Study Abroad 101

I am very nearly finished with my study abroad experience. This week I have been taking my finals. So, instead of studying for those, I decided to try and give you some tips and reassurances about studying abroad. If you’re just reading this blog to see how my travels are going, this may not be the post for you. For those of you who are thinking about studying abroad, I hope this helps you out a little and eases your worries.

You’ll be homesick

I thought I’d start off with the obvious. When you leave home, whether it be for a week, a month, or a year, you’re going to miss it. I miss my friends and family, and lots of little American customs I have always taken for granted. At this point, I am excited to get to go home and see everyone I’ve missed, but that in no way means I haven’t absolutely loved France.  I’ve made friends here and done so many unforgettable things. I’ve learned to love French culture and become fond of some of their customs.  So, while you’ll miss home, you’ll be enjoying yourself so much that once you get home, you’ll be missing whatever country you’ve just left.

You can go alone

A lot of people feel like they need to go with a friend, or to go on a faculty led study abroad. And for some people, maybe you do. I can’t speak for everyone, but I want to reassure you that going alone is not the end of the world. It’s a little scary at first, but you’ll make friends quickly and really develop as an independent person. It’s a bit like when you first go off to college, at first it seems like you’ll need to call your mom every day, but within a few weeks you can’t imagine having the strict limitations you did in high school.

Stay with a host family

I you have the opportunity to stay with a host family, do it. You’ll learn so much about your country’s culture, and it will push you out of your comfort zone. It’s helped me so much it making my French better and learning how to navigate the French social system.

Don’t fear the language

If you are studying in a country which has a different language than your own, embrace it. Just because it’s possible to get by in a foreign country with only English, doesn’t mean you should. Learning the language opens so many doors. It will make your everyday life much easier, and allow you to more easily converse with locals and get a better feel for the culture.

Once you’ve dedicated yourself to learning the language, actually try to speak it. You will make mistakes, and lots of them, but that’s okay. Natives are usually understanding, and willing to help if you ask them. If talking to natives is too frightening, try talking with other international students. Making mistakes is the very best way to learn, so accept that you’ll make them and start talking.

Actually go to class

It’s called study abroad, not dawdle abroad. I’ll especially emphasize this if you are still attending high school or university after you return to your home country. Missing a few days is alright, no one will fault you for it, but try to attend as much class as you can. You’ll be thankful you did.

Research you country before you go

Having a general idea of what’s in store for you can be really helpful. The first few weeks will be all about learning how your country works, and if you already have a rough sketch of social norms and etiquette, your life will be infinitely easier.

Stay current on politics

This has been especially important for me, since I’ve been in France during an election year in America and during the passing of the French loi de travail which is incredibly controversial. People will ask you about your opinion on your home country’s politics and the politics of your host country. Especially in France, the French adore a good political debate. It’s a good way to have a meaningful conversation and to learn more about how the world views your native country. I’ve learned a lot about how the French system is run, and about how Europeans really view America without the media filter I receive back in the US.

Don’t feel like you have to try and fit in

Although I encourage you to learn about your country’s culture, don’t feel like you have to change your behavior to fit in. Be polite and try not to ruffle too many feathers, but don’t abandon your identity while abroad. A good example would be when it comes to fashion. The French tend to go out always looking put together and well dressed. In America we have much lower standards. At the beginning of the semester, all the Americans were trying really hard to stay coiffed all day, but now I have seen people come to school in sweatpants and a sweatshirt. This will make you stand out as foreign, but do what makes you comfortable. If you don’t like a custom, you don’t have to follow it. Learn about customs as much as you can, just don’t feel like you must follow them

 Take risks/try new things

This is pretty self-explanatory. Don’t be afraid of the world, if someone offer you a taste of their dish, take it. If you’re invited on an adventure, go for it. Don’t just stay in your room and have your mom send you care packages with your country’s food. Live a little and see what the world has to offer.

 

I’m not a study abroad genius, and I’m sure there are  lot more things I could tell you about what it’s like to be out in the world, but these are some of the ones that I think are important. Studying abroad have been an unforgettable experience for me and I’d recommend that everyone trys to study abroad if they can. Whether it be for a few weeks, or a year. It will give yu life esperience you can’t find in your native country and you will not regret it.

