Monday, December 27, 2010

The 7 Most Important Things I Learned in Europe

1. How to Accept People for Who they Are: Traveling to so many vastly different places over the course of the semester has allowed me to see firsthand how unique each country is. With that, I've learned to try to look at cultures with less judgment. Instead of comparing every place I've been to America, I've become much better at just accepting and appreciating the differences in our cultures. Yeah, some things might seem very strange at first, but that doesn't mean it's wrong or bad, just that it's different. Of course, I've also done better at just accepting other people or MUDECers. I've definitely been frustrated at times with the conduct and behavior of some of the other Miami students here, but spending so much time in close proximity with everyone allows you to see people in many different lights. I don't know, I'm beginning to believe that there is a little good in everyone. Maybe it's because I've spent a lot of time with a lot of very, very unique people, but I feel like I can better relate to anybody now. And that is definitely a good thing, for what is life but the vast and mysterious web of interpersonal connections?

2. Alcohol isn't All Bad: Before coming to Europe, I had only had a few drinks (all of which I consumed legally with my parents), and I'll admit, I had a somewhat negative bias towards people who drank, probably because almost everyone I saw drinking was drinking illegally. I do not like to break laws. That hasn't changed. But, I have gained a new found appreciation and respect for alcohol and the people who consume it - as long as they do so responsibly. Europeans have a completely different perspective on alcohol usage. There is a strong connection between alcohol and food, and alcohol and relationships. People just drink with their meals, and don't make a big deal out of it. I promise you, the taboo effect is what causes so many underage people to drink in America. You take the rebellious aspect out of it, and people just do it responsibly. At many bars, you'll see 16 and 17 year old kids drinking, but they don't binge drink like college students in America do. They just take their time and enjoy each other's company. I've learned a lot about alcohol since I've been here, and I think that education makes me respect and appreciate it more.

3. A Calm Head and a Flexible Attitude are the Most Important Things to Bring With You When You Travel: Yeah, things are going to go wrong at times, in fact, things go wrong a lot. But, it does you absolutely no good whatsoever to panic. Trust me, there will always be somebody else who is going to panic, but a group needs someone to think clearly and calmly. I got myself into a couple harrowing situations such as having had my bed on an overnight train double-booked in Germany, having to spend the night in Břeclav, and not knowing where our hostels were in various places, including Zurich and Brussels. But through all of it, I never panicked, and that was a huge benefit to my own personal sanity and the collective mental state of the group.

4. You Can Communicate with Anyone:
Walking around anywhere in Europe (except the UK or Ireland) you probably won't hear a lot of English being spoken aloud. However, English is the most common second language in the world, so almost every single person speaks some English. That being said, I cannot stress enough how much of an advantage you will have if you can speak one other language. For me, the ability to speak French came in handy several times. For example, that first weekend trip to Brussels and Bruges, if I hadn't had been able to speak French to the ticket guy in Arlon, we would have ended up paying way more for our tickets than we did. Also, learning another language (German) was incredibly valuable. For when it came down to it, that crazy night in Břeclav, if I hadn't been able to speak basic (read: broken) German, we may not have had a place to sleep that night. It is completely worth it to learn at least some of the basic phrases and words in the language of the place you're staying. People so much appreciated my attempts to speak their language everywhere we went - that was a pretty interesting cross-cultural observation I made. It didn't matter if we were in France, Poland, Germany, Italy, the Czech Republic, whatever - people everywhere appreciate the effort. In the worst possible cases, where there is a complete language barrier (which never actually happened to me), gesturing and drawings can be used to communicate. In all reality, communication between any two humans is not that challenging, no matter where you are.

5. People are Not All that Different:
Going along with the lack of a general language barrier, I've come to realize that people in general are really not all that different. I mean, so many things, especially laughter, is universal. Happiness is widespread across the world. I don't know, maybe I thought people would be bummed out because they didn't live in America or didn't have our freedoms, but most people seem to be pretty darn content. It seems strange looking back now, but I really don't think it was that hard to assimilate into European culture either. I think our society, in America at least, places too much emphasis on the differences between cultures and not on the similarities. I mean, it was sometimes work to try to find differences between Americans and Europeans.  All in all, I've come to the conclusion that people from anywhere can relate to people everywhere.

6. Travel Brings out People's True Personalities:
Yeah. You can tell a lot about a person by how they act under pressure. A smart man (Martin Luther King Jr.) once said something to the effect of "The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy." True story - when you get people out of their comfort zone, as happened almost every weekend, you see people for who they are. Some people can act calm and composed and friendly around the Chateau or in class, but get them walking around a strange city with no breakfast, and you find out who the good ones are. I wonder what other people thought of me, based on our travels, because I certainly formed opinions as to the character of others. It is fascinating indeed, that you get people out of place and they might change so drastically. Fascinating, and I would even go as far as to say mildly entertaining at times.

7. I can do Anything:
That's what's up. four months ago, I was terrified - terrified that I would be living in a strange and foreign country, with nobody I knew that well, in a strange home, traveling all over Europe. Now, it doesn't seem like such a big deal. I was pushed, challenged beyond what I could have ever imagined, but I held my own. I managed any problems I faced (or at least I thought so) and passed with flying colors. Twas indeed a testament to my upbringing and personality that I was able to handle myself as I did. I felt like I grew up a lot over the past semester. I did so many great things, with so many great people. I have memories that will last a lifetime and I already miss it. All in all, totally worth it, a million times over. 

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

La Vie Luxembourgeoise

Author's Note
I wanted to write a blog post about what I do everyday, just to describe the smaller differences between my life here and American life. I started writing this while procrastinating for finals. However, since I have now completed all my finals and actually have time to write, I've found myself more interested in just relaxing and enjoying the last few hours of my European adventure. Thus, I elected to cut my story short, for it would have been wrong to continue it just for the sake of continuing it. So, I present to you, the Luxembourgish life, or at least the Luxembourgish life for a couple of hours on a Thursday.

La Vie Luxembourgeoise
I wake to the sound of my borrowed cell phone vibrating against my night stand. It's 9:00 am. A minute later, as I'm still rubbing my eyes, the alarm goes off on my alarm clock by the bed. It's 9:01 am. I shut it off and make sure it won't go off again at 9:02, like I set it to. I whip my glasses so that the sides extend and put them on. I hit the lights before I get out of bed, and I turn them off a second later when I turn on the other set of lights nearer my table.

I grab my clothes for the day, and walk down the creaky stairs to the bathroom. I put some eyedrops in, take my glasses off, and put my contacts in. I then shower, much quicker than I would in America because I know that utilities are ridiculous here. I dry off before I step out of the glass box, and then shave and comb my hair. I dress, and then head back upstairs. I return back downstairs a second later to grab my breakfast - bread and nutella. I could honestly eat it every day for the rest of my life and be satisfied. I drink with my breakfast some sort of juice, always enjoyably.

I hang out for a while, and I leave at 9:56 to walk to the train station. I climb down the two flights of stairs, stopping halfway to put my shoes on, and then I exit out Norby's front door. I turn right and head downhill on the Rue des Charbons. I pass the Portuguese bar on the corner that always seems so lively. I cross the Rue de Canal, stopping to pause at the oncoming traffic. I still don't understand Luxembourgish traffic laws, so I always wait until I know the cars are going to stop before I cross the street.

I pass the Portuguese futbol bar on the left side of the street, and I pass the little, new, Italian cafe. I walk by a bridal shop on the right side of the street, just before turning left on the Rue de l'Alzette. It's a busy street, especially at this hour. People crowd the pedestrian shopping street, leaving the center mostly open for the occasional car. There are no trucks today, since most deliveries are on Mondays, and Fridays are the days they pick up trash.

I pass the Apple store on the right side of the street that offers leases on laptops. I wonder at who would ever lease a laptop? I pass the chocolate shop that I've never been in, and the first of three lingerie shops I pass everyday on my way to school. I turn right on the Avenue de la Gare when I get to the BNP Paribas bank with the ATM. I walk past the cafe called "Chez Kill" where I had coffee once, it was just ok. I turn left on Rue or Avenue or Boulevard, John F. Kennedy. He was pretty much the last great American loved by Europeans, so pretty much every city has a street named after him.

I cross the street once I get to the crosswalk in front of the train station, that is, after pushing the button and watching the signal "Signal kommt" flash several times. I enter through the strange, semi-revolving doors that are pushable and pullable from either direction. I go up the stairs on the left, passing the sign that says, "Direction Petange." I stand on the platform, usually for about 5-7 minutes, since I have this innate desire to be early for everything. It's near insanity.

When the train pulls up at 10:17, I'm not surprised, since by this late in the morning, trains are almost expected to run late. Thankfully it's not too late. I enter the train and take a seat by myself on the bottom level. Today, since it's past rush hour and the train isn't too crowded, I sit in one of the four-seater units, and have enough room to put my backpack on the seat next to me and stretch my legs out. I watch out the window as we pass Belval-Universite, Belval-Redange, Belvaux-Soleuvre, and Oberkorn before my stop in Differdange 16-18 minutes later. I hop off the train, and head down the stairs beside the elevated tracks.

