At this point I'm almost home! I'm currently in Dublin, where I'll stay until my flight to JFK on Wednesday.
Since my last update a lot has happened. Here are some highlights:
-Bremen with my friend Ioana and her gang of housemates. I stayed there for about 10 days, and ate more bratwurst. I also caught some performances of an international theater festival that was going on at the time. In addition, I managed to fix one of the many non-functioning bikes in the backyard and went for some rides through the countryside outside of Bremen. There were also walks through the city center, and a visit to the science museum, called Universum. From Bremen I also made side trips to other places, like Hamburg, or the North Sea.
-Amsterdam, where I stayed with two couchsurfing hosts. There I also got around by bike, and it seems the rest of the city does as well (I experienced bicycle traffic for the first time). I spent a lot of time getting lost, but eventually managed to get a map and find my way around (the concentric design of the city literally threw me for a loop). Of course, I checked out some of the red-light district; it's everything they say it is. And, I also got a bagel at Gary's Deli, spent some time strolling through Vondel park and missed my bus to Paris. So, I ended up staying in Amsterdam an extra day, which afforded me some time to check out the van Gogh museum.
-Paris was awesome! I stayed with a friend and former PC colleague. She just moved into her apartment, and the only pieces of 'furniture' she had were a bed and a coffee maker. While there, I was stunned by the city's size and grandeur. There's just so much to see and do, and it's all so classy. I experienced many a fine meal, lots of great wine, good bread and, of course, croissants. On top of that, the deserts were simply out of this world (the best tarte tatin ever). Of course I went to the Louvre, which was great, but a little overwhelming. I have to say, I actually preferred the Musee d'Orsay (I easily spent 4.5 hours there). I walked along the Champs Elysees, went to the Eiffel Tower, took in the sights at the Tuileries garden, visited Notre Dame, and explored the Monmartre district. I spent my last night in Paris at a house party before taking the train to London the next day.
-More house parties in London. In fact, one was going on when I arrived at my hosts' place in East London (there was homemade cheesecake and a banjo and flute duet, might I add). One of my hosts also took me a lovely autumn bike ride along the canals of East London, past Victoria Park and right out of town to Epping forest. On the way I caught a glimpse of the construction site for the 2012 Olympics. We stopped along the way at a canal-side pub for a few pints of Fuller's.
-Ireland. I decided to hitchhike from London, which was both a good and a bad choice. It all started one gloomy morning in London. The skies were ominously grey, and the rain was drizzling lightly. Nevertheless, the weather seemed like it might clear up, so I held out hope for the best and boarded a train to High Wycombe (the town from which I planned to hitch north).
When I got to Wycombe, I had to walk across town and trek up a huge hill until I got to the junction with the main motorway. Luckily the rain seemed to be holding off, and though the skies were still grey, it seemed that perhaps the clouds would burn off fairly soon. I plopped down my bags on the side of the road, took out my sign (which read: "North (Ireland)") and stood there with a pleasant smile on my face, feeling lucky. However, my luck was soon to change. No more than five minutes passed before the torrential rains started, and they didn't let up for the rest of the time. Needless to say, I got soaked. I stood there for nearly two hours before a truck stopped. The driver was a Polish fellow named Tomek. He said he was going to 'Beer-meeng-haam,' with a short stop in 'Kes-ham.' Because of his thick accent, it took me a moment to realize that 'Beer-meeng-haam' was in fact Birmingham, which was on my way. I climbed in, happy to get out of the rain.
I later found out that 'Kes-ham,' where he had to make a quick delivery, was the small hamlet of Chesham. He showed me his delivery papers, where I saw the address written out. It was only 24km out of the way, so I didn't mind. However, what he promised to be a short side trip tunred out to be a 3.5 hour ordeal.
