Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Hairy Lemon

We hadn’t researched Albania at all before we arrived by ferry from Greece. Some people that we talked to thought it might be dangerous and said we might not want to go. But after asking them questions about why they really couldn’t say. They just had heard maybe it wasn’t safe. These people had also never been there. So it was hard to believe people who didn’t really know. When questioning people who had actually been there we found the people who did know said it was a wonderful country. So we really wanted to experience this Eastern European country. We took a short boat ride from Corfu, Greece. Albania is so close to Corfu that you can very easily see it across the water.

When we stepped off the boat we had to go through customs and the first thing we looked for was a tourist information booth. After some language struggles we were pointed far down the

beach to a little yellow roofed building in the distance. We started the hike along the shoreline

passing stony beaches, authentic looking shops and restaurants. When we reached the booth we were looking for we stepped into a well-deserved air-conditioned room. The girl at the info booth tried to help but she did not have information about Albania. She actually didn’t even know much about her country. We asked if she knew of an inexpensive hotel or hostel.

She told us of a hotel back by the ferry docks we had just walked from. So off we went, for a few blocks and then broke down and grabbed a taxi. It was just too hot and we were too tired.

The hotel was really nice, too nice. But then again you never know. Possibly it would be a decent price. After some more language issues we learned that the rooms were not too bad but they were all two person rooms and we would not all fit in one room and would need two rooms, which increased the price by too much to be affordable. Plus we really didn’t want to get two rooms and have to sleep separately.

At that time we remembered a little card a girl from our hostel in Corfu had given us when hearing we were coming to Albania. It was a card for the Hairy Lemon hostel. It sounded like a strange name but worth a call. I asked the guy at the front desk of the hotel if I could borrow his cell phone. He passed it over and I called the number on the card and an Irish lady answered the call. Annette said she was right down the road. I asked if she could come and pick us up. She said she would be there to pick us up in a few minutes. Annette was right there in her crazy UK jeep.

We loaded up and she admitted that she had never had a family stay in her hostel, but was sure it would work fine. The hostel was on the eighth floor of a new apartment building. It was beautifully decorated and had three rooms, which she moved a couple of girls out of so we could have the whole room for ourselves.

What a wonderful hostess. She gave us all the information that we needed about Albania and what we would need to see.

She was so informed about the area is like we were in a tourist info booth. Annette had a crazy Irish accent and was fun to be with and cooked a mean breakfast crepe. We bought a metal sieve so we could boil water and use a napkin in it to make coffee every morning. Annette and the other travelers at the hostel loved our "Canadian" coffee. My friend Cindy sent a bunch of individual coffee pkg.s with so we could have a taste of home. It was wonderful.

We spent 4 nights at the Hairy Lemon and had a very comfortable stay and absolutely loved the friendly people and amazing sites. Below is a photo of our backpacks. This is what we carried everything in. Whenever we stayed at one place for longer than one night. I would unpack everything and lay it all out on piles. I think it was the way I nested and made every place we stayed in feel like home.

The balcony gave us a very nice breeze at night because the temp. never really went below 100 degrees till early morning. We had a ceiling fan so we put it on high and left the patio door open to get the wind blowing through. We learned to just go to sleep very hot.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Rome Train Station memory

We started our trip to Europe after selling our home of 15 years. Putting everything in storage, giving our 2 family dogs Sandy and Tasha to very great families and boarding our 2 ponies Arnold and Missy with friends. We signed up for Skype put a message on our answering machine saying we went to Europe for 2 months so don’t leave a message and off we went. Just like that. Kinda.

We boarded our flight in the afternoon after dropping the last dog off at her new owners. I thought there might be a few tears, but the excitement that lay ahead and the knowledge of the good home must have been enough to hold them back. Our journey started with a flight to Minneapolis to board the overnight flight to Holland and then the shorter 2 hour or so flight to Rome, Italy. I was smart enough to book the first 3 nights at a hostel in Rome to recover from the flights, time change and just the overall fatigue from the last 2 months of packing up an 8 acre yard and a big house with 15 years of I’ll deal with it later “stuff”. The overnight flight was actually not too bad. We didn’t really sleep very much but the plane had a variety of different movies at each seat and I think we each watched 3 or 4 movies during the 9 hour flight. We were also fed continuously. The weird part was to be fed breakfast at 2 am our time and lunch a 6 am our time. We dozed and ate all night. It was fine.

