A Journey North

The center of Neuharlingersiel.

I’m choosing to live by the saying “better late than never” and actually update my blog, despite the fact that I’ve now been home in Spokane for two weeks. My last few weeks in Germany were an emotional whirlwind, and sitting down to write a blog simply wasn’t on my list of priorities. But now I’ve got some time on my hands, and I still believe in the value of reflection, so here’s a write-up of my final trip to the North Sea.

My boyfriend Sven and I set out on July 17 for the small coastal town of Neuharlingersiel, about five hours to the north. His parents had recommended it to us as an alternative to more crowded coastal cities like Cuxhaven. The drive up was largely uneventful, though it was a nice way to see some more of Germany.

This was also my first time doing any significant traveling in Germany via car, which meant it was also my first time on the fabled Autobahn, Germany’s interstate system best known for its segments without speed limits. I wasn’t nervous, but it was pretty strange to be going 80 miles an hour and still have cars blowing past us on the left, going well over 100 mph.

We arrived in the early afternoon on Sunday. We had about an hour to kill before we could check into our hotel, so we parked the car and walked around the town center. I immediately fell in love. Located right on the North Sea, Neuharlingersiel was tiny and adorable. The architecture in the north is definitely distinct from the rest of Germany–most noticeably, brick is used much more often in buildings than anywhere else in Germany I had seen. Northerners also have a distinct German dialect, similar to how Bavarian German is distinct from the German spoken in other parts.

There is a small inlet centered within the town where several fishing boats were docked, giving the town authentic nautical credibility. When we first arrived, there was a choir concert going on, so the town center was full of people listening and singing along to the traditional German folk songs the choir was singing. Sven admitted to knowing the lyrics but was unfortunately too cool to sing along.

The North Sea, with the tide out

After we checked into our hotel, we got some fish sandwiches at a seafood stand (yum!) and sat along the port, enjoying the fresh ocean air. We then walked along the beach. One distinctive part of beaches along the North Sea is the plethora of colorful beach chairs that could be rented by beachgoers. They weren’t very popular while we were there, but the weather was never quite nice enough to lay about on the beach and play in the water.

This part of the North Sea (called the Wattenmeer) is probably best known for its extreme tide changes–when the tides went out, they drew back literally miles, creating extensive mud flats that are perfect for exploring, provided you have the proper shoes (rubber boots proved invaluable). We explored the flats several times during our stay, wading through the mud and checking out the mollusks, crabs and seagulls.

On Monday we took a trip to Wilhelmshaven, about a 45 minute drive. Wilhelmshaven is a major port city for Germany’s navy and home to its naval museum, which was our reason for visiting. I didn’t find the city itself terribly nice (it was largely destroyed in WWII and overall just seemed very drab) but the museum was much more interesting than I expected. It had a particularly cool exhibit featuring photos taken by Lothar-Günther Buchheim, author of Das Boot, during his time on a U-Boat in WWII. We also got to tour a submarine (from the modern era, though) as well as a modern naval battleship.

The rest of our time in Neuharlingersiel was spent wandering on the beach, taking walks along the grassy dykes that lined the coast and eating fish. One thing that was strange about the town was that it was definitely touristy, but in a way that caters to German tourists, not international ones. It was the only place I had ever traveled in Germany, besides Sven’s village, where I was literally the only non-native German speaker around. Heads were constantly turning every time I spoke to Sven in English. Probably they were scared word was getting out about their adorable coastal havens and that the international tourists would soon be descending en masse. Fear not, German tourists. Your secret is safe with me.

The trip was perhaps less eventful than other ones I had taken, but this was not a bad thing – it was incredibly relaxing and wonderfully enjoyable to just spend time along the coast, watching the ocean and eating delicious food.

Benefit of all the rain - rainbows!

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Thoughts on the end of a semester

I’m leaving Germany in 20 days. 20. I can’t even fathom it. This has been my home for four months. I’ve grown so comfortable her. I have a rhythm, I have a Germany-specific friend group, I have a boyfriend…  I have a home here. Which is not to say that I have abandoned all ties to the United States and I’m now an ex-pat. But it’s just been so long since that was my life that the thought of returning to it is so strange.

Keeping up with this blog has certainly been a struggle. I told myself that I wasn’t going to be one of those people who pledges to blog the whole way and leave no adventure undocumented, only to fall off the wagon a month in. But since I’ve been here, I understand now how that happens. So much is happening here all the time that the thought of taking time out to sit down and write about it is overwhelming. Where to begin?

So I have finally documented the last of my major trips. There were some smaller journeys along the way that unfortunately didn’t make it in, like my trip back down to Munich to see a Fleet Foxes concert, or my day trip to Heidelberg. But in my defense, I had nearly finished a post about the concert trip to Munich when my browser crashed and I lost it all. So I tried, at least.

But in addition to missing out on the stories of some smaller trips, I haven’t done a very good job documenting my day-to-day life out here. Believe it or not, I’ve actually been going to classes too! Occasionally. This is actually my second-to-last week of classes. I have a couple papers to write and one oral test, but nothing should be too terribly difficult.

I only have one trip planned out for the rest of my time. From July 17 – 20 I’ll be in the small resort town of Neuharlingersiel, which is on the North Sea coast. My aforementioned boyfriend Sven and I will be going there together, and I’m quite excited for it—sort of like a mini-vacation within what was largely already a vacation. I’ve purposefully avoided talking about him in this blog because I didn’t want things to get too personal, but it would be sort of hard to avoid talking about him when I write about my Neuharlingersiel trip. And probably most people reading this blog knew about him already. But anyway. There may be a brief two day trip back up to Köln before that, but I’m not certain.