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It’s the Little Things

Today, I’d like to tell you all about some of the weird little cultural things I have noticed here in France. Please note, these are all based on my personal experience. It is possible that not all the French do these things, or that some Americans do them. I did not speak on behalf of France, or America, I speak on behalf of Becca. So, with that said, let’s get started.

  1. Bread, bread, and more bread

So you know how there is the stereotypical Frenchman wearing a beret and carrying a baguette. The beret thing is mostly a lie, but the baguette thing is super real. The French eat baguettes all the time. Any sandwich you buy is going to be on a baguette (maybe not all, most. I’m generalizing for simplicity and comedic effect). Wanna make toast? Baguette. Time for dinner? Let’s start with a baguette. I think you’re seeing the picture here.

Bread is the staple of the French diet. They buy fresh bread from the boulangerie every other day or so, which you’d think might get expensive but baguettes are super cheap here, I can buy a full length baguette for maybe .60 Euro.

I am not in any way complaining about this. French bread is fabulous. It may just be the top thing I miss upon returning to America.

  1. The French may be dehydrated

That’s actually something a friend of mine said, and it’s because French cups are just really small. And this is not one of those “Oh America has large portions” things, like their glasses are just strangely small. They do have normal sized cups, but you only really find them at restaurants if you order a drink. If you want water you get to have a little cup and the waiter will bring a carafe so that you can constantly refill it because normal people need water.

Side note: their spoons are also either very small (little smaller than a teaspoon) or very large (could pass as a small serving spoon). Sorry I can’t wax poetic on this topic. It’s just something that’s weird.

  1. No Stores on Sundays

The French don’t work on Sunday, pretty much at all. Stores, be them supermarkets, pharmacies, restaurants, or boutiques are all closed on Sunday. Now there are some exceptions, a few restaurants stay open and public transport still runs (although a much more infrequent times). Obviously in Paris, or any touristy area, it’s a different story. But in general, Sunday is a good day to stay at home.

  1. Late Dinners

In the States dinner time lasts from about five o clock until like ten. Any time in the region is pretty normal for eating dinner. However, starting dinner before seven is absolutely scandalous in France. Even seven is pretty early. My host family tends to start eating between 7:30 and 8:30 every night.

Meals also tend to last longer. In America grabbing dinner and eating in maybe twenty minutes is pretty normal. French dinners can last anywhere from 45 minutes to like five hours.

  1. What are Spices?

The French do not know how to spice their food. Don’t get me wrong I like French cuisine, it’s very good, but it lacks any sort of kick to it. The French think that adding some salt and pepper is proper seasoning. Finding spice in France is like looking for the holy grail, even if you find it, you’ll probably be disappointed.

One day my friends and I went to an Indian restaurant. We were familiar with the fact that the French hate spice, and we also knew the Indians spice things to the extreme. We were expecting some sort of medium between the two. Instead I got some chicken that tasted like it had been shown some spices, but none had actually been put on.  It still tasted good, but it wasn’t the Indian experience I was expecting. This mostly means that I can’t wait to get home and have a really good, spicy Mexican, meal.

  1. Problem? Strike! Don’t like a law? Strike! It’s Thursday? Strike!

The French love to strike and protest. This is because the French have all sorts of rights when it comes to striking which protect their jobs. It’s a social and cultural norm here.

During my time here in France there has been a lot of uproar over the loi de travail (the work law) which aims to revamp how the French labor system works. The French working class hate the law and they have been strongly protesting it, with one of their big moves being strikes. I can’t count how many times the transportation in France has been screwed up due to strikes while I have been here.

I’m not saying striking is necessarily bad. People should definitely be able to try and fight for their rights as workers and citizens. However, coming from America where strikes almost never happen, this has been a bit of a shock for me. It makes planning things more difficult and adds uncertainty to any sort of travel planning. I think it’s great that the French are so passionately politically engaged, I sort of wish America would step up. I feel that a lot of people in the states are getting apathetic with a fairly corrupt political system and I think we should do something about it. I don’t know if we should follow the footsteps of the French or not, but being here has opened my eyes that you don’t have to sit down and take government reforms. You can try to do something about them.

  1. Military Time

The French use a 24 hour clock instead of the 12 hour one used in America. This isn’t a mind blowing difference, but it does occasionally mess with my head. Sometimes I have to stop a moment and do a little math to remember that 21:45 means 9:45 PM. This has made be early a little early/late on several occasions. It seems like such a small thing, but considering how often our society uses time it is actually one of the differences which has affected me the most. On the plus side, now I could tell someone to meet me at “o nine hundred” and they wouldn’t laugh. That’s a lie. They would probably still laugh.

