Porto: Valentine's Day at McDonald's

More restaurants need to stay open on Sundays in Europe. There, I said it. It's one of the biggest frustrations that Americans seem to encounter when traveling in Europe, and it's the only reason I'm thankful that there is a McDonald's everywhere. There, I admitted that too.

We left Lisbon on a late Sunday afternoon, which also happened to be Valentine's Day. We boarded a bus that was similar to Bolt Bus in both price and comfort, sans the free Wi-Fi. You can't have it all. But Rede-Expressos is more like the equivalent of Greyhound, being a nationwide bus company...although that nation is a tad smaller. By the time we arrived in Porto, it was already nightfall and dinnertime. This time we had a map and found the hostel much easier this time, with the exception of taking a few dark back alleys that I would never enter again - especially not by myself.

Our second hostel was the Porto Poets Hostel, another hipster, boutique hostel. If it weren't for the fact that we had arrived from the greatest hostel in the history of hostels, the Porto Poets would have been just lovely. This time, the room was much more cramped, there were more little fees here and there (i.e. towels) and there wasn't a key for my locker, but Rachel was nice enough to let me share with her. Luckily, we both only had the teeny-tiny bags that we could carry on to Ryanair anyway.

And naturally by this point, we were very hungry. When we asked the front desk employee where we could find dinner. He looked at us blankly, saying that it's Sunday so there wasn't really anything open. But noticing the developing faces of frustration on the three of us, he said we had two options: a small restaurant nearby (that he sort of pointed to and couldn't give us a name) or McDonald's.

After dropping our bags off in the room, we ventured out into the very windy night to find an ATM and this small restaurant. We think we found it, but it didn't look all that appealing at all. And that's how we ended up at McDonald's on Valentine's Day. But it was definitely the nicest McDonald's I've ever seen, with modern decor and the ambiance of an actual restaurant. Not to mention the value meal prices were much cheaper in Portugal than in France, where a value meal starts around 6€ ($8-9). The McD's was also packed, mostly with what appeared to be locals considering it was the only thing open on Sundays.

Although that turned out to be untrue, as we found a lively café open right around the corner where we ordered a couple glasses of Port and called it an evening.

Given that there was still blustery weather outside when we woke up, it was time for more indoor activities, starting with the Lello bookstore (pictured, right). Filled with tourists speaking every sort of language and richly designed interior, it felt like a real-life Flourish and Blotts. (If you're not a Harry Potter fan, look it up.) And we would never have happened upon it if it weren't for the recommendation of our new German friend and roommate, Johan. Lello features a neo-Gothic facade and sells books in multiple languages, making it the most beautiful and cosmopolitan bookstore I've ever seen.

As noted before, Portugal is very affordable for the traveler on a budget. And apparently that doesn't stop at taxi fares either, as Johan advised us. There was a special photography exhibit at a modern art museum just outside of town, and since it was rainy and windy and a bit of a journey, we hopped into a cab. And it only cost us 7€ total, each way. I could really get used to Portugal.

After the exhibit, some lunch (where I had something very similar to Poutine, which was delightful), and a trip to the riverfront (which was incredibly windy, not helping my bout of vertigo), it was time to look for Carnaval costumes. The hostel was hosting a Carnaval/Mardi Gras party, complete with a buffet of several courses, wine, caipirinhas and a costume contest. We stumbled into what must have been the only costume store for miles as it was lined from wall to wall with teenagers trying on sequined masks and tossing around tiaras and trinkets on the shelves.

Within 20 minutes, we had our costumes. Rachel was going to a bird with a very fine winged mask and blue feathered boa, Amy was going as a flapper with a silver and pink-feathered headband, and I chose to go as a princess with a tiara and Marie Antoinette-style mask, naturally.

