up is way too boring, so she’ll spend untold weeks breaking into his apartment and screwing with his watch and clocks, until she’s ready for the endgame. The endgame involves boning.

But I also wrote that final conversation between her and Becky to show that as volatile as she is in her personal life, she’s actually very together and successful in her professional life. Crazy Claire isn’t some nigh-homeless bunny-boiler, she’s actually really good at her job, and simply likes to blow off steam with terrifying things and her dysfunctional relationship with Jeff.

We’ll see how well that’s going next episode.

Sex Ponchos

As soon as Keith wrote the words “sex poncho” into Stonebluff Road, it was clear what Jeff had to be wearing when Phil and Becky arrived. Well, mostly. The bow tie was our costumer’s idea. Aaron didn’t necessarily approve.

He fought the good fight, but was outvoted by basically everyone.
He fought the good fight, but was outvoted by basically everyone.

Aaron happens to own a bright purple poncho. This, we knew, was clearly the sex poncho we required. Sadly, there were only two of us gathering up all the equipment we needed to drag down to our friend Ben’s condo, and in the bustle of collecting the camera, tripods, spare batteries, lights, and sound equipment, the purple poncho was neglected. This we learned once we started getting the actors into costume. That is, at a moment when fixing the problem would have actively cost us shooting time, as the poncho was a half-hour round trip drive away.

This is the closest I came to losing it on set, which is something we try rather strenuously to avoid.

While I was stressing that there was no point in shooting without a poncho, Ben wandered up and said “Why don’t you just use mine?”

There was a brief pause.

“You… have a sex poncho?” I asked, confused that this idea might have existed somewhere other than Keith’s, let’s call it, “special” mind.

“Yes,” he replied. “Is that not why you wrote that?”

“It was not. But… thanks. That’ll help.”

He also attempted to provide some assistance when our sound equipment started overheating and shutting down when we tried to record, but that’s a whole other… thing I’d rather not go into. Instead, it’s time for…

Begrudgingly saying a few nice things about our sound guy

We didn’t have a method of creating convincing punch sounds on set that day, save for actually having Ryan wail on Aaron for three minutes, which Aaron was not super in favour of. So they simply created a placeholder sound by having Aaron smack his fist into his arm over and over.

Which our sound guy, Patrick “DJ Peens” Murray, had to replace with foley. Manually.

Over eighty times.

He made sure we knew that wasn’t a simple process, and that maybe in the future just don’t make noises and let him foley stuff in later.

He also puts a lot of thought into our ringtones. Each ringtone is a joke he’s thought up, found a song, and cribbed just enough of the music to make it recognizable if you paid attention, while still being A) subtle, and B) short enough to not get us nailed on copyright. He claims to care more about the first thing.

Listen closely, see if you can figure out what’s playing when Jeff calls Phil. Or, more amusingly, when Ted calls Becky.

Final facts

I filled Phil’s bedroom with geek stuff, only to have us shoot it so that only the comics and the plush Cthulu were visible. Well, what can you do.

Jeff in the bathtub is the only shot of Jeff’s apartment not filmed at or outside Ben’s place. He’s in my guest bathroom, wearing the pants from my pimp suit as pyjamas. Yes, I own a pimp suit. Do you not?

It is distressingly easy for me to find comics to festoon Phil’s shots with. Even on location.

Next week, blooper reel. In two weeks… the big finale.

And pop by here in the next couple of days if me talking about DC’s Legends of Tomorrow is of interest. Which I choose to assume it is.

Dan and Ian Wander Europe: In Bruges

So, you know that annoying thing people on the internet will do, where they fail to update their blog/comic/whatever, and then apologize by saying that they were working on something super cool that they can’t tell you about yet?


The real problem is that, since we last spoke, I’ve been working on something that I’m not telling people about because the odds seem very small that it will go anywhere. It might. It might go somewhere, and if it did, it would be the single greatest thing that has ever happened to me by a significant margin. Save for “successfully being born,” I guess. But until that switches over from “dimly possible” to “actually probable” I’m trying not to get my or anyone’s hopes up by making a big deal.

And now that I’ve done that exact thing I dislike, onwards. Belgium. Let’s do this.


I won’t lie to you. Bruges did not get on the itinerary through the noblest of methods. We weren’t in Belgium to see Flanders Field. We didn’t hit any World War memorials. We did not swing by the EU Parliament building in Brussels. No, we were in Bruges because I saw the movie In Bruges and thought it looked worth visiting.