  1. Jours Fériés

A jour férié is a day off of work and school in France. And while we have these in the US as well, they are abundant in France, in 2016 there were eleven days. In America there are five to seven depending where you work, and none of them are really required.  Things that would be considered school holidays in America are national holidays in France. A lot of them are for religious reasons (specifically catholic) and nearly everyone gets time off for them. True, some stores stay open and some transportation workers have to work, but most of France gets a lot of time off. This isn’t even including the nearly four weeks of vacation time that is required for all citizens by the government. And the French are super attached to their vacation. Good thing the loi de travail isn’t trying to take vacation time away, or the French would probably be building barricades in the streets of Paris and singing for freedom by now.

  1. Keyboards

Both French and English use the Latin alphabet, except the French have to add accents to everything. Due to this, they need more keys on their keyboards. But they don’t have more, instead they just mix up all the keys and add a third option on the number keys. For example in order to make the @, you have to press ctrl-shift-0. I actually had to google how to get the @ my first week here in France. They also have the rest of the keyboard just different enough that I can’t get used to it. My a’s are always q’s and my m’s are commas. It’s incredibly frustrating when I have to go back through my work and change everything to the right letter. This is a change I was expecting when I came to France, but I haven’t gotten used to it yet.

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A typical french keyboard
  1. Coffee? You mean espresso

American coffee is not easy to find in France. This hasn’t really affected me, personally, as I don’t drink coffee, but I have listened to my friends complain about it ad nauseum. Obviously, if you’re in Paris, you’ll be able to find a Starbucks to quench your cravings. But be warned, if you order a cup in a restaurant, you will receive a tiny cup of espresso and not a big ol’ cup of American Jo.

  1. Bissou!

La bise is the kissing thing that the French, and several other European countries, do. Here in Angers, it’s one kiss for each cheek. Except you don’t actually kiss, you just touch cheeks and make a kissing sound. And you do it fairly frequently. With friends, friends of friends, relatives, etc. etc. It’s a greeting and a farewell. I’ve gotten used to it, but I still find it sort of weird. But, as my langue teacher pointed out, the French find hugs weird, so who am I to say. It’s all just about culture. What’s normal for you is weird for me and vice versa.

There are certainly more differences between The US and France. I’m sure I have even noticed more. But these are the ones which I notice most frequently, or have had a bigger impact on me. I never really got “culture shock” whilst here in France, more like “culture surprise.” I’ve really enjoyed finding out the little differences between the United States and France. Hopefully I’ll learn one or two more before I return to the States.

Toto We’re Not in France Anymore: Part VII, Venice

Alternate Title: Choosing to be Lost

Bologna was pretty, Rome was, well Rome, Florence was artsy, but Venice, Venice is near indescribable. You can hear about the canals, and see pictures of the masks but you cannot imagine how amazing Venice is until you have been there in person. Suffice to say, I loved it.

As we approached Venice on the train, my excitement grew. We could see the water ending and the buildings getting closer and closer. Once we were standing in front of the Grand Canal my friends and I were giggly and overexcited, and we couldn’t stop saying “we’re in Venice!” with an accompanying squeal.

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My first picture over the Grand Canal

We checked into our hotel as quickly as possible, took a moment to rest and then headed out. Now, staying on the actual island of Venice, costs an arm and a leg. But, it’s worth it. I feel like it was all worth it while I looked out my window and saw the boats speeding through the canal, or heard the water lapping on the sides as I fell asleep. Spare the extra 20 or 30 euros a night and stay on the island.

Our goal for day 1 was to find the Piazza San Marco. Eventually we did, but first we did a lot of wandering.

All the tourist guides say to “get lost” in Venice. This is easier to do than you’d think because 80% of the streets aren’t marked, on the map or on the street corners, and the other 20% just randomly stop at a canal. Several times we were trying to get somewhere and ended up in a doorway which opened straight into the water.

CAM04313We found so many amazing little shops in the back alleys of Venice. We stopped at just about every mask shop we saw, all the handmaid ones at least, and lots of other little shops as well. I could spend a good long while wandering the Venetian streets.

We also stumbled upon some cool museums. We found an instrument museum which focused on Vivaldi in an old church. It was filed with old instruments all from the 16 or 1700’s. It was interesting and, surprisingly, free, something hard to come by in Venice.