But what is certain is that on July 25 I will fly back to Seattle and will probably arrive equal parts elated and devastated. The downside of becoming so settled here is that it will be incredibly hard to leave. But my one comfort is knowing that this is by no means my last trip to Germany. I love it here and will work on getting back as soon as possible. The end of this trip is approaching, but I know there is a greater journey that is only just beginning.

Scandinavian Surveys: Copenhagen

One of Copenhagen's several man-made lakes.

Remember that time I’d tell you all about my visit to Copenhagen? Finally, the time is now! Sorry for keeping you waiting.

My Marquette roommate, Angela, and I, left for Copenhagen on June 19. Once again, I had the distinct pleasure of flying out of the main Frankfurt airport, since no budget airlines fly from Frankfurt Hahn to Copenhagen. Darn!

This was a particularly fun trip for us, because we both had several friends in Denmark who we had met last semester at Marquette. We had talked several times, not totally seriously, about coming out to visit them all someday, but had no idea that we would actually be able to make the trip – or that it would be so soon! But  because we wre mostly visiting Copenhagen to see friends, as well as the fact that Angela was staying another week in Copenhagen after I would leave, sightseeing was not a huge priority on this trip. It was about the people.

Angela and I arrived at the Airport in Copenhagen late on Thursday night. We caught a train to the central train station, and there our friends Mark and Julie met us. It was so strange seeing familiar faces in an utterly new setting. Angela and I were tired, but the night was still young. Mark and Julie whisked us off to a couple of their favorite bars, and we had a great and tiring first night in Copenhagen. We made it to Mark’s apartment (where we stayed) around 3 a.m.

We were late risers the next morning and hung around with Mark and his friends a bit. When we were sufficiently rejuvenated, we decided to do some walking and begin to see the city proper.

We were staying in a northern part of the city, Østerbro, but the city was pretty walkable. Angela and I figured out a general idea of places we’d like to see, and set off walking. I immediately began mentally comparing everything I saw to Stockholm, since both cities are major Scandinavian capitals with somewhat of a (friendly) rivalry. The Østerbro district definitely had a sort of Portland or Seattle vibe to me–a lot of trendy shops and restaurants and trendy looking people. It was also very urban, so not necessarily aesthetically pleasing in the classical european sense. It didn’t look much like Stockholm to me, but, then again, we mostly stayed in the city center in Stockholm.

Our first stop was the Assistens Kirkegården, a cemetery where some notable Danes were buried. We saw the graves of H.C. Andersen, Niels Bohr and Søren Kierkegaard. The graves were all fairly nondescript, but the cemetery itself was quite lovely and very pleasant to walk around.

Rosenborg Slot

From there we worked our way into the city center, crossing one of the many bridges spanning the series of man-made lakes that ring the western side of the city. We then went to Kongens Have, the Kings Gardens (although on the way there was an embarrassing dumb tourist moment in which I tried to enter a restricted military compound. oopsies.). Located in the gardens is the Rosenborg Slot (castle). The castle was built in the 1600s and had been used periodically as a residence for the royal family. The crown jewels are located here, but the castle was closed by the time we got there. It was quite lovely to look at from the outside, though.

We then began traversing through the inner city, called Indre By. This was the historical hub of Copenhagen, with wide shopping streets lined with colorful wooden houses. And of course, canals! Our goal was to head to Tivoli, a sort of amusement park, in order to see a concert of a singer Angela liked (Teitur), so we didn’t wander much–just headed through to Tivoli, seeing whatever there was along the way. I didn’t think Copenhagen’s old town was as charming and pictureque as Stockholm’s, but it was still lovely and fun to explore.

The concert at Tivoli was a lot of fun. We met our friend Julie there and staked out a spot on the lawn to watch the concert from. I still can’t quite wrap my head around what exactly Tivoli is, because it’s not an amusement park in the way that we’re used to in the states. It has rides, but it’s also an eating, shopping and entertainment destination–there’s just a lot going on. We didn’t see a ton of the park itself, but it was quite pretty, and definitely had a focus on aesthetics in a way that’s not common for amusement parks in the states.

My buddy H.C. Andersen and I in Odense.

The next day, Julie had gotten permission from her father to use his car, so we decided to plan a day trip out to Odense, another city in Denmark, to visit another one of our friends from Marquette, Domi. Odense was about an hour and a half away from Copenhagen. I was quite excited for this trip for a variety of reasons–I would get to see Domi again, I would get to see a new city in Denmark, and I’d get to see more of Denmark it general. Usually when I travel to a new place, I’m confined to that location; it’s not easy to get out and see the surrounding areas when you don’t have your own transportation.

The trip over was uneventful, save driving over the Storebæltsbroen, a massive bridge that connects the island that Copenhagen is located on to the island Odense is on (Denmark is actually made up of several islands and landmasses – I didn’t appreciate this before I came there). According to Wikipedia, it’s the third longest suspension bridge in the world. Ooooh! It was pretty cool though.

Odense is best known as the birthplace of H.C. Andersen, and they do an extremely thorough job marketing this. Walking around the city, I would say we encountered no fewer than four statues of the man himself, as well as various statues representing characters from his fairy tales. It was a bit overdone, but still kind of cute. The city itself was not terribly noteworthy—not ugly, but nothing stunning. I’ve become jaded!

