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!

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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!

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.

I made it!

I am currently sitting in the Frankfurt Airport (though this won’t get published until I get to Marburg) and the only word I can think of right now is surreal. I know, it’s the most stereotypical descriptor of a first arrival in a foreign country. I sound like every study abroad blog ever when I say that I feel like I’m just waiting to wake up – this can’t be real. But there’s a reason every study abroad blog begins like that: it’s true.

I am in awe right now of how far I have come, literally and figuratively.  Literally, 11 hours ago (from writing this) I was in Seattle. And now I am in Germany, another world away. Figuratively, because oh my God – I’m in Germany. I’ve wanted to visit here ever since we hosted an exchange student from Germany ten years ago. And now, after studying the language for 2 ½ years, after months of preparation, after a fairly rigorous scholarship application to help fund this… here I am. I did it. And this is only the beginning.

Right now I am waiting for the other Marquette student coming over with me –  she should be in within the hour. I am not quite sure how this whole meeting thing is going to go, but we’ll see. I’m a bit surprised at how quiet this airport is. Frankfurt is such a business hub, I expected this airport to be humming with life, huge and overwhelming. But honestly, I think an airport like SeaTac would be way more overwhelming. But maybe there’s just much more going on here than the little bit I’m currently seeing. Besides, I still have to take a train to Marburg, which I think could be the most confusing part of the trip.

The plane ride itself was fairly uneventful. Overall I’m a fan of Lufthansa’s service. The meals were decent (high praise for airline food!), they doled out hot towelettes, and there was a vast selection of entertainment options. I watched The Social Network and The Other Guys, two very good movies for completely different reasons.  I was on the aisle of the middle section – it went 2 – 4 – 2 – but there was no one in the middle two seats, so that was a bonus. Except then the woman in front of me decided to move into our middle (not sure why) and proceeded to periodically hand off or receive her small, flailing child. So that got a bit old.

Ok, now the rest of this entry is being written from my hotel in Marburg.

I finally met up with Becca around 10:45 and we set off to figure out this train nonsense. After some false starts, we bought what we hoped were the correct tickets. We first needed to take a train from the airport to the main train station (Hauptbahnhof) and then change to the train that would take us from Marburg.

The Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof was fairly overwhelming – dozens of tracks, and no clear way of figuring out which track was the one we needed. I suppose with less luggage we could have wandered around and figured it out for ourselves, but laden down as we were, I opted to go straight to the information desk and ask where we needed to go – a less dignified route, yes, but a much quicker one.

Then we had further confusion – we were sent to track 14, but according to the sign there were two different destinations for this train – one would take us to Marburg and the other went to different towns. As far as we could see, there was only one train here and it was the wrong one. We decided to just get on the train anyway, since it would at least start by heading in the direction we needed; we could just get off at some point and change trains again. Not fun with so many bags, but doable. However, when we reached Gießen, we realized that we were on the correct train, just the wrong part – the cars would divide and the front of the train would go to Marburg.  So all we needed to do was relocate to the front train and we were good to go!

It was such a thrill reaching Marburg – this is it! My home for the next five months! I have to say though, I wasn’t really expecting it to be as bustling as it is. The second we arrived, there were people, mostly students, everywhere. They didn’t even wait for us to get off the train before pushing forward to get on .

Once we left the train, we were faced with our ultimate nemesis: stairs. My suitcase was extremely heavy and Becca had multiple rolling bags. We began to struggle our way day when a kind-hearted lad, certainly a student, immediately leapt in to give us a hand. And God bless him, he carried our bags down the first set of stairs to leave the platform and then up the next set to the main station area. I don’t know how we could have managed without him, and so I salute you mystery student.

Luckily our hotel was approximately a thirty second walk from the train station, so the worst was finally behind us. I was afraid our hotel wouldn’t have an elevator, but thank goodness it does, though it is the smallest elevator I have ever seen – I barely fit with my suitcase.

Now we are just chilling in the hotel room, using up our hour of internet for the low (hah) price of 4,95EUR.  We laid down for about an hour and a half nap and getting back up was probably one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But I know that I’ll never shake this jetlag if I go to bed when it’s still light outside. So, we roused ourselves in hopes of rallying at least until nightfall. But good heavens, I’ve never dealt with exhaustion quite like this.

Ok. Running out of internet. That’s the word.