The other cool museum we found the first day was a free art gallery of contemporary pop art. Everything there was super cool, especially because a lot of the works were an optical illusions. Depending where you looked at them they would change color, or appear to move. We went through the museum with our mouth gaping as we crossed back and forth in front of each piece.

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Some awesome pop art

Our wandering continued and we did eventually make it to the Piazza San Marco, but, by the time we wandered there, the basilica was closed. We weren’t devastated, and we spent a bit of time looking around. Let me tell you, Piazza San Marco is pigeon heaven. There were definitely over a hundred birds wandering the square, probably more.

After the piazza we headed back to our hotel, taking the scenic route of course. We had to be a little careful though, since you have to cross the Grand Canal to get from Marco to our hotel. There are only three bridges crossing the Grand Canal, so you have to be careful where you come to it. Nothing is sadder than staring across the water at the side you want, but being unable to get there.

Day 2

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Some pigeon’s at Piazza San Marco

Day 2 was pretty much day 1 but longer. We once again spent most of the day wandering the twisting street of Venice. We spent lots of time in glass shops, searching for the perfect pieces to add to our souvenir collections. Venetian glass is famous for a good reason, it’s gorgeous.

We did make a goal to see the Rialto bridge, the original bridge which crossed the Grand Canal. It’s another one of those bridges which has shops on it, it was cool on the bridge, but unfortunately we couldn’t get a good side view because it was under construction. Guess I just have to go back to Venice and see it again, what a struggle that will be.

One of my friends brought us on a quest to find some different piazzas which she knew of from a game she had played. Seeing as we had no real destinations, we were happy to tag along on her quest.

Finding things in Venice though, super difficult. As I said before, hardly any roads are

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We took many canal pictres

marked on the map. The bigger piazza and big roads are marked, but that’s about it. I feel like, if you don’t just get a free map, you may as well not buy one. Find a landmark near your hotel and then follow the signs toward it. I would be an awful Venetian because my sense of direction is not great. Goggle maps aren’t gonna do diddly for you in Venice.

I’d like to give you more of a blow by blow, but we really just did a lot of wandering in Venice. We stopped in countless shops, took too many canal pictures, and really just enjoyed a beautiful few days in Venice.

Out of everywhere I have been in Europe, Venice is definitely number one. It’s so beautiful and peaceful, the lack of cars and occasional singing of a passing gondolier creates

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A pack of Gondoliers on the canals

this indescribable, peaceful atmosphere. I don’t know all my plans for the future, but I know for certain that I will be returning Venice. I don’t know when or how, but I will return to the canals one day.

And that’s it guys. That was the last stop on my Grand European Adventure. My spring break was utterly unforgettable and I still can’t believe it happened. I got to live my dreams and check several cities of my bucket list.  Despite lots of speed bumps, it all worked out in the end. This was certainly the best spring break I ever have had or ever will have.

 

Toto, We’re Not In France Anymore: Part VI, Florence

Alternate Title: The Home of David, And Also Fake David

Day 1

After the hustle and bustle of Rome, Florence was just a bit tamer. First thing on arrival was to find our hostel. We got a little turned around but pretty quickly found our way. The directions said “find the Duomo, turn left.” Really, we probably could have started going the wrong direction and made it, from all our wandering I have found that, eventually, all roads seem to lead to the Duomo.

Florence city center is really small. From the Duomo (which is the huge church in the middle of town, you can draw a circle to all the main attractions that has a radius of a ten minute walk. We didn’t use public transport once, all walking. Our hostel was amazingly well located, like 3 minutes to the Duomo, maybe less.

So, our first stop was, of course the Duomo. I absolutely loved the Duomo, especially the

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My first view of the Duomo

outside. It has this giant red dome with several littler red domes surrounding it. I kept taking pictures of it from different angles. My friend threatened to take my phone from me if I didn’t keep stopping in the middle of the street. It really was in the middle of the street too, Italians take sidewalks as more of a suggestion then a rule, and after all, when its Italy do as the Italians do.

Anyway, we went inside the Duomo itself, which was pretty, but I don’t think it had anything on the outside.

After the Duomo we headed towards the piazza Vecchio, and sort of stumbled on the Orsanmichele before reaching the piazza. The Orsanmichele is this old church which is known for the statues encircling it. One of my friend’s had actually learned about it in her art history class in America.

