Archive for January, 2011

Beautiful Berlin

January 16th, 2011

Wow, it’s a little bit late to be writing about Berlin, but better late than never, as clichéd as that sounds.  I’m mean, I’m writing this post from  my dorm room in Wooster.  Classes start tomorrow!  It has been so great seeing everyone!  I’ve really missed my friends at Wooster, and it has been so nice catching up with everyone.

So, Berlin…well, it’s a totally cool city with a very dynamic history.  I took a night train from Vienna to Berlin.  I met a very nice Viennese girl and we had breakfast together at the train station the next morning.  I also got up close and personal with some Russians in the train compartment.  There wasn’t a lot of leg room, and I woke up at 2am with one of their bare feet on my lap.  Fun times, but after they got of the train in Prague, I had a whole six hours of blissful, uninterrupted sleep sprawled across three train seats.

Getting to my hostel from the train station was pretty straightforward.  I took the M41 bus to Willy Brandt Haus, walked across a river, turned right until I came to Grand Hostel Berlin.  It was a beautiful old building.  It had a very formal and proper feel to it, and I could tell that I probably wouldn’t be meeting a whole lot of people in the evenings, which was fine because I was meeting another fellow Wooster classmate later.  Since my room wasn’t exactly ready for me when I checked in that morning, I stowed my luggage and headed for the Brandenburg Gates where they give free walking tours around the city.

The walking tour was great.  I had a very knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide.  We walked all over the city, and saw so much stuff.  Hitler’s secret underground bunker (now a parking lot) was on the tour as well as the Berlin Dome, and the Berlin Wall.  Most of the wall is gone, but there’s a cobblestone line that runs where the wall used to stand.  It’s really interesting to walk around the city and see the line going through the sidewalk or street.  Twenty years ago, there would have been a very real, neigh uncrossable barrier, and now you can move freely about the city.  It was bitter cold, so I was slightly relieved when the tour ended and I could hope on a train that could take me back to my hostel.

When I got back, I lugged my suitcase up to the fourth floor, and opened my room door to find a girl fast asleep in one of the beds.  Positive all the noise I was making would wake her, I hurriedly unpacked my stuff and went to shower.  The showers were a little bit annoying because they were motion activated, so they didn’t start until you stepped in the shower, and they would turn off in the middle, and you would have to jump around to get the water to turn back on.  When I returned, my roommate was up and we got to talking.  She was from New Zealand and was currently in the process of changing her major basically.  We sat down for dinner and actually wound up talking about Greek life in American universities, because New Zealand doesn’t have anything like it, and it fascinates them.  While we were talking my friend from Wooster arrived.  It was great to see her!  She was studying in Oxford, England for the entire year, so this was the only time I would get to see her before I went back to the states for a second semester.

The next day we all headed to museum island, a literal island in the middle of the city, with five museums built on it.  We got a pass to all five museums for 7 Euro (student price).  We made it to four.  It was so neat, we got to see architecture from all over the ancient world.  I saw Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Islamic, European, and Stone Age artifacts.  I even got to see the bust of Nefertiti, which was beautiful.  Unfortunately I have no pictures because cameras were strictly verboten in the room where the bust was kept, like when you go to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre.  All in all, a very cool day.  I was a bit museum-ed out, but who wouldn’t be after running around four large museums. 🙂  It was sad to leave Berlin the next day.  Not only was I not going to see my friend for another semester, but I would be returning to the USA in a matter of days.  In fact, when I got back to Stuttgart, I only had one day to pack before flying back to the USA.  Crazy.  My overseas adventure was drawing quickly to a close and it was sad.  My depression was mitigated by the fact that in my heart, I knew I would be back.  I am definitely going back to Morocco, I mean, I haven’t seen Marrakesh or Casablanca yet!  Travel to Europe is almost guaranteed as well since I have family there.  I was excited to see all my friends and family whom I haven’t seen in months.  That’s the one good thing about leaving.  I get to see the people I love and care about again.  I get to hear their stories, and share my own.  I get to laugh with them, cry with them, go see movies and concerts and study until 2am with them.  I’m ready for another semester at Wooster.  I’ll have my experiences to fall back on when the going gets tough, but because of my experiences in Morocco, I know I can handle the obstacles I will face back here in good ol’ Wooster.

Viva Vienna!