And I was not wrong.

Since my return, people ask “What was the highlight of the trip?” And that is often a difficult question, since so much of it was great. But when I do come up with an answer, it’s usually “Other than London? Paris for the city, Rome for the weather, and Bruges for the food.”

Seriously you guys, everything in Bruges was delicious.

Show me where your noms at

My primary goal for Switzerland was cheese fondue: for Belgium, it was waffles. And the old town had plenty of waffle take-out windows to get lovely, fluffy waffles doused in chocolate, caramel, whatever you desired… I had a waffle in Calgary not so long ago. What a bland waste of time it was in comparison.

Belgium is also the birthplace of the french fry, thus giving us all the excuse we needed to gorge on street fries outside of the famous Belfry. You see, there’s a regular contest in Bruges: local fry makers compete against each other, and the two top entries get the right to set up a fry cart in front of the Belfry. This means those two carts are pretty much guaranteed to have the best fries in the whole city, and if you’re not helping yourself to an order from each one to see who comes out on top, why are you even there? Why are you even there.

I did not expect to say “Bruges had the best meatball I’ve ever had,” but there it is. It’s said. It happened. A random lunch stop brought us to a mom ‘n’ pop restaurant with a hilarious name and absolutely incredible food.

Funny name, maybe, but so tasty
Funny name, maybe, but so tasty

If you’re in Bruges, go there. Get a meatball. You will thank me. Do this or I will find you and hurt you.

Time for beers

I’m not a beer drinker. This is generally known about me. Just never developed a taste for it. When I finally began experimenting with alcohol, I drifted towards whiskey and cocktails, and skipped over beer completely, finding it unpleasant. But we were in Belgium. They brew over 2000 beers in Belgium, and they take it seriously. How seriously? They have designed individual glasses for each of those beers to optimize the drinking experience. And if you were to serve, say, a Hoegaarden in a Duvel glass, a Belgian drinker will send that shit back and demand you do it properly.

So while beer had never been my thing, going to Belgium and not sampling their ales would be like going to Italy and not having any pasta, or going to Greece and not having a single souvlaki, and god damn it I am not doing that again.

So, on our first night in Bruges, I eventually opted to skim the beer menu, see if I could find something palatable. What’s that, Duvel? You have a 12% alcohol content? Why, this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

New friends

Also, if you’re in Bruges on a budget, by all means check out the St. Christopher’s hostel. Best room? No, not really. Best beds? Not quite. But it’s got a bar. A bar full of fellow travelers. The perfect place to hang out and have a few drinks with new friends. Ian put up another “Hey, we’re nice but shy, so come talk to us” sign, and within minutes we were invited to what became known as the “Commonwealth party:” a table of four Scots, two Australians and a Chinese woman living in Germany (for variety) that had met doing the In Bruges walking tour, something we’d been eyeing for our full day in the city, given my fondness for the movie and Ian’s fondness for looking at stuff.

Spot Ian. Bet you can.
Damp but fun.

The people behind the walking tour (which used our hostel as home base) also had two other gatherings: a beer tasting, in the pub connected to our hostel, and a pub crawl. I continued to succumb to local fares and signed us up for the beer tasting the following night, where I learned that Belgian ales are, in fact, not too shabby in general. Yes, I was like Christopher Columbus: boldly discovering something that millions of people already knew about.

We chose not to go on the pub crawl, despite the fact that it meant parting ways with our lovely beer tasting hostess, Caitlyn (being named Caitlyn makes you 10% more attractive to me, not sure where that comes from). Instead, we hung out with a new friend we made during the beer tasting, a ginger from America who may have moved to Florida but never lost her New York attitude. Once we’d finished the beers that came with the beer tasting experience, we set off into the damp night in search of other bars with other beers. Our primary targets, including a small tavern at the end of Bruges’ smallest street that brews a beer unavailable anywhere else in the world, were closed, but we continued undeterred, determined to find more beers. She suggested we make an adventure out of it.

We managed to only subtly imply that our reaction to being asked on a drinking adventure by a cute ginger was less “Oh, if we must” and more “Where the hell have you been the last three weeks?”

Oh, but before we left she had to check in with a guy from Scotland she’d “accidentally fallen in love with,” so don’t get excited.