By the time we arrived in Rome it was afternoon Europe time. Somewhere in the morning we just flipped over and never dealt with much jetlag at all. When we arrived into Rome airport we knew we would need to get to the central train station to take a train over to the hostel. We bought our tickets and saw the train was just about to leave so we started the journey in Rome, running to the train. We of course made it and proceeded to find a seat. The seats on this train were all in little rooms. The room we found had a couple of guys in it and they made room for us. We sat down and double check with these guys that we had the right train. This move would prove to save our butts many times during the next 2 months.

*Lesson # 1- Always check to make sure you are on the right train.

We of course were on the right train. Whew…but forgot to validate our tickets. The guys in our room explained to us that the tickets always have to be validated before getting on the train and this had to be done at the little yellow machine back from where we had just run from. What to do? As we where in a bit of a not panic, but trying to quickly figure out what to do mode, the guy told us to give him the ticket and he would validate it for us. He also explained that if the ticket wasn’t validated it could cost us a 200 Euro fine. Each. As the train started leaving the station we said a little prayer and it worked. The train ticket checker (can’t remember right now what they are called) came and looked a bit undecidedly at our ticket and when the guy in our room explained the problem to him he just nodded and gave us back our ticket.

· Lesson # 2- Validate the tickets.

We get to the central train station and are excited, nervous and tired. We can’t wait to get to our hostel and relax. We are in Europe!!

As we step out of the train we are overwhelmed by the amount of trains, platforms and people. We first got out the address of the hostel and started walking with the group of people from our train to somewhere. At this point we were sheep following the herd. After walking for 10 minutes or so we finally get to an area that has a few signs and start looking for ticket sales or an info booth, or something that will direct us to our hostel. As we pass other backpackers I ask a few if they know where the info booth is and they pointed us to an out of the way place where we found the ticket booth. The lineup was really long and so the kids sat with our packs as we tried to figure out the schedule and where we wanted to go. The ticket guy seemed really helpful and off we went to find our train.

-Lesson #3- Always double check the ticket destination.

As we passed out of the ticketing area, Miranda said the dreaded words “ I have to go to the bathroom”. Dreaded because the bathrooms were down a long flight of stairs, and with our packs it was a hike. So Dean and Colton stayed with the packs and Miranda and I ran over to a barricade with a pay before you go in door separating us from the toilets. Ahh, frustration begins as I firstly try to figure out the money and the machine and realize I have enough change for only one of us to enter. So I pay and send her in. As I stand nearby looking in I hope she doesn’t have any troubles working the European toilet and sink. A few minutes go by and she comes out smiling and we run back up to the guys.

-Lesson #4- Always keep spare change in your pocket.

Once again we are on our way. A little bit closer to the hostel and a bed. While Miranda and I were in the bathroom, Dean and Colton tried to figure out the platform number where the train was supposed to leave from. The thing we finally learned after some help from other travelers is that they only post the platform numbers 10 minutes before the train departure time. So now we had to wait ½ an hour to learn where we had to leave. This in itself wouldn’t be bad other than the station is huge; there are many platforms and hundreds of people.