January 7th, 2011

Let me tell you something.  Vienna is an extremely beautiful city.  The architecture of the buildings in the old part of the city is magnificent.  One can easily imagine the grandeur and prestige of the city during the time of the Hapsburg’s reign.  I arrived in Vienna in the afternoon of the 2nd of January, all alone.  I had planned to meet some people in the city, but you know, some things come up unexpectedly and don’t necessarily work the way you want them to.  So, I had to find my way to my hostel on my own, which turned out to be fairly simple.  The hostel advertises its proximity to the Wien Westbahnhof (the main train station in Vienna), and it is true.  It is a short 15-minute walk from the train station.  So, I had never actually stayed in a hostel before.  I was really interested to see what it would be like.  I was sharing a room with three other girls.  There were two sets of wooden bunk beds in my room, with four lockers for our things, a small desk in the corner, and a bathroom en suite, which was pretty handy I must say.  The hostel gave me clean sheets for the bed, a room and locker key, and a free drink slip for the bar on the first floor.  That’s cool.  I keep forgetting that in Europe I can drink legally.  It’s the strangest thing to go up to a bar and order a beer, and get one with no questions asked.  They don’t even card here.  So, I met my three roommates.  They were all from Genoa, Italy and were traveling together for their holiday break.  They were a couple of years younger than me, still in high school, so I was quite impressed that their parents let them go off by themselves to another country.  However, traveling around Europe is like traveling between states in the USA, so maybe it’s not as big of a deal.  All I know is that I probably would not have been allowed to run around unsupervised in a foreign country had I still been in high school.  I had some time to kill obviously, since I arrived in the early afternoon.  I used that time to just settle in and get a grasp on my whole situation, as well as plan my excursions for the next two days.  I also updated my personal journal, not to mention this blog.  When my roommates came back around dinnertime I hung out and talked to them a little bit.  Their English was pretty good; it was certainly a million times better than my Italian.  They were very sweet, but they had to get up really early to fly back to Genoa the next day, so they were headed to be early.  What was I to do?  I think it was time that I cashed in my free drink slip.

I went downstairs to the bar.  I’m not sure if every hostel has a bar, but this one did, as well as free Wifi on the ground floor.  So I got my drink and sat down awkwardly at the same table with a girl who was busy reading a book.  I’m a fairly shy person, and I everyone down in the bar seemed to be well into his or her own conversations, and I didn’t feel like it was right to intrude.  What I learned from this experience, and what future travelers should take away from this is that hostel-stayers like meeting new people.  Many of them don’t know anyone else either, and it is completely appropriate to ask if you can sit with them at a table.  Eventually, the girl with the book looked up at me as asked, “Do you speak English?” in an American accent.  I replied, “yeah of course I do,” and this girl goes “Great!  Let me move closer to you.” and we got to talking.  I learned that she’s from Philadelphia and spent the past semester abroad in London, and that she was going to spend a second semester in St. Petersburg, Russia.  We are also both double majors in International Relations (Studies for her) and something else.  So we sat and swapped study abroad stories until two guys asked to sit at our table as well.  Of course we said yes.  These two guys were from Norway and were traveling in Europe during their semester break.  I continued to meet many interesting new people throughout the night.  I met people from Russia, Poland, Brazil, Australia, and the Netherlands.  There were young people from all over the world, and it was really amazing how well everyone seemed to be getting along.  It was just really cool meeting people from so many different places, and of course sharing our stories and just having fun and hanging out.  It was a very satisfying first night.

The next day I got up, got breakfast, and set off on my first journey through Vienna!  I took the subway to the Stephenplatz, the center of the old city.  My first stop was St. Stephen’s Cathedral.  It is such a beautiful, old Gothic cathedral, and apparently it has never been quite finished.  They’re still working on it to this day.  The scaffolding is cleverly concealed behind a canvas painted to look like the side of the church.  The inside is very beautiful, and they still had green fir trees and the crèche, left over from Christmas.  I decided to spring for the extra tour of the catacombs underneath the church.  Down in the catacombs, I saw the bishops’ crypts, and stood next to the coffins (directly next to them, I think my pants brushed up against one) of dead members of the Hapsburg family.  Since their bodies were embalmed, their internal organs are removed and placed in copper vats, which were also on display in front of me.  There are also mass graves for victims of the black plague in the catacombs.  You can look into these rooms and they are all filled to the brim with human bones.  It’s “slightly” creepy, especially with the dim light, cold stone walls, and low ceilings.  I would have taken pictures, but they were strictly “verboten” (forbidden in German).