I thought one full day would allow us to get the full Bruges experience. I don’t know why I thought that, but I was quite clearly mistaken. Perhaps one day I shall return… one day…


Dan and Ian Wander Europe: Switzerland!

I dropped my phone onto wet ground last night. An hour or so later, the screen began to turn purple. This morning, the purple was going to black. Within the next hour the screen will no longer function at all. Within the next two business days, I’ll have a replacement of the exact same model and colour (who said warranties were a waste of money?), but I’m still melancholy at watching it slowly die. I mean, we made it through Europe together, it shouldn’t end like this. Bizarre sentimental attachment to inanimate objects: this is how my brain works. I’m just glad to have not gone full-blown hoarder yet.

Right, yes, Dan and Ian Wander Europe. Where was I.

There is still a staggering amount of world I haven’t seen. And thus each window I have to take a trip becomes a struggle over where to go: do I go somewhere entirely new, see things I’ve never seen, seek out new adventures? Or do I return to somewhere I’ve been and loved and want to see again? A day will come when I visit London for the last time but it’s a terrible thought and a moment I’m not exactly racing to meet.

So for this trip, I went for a hybrid. London, Paris, Rome and Florence were all old friends, even if I hadn’t seen them in nearly 20 years. But from Venice on, I picked out new places to go, including two new countries. The first? Switzerland, a country that had had my curiosity for some time.

Zurich: where the party at?

Our train from Italy never quite managed to get up to full speed, given the mountainous terrain it had to navigate. Switzerland swiftly reminded me of parts of British Columbia: all forests, mountains and lakes with cities crammed in between said lakes and mountains wherever possible.

Now this trip had one major difference over past vacations of mine: a lack of swimming. The vast majority of my trips over the past decade have involved at least some scuba diving, or at least some quality lake-time on a summer houseboating weekend. I haven’t been diving since Hawaii, 2011. I haven’t been to a lake since the summer of that year. Despite having spent the previous day in flooded Venice, I was feeling a distinct urge to be in a large body of water. And now here I was in lake country.

Anyway. Upon arriving in Zurich, we made our way to our hostel with aid from several passers-by. The Swiss people were already making us feel quite welcome. We discovered that the very night of our arrival there was a pub crawl sponsored by the hostel. Ian was waffling on the notion, but I thought this was the clear way to get drinks and meet people, something we (particularly Ian) had previously considered a priority. But in any event, first we set out to explore the surrounding area: Ian wanted to pop into the local supermarket (as he often did), and there was an amusingly vandalized traffic sign we wanted to grab a picture of.

We did not expect to spend two hours searching for it. Only to discover it was only five minutes’ walk from the hostel and we’d passed it without knowing.

No entry, GHOSTS.
Worth it.

By the time we returned we were too late to get dinner at the hostel bar and too late to make the pub crawl. Slightly dejected, we settled into the hostel’s large common room to have a few drinks and access some sweet, sweet internet. Ian did up a quick sketch in his sketchbook, announcing that we were Dan and Ian, and we liked meeting people but were terrible at introducing ourselves. Did this ploy have a hint of desperation? Maybe. Did it work regardless?

Thank god for the one other guy at the table who didn't speak German.
BOOM! New friends!

Did it ever. And so we achieved exactly what we were looking for: drinks and meeting people, at a fraction of the cost with none of that pesky “walking” stuff. And zero douchebags. Huzzah! Now… what to do with our one full day in the city…


We tried asking friends for Zurich tips over Facebook. The overwhelming response was suggestions of stuff to do in Lucerne instead. Which, I felt at first, was nice and all but wasn’t really what we’d asked. However, it did turn out to be the exact right advice, as Lucerne is everything that’s great about Switzerland.

There’s old town, with it’s quaint medieval look, historic bridge and great shops and restaurants. Including one where we finally acquired my primary objective for this leg of the trip: cheese fondue. A cheese fondue with bits of bacon in the cheese. God bless Switzerland. There was the Lucerne lion, a famous carving in the wall of a mountain.

The Lucerne Lion in all his splendour.
The Lucerne Lion in all his splendour.

There was the vast lake. Still no swimming, but it’s for the best: we dipped our feet in the glacier-fed river coming from the lake and mother of GOD it was cold. Even for us Canadians it was bloody freezing.

Lucerne was gorgeous, and I only wish we’d had more time to enjoy it before we had to return to Zurich, find dinner near the hostel and meet up with some of our new friends again.