Still, it was great to see another Danish city and even more awesome to see an old Danish friend. It made for a long but very successful day.

The next day was my last full day in Copenhagen, since I would be leaving Monday morning, so I wanted to make sure I got in at least one day of serious sightseeing.  Our first stop was the National Museum, which was free. I went hoping that they, in particular, would have a great exhibit on the Vikings. They didn’t have as much on this era as I had hoped, but in general they did have some extremely well-done and interesting exhibits on the history of Denmark. Definitely a worthwhile stop.

From there, we hopped onto a canal tour, wanting to see the city in a way that was both fun and efficient. I liked getting to see the city from the water and going to some parts that we hadn’t been to (and that I wouldn’t have time to see otherwise), but the whole thing felt a bit rushed as far as actually learning about the city. Part of the problem was that it was conducted in four languages (Danish, English, Italian and Spanish) so the tour guide could only say a little bit about every sight, since he had to repeat it so much. Still, Copenhagen is definitely a great city to see from the water.

Nyhavn Canal

After the canal tour, we walked over to Nyhavn Canal, which is the one ultra-touristy thing to see in Copenhagen. It’s a canal lined with dozens of fun, colorful buildings and is full of upper-scale dining and shopping. It was crawling with people, but I enjoyed seeing it–the colors provide such a contrast from the more traditional earth tones that are so dominant in most German homes and buildings.

Our last stop was Amalienborg, the home of the royal family, complete with comically dressed guards who are not permitted to smile at you. I would have liked to have seen a changing of the guard ceremony there, but alas, there was no time.

My trip to Copenhagen was a ton of fun, but for reasons different than most of my other trips. All told, there is a ton of Copenhagen that I didn’t see because of time constraints. But I have no regrets about how I spent my time there. I got to see three people I had met at Marquette and whom I thought I might never see again, and I got to see a major European capital with natives as my guides. It was such a fun experience, and it made me realize how lucky I am to have so many international friendships!

Oh, and for the record, I liked Copenhagen better than Stockholm. This is sacrilege to some (mostly Swedes), but I just had to put it out there for the record. I think Stockholm was prettier, but Denmark just seemed more fun. So let the record state that Denmark wins this Scandinavian double-header!

Scandinavian Surveys: Stockholm

Stockholm!

From May 29th to June 8th, my best friend from high school, Jenna, came out to Marburg to visit. Early on in our planning process, we decided we had to visit Sweden. For Jenna, it was visiting the home of her grandparents, and for me, it was just an opportunity to see a cool new part of Europe.

We departed for Stockholm on the evening of June 2nd, a Thursday. We had the distinct pleasure of NOT having to fly RyanAir, as we had waited so long to book the airfare that the price of the budget airlines was almost the exact same as that of the more respectable Lufthansa. Oh darn! Looks like we’ll have to fly out of a real airport on a real airline.

It was somewhat surreal being back in the main Frankfurt airport (recall that RyanAir flies out of the deceptively named Frankfurt Hahn Airport, which is in fact nowhere near Frankfurt), since this was the first time I had been there since I first arrived in Germany at the end of February.

The downside of finding reasonably priced airfare via Lufthansa was that our flight would not get into Stockholm until about 11:50 p.m. So we arrived in Sweden fairly tuckered out but still with a journey ahead of us. We hopped on a shuttle bus to the city center, arriving around 12:45 a.m., and then we tried to navigate to our hotel. It was really only a 20 minute walk from the central terminal to our hotel, but we quickly found that the directions from the hostel were less than precise. We didn’t end up settling into bed until close to 2 a.m. Yikes!

One thing that was quite weird as we were walking around was that the sun had not totally set, even so late at night/early in the morning, since Stockholm is so far north. The sky was dark, yes, but there were still bits of light on the periphery. That made the walk to the hostel somewhat disorienting, since our bodies were telling us we should be exhausted, but the sky itself seemed to be telling us the night was only beginning.

The streets of Gamla Stan, Stockholm's old city.

We roused the next day/later in the morning around 8:30 a.m. Upon waking up I was immediately startled to be greeted with a familiar exclamation of “Tori!” in my hostel room from my Marquette roommate, Angela. She was going to meet Jenna and I in Stockholm, but when she had contacted the hostel in advance, they had told her it was not possible to be placed in the same room as the two of us. But by some stroke of luck  we ended up in the same hostel room anyway!

Jenna and I rallied our stamina, having only slept about six hours, and began the sightseeing. It was quickly apparent that we had chosen well in our hostel—it was located right across from the water in Stockholm’s Old Town, called Gamla Stan. This put it firmly in the middle of Stockholm itself, making it easy to walk to the north or south, or to take a ferry to a neighboring island.

The city itself certainly lived up to any picture I had ever seen of it. Stockholm is a lovely seaside city. The old town was as picturesque and charming as anything I have seen in Europe, with the classic, winding cobble stone streets and brightly painted buildings. That was one thing that stood out to most in Stockholm—everything just seemed so colorful and bright.

Another aspect of Stockholm that also became quite apparent was that it is a terribly expensive city. Our hostel was not bad at 25 euros a night, but a standard meal at an average restaurant would cost at least $20, a beer $7-$10.  That can add up quickly!