I turn left at the bottom of the stairs and walk under the overpass on which the train rests. I walk past Das Boot - the Miami student population's favorite bar, bar none. I pass the elementary school, but the children aren't outside playing today. It's cold now, so I can see them frolicking in their classrooms through the huge glass windows. I walk up the driveway of the elementary school, right after passing the wonderful pizza place, Smile Pizza, where one of the nicest ladies in Differdange works and teaches me Italian. I then walk up the large staircase, taking the shortcut up to the Chateau. Earlier in the year, the local teenage drug dealers would wait there and yell the few english words they knew at the passing MUDEC students. Now it's cold, and they are not there anymore. The path is slippery and icy, but I manage by trudging through the snowier part of the walkway, dodging the low-hanging pine branches. I round the corner and enter the open gates of the Chateau. I enter through the side door, pushing in the access code and pulling the door open.

I wipe my feet off on the mat inside the door. I head down into the cave and rotate the combination on my lock one click so that it pops open. I put my scarf and jacket in my locker, and then throw my econ textbook back in there. I move to the other side of the chateau and take my seat in one of the comfy armchairs in the corner. I fiddle around on the computer for a bit, not really accomplishing anything, just trying to waste some time before class.

Let's pretend I have poli sci class and my hitler class on Thursdays. I don't, but it will better exemplify a typical day here at the chateau if I did. So I go to poli sci class. I sit in the second to last row in the back of the room, and crack my laptop open.

Yeah, I take notes in class on my computer, but while our aging professor trails off (as he often does) I find other ways to entertain myself. These include such things as sporcle, facebook, stumbleupon, and looking up the random facts our professor mentions in class. Yeah, it might not be the best use of my in-class time, but whatever. I do really enjoy the class though, our professor is so swag. I mean, this guy was the former Luxembourg Ambassador to the USSR during the Cold War, and then served as a Luxembourg Ambassador to Belgium and NATO. Oh, did I mention he's like 84, a lawyer, still officially serves as Chamberlain to the Grand Duke, was caught in WWII as a 17 year old in Luxembourg. The whole story goes that as Germany occupied Luxembourg, they were going to force him (our Professor) to go fight for the Nazis on the eastern front against the Russians. But, the night before they were going to be sent out, he purposefully jumped down the stairs on his ankle to sprain it so that he wouldn't have to go. They let him stay, and shortly thereafter, he ran away into some forest in Germany. He eventually made his way into contact with French people living in the countryside and hid out with his Czech friend he met in their forced labor camp. He eventually made it to American troops and was able (barely) to convince the commanders there that he was not a German spy, and survived the war. Crazy.

Class goes fast, usually. Our prof throws in these random stories of his life into talks about the EU and the WTO. We've heard about his time in Moscow, about his time at the London School of Economics, even about how he's tried, "smoking grass," as he put it. Class is replete with other people slacking off and playing on their laptops. Our prof doesn't really know how much technology works, so he struggles with the projector often. His voice is like a lullaby, as in, it's very soothing, and he trails off at the end of every sentence, practically asking you to fall asleep in his class.

Once class is done, I file out the back door (since I sit in the back of the class), and get in the lunch line. The food distribution system isn't exactly the most efficient system ever created, but it gets the job done. I stand in line for a couple of minutes, idly fiddling with my pen and then fork, knife, and tray. When I get to the window through which food comes, I grab myself a slice of cheese and an ice cream sandwich before receiving a bowl of pasta from the chef. I respond with a quick, "merci" and move out of the way. I walk around the corner into the cafeteria and put my tray down at a seat at one of the round tables. I don't know why people sit at the rectangular tables - they are so crowded. Then, I go back and grab a couple slices of bread, some napkins, and check to see what kind of soup they have today. It looks like some sort of pea soup. Pass.

I sit down, drink my chocolate milk, and devour the rest of my food. For some reason, I find myself always hungry at lunch, which is ok because the pasta is delicious. After I eat until I could eat no more, I find I still have roughly thirteen pounds of pasta left. No problem though - I just go down to the cave, grab my tupperware, and pack that pasta away for dinner later. The food has been excellent, always.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Three Days

Last weekend I experienced three very interesting and different days:

Thursday - Dinner with Mr. Hoff
Mr. Hoff, the man who took us hiking through Lux City a couple of times invited Jeeves, Tony, and I over to his house for dinner. We gladly accepted. It was a difficult getting there via public transportation since he lives in Junglinster, a half an hour outside of Lux City. We also got off at the wrong bus stop, but no big deal. Mr. Hoff has a nice house, and was a nice host.

As soon as we got there, around 4:00 pm, we had some warm coffee. Also, he said it was common to take brandy with your coffee, so we had some brandy. I had some peach brandy that was apparently a favorite of Dr. Stiller (the old director of MUDEC, and my father's econ professor when he was a student here). It definitely warmed me up. We also were served chips and some cookies as a little afternoon snack while we chatted. Mr. Hoff is amazing and has lived such a full life.

His birthday is December 17th, and he doesn't very much enjoy celebrating it. He studied abroad for a semester when he was at university, spending a semester in Lisbon, Portugal. Every year he goes back to Portugal for a week. He was a member of the junior Red Cross in Luxembourg, and as a teen, was sent as one of two Luxembourgish representatives to an international program of the Red Cross in the United States. He spent four weeks in America, and even met John F. Kennedy. JFK was on very familiar terms with the Grand Duchess of Luxembourg at the time, Charlotte, and when the junior Red Cross delegation visited the White House, JFK personally asked to meet the Luxembourgish representatives. So it was that Mr. Hoff met JFK about a year before he died.

Mr. Hoff then worked for the Red Cross for a while after university before going to work for Arcelormittel, the large Luxembourgish steel company. Turns out Mr. Hoff was pretty much the reason I'm now sitting in Miami's Chateau in Differdange. You see, Arcelormittel owned the Chateau and had been using it as a guest-house for visiting businessmen, but wanted to get rid of it. Mr. Hoff had also been involved with Miami before then, and when his boss asked him for suggestions as to who would possibly want to rent a Chateau - he knew how to answer. So it was that MUDEC came to be located in our lovely Chateau.

Mr. Hoff has a huge library, comprised of over 4,000 books. Most of them are historic in nature, and he loves to read. He told us stories of how he'd accumulated so many books, and many of them were signed or rare editions. He also is an art collector, and has several pieces that are centuries old. He also possesses an original Salvador Dali drawing (that's gotta be worth something). A very interesting man, indeed.

For dinner, we had a potato casserole with cheese on top, cauliflower, pumpkin soup, chicken with mushrooms, and oranges in a rum sauce thing for dessert. It was all delicious. We also drank a few glasses each of sparking wine from the Moselle region. After dinner, we had the typical cup of coffee, but then we had to rush out to make the last train home before we had a chance to have the typical after-dinner digestive (read; extremely strong alcoholic beverage). It was awesome.

Friday - Bofferding Tour and Dinner with Norby
As a class trip, we visited the Bofferding Brewery here in Luxembourg. Bofferding is the most well known beer in Luxembourg. So, our school paid for us to go on a brewery tour and drink unlimited free beer. Wait, did I say free beer? Yeah, that's right. After our brief tour of the brewing facilities, we got to sit down and taste the products. First, we tasted a shot of brandy made just from beer. Next, we had small cups of beer that still had the yeast in it. Next, we had water from their deep spring. Then we had a glass of the original Bofferding beer. Then, we had Battin, another type of beer that was developed in Esch but is now brewed at the Bofferding brewery. Then we had a glass of Bofferding's Christmas beer. It did not taste like Christmas. Nothing ever does. Then we had a glass of Bofferding's fruit beer - now that was good. After all of that, they just asked us if we wanted anything else (still all free), and I had another glass of Battin. It was awesome. All of us Miami students were noticeably louder on the bus ride back to the Chateau.

Then, I went home to meet with Norby and go out for pizza. So at 7:15 pm, we left and walked to the Christmas Market in Esch. We met Norby's friends Giles and Patrick and we all had a beer at the Grinch Cafe (a semi-indoor tent cafe at the Christmas Market). Then, we got in Giles' Alfa Romeo (Yeah) and drove to this little Italian place in Esch to get dinner. We started off our meal with an aperatif: some orange liquor which we then poured beer over. It was rather refreshing and quite strong. I had a cheese pizza for dinner. With dinner we also each had a couple glasses of wine. Norby and I were drinking rose and Patrick and Giles were drinking a red. I heard many, many stories of their adventures together, none of which will be repeated here. Then, after dinner, we had an espresso, and then some after-dinner drinks. We each had two verneers (sp?) which was some tasty (and not too strong - according to Norby) alcoholic drink. I was a little bit concerned about the large consumption of alcohol, since I had to get up the next morning at 4:00 am, So at around I don't even know what time, Norby and those guys dropped me off at home before going out to Pitcher to continue their Friday festivities.

Saturday - Skiing in France
Yeah, that's right. So I got up at 4:00 am (after having chugged like a liter of water before going to bed the night before), and got ready to go skiing. I didn't exactly have all the right equipment, so I had to improvise. Instead of snow pants, I wore long underwear, my flannel pajamas, and then my water resistant hiking pants. I didn't have a winter jacket, so I wore an underarmour, long sleeve cotton shirt, a thick jacket, and then my raincoat. I also wore my scarf, hat, thin gloves, mittens, and sunglasses.

I had to take the 5:28 am train into Differdange where I boarded the bus. We left Differdange at 6:00 am, and got to Lux City to pick up the others at 6:30. It was supposed to be a three hour bus ride to Lac Blanc in the Vosges Mountains in France. It was not. We got lost once, and had some traffic delays, so we didn't arrive until like 11:00. Sad day. But, it was also a beautiful day in terms of weather: sunny and about 25 all day, which was shredtastic.