And find out that the hostel had a pool, a pool that I never managed to track down. Blast it all.

Next time: Belgium! Beers! Belfries! BRUGES.

D&IWE: Italia Part 3: the Italianing

So on our way out of Zurich, a key portion of my recharging apparatus decided to leave this cruel world behind, leaving me with no way to charge my iPod, and needing to split Ian’s semi-functional charger to get any power in my phone or Kindle. And since Ian’s phone is both his camera and the way he shoots, edits and uploads videos, his phone always takes priority over mine, which absent of WiFi is simply the way I check the time.

Also it’s his charger so he was probably gonna call dibs anyway.


Time to wander

Our time in Rome and Florence was incredibly rushed compared to Paris. We perhaps could have used an extra day or two in Paris, but in Rome we barely felt we were scratching the surface. Other than the Colosseum and the Roman Forum, we saw things but never got to explore them. We saw the Vatican but didn’t go in. We saw the Vittoriano monument but didn’t go up top. We did see Tiber Island but it is seriously underwhelming.

But in Venice we had more time. Enough time to really wander the Floating City. Including one day where it wasn’t floating as much as it should have.

Things get wet

Our first two days in Venice were gorgeous. Sunny and warm as Italy had been for most of our visit. Day three it rained. Not hard, but enough to warrant buying umbrellas before bussing to Venice proper from our hotel on the mainland. We were prepared: we’d done our canal tour the previous day and planned to do indoor stuff while it rained.

By the time we reached San Marco square, home of the basilica and palazzo we intended to visit, water levels were rising. Large puddles had formed across the square. Undeterred, we found the entrance line for the basilica and went in to get us some nice, dry history.

Parts of the entrance were flooded, but they already had crude bridges constructed. Not a worry.

From the church’s balcony you could see the whole of the square. At first I thought the line to get in had gotten much bigger, given the long stream of people in front of the building. On closer examination it became clear: it wasn’t a line-up. It was traffic build-up on the one portion of the square that was still above water. But the rain had diminished. Surely the worst had passed?

Next was the palace adjacent to the church, former seat of power for Venice’s ruling body and courts. We explored the building, saw the extravagant paintings (man but renaissance Italy was not afraid of painting balls) and stores of weaponry from swords to spears to early guns. As we began to leave, Ian jumped to avoid a puddle.

“That was close,” he said. “Almost got my feet wet.” Then we rounded the corner and saw the square.

There was no dry strip. Not anymore. The square was flooded, reaching knee-deep in places.

We waded our way north, to less flooded regions, taking note of how prepared Venice was for this. Plank bridges and wading boots were everywhere. Street vendors stopped selling questionable souvenirs and started selling plastic slip-ons to keep your shoes and pants dry. Of course by the time we saw them it was already far too late for us.

But in the end we wouldn’t have traded it. Venice in the sun was beautiful, but Venice under water was an experience.

Next time: two nights in Switzerland.

Dan and Ian Wander Europe: Italia

The greatest mystery on this trip, for me anyway, was this: I’m used to walking a lot on trips like these. I am not used to my body rebelling so vehemently against the notion. My feet don’t hurt as much by the end of the day as they did a week ago (they still protest when there’s a lot of standing still to be done), but right now I have a severe cramp in my right calf that makes every alternate step an ordeal (that’s new, started this evening) and blisters on both heels left over from Paris. The one on my left foot has become big enough that I’ve named it Alphonse and should probably get it tennis lessons.

The likely culprit for all of this, I’ve realised, is that I failed to break in my new sneakers before I left. This could account for many of my woes. That and the 2.7 km hike to today’s destination, which ended in a gravel road up a savagely steep hill. Blaming the cramp on that. Tomorrow’s hotel may include a bathtub, which could help; tonight’s hostel has a bathtub, but no plug, making it more of a tease.

Ian’s greatest mystery is where his alcohol tolerance went between Rome and Florence. On our last night in Rome, he drank an entire bottle of Chianti, while giving me a hard time for sticking to Coke as I wrote my last entry. He was buzzed. On our first night in Florence, we hit the bar/pub district for dinner and hijinks. We each had a bottle of wine, then hit a pub across the street where Ian had one beer and I had two highballs (what was I going to do, NOT order the drink called “Sexy Motherfucker?” That’s crazy and you’re crazy for suggesting it). I was nicely buzzed.