Friday was just a day for general sightseeing, with an early bedtime. Saturday, we roused for round two. Our first main sightseeing venture was the changing of the guard at the royal palace—I had sort of forgotten that Sweden had a royal family to begin with, but Sweden clearly has not. There were souvenir shops full of merchandise bearing their faces as well as Swedish shopkeepers eager to talk to us about the king’s philandering reputation. But anyway.

Changing of the guard ceremony at the royal palace.

The ceremony was quite impressive, I thought, mostly because of the band. They sounded phenomenal and had excellent choreography. They played for nearly 20 minutes, which was much longer than I would have expected for a ceremony that happens every day. We arrived early enough to get great vantage points, and it was definitely worth standing in the beating sun for 40 minutes.

That evening, we did something quite different but equally touristy—visit the Absolut Ice Bar. If you’re not familiar with the concept, an ice bar is exactly what it sounds like: a bar made of ice. Everything, from the tables and chairs to the drink glasses, is sculpted from ice. Admission was about $25 for one drink and the parkas (it’s cold in there!), but it was worth the money, in my opinion. A gimmicky but still very cool (har) concept.

On Sunday, Angela and I took one of the hop-on, hop-off boats to Djurgården, an island that houses, among other things, Skansen, which was a sort of nature park/outdoor museum/zoo thing. The park serves as a window into Swedish history, with replicas of storefronts from the 1800s and 1900s, as well as mock settlements of the ancient nordic tribes, the Sami. They also had enclosures featuring native Swedish wildlife, such as reindeer and wolverines.

We returned mid-afternoon and headed to the Nobel Museum, where Jenna joined us. The museum was much smaller than I expected, but still very interesting. We joined a guided tour, which was extremely informative. One thing I learned that I thought was particularly cool is that each laureate receives a sort of booklet/diploma that is designed specifically for them and their award; the artwork on this is usually somehow inspired by the work that the laureate did to receive the award.

Beyond the basic information about the award and the ceremony, the rest of the museum was just a collection of displays featuring different items somehow relevant to specific laureates and their work.

Happy National Day of Sweden!

The next day, Monday, was our final day – we were flying back that evening. However, we were able to take a little time to enjoy the atmosphere, for we just so happened to be in Sweden on their flag day, which is their main patriotic holiday. Everyone was walking around with little Swedish flags (we acquired some of our own, naturally), and there were all sorts of ceremonies and celebrations happening. I do wish that we could have had more time to take it all in, but unfortunately we didn’t have a lot of time before we had to gather our things and head to the airport.

Despite how expensive everything was, I really enjoyed my trip to Stockholm. It’s a beautiful city that provides a nice change from the style and mood of the German cities I’m so used to seeing. Moreover, all the people we met were quite nice and spoke incredible English. They almost made me not feel bad for speaking English everywhere. Almost. That’s still something that’s hard for me to get used to though, since when I’m in Germany I’m at least marginally competent wherever I go.

Stockholm was a successful first foray into Scandinavia, but not my last. Tune in next week/whenever I have time to type up another blog post to see how my next northern European adventure went. Destination: Copenhagen!

Falling in Love with Ireland

The final leg of my three-weekends-in-a-row travel extravaganza was a Friday to Monday trip out to Ireland. I had mixed feelings about this trip from the very beginning, partly because I was getting a bit burnt out from all the travel and partly because I had heard that Dublin wasn’t all that great of a city. But I had a friend out in Galway I wanted to visit (Eilish!), so decided to organize my trip so the bulk of my time would be spent outside of Dublin.

The flight over was uneventful, featuring another exciting trip out to the mysterious Frankfurt Hahn airport to experience the wonders of flying budget airlines. We got into Dublin around 8 p.m. and didn’t get into the city proper until close to nine. This put us in a bit of a bind, because we all were starving, but apparently most pubs in the city stop serving food after 9 p.m. Tired and hungry, we decided to swallow our pride and go somewhere we knew was still serving food and where we knew we could find something we’d want: TGI Fridays. Not our finest moment (14 euros for chicken fingers? Really?), but at least our hunger was sated.

After eating and dropping our stuff off at the hostel, it was about 11 p.m. We were all tuckered out but unwilling to go to bed without sampling at least a little bit of Dublin nightlife, so we wandered over to the Bleeding Horse Pub for a nightcap. It was a pretty cool pub – very loud and lively inside, with a trendy décor. We quickly realized, however, that everything—not just your TGI Friday’s chicken fingers—was expensive in Ireland. Many of the beers cost more that 5 euros ($7)! For a pint! Compare that to 2 – 3.50 euros for a half-liter in Marburg. Yikes! So we sipped our pricey beers, enjoyed the loud music and general chatter, and then slipped off to bed.

The next morning, I caught a 10 a.m. bus to Galway to visit Eilish. I used the 20-minute or so walk over as a chance to see some more of Dublin, and overall I just wasn’t impressed. Granted, I was seeing it at about 9 a.m. on a Saturday morning, so not exactly the time when Dublin comes alive, but I just didn’t find the city very pretty or inspiring. I’ve seen Paris and Munich and Budapest and Salzburg and, well… Dublin just didn’t seem that special. I was also surprised and annoyed at how hard it was to find a simple café on my way over where I could pick up a fresh-baked pastry and maybe a hot chocolate. Many places advertised themselves as cafes, but when you went it, it be more of a convenience store with some baskets of croissants or donuts whose freshness was suspect. Color me unimpressed.