So after waiting in the huge cluster of a line for our rental equipment, we finally got to do some skiing. I love skiing. It's so satisfying when you are skiing well and really loose. Unfortunately, that is not how most of the day was spent. It was spent laughing at people falling down trying to get on the tow ropes, trying not to slide across all the ice, and avoiding the random ditches built into the mountain (what the heck?). But the views were incredible:

It wasn't too crowded, only problem was we only got to actually ski for about 5 hours since we got there so late and had to turn our rentals in at 5:30. But, the bus has this rule about driving where the driver legally is obliged to take a 9 hour break , so we could not leave the place until 8:15 pm. So, after returning our skis, we chilled at the top of the mountain (where the ski rental was) and then had to ride the chair lift down (where the only open restaurant was) before having to ride the ski lift back up to the top (where the parking lot was). Who the heck designed that place?

Anyway, it was a rather late night, as we got dropped off in Differdange at around 12:20 am, and then we just kinda chilled at a bar until 1:00 am. We all caught the 1:00 am train towards the city, so I got home around 1:30 am. Last detail of the story, I went right to sleep, and didn't get up until 1:30 pm the next day. Awesome.

Monday, December 6, 2010

History Trip and Eastern European Adventures

So over the last 10 days, I spent time traveling with our history class to Prague, Auschwitz, and Krakow before splitting off and going to Budapest and Salzburg. These are a few of the stories from my crazy adventure in Eastern Europe.

Chapter 1 - An Italian Feast
Friday, after classes, we hung around the Chateau before meeting at the train station at 3:30 pm. We boarded the Flibco bus to Frankfurt-Hahn. It was a slow bus ride. We got on a plane at 7:00. It was on time. We had to first fly to Milan before flying to Prague the next morning. Ryanair plays a little musical jingle when the plane gets there on time. It made me laugh. We stayed the night at very swag hotel near the airport. That's when the fun started...

So we had dinner scheduled at the hotel for us. Turns out they had a giant long table for our entire class to sit at. We had water, house wine, and bread on the table for us. Oh, and I got to sit at one of the heads of the table (Dr. Haag sat at the other one). We then proceeded to enjoy a wonderful three course meal. The highlight of which was the delicious stuffed ravioli that the waiter just kept bringing us. I mean, we had seconds, and then thirds. Funniest thing was that when Jeeves didn't finish his third helping of ravioli, as the waiter was coming around to collect plates, Brad and I muttered, "pssh, rookie." The waiter, hilarious in his own right, asked us (referring to Jeeves), "First year at university?" and we just nodded and cracked up. The meal was topped off by a delicious chocolatey light cake. Oh, and the hotel itself was legit as heck. We had like fancy lights and a real nice bathroom (yeah, I stole some shampoo and stuff, so what?).

Chapter 2 - A Long Day in Prague
To make our 8:00 flight to Prague, it was deemed necessary by our esteemed faculty that we needed to leave the hotel (just 5 minutes from the airport) at freakin' 5:00 am! So, as you might imagine, we got to the airport at oh, say around 5:07 am. Then, we literally just sat there because we couldn't check in until two hours before our flight.

The WizzAir flight was much cooler than the Ryanair flight (as in, they didn't try to sell us crap and smokeless cigarettes the entire flight). We arrived in Prague at 9:30 and were met at the airport by our guide, George. Now, George was not the most interesting or enthusiastic character ever, and the wonders of our 8 hour long walking tour of the city of Prague was mitigated by the high levels of fatigue felt by every single student. Anyway, here's what I learned from George:

1. The guy Wenceslas from that christmas song basically founded the Czech country.
2. The Old Town is actually newer than the New Town
3. Charles IV - the guy for whom the Charles Bridge is named after, was the son of John the Blind (some Luxembourgish ruler or something like that).
4. The Charles Bridge was the site of the famous scenes from Mission Impossible I (a highly underrated film)
5. 2/3 of the Jewish population of (then) Czechoslovakia were killed during the Holocaust.

Other highlights included eating lunch in a dungeon (with medieval style food), seeing the changing of the guard at a sweet palace, and almost seeing some sort of fight break out between some guys outside a synagogue. There were plenty of pretty sights though, such as this picture I took looking out over the river from the Charles Bridge:

Exhaustion set in. Starbucks fixed it. After all the class work was done with, we walked back from the hotel to the movie theatre to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. Yeah, it was in English, with Czech subtitles. It was awesome. After that, we just walked back to the hotel, and conked out right quick.

Chapter 3 - Travel Day
All we did on Sunday was get up, walk back to the Charles Bridge in the morning, get on a bus, ride for six and a half hours, and eat dinner at our hotel in Auschwitz. (Sidenote: I'm really tired right now, since I've been typing up notes for econ and history for literally the last three and a half hours, so excuse my Hemingway-esque brevity). Here are more details of the day that are cool:

1. We watched Schindler's List on the bus ride. I hadn't seen it before; it is a really solid movie.
2. We stayed at the same hotel as the French President Jacque Chirac when he went to visit Auschwitz (i.e. It was a nice hotel).

Chapter 4 - A Warning to Humanity
On Monday, we got up, and drove to Auschwitz. As you can imagine, it was a pretty intense day: I'll try to go through all we saw and do it justice, but in all honesty, I doubt it possible. It was cold and cloudy when we arrived at Auschwitz I, the first establishment of the three separate camps that make up Auschwitz. From class and one of the books we read, I've learned that Auschwitz was unique in that it was both a concentration (or forced labor) camp and an extermination camp.

We started our guided tour by walking through the infamous gates, which in iron read "Arbeit macht frei" which in German means "Work makes you free." We walked around the brick Polish army barracks that were converted into the concentration camp. We saw the horrible conditions in which prisoners lived. There was barbed wire everywhere. I'll be honest, the entire place felt like death. I don't know how else to describe it, but I swear I could feel some sort of terrible depression haunting the place.

We saw some of the exhibitions in the buildings. We saw the thousands of suitcases that were stripped from the Jews when they were being deported from the Jewish ghettos. The suitcases still had names on them; the Jews were being told they would get their bags back. We saw the thousands of empty canisters of Zyklon B, the chemical that was used to exterminate millions of people. We saw 40,000 pairs of shoes, all taken from prisoners upon arrival.

We saw Block 11, where sentences were handed-down for badly-behaved prisoners. We saw the "Wall of Death" where the Nazis used to exterminate people by firing squad. We saw prison cells so small that prisoners would be forced to stand for days without food. We walked through the gas chamber where thousands of people were killed. I remember thinking at the time, I just did something thousands of people never did - I walked back out of the gas chamber. It was hard to walk through all of this and not be so weighed down by the echoes of brutality and genocide that occurred.

It really doesn't seem all that real when you read about it, or when you see movies about it, but being there changes things. I was constantly reminded of the fact that this atrocity did actually happen and that real people were capable of systematically attempting to exterminate millions of people and succeeding. As we were walking around the camp, I remember not wanting to touch anything, because touching it would have made it real. We also saw the place where Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz who oversaw the camp, was hanged in 1946. Fittingly, he died at Auschwitz. 

Strangely, we then ate lunch at Auschwitz, which again made me think, I'm doing something else thousands of people never did - eating a hot meal at Auschwitz. We had chicken and soup. We boarded the bus, and drove about five minutes to Auschwitz II - Birkenau, a much larger facility that encompassed 400 acres of barracks, crematoria, and gas chambers.

It's a vast wasteland. I hate to say the weather was perfect, but it seemed to fit the occasion: it was cold, windy, dark, and rather gray. Birkenau was pretty shocking because of its size. I mean, we walked around for several hours there and didn't see the entire camp. We did see the remains of the crematoria - where the Nazis burned the bodies. Birkenau was not nearly as well preserved as Auschwitz I, because as the war was winding down, the Nazis attempted to hide their genocide by destroying parts of the camp at Birkenau. One of the most moving parts of Birkenau was the official monument. It read, "For ever let this place be a cry of despair and a warning to humanity, where the Nazis murdered about one and a half million men, women, and children, mainly Jews of various countries of Europe."

We boarded the buses and drove two hours to Krakow. We got into the hotel, and then Brad, Tiffany, Aunna and I walked to the train station to buy our tickets to Budapest. Unfortunately, even with our Eurail passes, tickets were rather expensive, since we had to travel through both Poland and Slovakia, two countries which are not participating in the Eurail program. Anyhow, we had dinner that night as a class in a traditional Jewish restaurant, with traditional Jewish music accompanying our meal. It was fantastic. 

Chapter 5 - Krakow
Tuesday morning we got up, had breakfast, and began our walking tour of Krakow. Here, the class was split into two groups; one group went with Filip, our swag Polish guide who had been with us since we left Prague. I was not in that group. I was in the other group with "Margaret" whose actual Polish name sounded something like "Gula" so I just referred to her as "Gulag." Anyway, so Gulag was not exactly the most enthusiastic or interesting tour guide, and it was rather chilly that day, so my experience was not ideal. But, that being said, it was cool to see some real historic places. We walked through the main deportation square where they took Jews before shipping them off to concentration camps. We walked through much of the former Jewish Ghetto and saw how the Nazis built walls that were shaped like the tombstones in Jewish cemeteries, just to remind them how close they were to death. 