Ian was demolished.

I was lucky enough to get him back to our hostel before his internal switch flipped from “Everything is amazing” to “I can’t stop throwing up please kill me,” but the switch was sudden, savage and lasted into the morning. We’re still not sure why that happened.

But back to Rome for a minute

We landed late in Rome. It was past 11 at night by the time we got our bags and left the airport. Sidenote–there are no immigration checks in the EU. I am getting no stamps in my passport. Doesn’t seem fair at all, since I, like many frequent travelers, enjoy the record of places visited a well-stamped passport becomes.

I digress. I’ll try to make up some time here. It was late, we took a cab because we thought our hostel had a midnight curfew (nope), I’ve seen car chases in Bond movies that looked safer than what Italian cabbies get up to. The point is, arriving that late never gets you a sense of a place. Unless it’s some brightly lit City That Never Sleeps like New York or Tokyo: those places can bustle at 11 PM. Most others, no. It’s just a lot of dark and mostly empty roads between you and where you’re sleeping. Maybe the occasional prostitute that briefly makes you panic that your cabbie is taking you to a brothel (left over paranoia from Cambodia, is all).

We arrived to find that we had a third roommate, whose belongings suggested “female,” but who was nowhere to be found. “Well,” I thought, “Guess she’s having a good night.” And then because society is still deeply flawed, added “At least I hope so.”

While the night is dark and full of terrors, she did make it back safely at some point after Ian and I went to sleep. And she turned out to be delightful. Emily from Seattle was so thrilled to encounter fellow English-speakers that she quickly decided to spend her last morning in Rome with us. As neither Ian nor myself had anything remotely resembling a complaint, we headed out to grab breakfast and wander the Colosseum area before seeing her off on her train to Naples. She even helped us mock and slander a friend back home via video message. Our time in Rome was off to an excellent start.

That feels like it should be foreboding. Like I’m about to say “If only it stayed that way,” promising tales of doom for next time. Well, sorry, but I blew our biggest doom story when I opened this blog talking about Ian’s hangover. Rome went pretty much swimmingly. There were, however, some complications in Florence, but they’re hardly doom and gloom stuff.

Here’s a sampling of our Roman adventures to wrap things up.

Dan and Ian Wander Europe: Paris wrap-up

As we sit in our Roman hostel, munching on the fruits, meats and cheeses we acquired to serve as dinner, it seems a good time to reflect on our experiences in Paris. Look, it doesn’t HAVE to make sense, it’s just what’s going to happen.

Hostel picnics

Tonight’s dinner was inspired by a trend we started in Paris. Yes, we were in the city of lights, in a country famed for its cuisine. Fifteen minutes’ walk could (and did) take us to meals that would make a foodie weep. They would also be between 20 and 30 euros. Each. For 15 euros total, we could gather a sampling of cheeses and sliced meats and an entire bottle of wine that would still be better than most meals we could get at home.

Most meals we do get at home.

Most meals I get at home.

Seriously though, the cheeses alone would have run us $10-20 in Calgary, so it was worthwhile. Especially since that hostel (unlike this one) had a fully stocked kitchen.

Monumental sights

There was a trend amongst the landmarks we visited in Paris. We were never, ever prepared for just how big they are. Each time at least one of us (usually Ian) would be taken aback by the scale of what we were seeing. The Eiffel Tower is massive, looming above nearly the entire city, visible from nearly anywhere. The Arc De Triomphe is nearly a city block wide. The Invalides building, home of a military museum, a hospital for wounded soldiers and Napoleon’s Tomb was huge.

You’d think I’d have been ready for the Eiffel Tower. I was there once before. But my teenage years feel so distant. I have trouble connecting to the memories. I know I’ve been up the Eiffel Tower, I know I’ve seen the Roman Colosseum before yesterday. Tomorrow will not be my first trip to Florence. But it all still feels new.

Which is all the justification I need for re-visiting these places instead of restricting myself to new cities. Thanks, cruel and merciless march of time!

Language Barriers

Ian speaks enough French to get by in most circumstances. I do not. I studied French for 12 years, but just like the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum it’s all a blur now. So I left communicating with cabbies up to Ian. He was our Cabbie Whisperer. I remember enough French that I could basically follow along, but not enough that I felt comfortable diving in.