The statues were very cool, as was the inside. It was a little more subtle than a lot of the

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Cool statues at the Orsanmichele

churches I have seen, but I liked that. It wasn’t trying to be very showy, just to be a church. This is partially because it was not always a church, for a while it flipped between being a church and a market, hopefully Jesus never went there, he flips tables when he see markets in churches. This seemed like it was a little more accepted as being a marketplace than that story though, I don’t think the church was ever really mad about it.

Then it was onto the Piazza Vecchio, where there are so many statues. I’d say at least a dozen, maybe more. It’s also where Michelangelo’s David originally stood, now there is a fake one there. It still looked pretty good to me the. Pretty impressive. They also had this cool almost fountain which I enjoyed. I say almost because there was no water, but it seemed as though it was meant to be a fountain.

This is where our wandering really started. We just sort of followed the streets without any specific destination and went where the wind took us. We ended up finding a few very cool churches. Before my lovely sister makes fun of me for going to even more European churches, remember, churches are free, and they are pretty. Pretty and free are pretty much all I want in my travel attractions.

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Fake David hates clothes

We took a wander break and went over to see Michelangelo’s house. Unfortunately, it was closed when we got there and the outside is pretty unexciting. I have no idea if the inside is exciting, I just know that, if you think the outside will be cool, you are wrong. It looked like every other building in Florence.

And then it was time for dinner. We decided to have the Italian apertivo for dinner. That’s where you buy a drink and get to eat off a buffet (usually of appetizer type food) for up to two hours. I got some nice red wine and are a pretty good amount of pasta. It was a good way to try a lot of different Italian foods. A little different from our diet of pizza and tagliatelle.

We capped off the night with some gelato, one can never have eight gelato, and headed back to our hostel.

Day 2

We started our second day in Florence by heading to the Galleria Academia to see Michelangelo’s actual David. Surprisingly, we were able to make it through the line fairly quickly. Probably due to it not really being tourist season, but from what I have heard, reserving a ticket is usually the way to go, we were just lucky.

The David was definitely something to see (and not just because he is naked). It was

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Real David hated clothes first

absolutely enormous. I can’t even imagine how long it took to make that statue. It paid off though, I can see why it is one of the most famous statues in the world. It was certainly a masterpiece.

Cool side story my friend overheard a tour guide giving: apparently, when Michelangelo showed his statue to the art guild or whatever, they didn’t like the face. They asked him to change it. So, Michelangelo went over no pretended to chisel the face and threw some marble dust around and then reshowed them the statue. They much preferred the “new” face and accepted the statue. This is of course just a legend, but I really appreciated it. Apparently Michelangelo’s is art’s biggest troll, something I can get behind.

The rest of the Galleria was also quite cool. I’m fairly certain every painting there had some sort of religious theme to it. I really liked all the statues and busts. The faces were so intricate and I could really tell what all the emotions were.

We almost missed half the exhibit, because there is a secret second floor. After the gift shop you find some stairs that lead up. We almost passed them over, but decide in the end to see what was at the top. The answer is more pretty religious panel art. Definitely don’t skip the second floor. It was pretty cool.

Next we crossed the Ponte Vecchio, a famous bridge in Florence. It’s one of those bridges which has shops along the sides of it. I had never actually been to a bridge like that before so it was pretty cool. It’s like the street refused to end upon reaching the river and it just kept going.

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This view was worth the climb

Across the river we went to the Piazzale Michelangelo for the best view in the city. Which, thankfully, it was, because we had to climb so many stairs and ramps. On the way up there were several cool views though, so at least the walk wasn’t awful.

The view was pretty spectacular. I even got some more cool angles of the Duomo from there! Also the rest of Florence and the beautiful Italian mountains surrounding it. Florence is definitely a cool city to see from above. The houses are all red tiled roofs with white walls which gives the city a very uniform look. I applaud Florence’s choice of color scheme.

We found a nice restaurant right off the piazzale which was surprisingly well priced. We were certain it would be super expensive due to the location and spectacular view, but it really wasn’t. So we had a very late lunch of some delicious Italian pasta while enjoying an amazing view of Florence.

Now, I have not yet mentioned our quest for cannolis. Since Bologna my friends and I had

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Part of the statuary at Piazza Vecchio

the dream of eating an Italian cannoli. This dream was hard to realize. None of the bakeries we passed had them, or they were too expensive. A gelateria by our apartment in Rome served cannolis, but were unfortunately all out of the stuff to make the filling. But day two in Florence, we finally lived our cannoli dream. It was definitely worth the wait. I love cannolis, and eating one in front of fake David in the Piazza Vecchio is a pretty good way to do it.