After the cathedral, I went off to find Mozart’s house.  Yes that’s right, I found Mozart’s house, or one of them, since if I remember correctly, he had about 13 different apartments during his time in Vienna.  It was pretty cool.  There were a lot of primary documents from his life on display in the apartment.  I had my nifty little English language recorded tour device pressed up against my ear.  That was pretty cool.  After that I did a little walking, just to see some more of the city, and also to look for an authentic, traditional Viennese coffee house for lunch.  I found the Viennese coffee house.  It was lavishly decorated with lovely furniture, with stucco walls, and crystal chandeliers.  I bought the most expensive cup of coffee I have ever had in my life (almost 8 Euros), but it was so worth it because it was delicious.  I also decided to try a traditional Austrian cream of pumpkin soup.  It was great soup.  I would definitely be up for eating that stuff a second time.  After that I went back to my hostel to rest up and change because I was going to try to go to the opera.  I said try because I was planning to buy “standing room only” tickets and there’s no telling how fast they may sell out.  Anyway, the train broke down as I was trying to get to the opera, so I arrived about 20 minutes late, and I later found out it was only a 50-minute opera, so I basically missed half of it.  I also couldn’t see the stage because I was standing behind many people.  I had a wonderful view of the orchestra pit and the audience though, and of course there wasn’t anything blocking my ears from hearing the opera.  The Vienna opera house is gorgeous!  I’m just saying that because it is, and everyone in the audience was all dressed up and it looked so old fashioned.  I’m such a sucker for old-fashioned stuff, especially when it involves the intrigues of European aristocratic lifestyle.  I was totally into it.   I loved seeing the men in tuxedos and women in lovely dresses.  I was not dressed to the nines, but I was standing with the “rabble” in probably the worst spot in the entire house.

So the opera finished around 7:30pm, and since I hadn’t had dinner I went back to the hostel to get dinner at the bar.  Not only did I see most of the same people I met the night before, but also I got to meet even more cool people.  I met people from Portugal, Thailand, Ireland, Turkey, South Korea, more Australians and New Zealanders.  I didn’t sleep much that night.

So, today, I had to get up and check out by 10am since I am leaving for Berlin on a night train.  The hostel lets you store your luggage if you’ve checked out but aren’t ready to leave the city, so I did that and headed off to the Schloß Schönbrunn, the palace of the Austrian Imperial Royal family.  It was very beautiful, and again, I wasn’t allowed to take picture of the interior rooms L.  So I was content to just wander through the beautifully decorated palace in much the same way I wander around Mozart’s house, with my little recorded audio tour pressed against my ear.  I spent the rest of the day just wandering around the city and seeing if there were any free museums (nope).  I’m so happy I decided to come to Vienna, and I was really happy that I was able to handle subway stuff and directions and maps and food all with minimal stress and problems.  It was a wonderful adventure; I can’t wait to continue the adventure in Berlin!

Christmas, Austria, Skiing, and New Year’s Eve!

January 3rd, 2011

So, I’m awfully sorry I haven’t written a post is such a long time.  Truth be told, I’ve been on vacation with my uncle and his family, and where we were vacationing, WIFI cost money.  It really wasn’t worth it for me.  I spent a very wonderful Christmas with my Uncle, Aunt, and two cousins.  We celebrated on the 24th, Christmas Eve, just like real Europeans!  That was because we were planning to leave for Ischgl, Austria on Christmas Day, where we would be skiing, skiing, and skiing with another two families, who were really nice!  Both of these other families were half German, half American, and one of the families lived in Abu Dhabi during the year!!!  Actually, the daughter of the family from Abu Dhabi went to high school with one of my brother’s friends who’d moved to the UAE last year!  Can you say small world!

Anyway, I am so grateful to my Uncle and Aunt for taking me skiing with them, for helping me rent equipment and arranging for me to have skiing lessons.  They even got me Christmas presents, which touched me very deeply.  I had resigned myself to the fact that I would be celebrating Christmas quite late with my family this year, but I even got a stocking on the 24th and opened many presents alongside my cousins!  It was probably one of the best Christmases ever!  I don’t know if I’ve already said this, but Christmas in Germany is great.  Why?  The Christmas Markets and Gluhwein.  They don’t seem to be worried so much about political correctness over here, which is refreshing.  For example, nobody insinuates a “War on Christmas” because someone wishes him or her “Happy Holidays” and nobody gets offended from a “Merry Christmas” either.  At least, that is my observation.  I could be completely wrong because I’ve barely spend one month in Europe in total, and a good 10 days of that were back in August before I went to Morocco.