That’s over now. We’re in Italy. The best I can say about my skills in Italian, gleaned from one semester of lessons back in ’96, is that it’s better than my Swahili. Thankfully, like Malaysia, people working in tourism related industries (including restaurants) tend to know their fair share of English, so we do okay. But it means that after two days of me knowing the lay of the land in London and four days of Ian knowing the language in Paris, we’re well and truly strangers in a strange land now.

Which is what makes it an adventure.

The Meanest Thing I’ve Said to Ian, Apparently

A big benefit of travelling with me now as opposed to back in high school is my adoption of Mr. Wil Wheaton’s motto of “Don’t be a dick.” Lines may be long, mornings may be early, and my feet may very well be quite sore by the end of the day (blisters the size of Twix bars on my dang heels), but moaning about it won’t help me and will ensure that whoever I’m with has a miserable time because of me. This cannot be allowed.

That said, I did apparently hurt Ian a touch.

We were making our way back to the Eiffel Tower. An easy enough task given how it looms over the city. As we approached, Ian said, jokingly, “Found it. All by myself.”

“Well spotted,” I replied. “Ten points for Hufflepuff.”

He stopped in his tracks, as if struck. Finally speaking in a sad whimper:

“I… that… I’m not a Hufflepuff! I’m not.”

Oh, Ian. There’s nothing wrong with showing badger pride.

Next time: Rome.

For more of our Paris hijinks, check us out on the Youtubes:

Dan and Ian Wander Europe: Rapid Fire

The problem with trying to blog about a trip is that cool things happen to you way more often than quiet moments when you have the necessary time and wi-fi access to write about them. And I’m not about to skip out on good times and adventures just for internet time. That can’t happen. So with that in mind, let’s play catch-up!

Reflections on Montmarte

So I believe I touched on Montmarte and Sacre Coeur last time. Fun detail I forgot: as we ascended the last of many, many staircases to reach the hill’s summit (there was a tram, Ian. There was a god damned tram), we noticed a stream of… let’s call it fluid coming down from the plaza on top of the hill.

“I hope that’s water,” said Ian. I caught a whiff of the unmistakable scent of “filthy urinal.”

“Well… parts of it are,” I replied.

Montmarte was also, as I mentioned, where I truly began to buy into the magic of Paris. I thought “If only I’d seen this Paris in 1994, maybe I’d have had a better impression of the city.” Pause. “Wait. Wait. I was here. I was exactly here. We came here after dinner one night. I gave some of the girls a hard time for being drunk at a church.” The realization sets in, as does the memory of how cute some of the girls were. “God DAMN it, Young Me, the SECOND someone invents time travel you and me are going round and round!”

Ian: Stripper Bait

As we made our way to the Moulin Rouge, we had to run a gauntlet of strip clubs and their Engineers, the men (sometimes women) who run up to you asking if you want to see a live show and sexy dance (the implication being that yes you do) and encouraging you to head into their club. Now, we had little interest in this, because Ian was short on money Mom taught me to respect women and avoid dens of ill-repute, but there were legions of them between us and our destination. But I noticed a trend. A trend I kept to myself until we were clear of the district.

Every single Engineer targeted Ian. Not one came at me.

I pointed this out to Ian in a tone that the unobservant might have mistaken for a gloat. (“Heh heh, they all go for YOU” could have many interpretations) He considered, saw the trend, and exclaimed “They DO! Damn it, now I’M the sex tourist!” After years of dealing with the jokes people make about white dudes traveling south-east Asia, this was music to my ears.

Co-ed dorms turn out to be just that

When I was booking hostels, the two room options (aside from private, which is expensive and thus undesirable) were “co-ed” and “women only.” No “men only” option. Which, in fairness, we wouldn’t have asked for even if it existed. Even if it existed and were cheaper, possibly. But since “women only” was an option, I expected that most of our roommates would be dudes.

Not so.

Of the five roommates we’ve had, four out of five have been women. Two friends out of Brazil (who thought they’d booked an all-female room, but didn’t mind), one girl from Kansas that we only met our last morning in Paris (she’d been asleep by the time we found our way home), and one from Seattle we just spent the morning wandering Rome with. Our only male roommate was also from Canada, and also named Ian. Just weird, that is.

Next time, either a sum-up of our time in Paris, or more rapid-fire notes on our time in Italy. In the meantime, we hear that there are street vendors selling wine that you can then drink from the bottle in front of the Trevi Fountain.