There was one mishap that we ran into when we got back to the hostel. That morning, I had turned in my laundry with the girl at the front desk, and she said it would be on my bed by the time we returned that evening. That was at 11 AM. We got back after 6 PM. She hadn't even started it yet. She mumbled something about being busy most of the afternoon, and she would start it then and it would be ready within two hours. But really, how long does it take to throw a small bag of clothes into a laundry machine? A few minutes. But as the laundry room was right outside of our bedroom, I noticed that she didn't even put it into the laundry machine until an hour after I spoke to her. So when it rolled around to the middle of the party, I asked her about it, and she made a face realizing she forgot about it and still had to put it into the dryer. Given that I really wanted to pack before I went to bed, I was getting antsy and annoyed. But I said ok, and figured it would be ready by the end of the party.

The Carnaval party was a lot of fun, although not that many people dressed up. We met a bunch of other young people vacationing in Portugal...all of whom lived in France! Vacances d'Hiver really spreads us all out around Europe, I suppose. And because our costumes were just so lovely, we won a free bottle of Port wine! We considered bringing it home, but instead we just opened it then and drank it with other guests at the hostel, quite a number of whom were tuned to the TV, watching the long-track speed skating at the Olympics. Naturally, I joined them.

Some time after midnight, I went back to the room, hoping to see my laundry. It was not there. I went back down to the front desk, but the girl who was responsible for finishing my laundry had already gone home, and now there was a new girl on the night shift, stuck with fixing what the first girl didn't do. Apparently all of my clothes were still wet. I was pretty angry on the inside, but I realized yelling wouldn't do anything about it, especially considering it wasn't this new girl's fault. I told her I didn't know what to do since I had to pack and we had to leave at 7 AM to catch our flight back to Lille. First, she gave me a refund (which I didn't ask for, but I think I was due for one and definitely appeased me), and then she even offered to pack for me. Although I appreciated the offer, I turned it down as I really like to pack my things myself and know where everything is.

Thus, I had to get up much earlier than I planned or wanted to in order to collect my clothes and then figure out how to stuff them back into my Mary Poppins-esque bag all over again.

Our taxi ride to the airport was swift and cheap, plus the driver had picked a great station on radio. Noticing that we liked the songs and started singing along (we were way too chipper for that early in the morning), he turned the volume up and we all cheered. Porto's airport was much more elegant and modern than we expected, and we were even there too early. (Again, I was picturing something from the movie Airplane!) And since our costumes were recently purchased and a bit delicate, we couldn't really pack them. It was Carnaval anyway, so we just wore them at the airport, attracting a lot of looks and even a chuckle from the security agents at Rachel's gold-sequined beak mask.

It was time to board our last Ryanair flight of the journey, and we even got first-class! (The front row.) Two short hours later, even spotting Paris outside the window on the journey north...shortly followed by a giant blanket of snow covering the North, we were back in Lille.

La Isla de Mallorca

Once upon a time, George Sand escaped to the Spanish island of Mallorca with her lover, Frederic Chopin, to escape the nosiness and scorn of the French over their scandalous relationship. But apparently her hideaway wasn't as pleasant as she might have hoped, given that Sand wrote about how much she hated her time on the island in her book, A Winter in Mallorca.

If it's the weather she didn't like, then I can understand a bit. It rained during our stay there…and then it rained some more. Despite the raindrops, it was considerably warmer than Northern France. And I didn't travel to Mallorca to "escape" the French. But it was nice to change up the climate, culture and language a bit.

Although, I didn't get the language adjustment I was expecting. Granted, my Spanish is far rustier than it was on my trip to Spain last June, but I was looking forward to brushing up and seeing how much I could remember. Yet, after less than an hour or two on the island, I noticed something peculiar about the language on the signs and being spoken around our hotel in Palma, the largest and capital city of Mallorca. And I'm not talking about Catalan.

Everything seemed to be in…German.

I'm not quite sure how Palma is advertised in Germany, but during the off-season at least, it seems to be the biggest tourist demographic on the island - by far. All of the signs were in at least Spanish, Catalan and German (and usually English if there was a fourth option), and several of the restaurants around the beaches were all German establishments. I went to Spain with the idea that we'd be eating tapas and drinking sangria out of a faucet, whereas there seemed to be just as many schnitzel and strudels abound. Not that this was a problem - it was just definitely not what we expected.