After our cannoli break, we hung and in the piazza and people watched. There was a street performer playing some really good guitar nearby, so we got to be serenaded as we sat. It was one of those times where you can just enjoy where you are and embrace the moment.

We pretty much spent the rest of our day in the piazza. We grabbed some very cheap pizza for dinner, I will definitely miss this this whole 2€ for a slice of quality pizza when I get back to France,  and we ended the night by returning to our hostel and heading to bed.

Florence was great. It was very different from Rome or Bologna. A lot smaller, and filled with history and art. I did love the Florentine architecture and the way everything was so close together. It seemed like I started to be able to find my way around in just two days. If you are ever in Italy, don’t just settle for Rome, I’d definitely suggest a stop in Florence. If for nothing else, do it for the Duomo. Man, I love the Duomo.

The Duomo

The Orsanmichele

Piazza Vecchio

Galleria Academia

Piazzale Michealangelo

Other

Toto, We’re Not In France Anymore: Part V, Rome

Alternate Title: This Is What Dreams Are Made Of

They say all roads lead to Rome and mine finally has, and wow am I glad it did! After Bologna, Rome is a bit of a shock, much bigger and more crowded, but in a good way.

As has become our usual, we had a difficult time getting to our accommodations for Rome. This time around we stayed in an airbnb, which once we arrived, was very nice, but get there the first time around was difficult.

We were meant to take tram 5 but somehow ended up on a different tram 5 than we were meant to take. Which is dumb, Rome, why you got two tram 5’s? So, when we got off at the wrong stop, we ended up having to go into a restaurant nearby and have the lovely, kind waitress call us a taxi. Thankfully, we were near the right destination, so it wasn’t too expensive.

Through this ordeal, we learned that Becca gets super stressed when things don’t go according to plan. I just can’t handle the pressure. I could never go backpacking for real. All the uncertainty would drive me crazy. I need a plan, and I need things to go a planned.

Day 1

After sleeping off my anxiety, we headed out to see Rome. We were meant no to meet a friend, but we could not find her, so we headed off to see the Roman forums and Palatine hill instead.

The two sites are connected, so we pretty much just wandered through them. We started

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One of many spectacular views from Palatine Hill

with Palatine hill, which we chose by randomly picking a direction, which I think is actually the best way to do it. If you start by looking at the Forum Palatine might let you down a little. Don’t get me wrong, the view was spectacular and the ruins of Augustus’ palace were super interesting, but the Forum’s is a little more impressive.

My way of going through the area was from sign to sign. Interspersed throughout the ruins they have signs explaining the different ruins and what they used to look like. As a history nerd, I loved these. My friends were like, “what gorgeous architecture,” while I was more, “Oooo, another sign!” Don’t worry, I also looked at what the signs described for quite awhile. All of it was stunning, and the age of it was mind blowing. Some of the ruins dated as far back as 300 BC. And I thought stuff in France was old!

The Roman Forum was equally stunning. It was packed with ruins and statues, and it was pretty much just unbelievable. I have walked the same streets and touched the same rocks that Julius Cesar waked past. That’s mind boggling in the very best way.

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A small part of the Roman Forum

After the Forum we ate some lunch/dinner. We had been so excited to start our exploring, we had sort of forgotten to eat before entering the forum, so when we finally had food at like 4, we were ravenous. I quenched my hunger with some awesome pasta though. Italian pasta is sooooo good.

Next up was the Colosseum. That place everyone is required to go to. The ticket we purchase at the Forum also worked for the Colosseum, so we were able to skip the long Colosseum line and get in fairly quickly. I highly recommend that if you ever go to Rome, you see the sights in this order. The line for Palatine hill is much shorter than that for the Colosseum. It was nice that, in our smaller line, the group in front of us was getting a private tour. I not so subtly listened to their tour guide and got a little extra info on the Colosseum. History nerd through and through.

Once inside we started by looking at some of the old artifacts that have been recovered over the years in the Colosseum. It was interesting to see not only great statues and such, but also the everyday objects which ancient Romans left behind when they watched the gladiators. You never really think about the spectators of a sport, but they are half of what

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Inside the Colosseum

goes on.