Shops in Galway

The busride to Galway took about 2 ½ hours – it’s a harbor town on the other side of Ireland. In many ways it’s not unlike Marburg – a small town that thrives on a significant university student population. Eilish picked me up at the bus station, I dropped my stuff off at her apartment, and then she took me on a tour of the town.

I was immediately smitten with Galway in a way that I had not been in Dublin. The best word I can think of is charming—lots of cute shops, friendly people and interesting bits of history. After walking a bit we hopped on a boat to take a cruise on the River Corrib, which offered me the chance to see more of the Irish landscape as well as some bits of historical significance in the form of castle ruins and other abandoned structures.

That night, Eilish took me out to one of her favorite pubs. The entire experience was just wonderful. The pub was fairly small but quite packed. There was a traditional Irish band playing in the corner, and people would occasionally attempt to dance in what little space they could find. I was also amazed at how friendly people were, and how willing they were to talk to strangers. Eilish and I talked for a bit with a few Irish guys who began the conversation by complimenting us on our drinking Guinness (“You look like real Irish women!”). The whole atmosphere was just so warm and convivial. It was unlike anything I had experienced in my travels.

Dunguaire Castle

The next day, Eilish and I hopped on a tour bus that would take us around several points of interest in the surrounding area, including the much-hyped Cliffs of Moher. It was my first experience doing any sort of organized tour, and I wasn’t sure if I would like it, but overall it was a very positive experience—certainly an efficient way to see a lot in just a day. The only downside was that there were many times I wish we could have just pulled over and stopped to admire the view. It would definitely be nice to do a tour of the Irish countryside by car some day.

The tour took us to the lovely Dunguaire Castle, situated on a placid lake and then to a fairy fort, basically a ring of trees with a grassy clearing in the center. It’s actual purpose is unknown, but was probably either used for farming or ritual purposes thousands of years ago.

From there we wound our way up to the Burren, which is a hilly, barren part of the country. The landscape was very interesting, much of it being very rocky and somewhat treacherous to walk on. Our main stop here was a portal tomb, an ancient tomb marked by massive stone slabs. I thought this was totally cool, unlike anything I had seen so far in Europe.

We had about an hour stopover in Doolin for lunch, one of the adorable small towns that, as far as I can tell, pretty much dominate the Irish countryside. Then it was on to the main event, the Cliffs of Moher.

The Cliffs were the one thing I knew I absolutely had to do in Ireland. I had heard so much about their epic beauty. I prayed that the volatile Irish weather would be kind to us for just forty minutes, and thankfully it was cooperative, at least as much as could be expected.

The Cliffs of Moher

The sun was shining beautifully on the cliffs, though the wind was incredible. Honest to god the most intense wind I had ever experienced, and anyone who has ever lived in Milwaukee knows that I have experienced some serious winds. But the cliffs provided an absolutely beautiful juxtaposition of lush, green countryside and deep, mesmerizing blue ocean. It’s easy to understand how so many before me have been captivated.

We then wondered over to the visitors’ center, since we had tickets to the exhibit portion of it as part of our tour. The exhibit was interesting, but if our tickets hadn’t already been covered, I certainly wouldn’t have paid for it.  The cliffs are enough of a treat in themselves. We also timed the weather perfectly, for as soon as we began to move into the visitors center the rains moved in.

After the cliffs, our tour had one more stop along the seaside, to sort of offer a perspective on what the rest of the Irish coast looks like. I thought it was as beautiful as the cliffs, just in a different way. It was not unlike the coasts in the Pacific Northwest—very rugged, with high waves crashing against the rocks.

I really fell in love with the Irish countryside during my trip. In every way that Dublin unimpressed me, the countryside rose to the occasion. It was beautiful in a way I was not used to experiencing—I’m used to the mountainous, forested beauty of the Pacific Northwest, or the medieval beauty of Germany, or the architectural beauty of places like Paris and Salzburg. The Irish countryside was none of this—just rolling, verdant fields or pleasant woods. But there was such a simple beauty in all of this, and such a kindness in the people, that I couldn’t help but be won over.

The next day, Monday, I headed back to Dublin with the rest of my group. I had originally thought that I would use this day to do some proper sightseeing of Dublin, but they had already done most of their major sightseeing and I just wasn’t feeling a strong desire to explore the city. We walked around a bit, seeing St. Stephen’s Green, Trinity College and some other parts of the city, but I ultimately was not won over.

However, the adventure didn’t end in Dublin. You see, getting back to Marburg was going to be quite the ordeal, because after we booked our flights, RyanAir changed the departure time of our flight back to Frankfurt so that we would be getting into Frankfurt Hahn around 11 p.m. This was problematic because it meant that by the time we reached the train station in Frankfurt, we would miss the last train back to Marburg and have to wait until the first morning train the next day. Oh boy.

So we got into Frankfurt Hahn right on time, around 11:10 p.m. We then waited around the airport until 12:30 a.m., when we caught a bus that would take us back to the train station in Frankfurt. We could have taken an earlier bus, but given the choice between loitering in the clean, safe Frankfurt Hahn Airport and loitering in the shady, unclean Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, we chose to maximize our time in Hahn.

We arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, chipper and alert, around 2:15 a.m. When we went to enter the train station, not wanting to wait around with Frankfurt’s finest citizens outside, we found that all the doors were locked. Uh-oh. We walked around to the front of the train station and saw several security officers loitering outside of it. Still in a sleepy stupor, I attempted to speak to them in German, and thankfully was coherent enough to explain we had just arrived from Hahn and that we were taking an early morning train to Marburg. This was enough for them to let us in – after we were in we realized we were thankful that they were being more discriminating about who was actually getting into the train station at these hours. So then we sat for three hours, trying to fight the mind-numbing boredom. At 5:21 a.m., we hopped a train to Marburg, and around 6:45 a.m. we finally arrived at our dorms, a mere 12 hours after we left Dublin. The things you do for a cheap flight!

Parisian Ponderings

The next leg of my whirlwind, three-week jaunt through Europe took me to our neighbors to the west, good ol’ France. Two days after my Easter trip to Budapest, I took off for Frankfurt to catch an overnight bus.

This was certainly an experience in itself. Our bus departed the train station in Frankfurt at 9:30 p.m., set to arrive at 7 a.m. the next day – yech. It was, however, 40 euros cheaper than taking the train. The trip included an hour-long stop in Metz, France, which I hear is lovely, but less so when you’re at a gas station at 2 in the morning. Overall, I think the bus ride went as well as could be expected. You’re never going to sleep well sitting on a bus for nine hours, but I at least was able to sleep a few solid hours.

We got into Paris at around 6:20 a.m., which was a bit confusing for my travel companion, Larissa, and I, since it meant we were 40 minutes early. I asked the bus driver in German if this was the last stop (we had made some stops previous to this one), and as far as I could tell he affirmed this (and probably also thought we were a bit daft for even asking). So we wandered off the bus, uncertain what we were going to do until my friend Kaellen met us at 7.

Luckily Kaellen, who studied in Paris this semester, was running on time and we didn’t have to wait too long. We hopped on the Metro to go back to her apartment (she spent the semester living with a host family) to drop off our bags. On the way, we stopped at your stereotypical French patisserie and got a stereotypical pain au chocolat – basically, croissant-type bread filled with chocolate. And, in short, it was amazing. It was amazing how something as simple as a croissant could be a thousand times more delicious in Paris than anywhere else I had ever had one.

Sufficiently energized for the day, we set off on our sightseeing expedition. The first stop was Notre Dame. Upon arriving, I realized that I think church fatigue has finally settled in for me. I have heard all my other friends who have studied abroad in Europe express the same sentiment again and again—no matter how cool or beautiful they are, eventually you will get sick and tired of seeing so many damn churches all the time.

Don’t get me wrong – Notre Dame is a beautiful church. But I think the Dom in Köln was definitely the high point of all the churches I have seen, and so everything after is pretty, but not exceptional. It’s weird to even write that – weird to think that I’ve seen enough in Europe that I can say the Notre Dame is lovely, but nothing exceptional.

View of Paris from the top of Notre Dame.

We did however pay the 5 euros to climb to the top of the Cathedral, and that was absolutely worth it. It was a long climb on a very narrow spiral staircase, but we were rewarded with a great view of Paris as well as the upper parts of the cathedral. We were able to see some of the gargoyles up close as well as to explore the Belfry, where much of The Hunchback of Notre Dame takes place – pretty cool!

From there we went to find lunch, using a guidebook Kaellen had to select what we hoped was a tasty and reasonably priced French restaurant. I had a sort of open-faced roast beef sandwich for about 10 euros, which was quite pricey for me but reasonable by Paris standards.

We stopped by the Pompidou Centre, which houses a modern art museum, among other things. The building itself has a very modern design, looking sort of like the outer walls were stripped away, exposing a network of structural beams and escalator tunnels used to get to the top. The elevator attendant on the outside of the building was nice and let us go straight up into the building, instead of having to wait in line for tickets (which I believe would have been free for students, but at least we saved time!). There wasn’t a lot to see up there besides the art museum, but at least it provided another nice view of Paris.

Our last major stop of day one was the Louvre. We went in knowing there was no way we would be able to see everything, instead intending to just hit the highlights. The Louvre is a museum whose scale you’ll never truly appreciate until you visit it. I knew it was huge, but seriously – it’s HUGE. I was just overwhelmed by how many rooms full of priceless collections there were.

Somewhere back there is the Mona Lisa... also note pretentious beret-wearing art snob with hands on hips.

We saw the Mona Lisa (of course) which, like everyone says, is much smaller than you expect. The crowds there actually weren’t as bad as I thought they would be – certainly, there were a lot of people, but it actually didn’t take that long to get close. It would have been nice to been able to stand there longer though and actually appreciate the picture, instead of feeling like you have to take your picture and then get out of the way for the next person.

The next day we all met up in the Luxembourg Gardens. One thing I did not realize about Paris that there are dozens of gardens across the city, all saturated with perfectly maintained hedges, elegant fountains and beautiful flowers. So they’re all quite lovely, yes, but the novelty does wear off quickly.

From the gardens we headed to the Pantheon, which as far as I could figure out is basically France giving itself a pat on the back. Ok, that’s probably not a fair reduction of the building – it’s primary purpose is to serve as a place of entombment for prominent French men and women, such as Rousseau, Voltaire and Marie and Pierre Curie. The architecture of the building itself was very classical, and reminded me a lot of the Capitol building in Washington D.C.