But I was right about my Spanish being rusty - to the point where I was ashamed of myself. I had to call my mom via Skype on my iPhone several times asking for words and phrases I'm quite sure I knew up until I moved to France. Strange how the two romantic languages I adore and am fascinated by so much seem to map over each other in my brain. Why can't I ever get the two straight? At the same time? After a few days, lots of it was flooding back to me. But after a few days, we were already heading to Portugal.

It wasn't too much of a hindrance though given that most people on the island were very friendly. And by the time we reached our second hostel, the Hostel Tierramar, everyone spoke English given that its run by English people and seemed to be a haven for English, Australian and other English-speaking travelers. We were the only Americans at the hostel…and I didn't come across any others while on the island. One German lady in the elevator even asked if I was from London. (Maybe I should have just gone with it, but I said I wasn't.)  With the smoke-filled bar and pleasant characters with multiple accents, the hostel could have been a good setting for a sitcom.

Along with speaking Spanish, my main objectives for my trip to Spain were eating tapas upon tapas and drinking lots of sweet sangria - both of which were well accomplished. One night we even went on an impromptu tapas/sangria crawl. All I can think about now are dates wrapped in bacon. Genius…

The rest of the time was spent sightseeing on the island, mainly in Mallorca but with a few rained-out excursions to some other villages on the Mediterranean coast. During the offseason, Mallorca is supposed to be filled to the brim with tourists, particularly young ones, all along the soft and sandy beaches. But being that we went in the middle of February (when it's extremely cheap since no one is there) it's also quite wet. But not because of the ocean.

Our first and last days of our time in Mallorca had blue skies, but the middle two were gray and dreary. We foolishly brought swimsuits, even though the highest temperature during the trip must have been somewhere in the high 50s Fahrenheit. Within the city, we traversed many cute, narrow alleyways so typical of Europe that somehow always entertain and delight American tourists to no end. Sometimes we stopped to buy jewelry on sale or bought locally grown, giant and juicy olives at a farmer's market. We also learned that February is the big sales month in Spain and Portugal, whereas January is in France. I guess they rotate in Europe.

Two of the best things I noticed about Palma: first, it's very clean. It's an old city, and in some ways shows its age, but its also well-taken care of. Very few buildings had paint peeling off the sides and the streets, even the tiniest passageways, were very clean. Second, the transportation system is very efficient. One hardly waits for a bus (the longest we must have waited for one to arrive was five minutes), and the buses take you almost anywhere you want to go in the city. Plus, they have a well-organized and very new-looking train station and system to other cities on the island, and commuter buses to most other places nearby.

The first village we took a day trip to was Estellencs over on the coast. After an hour-long bus ride winding along curves reminiscent of Highway 1 on the way to Stinson Beach, we finally got off the bus in a tiny town that appeared to be deserted. But it still looked very posh with a few restaurants, a four-star hotel and many empty, yet expensive-looking homes. It must be a summer home town and I can only imagine how lovely it must be in late July, just a walk from the beach down the hill and watching the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea from this little town tucked into a cove along the coast. After walking around the tiny cobblestone streets and meeting a friendly cat along the way, we stopped into a café, where I had the most amazing lemon sorbet in a champagne flute for only a few Euros. Then we were back on the dizzying bus to Palma.

The next day, we went to Valldemossa, which could have been mistaken for a lovely tourist-centric town in Napa Valley. And this town is lucky it's so cute to begin with, given that it was raining cats and dogs outside. And none of us had umbrellas. I'm thankful I brought my Columbia zip-hoodie sweatshirt on this trip. After trying to dry off in a restaurant with some tapas and hot chocolate, we ventured back outside into the rain again and quickly up a hill to the monastery that Sand and Chopin lived in together. This building was seriously huge and a multi-purpose facility over the years. It was once a monastery with a chapel, and then turned into a hotel of sorts by the state after the French occupation, at which point the happy couple moved in. Now they also have a modern art museum upstairs with a few Miro paintings on display.

On the last day, the sun came out again, and being that it was just Rachel and I by this point, we saved the best outdoor activity for last. We went to a castle. From there we could see the entire city with the sun shining down on it. There weren't many people up there, and it was a bit windy, but it was one of those times where I felt like I was on top of the world. Far from any troubles or worries. Or reality.