We walked through the museum at the site of Schindler's factory, which focused on the entire city of Krakow during WWII. It was interactive and interesting. We had lunch on our own (so we went to the first place we found near the city center - Taco Mexicano). After a warm lunch, we started back up on our tour and headed to several church type places. We saw the Collegium Maius, the old university in Krakow, where a bunch of professors and intellectuals were rounded up and taken to concentration camps. We then walked to Wawel, the castle slash old home of the Polish kings. It was a huge complex, and the church inside was amazing. Unfortunately, we were not allowed to take picture inside. One cool thing I remember is they have a huge altar in the center of the church called, "the Altar of Poland" and they would lay the banners of conquered peoples on the altar as a sign of victory. We climbed the top of the bell tower there, and then I was able to get some pictures looking back over Krakow:

From there, we went down into the crypt of Wawel to see the tombs of several Polish kings, the President who died in a plane crash last year, and some famous Polish poets. One thing I remember learning was that this one Polish King, Kazimierz the Great, lived a long time ago and had like 100 lovers, so the Polish joke is that everyone is really just one big happy family. 

We then walked to St. Mary's, another church in the city center. Sidenote: Krakow is often referred to as a second Rome because of the huge presence of the catholic church. Unsidenote: St. Mary's was a really cool church, and had an altarpiece that was 500 years old. 

Next, we took a tram back to the hotel, gathered ourselves, and got ready to go to our chamber music concert that evening. Yeah, that's right - we had a swag little Chopin piano concert at a really chill little place. It was really nice, and I rather enjoyed the music. After that, we went back to the hotel and had dinner at the little bar there. I had half a hamburger and half a club sandwich. Oh, and I tried some Zywiec, a polish beer. It was dece, but nothing to write home about (even though that's exactly what I'm doing).

Chapter 6 - Where is Břeclav?
Wednesday morning we got up, had breakfast, and headed out for a tour of the old Jewish quarter in Krakow. Filip was our guide now, and he was so much more shred than Gulag, my guide from the day before. Filip was also obsessed with Schindler's list, and pointed out pretty much every single place where they had filmed for the movie, which was cool. The most fascinating part of the tour, for me, was going into the Remuh Synagogue and then seeing the Jewish cemetery behind it. Fun contrasting cultures fact: in a synagogue, men have to wear a hat or have their head covered, in a christian church, men have to take off or remove their hats. Fascinating, no? Anyway, the cemetery was again rather interesting, here's a picture of it:

I wanted to put this picture here to showcase something else also. You can (hopefully) see that there are small stones and rocks on many of the tombstones. This is a Jewish tradition where, instead of putting something as delicate and temporal as flowers on a grave, you put a stone out of respect. 

And thus ended our study tour, but our adventures were just beginning...

So we left the group, and Tiffany, Brad, Aunna, and I headed to the train station. Well, first we stopped at the Krakow Mall right by the train station because we had some time to kill, then we went to the train station and got on the 12:36 train from Krakow to Katowice. On that train (which can only be described as a relic of communism and all its failures), we met a guy who "almost" worked for Google. Yeah, I didn't really understand it either, but he spoke good english and listened to my stories about camping, so whatevs, he was chill. So we got to Katowice in plenty of time to make our train from there to Břeclav. 

But then it all went wrong.

So our train was delayed 20 minutes leaving out of Katowice, which was gonna be a problem since we only had 9 minutes between our next connection in Břeclav to make our final train to Budapest. Once we finally got on the train to Břeclav, en route, we became delayed another 20 minutes somehow. (Darn you Eastern European train systems!). Anyway, so we talked to the conductor and he told us that yeah, there was almost no chance we were making our connection. Also, he told us that the next train from Břeclav to Budapest wasn't leaving until 4:47 am the next morning. 

Problem: What do you do when you're stuck in Břeclav at 8:00 pm, with no cash (in the Czech currency), nowhere to stay, and don't speak a lick of Czech?

Here's how we solved it: the train conductor told us to meet him when we got off in Břeclav, and he would take us to a hostel that was right by the train station. So we got off the train, met the conductor, and we met Cole and Amy - two Canadian teens who were also trying to get to Budapest and had missed their connection (we just called them "Canada"). They were skateboarders. Yeah, so this "hostel" the conductor was telling us about? Turns out it's like a run-down crack house. It was all closed and boarded up. Bummer. So he took us into the train station headquarters building, and printed off a Google map to another hostel 25 minutes across town.

So we schlepped our stuff through the city of Břeclav. The city was dead. I mean absolutely lifeless. I mean, we saw like maybe two cars. Anyways, about 25 minutes later, we walked into what we thought was the hostel, but turned out to actually be an ice hockey rink. So we walked around the sketchy ice hockey rink to where the hostel was. We walked in, walked upstairs to the lobby, still hadn't seen a soul, and found no one at the reception desk (at 8:00 pm). Confused, we just considered sleeping on the couches in the lobby if we couldn't find anyone. Then, Tiffany went downstairs to the bar and found the guy who was running the place. Turns out he didn't speak any english but spoke a little German. Ergo, Brad and I (the two German scholars of the group) were called in. Yeah, I probably didn't use total correct grammar, and yeah, I probably didn't say everything with the correct pronunciation, but I got the message across that we did not know where to sleep, and that we wanted to sleep there. I got the six of us two rooms for the night, for 10 euros each. Piece. Of. Cake.

So we slept for a few hours in the sketchy beds (complete with ants!). Got up, rolled out of there at like 3:45 to make it back to the train station for our 4:47 am train to Budapest with Canada. Funny thing - we saw a TON more people out in Břeclav at 4:00 am than we did at 8:00 pm, it was a strange, strange town. 

Chapter 7 - a "Hungary" Thanksgiving
We arrived in Budapest at around 8:30 am on Thanksgiving Day. After snagging some forint (the Hungarian currency) we figured out the public transportation situation, and (thought) we figured out which bus to take. Unfortunately, we took the bus in the wrong direction a stop or two before we realized it and got off. Then, we headed in the right direction, but Brad and Cole got separated from us and accidently got off a few stops early. We rendezvoused at the correct stop shortly thereafter. 

We walked to our hostel, which was really nice. We also explained to them what had happened the night before, and they waived our fee from that night (score!). So we chilled there for a bit, got ourselves cleaned up, and headed out into the city. We walked to a big indoor market place that reminded me of the North Market in Columbus. We then had a legit Hungarian meal of goulache at this sweet little restaurant. It was damn good. 

After lunch we walked across the bridge into the Buda side of the city. You see, Budapest is really made up of two cities along the Danube, Buda and Pest; they merged together to form Budapest. Anyway, we pretty much walked up all along the Buda side of the river up to this sweet castle or palace thing on top of a huge hill. It was a long walk, but provided us with awesome views of the river and the city, such as this one:

We continued our stroll and saw Fisherman's Bastion, and some really cool church from the outside. Then, we hiked back down the hill and got on a tram back to our Green Bridge. We stopped into our hostel and got some dinner recommendations before heading back out into the city. We had already gotten tickets to the opera that night at 8:00 pm, so we had a quick, albeit delicious, meal of hamburgers and french fries (how American is that for a Thanksgiving meal?) at a fancy little cafe by the opera house. I had some Tokaji wine at dinner, it was sweet, literally. 

The opera was real fancy. Like, they had water or drinks for us at the door. Like, we HAD to check our coats to get in. It was a real nice place too, very swanky. Our seats (which cost 2 euro each) were up in the nosebleeds, so we couldn't really even see the stage. That's ok though, because the whole opera was in German, which Hungarian subtitles. It was also rather confusing, as there were several scenes referencing Jesus, but then there was also some communist secret police and some girls who appeared to have been vomited on by the 80's. All in all, we decided at intermission that we'd had enough culture and headed back to the hostel. After having a few shots of palinka (Hungarian fruit brandy), speaking to my parents at home, and watching a little bit of Elf, fighting over some chocolate ice cream, finally called it a night.

Chapter 8 - Ugh, Christmas
On Friday, we slept in (finally) and then went and had some nice coffee and crap for breakfast. Then, we headed over to the big Christmas Market. Short introduction to the idea of a Christmas Market: in Europe, especially northern and central Europe, for the month leading up to Christmas, almost every city has a Christmas Market where they set up semi-permanent booths and hawk all sorts of ornaments, handmade trinkets, and a variety of other doodads and zipzorps. So, Budapest had a huge Christmas Market, and we walked around there for a while. We got some krampampuli, which was hot white wine with christmas spices in it. It was delicious. 

After hanging out at the Christmas market for a while, we walked up the big street to Hero's Square, a huge plaza with columns and statues (every city in Europe has one of these, I think). Anyway, that was cool. Then, we walked to a big castle behind there. The castle was sweet. We then took a subway back to the Christmas Market. Now, I need to make a confession here: I have inherited, from my father, the "Scrooge Gene." That is, if I experience Christmas overdose, I shut down and start acting like the Grinch. Such was the case in Budapest. I mean, there was just SO MUCH Christmas crap. Trees everywhere, old Hungarian ladies singing, people dressed like elves - it disgusted me. But I survived.

We had a real awesome dinner though - we ate these things that were just bread, sour cream, onion, bacon, and garlic. It was legit. Then, we headed back to the hostel since we had an early train (6:00 am) the next morning to head to Salzburg Austria. 