We then went into the middle part, where the arena was. It was pretty incredible. It also looked extremely pretty because we went in the early evening so the lighting was absolutely gorgeous. Around five o o’clock is a good time to see the colosseum. You’ll have plenty of time to see everything, it wasn’t terribly busy, and you get some awesome lighting for your pictures.

We ended our day by grabbing a slice of pizza. It’s great, you can stop In a pizzeria and point at a pizza, and you never know quite what’s on it because they aren’t labeled, and they’ll cut you a slice for only a few euros. In Italy, I have learned that pizza cutters are stupid, you should cut your pizza with kitchen scissors. It looks so much easier.

Italian pizza is fabulous. People say it’s different than American pizza, but I think it’s pretty close. It’s just all really good American pizza. We aren’t talking Domino’s here. It’s lovely and cheesy and greasy and absolutely worth every penny.

When we got home I got to see the awesome extent of my Italian sunburn. Pro-tip, sunscreen is advised in Italy. Beautiful sunny days can equal red skinned Becca’s. Fortunately, I was aware of the burn when it was starting, so I was able to use my coat as a super fashionable shoulder cape (it was too hot to wear it properly) so I didn’t get too badly burned. Just enough to have a cool souvenir from Italy.

Day 2

Our first stop on day 2 was the famous Spanish steps. Alas, we could not stand atop them

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My friend’s favorite spot in Rome

and gaze thoughtfully into the piazza di Spagna because they were doing restoration work on the steps. Kind of a bummer, but unavoidable I guess. We climbed the section we were able to, and wow was in a climb! There are many many Spanish steps.

Although we couldn’t look into the piazza di Spagna we were able to find an amazing view at the top. If you turn left a walk a short while, you will find some awesome views of Rome. One of my friends declared that spot as her favorite in Rome. And believe me, picking favorites is tough.

We climbed back down the steps and started wandering around the area. We stumbled into the Basilica Amiamo, which was absolutely gorgeous. I have decided it is my second favorite church in all of Europe. There was so much gold, and amazing murals on the ceilings, I could have stayed there for a long while.

I think that, overall, I like basilicas better than cathedrals. Basilicas tend to be more ornate and more unique than cathedrals. Cathedrals start to look a little similar after a while. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still quite happy to stop by Notre Dame an time.

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The Trevi fountain itself

After a quick pizza break, we headed on to the Trevi fountain. Now in pictures and such, it looks pretty big. But this will not prepare you for the absolutely massive fountain which awaits you in Rome. It is easily the size of an entire building.

There, I was able to live my dream to become Lizzie McGuire and toss a coin into the Trevi fountain. I did it properly and all, back turned to the fountain, it went over my head and plopped into the water. For the moment, there is a coin in that fountain with my name on it.

From there it was on to the Pantheon. Unfortunately, on the way over we got a bit lost. Rome was the one city where we didn’t really have a proper map. Ours did not have all the street names, making navigating a bit of a trick. Thankfully, we ran into a French couple who did have a map, and thanks to our amazingly French skills, they were able to point us the right way.

The Pantheon was very cool. It’s the oldest remaining pagan temple from the ancient days. It was transformed into a church when Catholicism took over, which is the reason it has survived. It was very pretty inside. There were these big statues everywhere, and it has this enormous domed ceiling.

Inside they also had the graves of the first and second kings of Italy, and the tomb of Raphael (the painter not the ninja turtle). I’m not much of one for tombs, but they were very pretty and lavishly decorated.

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The Pantheon

We then headed to the Piazza Navona, the main square in Rome. In it there were these three beautiful fountains. Italy is filled with beautiful fountains. It seems like everywhere you turn you find a new amazing one. This is fine by me, as I love fountains. As far as architecture (do fountains count as architecture?) goes, they are probably my favorite thing to see. They are always very calming and most often, absolutely stunning.

We ended our day with a good wander around the city center. We stopped in this super pretty glass shop, and stumbled upon some more pretty fountains and cool architecture.

We made our own dinner that night, we cooked up some tagliatelle and gorged ourselves on pasta. I have not only eaten pasta in Italy, I have cooked it too. And by cooked I mean I put water in the pot and allowed my friend to do most of the work. I also added some salt to the water so, I practically slaved over that dinner.

Day 3

Day 3 was Vatican day. Thankfully, I listened to posts online and we ordered our tickets in advance so we were able to skip the 45+ minute line. Walking past people waiting in line is the absolute best feeling. If you ever go to the Vatican, definitely book in advance, it’s more than worth the extra four euros.