The Arc de Triomphe was our next stop. It’s possible to go to the top of the Arc and get yet another panoramic view of Paris, but Larissa and felt that would have been a bit excessive, since we had already seen the city from Notre Dame and the Pompidou Centre and still had impending visits to the Eiffel Tower and the Montmarche. Still, the Arc was an impressive sight from the ground, definitely bigger than I had realized. I particularly liked all the detailing on the Arc, with reliefs on the sides depicting angels charging into battle or something like that. It looked epic.

Oh hey EIffel Tower

The rest of the day featured some ambling around the Champs d’Elysee and various other pretty parts of Paris (this is my way of saying we saw a lot of things that seemed significant but I have no idea what they were called and I am too lazy to look them up). In the evening, we headed to the lawn of the Eiffel Tower for a stereotypical meal of wine, cheese and baguettes. When in Paris, one must do as the tourists do.

We got there in the evening, and immediately I was overwhelmed at how many people there were. The lawn was full of people doing exactly as we were as well as children playing soccer, dogs running around and the omnipresent vendors trying to sell you five key chains for the low price of one euro!

I quickly became disenchanted with the overall environment. The space was just so crowded, the vendors too persistent and numerous, and the soccer-playing-folks  too inconsiderate of people trying to sit and enjoy the day. The final straw was when someone’s dog – off its leash – suddenly jumped into the middle of our picnic and began eating our food! If that wasn’t bad enough, the dog’s owner simply laughed, grabbed the dog and walked away without so much as an apology.

The magic lost, we quickly packed up and moved to get in line to actually go up the tower. We had timed our visit so that we would either make it up around sunset or nighttime, hoping that either way it would be a distinctly pretty view of the city. The process of going up the tower was a bit overwhelming – there were just many people, several different lines, and vendors! Vendors everywhere! Luckily Kaellen had done this before and was able to steer us in a shorter-looking line. I’m not sure how long we waited for tickets and then to get into the elevator, but I don’t think it was more than 45 minutes, so not too bad.

Like many other things this trip, the tower is just so much bigger than you realize. Standing under the base of the tower, looking at the massive steel legs supporting it, I just couldn’t believe how a structure like this could have been built before the ease of modern technology.

We bought tickets to go to the very top, but you go up in stages. First you take an elevator to the middle level, get off and walk around to your heart’s content, and then you line up for the next elevator to take you to the very top. Both levels were certainly crowded, but it wasn’t too terribly difficult to find a spot against the fencing to look out to the city below.

Paris at night. That beam of light you see is the searchlight from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

I will say that the view from the middle level isn’t really all that different from the view at the very top – you probably are better off saving your money and paying only for the middle. But, I suppose there is something to saying that you went to the very top of the Eiffel Tower. The view itself is everything you think it is. It was particularly nice to see it at night though and to see the city begin to light up. Overall, this is one super-touristy destination that’s still probably worth your time, no matter how above it you think you might be.

The next day, our last day in Paris, our primary destination was to see the Sacre Coeur Basilica, located on a hill overlooking the city (the Montmarche). This was something I really wanted to see, because, based on picture, the church itself looked just beautiful, and it also seemed to provide a nice view of the city.

Ultimately, however, the church was a big disappointment. To be sure, it’s a really beautiful structure, certainly one of the most elegant churches I’ve ever seen. The main problem was the people. There were SO. MANY. PEOPLE. It was hard to move. Even worse, there were an incredible number of shady street vendors, and they were much pushier than any of the ones I had seen elsewhere in Paris. They’re the kind that don’t take no for an answer, and it was very obnoxious

Additionally, by this time we had seen so many different views of Paris, that it really wasn’t that special to see it from the Montmarche. Sacre Coeur ended up being the most touristy thing we did in Paris, and ultimately, I just didn’t care for it. Which really is a shame, because I loved the church itself. I just couldn’t stand being near it because of how crowded it was.

The last highlight of our trip to Paris was a visit to Angelina’s, a fancy coffee-pastry-sandwich restaurant. We were lured here by Kaellen’s food guidebook, which said Angelina’s had the best hot chocolate in Paris, possibly in the world. How could we resist?

It was somewhat difficult to commit myself to the experience, because they also price their hot chocolate as if it is the best in Paris – 7 euros ($10, for those of you following along at home) for a personal pot. Yikes! But what’s more Parisian than spending excessive amounts of money on decadent treats?

So we did as the Parisians do, and it was definitely worth the money. It was the thickest, sweetest, and tastiest hot chocolate I had ever had, and I consider myself to be somewhat of a connoisseur. Essentially it tasted as though someone had melted down rich milk chocolate bars, which is to say, it tasted amazing. Money well spent.

I feel like we got as much out of three days in Paris as we possibly could have – definitely my most successful trip to date.

Easter in Budapest

I apologize for how long it’s been taking me to update on my adventures. Life here is just so busy, between traveling and the occasional class. It’s hard to find the time to sit down and recount an experience, because before I know it I’m off somewhere else. What a problem, huh?

Over Easter break I traveled to Budapest, Hungary to visit my high school friend Clint. This would be my first real trip out of Germany (save a previous day-long foray into Austria), my first big solo journey, and my first visit to a country where speaking German and English would not necessarily be enough to get me by.

The journey began immediately, because I was flying a Hungarian discount airline, WizzAir, to Budapest, and all the discount airlines in the area fly out of the Frankfurt-Hahn airport, rather than the main Frankfurt Airport. Still, Frankfurt-Hahn has Frankfurt in the name, so it can’t be that far away, right? Right? Wrong.