Chapter 9 - The Hills Are Alive...
We woke up rather early on Saturday morning, but we were used to it by then. We were not used to the snow and slush that had fallen the night before, however. That's right, although we had had real swag weather in Budapest until then, it was snowing and there was slushfest '10 going on all over. So we got to the train on time, we even had enough time for Brad to snag a kebab for breakfast. 

We got on our train, guessed it, the train was late getting to Vienna, where we had our one connection. So we missed our train to Salzburg. Luckily, there was another one right away, so we got on that and arrived in Salzburg. We had to make it to our bed and breakfast by 1:30 to get picked up for our Sound of Music tour. Now, we had to seriously hustle, we couldn't figure out the suburban train system, so we took two buses out of the city up to where our place was. We then had a rather strenuous hike up a steep hill, but we finally arrived at Haus Christine at about 1:35. The proprietor, Christine, was so nice - she even hooked us up with some sandwiches since we told her we hadn't eaten anything. We put our stuff down and got on the little shuttle bus back to the city.

There, we got aboard the huge bus for the official Sound of Music tour. We met Erin and Jerica, our MUDEC friends, on the bus. Our tour guide was pretty funny, despite his plethora of corny one-liners (the pot calling the kettle black?). The tour itself was a lot cooler than I thought it would be, and I really only was doing it because Aunna really wanted to. Brad and I had even "joked" about skipping out and trying to go on the Bavarian Mountain tour instead. But, we did get to see a bunch of places from the musical, and some pretty lakes and mountains outside of Salzburg. Here is a picture of Wolfgangsee, one of the lakes up in the hills:

Yeah, it was pretty majestic. So our tour also took us to the small town of Mondsee, where they just let us roam for a while. We had some sweet apfelstrudel and chilled near the Christmas market before we got back on the bus. The bus then took us back to Salzburg.

We rolled out into the city, and thanks to our guides Erin and Jerica, headed toward where some restaurants were. We got into this real legit place, and with the help of our waiter, got a table for 6. I had some nice schnitzel, and it was a good meal, complete with a visit from St. Nicholas and some guys dressed up as demons. 

We took our buses back up to our place and crashed, hard. We had real comfy beds there.

Chapter 10 - Getting Home
Well we got up, had a swag breakfast and headed back into town to get our train at 11:52. We figured we had had enough bad luck with trains, so nothing could POSSIBLY go wrong, could it? If you answered, "No," you'd be wrong. So we only had one connection to make, in Koblenz, and we had a 42 minute buffer before our next train was supposed to leave Koblenz.

So, we began our trip with our train already being delayed 5 minutes. No big deal, it was only 5 minutes, so what? But then, we got stopped on the tracks at one point, just in the middle of nowhere, because of the snowy weather. Then, in Gunzburg or something like that, the train stopped and the conductor came on over the PA and said something in German that made everyone groan. I did not understand, so I asked the people sitting across from us, and they told me that, "the locomotive has a defect." Then, the guy across from me was like, "Das ist einen Saftladen!" which is a German expression of frustration, and literally means, "this is a juice-shop!" It was hilarious. Everybody laughed.

So our train was delayed exactly 42 minutes. However, as we were pulling up to the station before Koblenz, it seemed as though we would make it, our train now was only 35 minutes late. We pulled into Koblenz at 7:20 pm, and our next train was scheduled to leave at 7:23 pm. We sprinted through the station and hopped aboard our train just in time. So much for a 42 minute buffer. But we made it, and got back to Luxembourg City at 9:30 on Sunday night, exhausted after a crazy week of travel, trains, and history.

Sorry it took so long to write all this, it's been a long week, and I was rather sick after returning from all this. But I'm better now, and have finally had time to sit down and crank this out. I want to write at least 3 more blog posts: one about skiing last weekend, one about everyday life in Luxembourg, and one about reflecting on everything I've learned in the four months I've been here. But, now I must return to studying and classes. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

London Calling

London is famous for many things: Big Ben, the Parliament building, Tower Bridge, etc. But among MUDEC students, London has one chief attraction that cannot be missed: CHIPOTLE. The only Chipotle in all of Europe is located at 116 Charing Cross Road, in downtown London. So of course, we had to go...twice. I traveled with Pat and Greg, and we were going primarily to meet Pat's Grandmother, who was putting us up in a hotel for the weekend.

Getting to London on Friday
I had my first experience with Ryanair, the cheap low-budget airline that flies all over Europe. It does not however, fly to Luxembourg, so we had to get to the nearest airport where they fly: Frankfurt-Hahn. To get there, one must take a two-hour bus ride from the Luxembourg train station. This service, provided by Flibco buses, is not bad. It was like 17 euros one way and the buses themselves are really comfortable. So we arrived at Frankfurt Hahn at about 5:45, for our 7:30 flight. Check in went really fast, but I had some issues at security. You are only allowed to bring a Quart-sized ziploc bag for your liquids. So if you have your liquids in a gallon size bag, you're screwed, and they'll make you get out of line and go buy a smaller bag at the store. Luckily, Pat had an extra bag for me, so it wasn't a big issue.

The boarding system is  most aptly described as a giant cluster - there are no assigned seats on these Ryanair flights, so everyone jockeys for position to get in line. Then you run out to the plane and board via the tarmac. The seats are pretty cramped, as are the overhead bins, since pretty much everyone is just rolling with carry-ons. Anyways, it was pretty easy getting to London-Stansted, the airport Ryanair flies into. But from there, we still had to get to the actual city of London.

So we took Easybus, a service that runs from London-Stansted to the city of London. It was a quick hour and ten minute bus ride to Baker Street, where our bus dropped us off. Then, we made it our mission to try to get to Chipotle. We arrived at Baker Street at about 10:15 pm or so, local time (Luxembourg is an hour ahead of London). We then went to the tube (subway) station, to try to figure out how to get there. At the tube station, we bought our Oyster Cards. The Oyster card is a budget traveler's bargain deal for use on London's public transportation. Basically, they require a deposit of 3 pounds (oh, the UK uses pounds, not euros, so the exchange rate for dollars is even worse), and then a deposit for a daypass or however much you wanna put on the card. But when you're done with your Oyster Card, you just take it back to the station, and they give you your 3 pounds PLUS whatever money you didn't use. It's awesome, and ended up only costing us like 10 pounds for all the tube and bus travel we did all weekend.

So we got off at the stop near Chipotle, got lost, went in the wrong direction three times, but eventually found our way to the promise land, and what's more - they were still open: Chipotle London stays open until 11:00 pm on weekdays and Saturday, thank goodness. So we rolled in, exhausted, starving, and I was actually crying a little bit because I was so happy that it was still open. Went up to order the food, and they were out of steak - said it would be a couple of minutes. I had waited over 80 days for my perfect burrito, I could wait another ten minutes while they made fresh steak. So I ordered my chips and guac, got my burrito all together, went up to the counter and asked if they had tap water - the girl at the register said, "Yeah, it's one pound," and as I started to ask if it was cheaper to just buy bottled water, she interrupted me, "I'm just kidding! It's free." Amazing. You do not know how rare it is to just find free tap water in Europe. Then, as I went to get my wallet out, she stopped me again, and said, "Because you were so patient with us, tonight, your meal is on us." WHAAAAAAAT?!? Not only did I get Chipotle, I got FREE CHIPOTLE. I didn't know what to say, so I just said, "God I love this country."
Here is a picture of the carnage:

Easily one of the most beautiful sights I've seen in Europe.

So after that, we headed to our hotel to meet Pat's grandma. It was a really nice hotel, and we sat down in the bar and had a drink with Pat's grandma. She's really cool, and was in London on business, as she is a corporate lawyer handling some international trademark cases. She is also a MUDEC alum who studied in Luxembourg for a full year. We went to sleep, in our wonderfully comfortable beds. It was majestic.

Doing London the Right Way
Saturday, we got up. We had a huge breakfast provided for us at the hotel, including real toast, jams, coffee, muffins, and juice. Then, we headed out, and our first stop was the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. We stood in like the center, around the statue of Victoria, to watch the changing of the guard. It was a huge demonstration of British pomp - lots of fancy clothes and such. There were british guys with their big bearskin hats, horse guys, and a band. All in all, pretty much exactly as I expected it would be. The band started playing a little extra concert though, and at that point we rolled out.

Then, we walked over to Westminster Abbey (we didn't go in because the line was too long). But, we did walk over to look at Big Ben and the Parliament building. All of these sights were really neat. We walked through the gardens by Westminster Abbey, and they were celebrating Remembrance Day (something like our Veteran's Day). There were tiny crosses all around the garden with the names of fallen soldiers on them. After that, we went to our first legit English Pub - The Albert. It was superb, we had some awesome ale called London Pride and some excellent fish and chips.

After that, we went to the sight of Winston Churchill's War Room and bunker, where he lived during the bombing raids on London. It was an awesome museum. There was a whole system of tunnels and room underground where Churchill pretty much ran the war for Great Britain. I loved a couple of things about the museum that really showed Churchill's badass-ness (pardon my french). First, there was a quote - "I am prepared to meet my maker. Whether my maker is prepared to meet me is an entirely different matter," said by Churchill on his 75th birthday. Secondly, he had 8-10 cigars every single day. Third, near the end of the war, he limited rations in his bunker to two large gins and two large whiskeys every day. That was just how he rolled. Total B.A. I was so much inspired by Churchill's personality that I bought a book on Churchill's wit at the gift shop. Oh, here's a picture of Churchill's actual "War Room" (I'm gonna have my own someday):

Next, we went out to dinner at Sherlock Holmes' restaurant. It had a ton of memorabilia and was decorated in the style of old school England. It was a disaster in terms of service though. Apparently, it was the new chef's first day, and the waitresses were understaffed and panicky. But once we ordered and got food it was delicious. But we had to eat fast, because our show started at 7:30!