Where was I?  Oh yes, Ischgl.  It’s a cute little ski town in the Austrian Alps.  It seems to be comprised entirely of hotels, and during the day the streets are completely packed with people schlepping skis, poles, snowboards, helmets, and any other winter sport equipment.  One of my favorite parts of the day is the gondola ride over the mountains every day.  You get in a little gondola, put your skis outside the pod in a special ski holder, and you get pulled up and over the mountain to the top of another mountain where all the skiing is.  One important thing I learned, Alpine skiing is very hard on the body.  I could barely walk at the end of my 5-day ski school.  Every part of my lower body ached as well as parts of my upper body from poling around the flat parts of the ski area.  As someone who’s only ever done Nordic skiing, Alpine was a little scary.  It is especially scary if you are someone like me who is both scared of heights and of going really fast.  Unfortunately there are a lot of high places when you’re on a mountain, and gravity tends to make you go fast.  However, I learned to face my fears (a little bit) and managed to make it down several mountains without falling (too many times).  Let me tell you, you feel quite proud of yourself when you reach the bottom of a run.  I’ve also learned to love chair lifts, and hate T-bar lifts, which I cannot seem to get off of smoothly.  I usually end up falling down.  A T-bar lift looks like an upside-down T and two people stand next to each other, and the T-bar comes behind them and pulls them both up the mountain.  Your skis remain firmly on the ground too.  You wouldn’t think it would be that difficult to get off of, but trust me it is.  Even my Uncle, who’s an experienced skier, hates the T-bar.

One of the coolest things I did last week was go sledding…down a mountain.  It was 7km of tobogganing down a mountain.  It was so cool!  It was definitely the longest sled ride I’ve ever been on.  You ride a gondola up the mountain; you then get a sled at the top, and then head on down.  The path is full of twists, turns, bumps and ditches.  There was one spot where it was so steep I slid down on my butt, holding the sled beside me.  I wasn’t in the mood for another hospital visit.  Additionally, I was the only girl from our group who went sledding, so I could pretty much count on one of the guys to have some glorious sledding story to tell, and I could sit in the corner and listen with much amusement as they recount the thoughts that went through their head as they flew through the air after their sled hit a bump.

Another cool thing is Europe is New Year’s Eve.  It’s crazy man!!  People start to party in the early afternoon, and everyone and his mother get their own fireworks and shoot them off in their back yards.  I must have watched three or four different amateur firework shows as well as the official town fireworks from the balcony of one of our apartments.  I did get nervous at one point as a bunch of drunken German-speaking peoples started lighting fireworks right under our balcony, and then they would light fire crackers and throw them at each other, real smart don’t ya think?  It was still a really cool way to usher in 2011.  I can’t believe it is already 2011 already!  Where does the time go!!!

So, now that leaves me off where I am now.  I took a train early this morning from Landeck to Vienna.  Now I’m sitting here in a hostel in Vienna.  I have three very nice roommates from Genoa, Italy.  They’re leaving tomorrow morning though, so I won’t have gotten to spend a whole lot of time with them.  I was supposed to meet a friend, but circumstances didn’t work out and she couldn’t end up meeting me.  So, I have planned out an entire two days full of cool stuff to do.  I’m going to go see St. Stephen’s Cathedral and Mozart’s house.  I’m also going to see if I can go to see an opera for 2 Euro.  Sound like fun?  I think it does!  Then the next day I’m going to see the Palace and then take a night train to Berlin to meet another friend!  Woot!  This is going to be a pretty cool week I think.  Some things didn’t work out exactly as I had planned, but that’s okay.  It’s all part of being flexible, of going with the flow, like I learned in Morocco.  That’s a country where flexibility is key!  In Europe things are a little timelier, but it’s still important to be flexible and to have a good outlook on life, especially if you’re a poor college student traveling around Europe!  Alright, I will go now so I can eat dinner, and prepare for my excellent adventures in the days to come!