I like this plan.

Dan and Ian Wander Europe: Paris, day one

At some point our train to Paris must have gone under the English Channel. This much is clear. But neither of us were entirely clear when. There was one tunnel that was kind of long, I guess, but none of them seemed long enough. Until I looked out the window and noticed everything was in French. Such was the speed of our train.

Step one after checking into our first hostel of the trip (a convenient two minute walk from the train, although it took a further two minutes of staring at the metro map to realise that–we’re quite smart) was to acclimate. Find out what was nearby. Learn the area. It being Sunday, and between three and five P.M. (after restaurants close for lunch but before they open for dinner), most of what was near us was closed, but we did identify restaurants clearly worth returning to, and a handful of supermarkets we could hit up for munchies and cheese. Such glorious cheese.

This completed, I honed in on two of my travel go-tos: observation decks and sunsets. I reckoned that if we moved with purpose, we could make it to the top of the Eiffel Tower by sunset. We hit the Metro, made our way to the Tower (bigger than either of us were ready for and I have been there before), and got in line for the elevator as the sun slid towards the horizon.

Which is when Ian noticed his wallet had been stolen.

So we abandoned the Tower to deal with that instead.

However, we are not of a sort to sulk about setbacks. Once a replacement credit card was ordered, we hit the streets to see Montmarte at nightfall, to explore the magical Paris everyone loves. And it did not disappoint. The spontaneous party outside Sacre Coeur (apparently something that just happens all the time), the view of the City of Lights lit up for night time from atop the hill the church sits on, the vibrancy of the crowd outside the Moulin Rouge (budget and a massive line meant we just saw it from outside), it was a great night.

Although not one crowd of people burst into a choreographed musical number outside the Moulin Rouge.

And not ONE magical limousine turned up to whisk me away to a party filled with famous writers and artists in the 1920s.

Needless to say I’m outraged.

On a positive note, our roommates at the hostel are not terrible. Despite a sudden infestation of douchebros on night three, our roommates since arrival have been two Brazilian women whose only flaw is a tendency to chat at full volume if they can’t sleep at 3 A.M.  WE WERE SLEEPING JUST FINE, THANK YOU.

Next time, Paris on a budget and Vimy Ridge.

Curse you, Young Me!

I’m currently three weeks out from my next trip, a European vacation over a year in the planning, a journey I shall refer to a “Dan and Ian Wander Europe.” Works better if you picture it to the tune of “Troy and Abed in the Morning.” You know that one, right? Anyway…

There are two reasons I wanted to go back to mainland Europe for my next big trip. First of all, as discussed in my last post, as much as I love what I’ve seen of Asia, I grew weary of the assumptions  of sex tourism. Second, I haven’t been to mainland Europe since high school. Every year from grade 10 to 12, as part of my high school’s travel club (yes, that was a thing at my high school), I’d spend spring break on the Mediterranean. Italy, Greece and Turkey primarily. They were all great trips, including my first time on a cruise ship…

And in many ways I blew it.

To begin. I’ve long been a little bit obsessive-compulsive, and until I was twenty was a horrifically picky eater. These two things fed into each other. I distrusted sauce (except ketchup and mustard), and could not allow sauce from one food to touch another. Now I live for sauces, but at the time it was quite the problem. The relevant problem is that instead of eating local food in Greece (I now love Greek food), Italy (who doesn’t love pasta?) or Turkey (eh, why not), I sought out the local McDonald’s experiences.

I regret that.

I did not have the best impression of Paris when I first saw it in 1994. It rained a lot, for one, and for two everything was being renovated. I didn’t drink wine (unlike most of the group) and honestly believed Eurodisney to be the best part of our stay in France.

I regret that.

Every year, I got a little older, but the club had to open its doors to the junior high school a little faster. Which meant I routinely roomed with 14 years olds. Have you met a 14 year old? They’re terrible. Some were okay, some I couldn’t stand by the trip’s end, but you can’t always pick your companions.

And so I looked forward to this chance to revisit some places I once loved, like Rome and Florence, places I’ve been meaning to give another look, like Paris, a few places I’ve never seen like Venice, Zurich and Bruges, and a couple of stops at my favourite city on Earth, good old London. And this time around I’ve got a partner in crime to keep life interesting.

I look forward to telling you all about it. Hope you stick around for the journey.