That's right, we went and saw a musical, Oliver!, based on Charles Dickens' work Oliver Twist. It was in a really cool theatre, and the entire theatre culture itself was cool. We had really legit seats, and you were allowed to like bring in food or drink into the theatre, so there were people with cups of beer and whatnot in the theatre. Anyhow, the musical itself was amazing - it was both hilarious (including several bouts of rather raunchy humor) and had excellent singers (including some famous and really popular singer who was like the UK's winner of whatever their equivalent of American Idol in 2008, but whose name I do not know).

After that, we headed back to our hotel, which was not an easy task. We had decided to take a double-decker bus, because that's pretty much what you do in London. But, we got stuck in really bad traffic, and our ten minute bus ride turned into an hour long bus ride. Also, I was stuck sitting next to the couple who were drunk and just going at it in the seat next to me (why does this keep happening to me?). But after we got home, we said goodnight to Pat's grandma, and then decided to rally and go to the Goat Tavern, near our hotel.

Unfortunately, the Goat Tavern was closed, but the club next to it was open. So we headed in, grabbed some beers, and went to the back of the bar. Turns out we walked into some private party area, which had been reserved for some girl named Kristin. Anyways, we may or may not have been the odd people out, but there was nowhere else to chill, so we just sat down on a couch and hung out at Kristin's party. After a few hours and a few drinks, we walked back to our hotel and crashed for the night.

Rainy Day in London
When we got up on Sunday, we had breakfast and headed out. Unfortunately, it was already raining. We had decided to walk to the infamous "Speaker's Corner," a small section of Hyde Park where the city lets people just speak freely and rant about whatever they want. Apparently, it used to be the only place in London where one could speak out against the government, but now it's just a gathering point for crazy people on Sunday.

So, at Speaker's Corner, we listened to a Muslim guy rant about how he could prove God exists, a 53 year old man talk about his sex life, a really loud Protestant talk about how non-believers were doomed, and a Jewish guy who was just singing, in what I presume to be Hebrew, to himself. All in all, it was awesome. It was more fun to hear people from the crowds heckling these guys, because they were all do I put this - crazy? That sounds about right. But yeah, I would recommend checking it out if you're in London on a weekend.

Next, we walked to Harrod's, the giant department store in London. This place was insane. It had 7 floors and about a million shops. Too many shops. I mean, there was pretty much anything you could ever want in a store - they had tea, chocolate, perfumes, watches, jeans, clothes of all kinds, wine, cigars, and every other manner of purchasable item known to man. And, that was only on the first two floors! Most expensive things we found - a bathrobe for 1,659 pounds (about $2,700), and a bottle of some whiskey for 13,000 pounds (almost $21,000). Madness!

We got on a tube, went to Westminster, tried to get on a boat, didn't, got back on the tube, went to Tower Hill, and got off. From there, we took a short stroll on the Tower Bridge, and then decided to go and visit the Tower of London. The Tower of London is not actually a tower, but more of a prison slash "city." It's been used as a prison, armoury, and most importantly - a holding place for the crown jewels. Though we had to rush through it (they close at 16:30 on Sundays), it was awesome. We got to see the actual crown jewels (which are amazing). I mean, some of the diamonds and emeralds and sapphires and rubies are huge. I'm pretty sure if you had just one of the sceptres or something, you could pay off the entire US budget deficit. We also saw a bunch of really cool suits of armor, and some guns decorated with diamonds (how American is that?). Oh, here's a picture of Tower Bridge as seen from the Tower of London:

From there, we headed back to Leicester Square, where we found a cool pub, The Cambridge, and had some pints. I had a Dark Island ale, which tasted a lot like Guinness, with a little hint of chocolate and a rich flavor. It was quite refreshing. Then, since we are true American college students, we went to Chipotle. Again. What's more, the guy recognized us from Friday night. I did have to pay for my food this time, but it was still totally worth it.

After dinner, we packed it in, since we knew we'd have an early morning the next day.

Disaster Strikes?
So, our flight from London Stansted to Frankfurt-Hahn left at 7:05 am. This meant we had to get to the airport around 5:00 am. This meant we had to get on the Easybus at 4:00 am. This meant we had to get a cab from our hotel to the bus station at 3:30 am. This meant Jimmy had to get up at 2:30 am to pack and get ready to roll.

So we get to the airport, get through security without any problems, get some legit breakfast, and get on the plane without any trouble. Then, it hits the fan (if you know what I mean). Our plane needed to be de-iced again, so we sat on the tarmac for an hour. So we were late rolling into Frankfurt-Hahn. Then, coming back into the Schengen area from outside (the UK is a member of the EU but has not signed the Schengen Agreement, so you have to get your passport and stuff checked again), we had to wait in a really long line to get our passports checked out. Unfortunately, our Flibco bus back to Luxembourg was leaving at 10:15 am. Our plane landed at 10:03 am. We got through passport check at 10:14 am. And here is what then transpired:

So while we were in the passport line, I had been saying quite loudly how we needed to get on this bus (in hopes that somebody would maybe have the decency to let us go in front of them in the interest of time). This was to no avail, but apparently people were listening. I say this because as we were sprinting from the passport checkpoint to the bus stop (a few minutes walk from the airport terminal), this lady who was in front of us in line stops me (I was in front), and says, "Forget it - you just missed it. I tried to get on and the driver shut the door on me." I was devastated. To think that we had done all that and were going to miss our bus by a few seconds just crushed me. I fell to my knees out of a combination of exhaustion and bereavement. I rolled over, and let my body fall to the ground completely. Pat and Greg caught up, heard the tragic news, and paused. About 15 seconds passed, and then Greg walked on further towards the bus stop. He then noticed that a bus marked, "Flibco" was still there. He watched as the door closed. We realized that the lady who stopped us thought we were on a different bus with her, so she told us that our bus left when really it was right there! We ran out in front of the bus and waved violently at the bus driver. He had no sympathy for us. As we moved to the side, I looked up and saw the other MUDEC students who had been in front of us at the passport line, on the bus. I waved, and they could do naught but shrug their shoulders and give a sympathetic expression.

Devastation, wrought upon us a second time in mere minutes. I had no method of handling such pain, so I shouted several profane words into the air, and smacked the bus sign repeatedly. Greg, Pat, and I were silent for a minute or two after that. Then, Greg got real angry, and blamed me for stopping when we could have gotten on the bus if we just kept running. I understood his anger, since I pretty much was the only person who could have been held responsible, if anyone could. But it was short-lived, because we realized that there was another Flibco bus going to Luxembourg 50 minutes later, and that we would still make it to Econ class on time (which was critical, since Pat and I had to give a presentation in class).

Rest of the story can be summed up in 10 words: Rode bus. Made train. Rocked Econ presentation. No big deal.

And that's the story of London - a couple of cultural things I noticed - first, when everyone is speaking your language (English), you notice a lot more when people are speaking foreign languages. I felt like I was not so much of a tourist anymore, and that these people were. But, I also felt that innate desire to help them, since I had often found myself in similar situations elsewhere in Europe. Also, London was a very happening and cool city. It was definitely among my favorites, and somewhere I for sure plan on going back and visiting again. So that's that.

I have three more days of class this week, and then we travel to Prague, Auschwitz, and Krakow for our study tour for my history class. After that, I plan on heading to Budapest, Vienna and Salzburg for the second half of next week. I don't know if we'll have internet access or not, but I don't plan on bringing my laptop. I'll be sure to take lots of notes though - so look forward to hearing about yet another full week off school for me! So now, as they say in London - CHEERS MATES!

Oh Italia...

So we got an entire week of school for Toussaint's (all Saint's) break. With the time, I had prearranged to meet my parents for a weeklong vacation in Italy. So, here is how it all went down:

Getting from Luxembourg to Florence 
So, I had to get from Luxembourg to Florence. Ryanair doesn't fly there, at least not from Frankfurt-Hahn, so I decided to take an overnight train, no matter how long, and even if I had to do it alone. No one else was going on the exact same route as me, so I knew I would likely have to travel the long journey sans company. Now, you have to make reservations, so I went to the international tickets desk at the train station in Esch, which is serviced by the Luxembourgish national train company, the Chemins de Fer Luxembourgeouis (sp?) also known as the CFL.

So here's my tirade against the CFL lady who "booked" me my reservations. First of all, on my way down to Florence, I had quite a long route, capped by the overnight train from Munich to Florence. I left the Differdange train station at 12:30 on Friday afternoon, and so when I got to Munich at 8:30 that Friday night, I was already very tired from having run to several train connections, as I had already had 4 stops where I had had to change trains. Madness, I tell you. So, the train was late getting into Munich, but that was ok, because I ran into some fellow MUDECers who would be on the same train, but not in any car near mine, so when we boarded the train, I bid them adieu and went to find my assigned bed. Yeah, you don't really have a seat, so much as a bed in like a small room where there are two stacks of beds, bunked three high. So it's necessary to cram six people into a very small space.