Ever since I moved to France, it has felt like I've been away from reality. Or at least the realities I am familiar with and I didn't feel again until I went back to New York for Christmas. That isn't to say things in France aren't real for me, as I've had plenty of hurdles to jump here that are as real as any other. Housing, bank accounts, sorting out bills, the CAF - all in my second language.  None of these things are easy, but they're just the realities of life.

But for a short time on the top of that castle, overlooking all of Palma and out towards the sea with the mid-afternoon sun providing gentle warmth against the winds blowing about, everything was fine.

After four days in Spain, we said hasta luego and headed on another Ryanair plane to Madrid to connect to an easyJet flight to Lisbon. The terminal we were stuck at in Madrid was very representative of the city itself: there wasn't much to do and people were rude. There were two places to eat total, both of which were ridiculously overpriced.  I paid 6€ for a chorizo sandwich the size of my hand, and I was constantly shoved without apology in the duty free shop. It was worse than Manhattan in there.

Thus, I was quite relieved when we finally took off from Madrid, and then an hour later I when I got my first glimpse of a new country.

The Journey South

I used to think the journey from Morningside Heights to JFK Airport was a long one. But that was before I went from Montreuil-Sur-Mer to Brussels Charleroi International Airport in a single day. Four trains, a shuttle bus, a cab ride and then a plane the following next morning is apparently the cheapest way to Spain from here.

Being that it was our third break in the school year (Vacances d'Hiver), a few of us planned a trip to migrate south for 10 days and get out of the cold, rainy weather of Nord Pas de Calais. Our destinations? Spain and Portugal. Our tickets on Ryanair and easyJet for the entire trip were really cheap, and being that it is actually easier to fly from Brussels Charleroi rather than Paris Beauvais (seriously, Beauvais is very far from Paris), we decided to head to Palma, Mallorca from there.

My trip began with waiting for the train at the station, to catch another two trains to Lille. Being that it was a clear day and before noon, I thought there would be no problem or delays. But of course there was. My train to Boulogne-Sur-Mer, which had departed from Arras, was 15 minutes late. And there was only a 22-minute gap in between that train and my connection to Gare Calais-Frethun. By the time the rickety old train finally reached Boulogne, I had two minutes to get myself and my two duffel bags (one of which I was going to live in Lille) four platforms over to the next train. I made it, gasping for air as I flung myself down in my seat, then asking a family in front of me if in fact I was on the right train, which they confirmed.

Up until this point, the sun was uncharacteristically bright with plenty of blue skies hovering over the Cote d'Opale. About 30 minutes later, I was disembarking into a sea of fog. I had to make one more transfer at Calais to catch the TGV to Lille Europe. (Being that it was a Saturday, there are fewer trains towards Lille, thus I had to make two changes, which is unusual but the only way to get there in under two hours.) When the train left me at the platform, it railed away into the mist where I was unable to see it any longer. Within the span of an hour, I had changed from sunglasses to earmuffs. Such is the weather of Northern France.

But within 20 minutes, I was whisking away down to Lille on the high-speed TGV train. After arriving, I completed a couple of errands, namely dropping off one of my bags with my laptop tucked inside at Rachel's apartment in Fives, and then going to La Furet du Nord (a giant bookstore chain) to pick up a copy of The Alchemist for the journey. Being that a Brazilian wrote this novel about a young man traveling in Andalucía (and beyond, but I won't ruin it), I thought it was relevant enough and appropriate for my own trip down to the Mediterranean.

By late afternoon, it was time for the two Rachels to hop on board the Eurostar train to Brussels. Only a 30-minute journey, we arrived at Gare Bruxelles-Midi right on time. Brussels is definitely one of those cities where I visited once and thought, "Okay, well I've seen it and I don't have to come back." Somehow I've been to the quirky little European capital three times now, each time wondering, "How did I get here again?"

We met up with Liz inside the station, and our first order of business was to find the shuttle to Charleroi airport, since we were staying at the Etap Hotel right next door to it that night.