First of all, Tomek's GPS unit directed him down little country roads that were barely wide enough for his giant truck, let alone on-coming traffic. It was one of those situations where once you start down the road, there's no turning back (litterally, because there was no place where he could turn the rig around). For most of the way the roads were lined with tall, thick hedges on either side. In fact, the hedges were so close to the edge of the road that there wasn't any room to pull off to the sides. So, when on-coming cars came along we had to stop, reverse a bit and let them squeeze past, which made for slow going. We weren't the only ones having problems, however. At one point we encountered a roadblock caused by a box truck and a garbage truck that had gotten stuck as one tried to pass the other. Apparently the box truck had tried to go around the garbage truck, driving up onto the small dirt embankment. But the embankment was a bit too steep, and the truck tipped over enough to bump into the garbage truck's trailer. There was nothing to do but stop, get out and try to help seperate the two trucks (meanwhile the traffic was piling up). Eventually we got them apart and we were on our way.
With our luck we got into the town of Chesham and of course got hopelessly lost amidst the tangle of narrow streets and one-way roads. At one point I had Tomek stop, and I got out with the delivery papers to ask for directions to the address. The man at the shop drew me a map, which I used to give Tomek directions (using hand gestures because he didn't really understand English). It took a while, but we got to the delivery point. On our way out we ended up getting lost again in a residential area where we had no choice but to turn around, an impossible feat. In the process we hit a parked car, tore up someone's lawn, completely ran over a street sign and nearly took out a lamp post, all to the complete shock and disgust of the on-looking locals. After about 20 minutes of swearing and cursing in Polish, Tomek finally manged to weasle his way out and we were back on the motorway.
Unfortunately, because our little side trip had taken so much time, Tomek wasn't able to make it to Birmingham that day. He had to stop in Oxford, where he dropped me off at the highway service station. I hung out in the trucker's lot, holding up my sign hoping that someone was going my way. Unfortunately, there didn't seem to be anyone heading North on the M40, or at least no one that was willing to take a passenger. Then, finally, I found a Czech trucker who said he was going do Dublin. The catch was that he was leaving at midnight, and the time at that point was only 4:30 pm. I said I'd look elsewhere to see if I could get a ride a bit sooner.
So, I stood at the exit of the gas station, holding out my sign. It was like most people didn't see me, or didn't want to look at me. A few kind souls stopped to inquire, but it turned out they weren't going my way. Eventually, an Irish lad pulled up. He seemed rather excited that I was going to Ireland, and said he'd be happy to drive me to Dublin. He kept saying it was my lucky day. But he really meant it was his lucky day. Long story short, he swindled me out of 70 pounds, took me for a ride to his home in a nearby trailer park and almost got me in a fight with a gang of his mates. Luckily, I got out of that situation and walked back to the service station. I was glad that at least they didn't hurt me or steal any of my belongings.
Back at the service station, I kept waiting and waiting for a ride. By about 6:30 it was getting dark, and I figured my chances of getting a ride were pretty much nill. So, I resigned to the idea of forcing myself to stay awake until midnight and go with that Czech driver. If for any reason that didn't work, I knew I could always stay at the nearby Day's Inn for the night.
So, the plan at that point was just to wait (the driver was sleeping, so I didn't want to disturb him). I went into the service station to use the facilities, got a coffee and some KFC, and looked at my road atlas to kill the time. I went back out at midnight, and luckily the truck was still there, shades drawn. I waited about 15 minutes for the driver to wake up. He saw me waiting in front of his truck and immediately recognized me from earlier.
His name was something I couldn't for the life of me manage to pronounce, something that sounded like Gus (so I'll just call him that). Like, Tomek, he didn't speak a lick of English. But, unlike Tomek (who didn't shut up the whole time I rode with him), Gus was extremely quiet. I tried to start up a conversations a few times, but they never went anywhere. So, I had a very quiet ride to through Wales to the port at Holyhead where we were to catch the ferry. We got there by 6:00, and becuase I came in on a truck, the guards thought I was a trucker. So, I got free passage on the ferry, as well as a cabin with bed, a free breakfast and access to the trucker's lounge. It was beyond my wildest dreams! The ferry ride was over 3 hours long, most of which I slept through. Once we got to Dublin, we got off the ferry and Gus dropped me off somewhere on the highway a bit outside Dublin. Just as you might expect, it was raining cats and dogs. From there I asked around how to get to the city center, found a tram and took it into town.