As it turns out, the CFL tried to take me down for the first time by double-booking the bed that I supposedly had reserved. Here's how it went down: I walked into the cabin where my bed was (bed number 81), and I noticed that a family of six German people were already getting set up there. I then said to the father of the family, "Ich habe einundachtzig" which means "I have 81." He then just said to me, "Nein, ich habe einundachtzig." At this point, I did not panic, but I did know that I was in trouble (Das ist nicht so gut). Myself and the father of this family walked down the narrow aisle to the train conductor, and they spoke in german to each other, explaining the situation. Turns out, the CFL had just made a mistake, so I didn't have a place to sleep. They got a conductor guy who spoke english to come chat with me, and he told me, "Looks like the train is booked full, but someone might miss it, so just hang tight here, and I'll come find you if we have a bed for you." I was not looking forward to standing on the train or sleeping on the aisle floor for the next 8 hours. Luckily, about an hour and a half later, he came back and foundme. Turns out some lady missed the train, so I got to sleep in the bed that she reserved. Interesting cultural note: I was really nice and friendly to the train conductor, and he really appreciated that, even saying that "I can tell you're not German, because the Germans would bitch if they were in your place." Now, I've found the German people to be among the friendliest in Europe, but apparently, he had a different opinion. All the other people on the train were having a big time though - even the crowd of older Germans were just partying in their couchette, drinking straight out of bottles of wine, and having the time of their lives.

I slept in the "couchette" on a bed which was actually quite comfortable, and long enough for me to actually lie flat. I was only woken up a couple of times from the noises of the train, and managed to get about 5 hours of sleep before the conductor woke me up at 6:00 am. Oh, important note, on these overnight trains, the conductors will collect your passport and train tickets before you go to sleep (to handle all the border crossings and such), and they give them back to you in the morning - so don't worry about handing yours over. 

Got to Florence (Firenze, in Italian) at 6:18 am. I did not have a map, and just had written down the google walking directions from the train station to the hotel my parents and grandparents were staying at. Big mistake. I got real turned around at the station, and ended up taking a nice little hour and half walk around the city in the morning. Eventually, I found the river, and then walked up and down the river until I found the right street. I still couldn't find the hotel, because it wasn't labeled well, and the street numbers were all wrong - like on the north side of the street the numbers went from 2 to 4 to 11 to 44 all in a row. Confusing, to say the least. Luckily for me, as I was walking by, my grandpa just happened to walk out of the hotel and said, "Bout time you got here." 

So I met my parents and grandparents, who seemed to be handling jet lag fine (they had flown in the night before). After my mom told me the story of how she almost left her camera in a cab in Pisa, we went to breakfast at our hotel. It was a real nice hotel, much better than the hostels we usually stay at. Tip for future study-abroad students: get your parents to come visit you, it's awesome to see family and to have a nice shower with hot water. 

First Day in Florence
The first big thing we decided to do was to go see David, the famous sculpture. So we walked to the Academia, past the famous Duomo (cathedral). So we walked in, browsed some of the lesser known works of art, and went straight to the David. So turns out, you're not allowed to take pictures of anything in there. Bump that. I had a small camera, so I think I was discreet enough. Though the image is slightly blurry, I got a good shot of it (I apologize if any of you are offended by the nudity):

They also had a ton of plaster sculptures in the Academia. From there, we walked to San Lorenzo, another of the famous churches in Florence. There, we didn't go into the church, but walked around the large flea market outside the church. It was insane. Apparently, though there are signs everywhere saying how it is "illegal to purchase fake purses or watches" it is not illegal to sell them, since about 4 out of every 5 people on the street were hawking fake crap. But there were also some legit vendors, and Mom and Dad ended up buying this really nice ceramic olive oil holder or something like that.

Then we met my Dad's friend Vince and his new wife Christine at a pizzeria nearby. Let me explain Vince: when my dad was a kid, he and Vince were exchange students together - so Vince came and lived with my dad and his family for a while, and then my dad went and stayed with Vince and his family for a while. Vince and my dad have been friends for almost 40 years now, and all of Vince's kids (and his nephew) have come and stayed with our family for a couple of weeks over the years. Vince is an incredibly kind, generous, and intelligent man - he's like one of the leading heart surgeons in France, where he lives in Marseilles. He lives life to the absolute fullest, and is an excellent example of how to do that right. 

Lunch was pizza - italian pizza - which is legit. All of the pizza we had was so good, I loved Italy already. We also got to have red wine with lunch - which most students won't do (just because of cost effectiveness). From there we walked all the way down to the Ponte Vecchio (which I think literally translates into "old bridge") but is the really famous jewelry shopping part of the city. We then walked to another big church, Sante Croce, which is also apparently where all the best leather is sold in the city (my mother was on a mission to find a purse). 

After chilling (read: napping) back at the hotel, we headed out to meet Vince and Christine again for our 7:30 dinner reservation. We ate at this place called Il Latini - and it was incredible. It was all like family style, no menus, and a lot of fun. We had a ton of wine, food, and fun. Here is a picture of Vince (left) and my Dad (right) with all of the night's beverages:

Needless to say, I slept well that night.

Second Day in Florence
It was raining all day. We went to the Palazzo Pitti, a giant palace and museum in the southern part of the city. They had an exhibit on Caravaggio, which was cool, since I remembered stuff about him from my art history class freshman year. Basically, we saw a ton of paintings, and then a ton of really fancy rooms where the rich people lived. Each room was extremely opulent, and had their own names. They also had a more modern exhibit about this guy Antonio Ligabue, who was really strange (he had been put in mental homes like 3 times throughout his life), and had some sort of obsession with tigers. Anyway, we left to go get lunch, and had our first gelato experience.

Now, I'm not really sure what the technical difference between ice cream and gelato is, but the practical difference is that gelato is much smoother, healthier, and better-tasting than ice cream. Also, gelato is pretty much Italy's thing, so they do a pretty good job with it. Grandpa loved chocolate gelato, and would get it everywhere we went. After we snagged some sweet gelato, we went back to the museum and visited the wine museum section of the palace. It was pretty cool, and had a bunch of egyptian stuff in it (I apologize for the vagueness - it's been over a week, and I've been letting my schooling get in the way of my education, which wears on the mind). 

That night, we went to another restaurant for dinner with Vince and Christine again. It was another blast, and we had some really good pasta and veal. After lots of red wine and food, I had my first experience with the after dinner drink in Italy - limoncello. Note: though it comes in a small amount, you are NOT supposed to take it like a shot, it is meant to be sipped.

Day trip to Siena and San Gimignano
Monday we got up and got in a car to go to Siena and San Gimignano with our guide Rina. It was like an hour drive from Florence to Siena, and it probably would have been really pretty to see the drive through the italian countryside, but it was raining and I was tired, so I fell asleep. In Siena, we first went into this Church of St. Catarina. I don't know why, but for some reason, they decided to preserve St. Catarina's head, so it's still on display in the church, as is her thumb (which they also preserved for some strange reason). Oh, Rina taught me all about the classifications of italian wines: for a wine to be considered a true "Chianti Classico" it has to meet certain standards and consist of a blend with at least 80% sangiovese grapes. A "Brunello" is a wine that is made from 100% sangiovese grapes, and then a "Super Tuscan" is a wine with a blend of less than 80% sangiovese grapes. 

More about Siena: it's made up of 17 contrade which are like neighborhoods. There is still a fierce rivalry between them, and each contrade has its own crest and animal mascot. One of the reasons there is still such a fierce rivalry is that twice a year, there is a famous horse race in Siena called the "Palio." Here is the main square in Siena where they hold this race:
So yeah, they cram 30,000 people into the center (where the red bricks are) and then 10 horses and jockeys race around the outside. It's a bareback horse race, and 10 of the contrade get to enter their horses. Apparently, it's just a crazy party, and people have actually been known to die! Also, I thought it was funny that Rina said it was a legit "horse race" meaning that even if the jockey falls off, the horse can still win the race. 

SIDENOTE: for the first time this travel week, I carried around a little pocketbook to take notes, and I've been drawing most of my memories from it. I would recommend to all travelers to carry some small notebook with them at all times - you have no idea how many little things you'll pick up on and remember when you write them down.

My other notes from Siena are about history, mostly, which I don't really feel like writing about now, so I'm not going to. Interesting though was that the symbol of the city of Siena was a wolf (reminiscent of the she-wolf legend of Rome).

We then drove over to San Gimignano, a truly small town in the Italian countryside. It was raining still, but was beautiful nonetheless. Right when we got there, this was the view looking out away from the city:
Yeah, now that's more like it. We basically just walked around the city for a while, which was just one main shopping street inside the walled exterior of the city. Ok, cool little story about stuff in San Gimignano: there was always this struggle for power between the church and the state. So the official government built this big tower bigger than the church next to it, and declared that no one could build any taller buildings in the city. So, this really wealthy guy decides he wants to build a bigger tower, but knows it's illegal, so what does he do? He builds TWO freakin' towers, each one exactly the same, right next to each other, and each one individually just barely shorter than the government tower. His intention was to imply that his towers were actually meant to be stacked on top of each other, which would have made it clearly the largest in the city. As it turns out, these two towers are actually the models for what the Twin Towers in New York City were based on, design-wise. Here they are:

We then drove back to Florence, and said ciao to Rina. We then went to some really legit, small, and delicious italian trattoria. I had the best food I've had yet - home-made tortellini in a cream sauce. It was majestic. Also, I had grappa for the first time there. Grappa is an after dinner (alcoholic) drink, made from the leftovers of grapes that they use to make wine. They let the grape skins and other things ferment for a lot longer, so grappa is fairly strong, and as Vince described it, "like drinking fire." So I had some. It wasn't half bad, seriously. I don't know if I have weird tastes, but it really didn't taste "bad" to me, just strong and different. 