Just to make things clear: Charleroi is not Brussels. Ryanair might say it is, but it's not. We learned this the very, very hard way. I knew we were in for a trek getting there, but it was beyond anything that any of us expected. After meeting up with Liz, we asked a few station agents where was the shuttle to Charleroi Airport. And after asking in both English and French and getting responses in both languages, all of those responses were different. And given that Bruxelles-Midi is the size of a small airport and one of the largest train hubs in Europe, walking around the perimeter of this station countless times while carrying somewhat-heavy bags on our shoulders wasn't exactly relaxing.

After about 20 minutes, we finally came upon a bus that departed every 30 minutes to Charleroi. Being that the description of this bus matched the one we had read about on the Internet before, we assumed this was the correct connection and decided we'd go eat in the center of town first before heading out to the middle of nowhere.

So after getting on a quick train to Bruxelles-Central (which you can only get on if you already had a major train ticket from TGV, Eurostar or Thalys to Midi), we hopped off and ate at the same restaurant I ate at on my first voyage to Brussels in 2004. And what did I eat? The perfect Belgian meal: fries and waffles. All that was missing was a side of mussels, but I had to keep costs down somehow.

After dinner, it was already nightfall, past 6 PM. We were aiming to get back to Midi to get to the bus by 7 PM. After trying to figure out the Brussels metro system for a few minutes, we got onto a train, which transported us back to the 1970s. I seriously questioned whether or not the Berlin Wall had fallen yet or not. It's not that the train was old itself, but it had that mustard yellow and brown color scheme going on that only goes with a shaggy carpet.

Two metro trains later, we were back at the bus stop outside of Midi. Only, after we got on the bus and were about to pay, I asked the driver if he was going to Charleroi. He said he was going to the town, but not the airport, and that we shouldn't board that bus. So we hopped off quickly, and a Belgian girl tried to help us by suggesting we take the train. However, I think we were all sure the train was more expensive and the shuttle bus was only supposed to cost 13€.

So we headed back into Midi, asking two more times where to find the bus. Finally, we tried the last door out of the station that we hadn't exited from before, and sure enough, we found the navette (airport shuttle). After a 45-minute drive, we got to the airport. At this point, it was approaching 8:30 PM. We could even see the neon-blue sign of the Etap hotel, but being that it was dark, freezing and no sidewalks in sight, our only option was a taxi. But when we got into the first taxi, the very brash driver informed us sharply that it would cost us 20€ minimum. For a five-minute drive. So we hopped out of there as faster than we got in. We almost started to walk out of the airport, but there was really no safe way to do that, especially in the dark.

We headed into the terminal, which looked recently renovated, shiny and spotless. (I've always imagined Ryanair to fly into places with wooden shacks for terminals - somewhere that hasn't been renovated since the 1950s and might have an old TWA sign hanging off its hinges, but it turned out to be the quite the opposite on this trip.) As we were unsure at this point what to do, Liz called the Etap concierge, who saved the day by sending over a taxi that only cost 7€ total.

Etap is a hotel chain in Europe that is hit or miss. It's quite cheap (our room was only 49€ per night, then split amongst three people) and they're available in most cities and near most airports. However, they're not always clean (or bearable, as I've read in some reviews). But thankfully, after a voyage that lasted nearly a day just to get to an airport for a 20€ flight, ours was one of the nice ones, with a friendly staff to boot. There was even a TV! What a treat just a simple TV has become after living without one for months.

However, we had only just begun our vacation, and we were already exhausted. Several different phone alarms woke us up at 6 AM, at which point we gathered our things, headed back down stairs and into the taxi back to the airport.

There was one thing that had kept me nervous the whole previous day: I typed in my passport number wrong when checking in for the flight online. I was terrified that because I added an extra digit, they might not let me board the plane as some kind of security precaution. However, it turned out that they didn't even care, just taking a glance at my passport and stamping my boarding pass, "Visa Checked." It was lucky for me, but I certainly hope that any potential terrorists don't try to plan their journey through Charleroi.

Soon later, we were on the plane, flying over the clouds and the European continent to the Spanish island of Mallorca…