When the massive overhead schedule board finally changed the times of departure, hundreds of people also standing there looking up for their platform took off running for a good spot on the train. Being the first time we had no clue as to why they would be running but we also couldn’t find the mane of our town on the board. Dean, being the one great with names in our family recognized the name of a town along the same schedule line as our town, from when he was looking at the main schedule paper at the ticket office. We quickly asked an official looking man who nodded and said yes, this was the train. So we ran and jumped in the first train car. As we were jumping into the extremely crowded car, people looked at us like we were crazy with our backpacks and I’m sure a tired, frazzled look. I once again asked the first friendly face I could find. Who of course could not speak English, and happened to be squished so close he couldn’t possibly ignore me, if we were on the correct train. I showed him the ticket we had purchased and he nodded until I showed him the address of our hostel. Then he started talking quickly in Italian to me and the other passengers around us. I started to get a bit nervous when they all got that confused look on their faces and also started shaking their heads. Oh no, this was bad. We were on a train that was seconds from leaving the station and had bought the wrong ticket! All around us people encouraged us to get off the train. It felt crazy, how could we have bought the wrong ticket. Where these people out to get us? Where they intentionally telling us wrong information? No, we had to trust they were not all in cahoots to fool us. That was the ½ hour of sleep last night talking. We had just for some reason gotten the wrong ticket and we had to get off, now.

-Lesson #5- Ask people for help

We did make it off the train and stood there for a moment a bit stunned. So, now what? Well, we decided to find a tourist info booth and ask them where we were going and what was the correct train. So we waked around a bit looking for a sign for the tourist booth and saw nothing. Where was it. This was a top tourist destination. There should be info booths all over.

As we were looking I started feeling like I had booked a bad hostel, that we were in this predicament because I hadn’t researched enough and it was my fault. I also started to worry about getting to the hostel in time so that they wouldn’t give our room to someone else and we would have no room tonight. So while we struggled to find a info booth I felt like we also needed to contact the hostel to let them know we were coming and also get instructions for the train.

I shared with Dean what I was feeling and as we looked for the info booth we also looked for a pay phone. As we walked alone we met a train station security guard. Great! Finally, someone to help us. I walked up and asked him for directions to the info booth. He looked me right in the eye and said in perfect English that he did not speak English. So I put on my nicest Canadian smile and said in my best Italian accent again if he could tell us where the info booth was. He leaned closer and in his rudest, meanest Canadian accent said “I DO NOT SPEAK ENGLISH”. What a jerk. What a rude, rude mean man. Did he not see that we really needed his help? Did he not see that I was on the tip of loosing it, obviously not. So I did what any tired Canadian woman would do and walked away while muttering under my breath what a ***** he was and we would find it ourselves.

- Lesson #6- Just because someone is wearing a uniform does not mean they are nice or friendly.

That may have been the end of it if my all about the rules son had not heard it and called me on my unmotherly language and looked very hurt that I would be anything less than perfect in times of stress. I of course again did what any very tired and stressed out mother would do and walked very quickly in front of the disappointed son while wiping the tears of embarrassment and complete exhaustion from my eyes.

-Lesson #7- Its O.K. to cry but not O.K. to call people names. (at least not when kids might hear).

Dean took one look at me and decided that was it. We would walk all the way back to the ticket counter and get some new tickets and make sure it was to the right place. It would take some time but at least we knew where the ticket booth was.

Along the way we spotted a pay phone along the wall. It gave us something else to focus on for the moment, which was a good distraction. Or, maybe not. Dean grabbed some change together and put the correct amount into the phone and dialed the number. Nothing happened. So he tried to get his money back. Nope. It wouldn’t come out. So he tried another phone. Same thing. It didn’t work and he couldn’t get his money back. As he was getting ready to loose it on the phones, a man stopped and asked if he could help us. We told him what had happened and he commented about the stupid Italian phones and how people intentionally broke them and rigged them up to steal your money and they could then get it back once you walked away. He banged on a few phones and finally found one that worked. He called the hostel for us and told them we were on the way. They said they would wait for us at the train station and they could drive us back in their car.

-Lesson #8- Pay phone in Europe can not be trusted to work.

We got back to the ticket booth, talked to the very embarrassed ticket seller. He was very sorry for selling us the wrong ticket. The next train was in another hour or so and we did eventually make it to the hostel and supper and a room with beds.

- Lesson # 9- It will all work out already.

We now knew how the train stations worked, the hard way.