Day trip to Lucca
The next morning, we got up, walked to the train station in Florence, and rode a train to Lucca. It was an absolutely beautiful town, out in the country, still surrounded by its protective wall. It was also the first really nice day, weather-wise, that we had. We just strolled through the city, and saw probably a thousand (ok, maybe not a thousand) churches. There were some examples of really beautiful architecture throughout. Here are some examples of the churches we saw:

We then had a picnic-style lunch in the amphitheater (little open square) in the center of the city. We had some delicious italian cheese, scrumptious italian sausage, crunchy italian bread, and terrible italian beer. All in all, a lovely picnic. We then took a nice leisurely stroll around the wall which encircles the city. This was one of the most lovely, beautiful walks I've taken in Europe. Here are some pictures from that walk:

We got back on a train to Florence, and then chilled (read: slept) for a while. Since we were all exhausted, we decided to just have a nice little chillax dinner on the rooftop patio of our hotel. It was another awesome time, complete with red wine, pasta, antipasto, and grappa. 

Welcome to Rome!
We took an early train from Florence to Rome, and arrived in the Eternal City around noon. After taking a cab to our hotel, which was also real nice, we hit the streets. Rome is almost overwhelmingly beautiful and historic. Tthe presence of thousands of years of history visually assaults you around every corner. So much beauty, so much splendor, so much gelato. 

We walked around in the sun for a while, before deciding on a place to go for dinner. We went to a small place called Le Grotto, which had excellent pasta. It also had a very cool ceiling, which Grandpa appreciated. In short, we walked back to our hotel, and slept wonderfully.

Touring Day of Rome
Our day started with a trip to the Cripta dei Cappucinni - it was crazy. So these Franciscan monks had to move their church a long time ago, and they also had to move their cemetery where all the dead monks were buried. So they decided to use all of the bones and bodies from the cemetery to make five separate chapels in their new place. So the Cripta dei Cappucinni is a collection of these five small chapels, each one made up fully of human bones. It was crazy. The one chapel was decorated entirely of pelvic bones. Also, I think the creepiest part of the experience was that they had fully robed skeletons placed in the chapels, standing around. They also still had people buried into the floors of each of the chapels, and you could see the rises in the ground level. In total, they used over 4,000 bodies and took 150 years to complete the project. One of the main messages they seemed to be sending was that life is temporal, and to enjoy your (limited) time on earth.

We continued our tour of creepy places with lots of dead people by going to the catacombs of St. Sebastian. There, christians buried over 68,000 people during ancient times. It was all underground, and we walked through some pretty spooky tunnels and passageways. We also saw above the catacombs the supposed original footprints of Jesus (I think that's right, but it might have been Peter) when he was wandering away from the city before he was turned around. I don't know the story very well - you can probably look it up for a better description.

We then went to the Coliseum, and just walked around. I learned that it only took 8 years to build the Coliseum - well, 8 years for 200,000 people working 24 hours a day. I also learned that the word "arena" actually just means sand - as it was in the Coliseum, where they used red sand so that it wouldn't be stained by the blood of the gladiators.

We had lunch at this sweet little restaurant over by the Vatican. There was no menu, they just served us a ton of antipasto and pasta. We got stuffed real fast. From there, we headed over to the Vatican museums. I found it interesting that there wasn't exactly any huge distinction between Rome and Vatican City - I thought there would be some sort of like, wall or checkpoint, but no such barrier existed. There is a big wall around Vatican city, but you could just walk through it, which seemed odd to me.

Our tour of the Vatican museums was awesome. We got to see some of the most famous works by Raphael, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and Perugino. All in all, it was incredible. I was actually able to appreciate a lot of it, due to my freshman ART 188 class - so much so that I sent my former professor an e-mail thanking him for the quality lessons. [Writer's Note: I'm having a hard time recalling all this, since it occurred over a week before now, so I'm going to just list some of the things I wrote down in my notebook] Here are my notes and explanations for them:

- There have been 265 Popes
- In the Sistine Chapel, there are parallel stories from the Old and New Testaments on the left and right walls, which is cool
- Noah = 1st recorded drunk [apparently some guy painted a picture of Noah (the ark guy), and it was the first painting of a drunk guy]
- Michelangelo says, "F%#& You!" to church [basically, Michelangelo did not like working for the church, and was kind of forced to. So, he did such things as paint hidden signals to the church in his paintings, like the old-school equivalent to the middle finger at the entrance to the Sistine Chapel, or the portrait of some cardinal who called his work bad as a guy stuck in hell.]
- Nike = Greek god of victory [the Nike Swoosh is based off of one of the god's wings]
Basically, the Vatican museums were the best cultural experience I've had so far in Europe. I would highly recommend it. From there, we went to St. Peter's basilica, which was by far the most impressive church I've been in in Europe. It it absolutely massive. There are not so much columns that flank the aisles as there are massive walls. Also, there is the famous baldacchino that Bernini made for the Barberini popes. Behind that is the famous altar made by Bernini. It's all pretty incredible. Also, the sun was coming through the windows, and allowed me to get some very cool pictures of inside, like this one:
It was awesome. St. Peter's square is also a beautiful place, and my mom and dad walked around for a while. We walked back to our hotel, on the way grabbing the best gelato I had all week: at a place called Old Bridge (if you're in Rome, go there, you will not be disappointed; and it's cheap!). After we got back to our hotel, we decided to just have a light dinner - which consisted of just some pizza, always a good bet in Italy. After that though, my dad got my mom and I to rally, and we went to some bar and had some beer from the Czech Republic (???). It was fun, and the bar got to be pretty happening as we stayed there. We walked home, and may or may not have harassed a chestnut salesman on the way home. For some reason unknown to me, there was like a roast chestnut salesman on every street corner in Rome. I don't know why they're so obsessed with chestnuts. It's odd.

Last Day with my Parents and Grandparents
On Friday, we were a little slow getting up (see the comments above about beer from the Czech Republic), and began our day with a nice leisurely stroll to the Trevi Fountain. The fountains are much bigger than I expected, and very pretty. Somebody told us that the whole thing was carved right out of the rock that was in place. We took lots of pictures, like this one:

So from there, we walked over to the Parthenon. Like many things in Rome, it was much bigger than I expected, and it has a rather cavernous interior. Also, like many things in Europe, it was under a ton of reconstruction, so scaffolding was present in full force. We then went to another gellateria - called Della Palma. This was, I believe, my grandpa's favorite place - probably due to the fact that they had 115 different kinds of gelato. We decided that we would come back and sample all of them some day.

From there, we went back to our hotel, and my parents and grandparents got all packed since they were leaving the next morning. After that, we went out to eat for our last supper together. It was yet again, delicious - I had spaghetti carbonara, and as usual, we had plenty of chianti. Then, we went back home to sleep.

Back on my Own
Since my parents and grandparent's flight left at 8:45 am on Saturday, they had to leave really early from our hotel. So, I woke up and said goodbye to them at around 6:00 am, and then went back to sleep. I woke up at 9, showered, had breakfast in our hotel, and left right around 11. I walked myself down to another gellateria called Giolitti's, which is supposedly really good. I had some pistachio gelato there and it was in fact, taste-tacular (as in good). After that, I walked over to the Piazza Navona, because I had heard it's really pretty, but we hadn't made it there yet. So I strolled up and parked myself on this bench. All of a sudden, there was a band there. Turns out the municipal police band was performing a little concert, accompanied by an American band, The Infernos, and some old italian crooner who sang some Frank Sinatra songs. So I just hung out and listened to that for like an hour, it was really awesome - one of those little random experiences - and turned me on to Frank Sinatra.

I then met some friends of mine from MUDEC at the Spanish Steps, and we walked around the city for a while before heading out to their apartment which was in the Roman suburbs. After two metro rides and a suburban train ride, we got back to their place, which was really nice - just far from downtown Rome. We then headed back into the city later, got some pizza, and completed the Rick Steve's walk of Rome at night. It was nice, and cool to see everything lit up at night.

Getting home was little bit of an adventure, since there were train complications, and we ended up taking a nice little stroll late Saturday night.

Getting Home
Sunday was an early morning. I got up at 4:30 to shower, and get ready to roll. We left the apartment at 5:30 am, and walked 45 minutes to get to the subway station (b/c the suburban trains weren't running that early), so that we could make it to the main train station by 7:15 for our train out of Rome. It was a day that consisted of excessive train travel. We took a 3 and a 1/2 hour train to Milan first, and then got on a 4 hour train to Basel (in Switzerland), and then got on a 3 and a 1/2 hour train to Luxembourg. Not an easy day by any means.

Writing a blog about these events over a week after they occurred is a challenge. So much random stuff happens here that you want to remember, it becomes difficult to recall details or feelings about specific things. It is very easy to experience a cultural overdose, so pace yourself. Hence, even I feel like my writing has become repetitive and dull at times - I will try to make it more exciting in the future. Thanks for reading, as always.