So, all in all I got from London to Dublin for virtually no money (if you don't count the 70 quid I lost...which I'd rather not count as a travel expense). I hadn't ever expected to get a ride staight to Dublin; I was originally planning to get a ride to Wales and just stay there for a day ro two. But, I was lucky enough to get a ride straight through, so I took it. Since I'd arrived in Dublin a day earlier than I'd planned, I didn't have any accomodations arranged. However, it was easy to find a cheap hostel for the night.
The next day I took a bus to the city of Navan, about an hour north of Dublin, where I stayed with a nice Polish couple. From there, I explored some of the surrounding area. It's incredible how much old stuff there is throughout the area! I went to visit one of the oldest man-made structures in the western hemishpere, the Newgrange megalithic tomb (also known as Bru na Boinne in Gaelic). It's basically a mound of dirt and rocks in a field that has a passageway leading to a burial chamber inside. At over 5,000 years old, the thing is even older than the pyramids of Giza! It's incredible to think that they managed to build the thing with stone blocks taken from over 70km away (some weighing over 5 tons). It took 60 years to build (and back then an average lifespan was about 25 years, so that means it took nearly 3 generations!).
The other day I went for a hike next to the river Boyne. Along the way I saw two castles, an old abbey, a mansion nestled in the woods, and on top of all that, I got absolutely drenched by the torrential downpours. The path somewhat ended a fews times, but I just kept following the river (which at some points took me through fields and private properties with signs like, "owner reserves right to shoot," or "turn back immediately"). After walking for about 8 miles, I reached the next town, Slane. The place is synonymous with St. Patrick because it was on the hill of Slane that St. Patrick lit an Easter fire to celebrate Christianity's triumph over paganism in the year 433. I went up to the hill of Slane to see the ruins of an old monastery built there in the 1500's. The rain was still coming down hard, and I was the only one up there, so I took shelter in the ruins of the old college and had a little lunch. It was so cool to be the only one there, and to have totally free reign in the ruins; you could walk all aorund them and inside them as well!
Just yesterday I went to the town of Trim, where they have a castle dating from the 1100's. I went on a guided tour inside the keep, and then just walked around the grounds for a while. This was actually the castle that they used to film Braveheart. I learnt many interesting things about the medieval castle design, such as the fact that they collected rain water for drinking (and if the enemy wanted to spoil their water supply, they'd catapult an animal carcass into it). Also, before they used tiled roofing, they used animal hides (which they would wet down before attack to prevent fires from flaming arrows). Also, they'd ward off attacks by boiling a mixture of sand and tallow (since they didn't have oil). Furthermore, it was common for noble living quarters to have a little hole in the corner of the room in which the inhabitant would relieve himself (the sewage would be carried by pipe down to a sort of holding tank. An interesting/disgusting side-note: it was common to hang clothing over the hole because the fumes that crept back up were effective in delousing). With regard to spiral staircases, they designed them to rotate clockwise for strategic reasons- if a right handed warrior were attacking up the steps, the spiral design would restrict the use of his fighting arm and force him to constantly turn his body and expose himself to attack (likewise, the steps were purposely made of differing heights and widths to trip up a hurrying attacker).
Today I'm back in Dublin, staying with an older Irish fellow named Loch. His place is a quaint little house with drafty doors, old books and lots of interesting trinkets scattered about. It's in the east of the city, near the harbor. Loch welcomed me with a cup of hot tea and some apple cake. He also gave me some maps and guidebooks and suggested that tomorrow I take his bicycle and go to check out the cliffs of Howth. It's supposed to be a beautiful day, so I think I will.
It's hard to believe that in three days' time I'll be home in the US! What a long, strange trip it's been...