Hahn is actually an hour and 45 minutes outside of Frankfurt. I have no idea where it actually is. All I know is that I hopped on a bus outside of the train station in downtown Frankfurt, and when I hopped off all I saw was a small airport and wide, desolate fields – definitely nowhere near Frankfurt. Thus the eternal question remains: Where the hell is Hahn?

The rest of the trip was uneventful – WizzAir was very painless to fly, even for a budget airline, and the journey was fairly quick. Clint met me at the airport in Budapest, and away we went.

Immediately, it was clear that Budapest was not like the other European (read: German) cities I had seen. Their buses and metro cars just looked…dated. Not necessarily archaic, but still clearly from an era that Germany (at least the cities I have been in) has definitely since moved past.

Riding the public transportation was also immediately overwhelming because the Hungarian language is just so radically different from anything I have experience with. It’s a language where it’s hard to tell both how a word is pronounced based on its spelling and how a word is spelled based on its pronunciation. Thus, hearing stops called on public transportation or reading them on a sign did not necessarily mean I had my bearings. I immediately resolved to shamelessly cling to Clint.

I arrived on a Saturday evening and the first order of the night was to go to an Irish pub (naturally) to see the end of a soccer game. After that, we had some drinks at an outdoor café area, outside of a bar that was essentially a converted metro station (the city had begun to build a new station and then abandoned the project). This sort of set a theme for the trip. Budapest is a fascinating, lively city plagued by a constant lack of money. Amidst beautifully preserved, classically designed buildings there will be crumbling structures in near ruins. It’s almost part of the city’s charm—it gives Budapest something that makes it distinct from other European capitals (besides, you know, the unintelligible language).

That night also involved hitting up a Budapest club, a secret/illegal bar (you literally had to know exactly where to go and ring the doorbell to gain access) and then watching/participating in karaoke until six in the morning. Not a bad first day in Budapest.

A Soviet statue in the middle of a Budapest park. Guess we're not in Western Europe anymore!

The next day got an understandably late start, but eventually Clint and I wandered out for a proper city tour. Overall, Budapest is an incredibly beautiful city, with a fascinating juxtaposition of classical European architecture with more eastern-inspired art-nouveau buildings. There are also clear reminders of the Soviet legacy in Budapest, with many starkly utilitarian buildings butting up against the classic architecture or art-nouveau structures. There’s even a Soviet-era statue remaining in one of Budapest’s parks, which I found absolutely fascinating. Apparently a deal was made with the crumbling Soviet government that the statue would remain if the Soviet Union agreed to protect some Hungarian graves on Russian soil (or something like that), and so to this day there remains a statue honoring the Soviet Union in the middle of a Budapest park.

One of my favorite sights was the Parliament in Budapest, which simply has to be seen to be believed. It’s massive, excessive and beautiful—sort of like the Rathaus in Munich on steroids. Apparently only a small fraction of the building is even used for day-to-day operations.

There was one building across from the Parliament that I was intrigued by, because the façade was covered in small metal balls that seemed to serve no aesthetic purpose. I asked Clint, and he told me that each ball was situated over where a bullet hole used to be, remnants of the 1956 uprising against the Soviets, which was eventually crushed. This uprising is well-remembered throughout the city, as we stumbled on several memorials related to events or people associated with the 1956 revolution.

After the parliament, we crossed the bridge across the river into the Buda side of Budapest, in order to walk up to Buda Castle, which sits on a hill overlooking the city. The climb is steep, but it rewards trekkers with a wonderful view of the city as well as a close-up look at the castle itself. There is also a lovely church in the vicinity, St. Matthias.

Looking at the two different sides of the city (Buda and Pest) from the view at Buda Castle. The Parliament is that big fancy looking building.

The next day featured more sightseeing, with one particularly notable stop: The Budapest Opera House. Clint had floated the possibility of going to see the opera this night, because apparently they sell some incredibly cheap tickets ideal for students, costing 500 – 1,000 Forints ($2.80 – $5.60). I thought this sounded like a great idea—I had never been to an opera before, so why not see one in one of Europe’s greatest venues?

We arrived at the opera wearing the same clothes we had been walking around in all day, meaning I felt very underdressed for such a fancy occasion. But, given how much we paid for our ticket, we were in good company once we went to our seats – the attire was decidedly more casual in the cheap seats.

The opera itself was an interesting experience. There were some major impediments to our understanding of the performance: 1) we didn’t know anything about the opera (Puccini’s Tosca) beforehand; 2) it was sung in Italian; 3) the subtitles were in Hungarian; 4) perhaps most critical, from our vantage point, we could only see about 25 percent of the stage, and it just so happened that most of the play occurred on the other 75 percent of the stage.

All that said, it was still a great experience – just getting to hear the opera in the building’s phenomenal acoustics was an experience in and of itself, as was just getting to sit there and take in the beauty of the building. It was easily the highlight of my trip.

Inside the opera house!

That night we hit up a couple of ruin bars, something Budapest in particular is known far. Basically, these are bars that take up residence in old, abandoned buildings – so, from the outside, it looks like there couldn’t possible be a bar inside, because the building is practically falling apart. But the insides of these bars were too cool – gritty, but lively and loud. They were unlike any bars I had even seen before.

Ultimately, Budapest is unlike any other European capital, particularly because of its fascinating mix of east and west. It definitely deserves to be at the top of anyone’s European travel must-sees, and I’m extremely grateful I had the opportunity to visit.