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Some cool, very old statues in the Vatican museum

The Vatican itself is mostly just a museum. They have all sorts of weird stuff, there’s an Egyptian gallery, and Ancient Greek and roman gallery, a lot of other galleries, and then there’s the art.

There is this whole collection of rooms filled with frescos by Raphael which are, quite frankly, breathtaking. I loved all the colors and the scenes. I took so many pictures of the ceilings because all of of them were so cool.

After Raphael’s rooms, it was on to the Sistine chapel, what everyone was there to see. This line formed between the Raphael rooms and the chapel, which I thought was dumb, since it meant you missed the contemporary art section. I did not miss it. I went in and out of the line in order to see all the art, something I do not regret. Never follow the crowd, make your own path.

Then there was the Sistine chapel, which while stunning, was not really much different

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One of the maaaany pictures I took of the walls

from the rest of the Vatican. The frescos were great, but that is really all there was to see. Once again, you were not allowed to take pictures, which I didn’t really understand since there were no religious relics or anything in there, it was just a room with very, pretty pictures on the walls and ceiling. I think Michelangelo would have preferred to have people taking pictures since he hated religion, but hey, who am I to say.

I continued on in the museum and found the carriage room. Inside were all the old transport vehicles of the pope. They had carriages from the olden days and more modern cars, including some old pope mobiles. Which, while they might be practical, look super dumb on my opinion.

I saw a few more exhibits on the way out, including one where you could see people working on restoration projects, and then headed for the exit.

Unfortunately, amidst the crowds of people, I had lost my friends along the way, and due to miscommunication and idiocy, I ended up waiting for them right inside the exit and they were just outside the exit. So we waited for each other unnecessarily for like n hour. Once we finally reunited we were a little annoyed about it.

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St Peter’s has much more color in person. My phone just hated the lighting

Last thing of the day was Saint Peter’s Basilica. This may or may not have been the most beautiful church have I have seen, I can’t decide, but it definitely felt the holiest. I don’t know what it was, but inside I felt a definite connection with God which I haven’t felt on most of the other churches I have visited.

If you are even remotely christian, or really religious at all, I’d suggest a visit to St Peter’s if you can ever make it. If not for the architecture, go for the feeling. I wish I had words for it, but I just don’t. Despite the crowds and the tours, St. Peter’s really is just holy.

So that was Rome, the next day we headed out and got more amazing views of the Italian countryside on our train to Florence.

I’m glad my road finally made it to Rome. It may be a bit old, and very touristy, but it’s a place I will never be able to forget. I’ m certain we didn’t even see half of what Rome has to offer, but that’s okay. I had a great time with my friends, exploring one of the most ancient civilizations in the world.

Palatine Hill

Roman Forum

The Colosseum

Basilica di Amiamo

Spanish steps, Trevi fountain, Piazza Navona and other

The Pantheon

The Vatican

Saint Peter’s Basilica

P.S.: This is probably like half of the pictures I took in Rome. One could say I was snap happy.

Toto, We’re Not In France Anymore: Part IV, Bologna

Alternate Title: The Leaning Tower of Not Pisa

Our day in Bologna started with a bus into the city center. We stayed in a hotel about a half

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The view from our hotel window

hour from the city center, which was inconvenient, but it gave us a great view of the hills of Bologna from our hotel which we wouldn’t have seen in the city.

Once in the city we headed to Piazza Maggiore, the main square in Bologna. The first thing we saw in the square, even though it it’s technically on its own little piazza, was the Fontana del Nettuno. It was this grand fountain to, you guessed it, Neptune, God of the sea. It looked very cool, and very naked. The romans weren’t fond of clothes on their statues. My friend said it looked very sexual, which when speaking of the gods, is probably the most apt word one could use, given their favorite activities and all.

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Neptune’s sassy hip thrust

The most amazing thing in the fountain though, was there was an actual drinking fountain attached to it. Now, all Americans are completely unimpressed by this. But if you have spent any time in Europe you know that Europeans seem to be allergic to drinking fountains because Italy is the only country I have found any in. They are sort of weird drinking fountains, but you can get really nice water from them, and that’s all at matters.

After our quick look at the fountain, we headed out to get some lunch. I got tagliatelle with ragu, also known as bolognese, which originated in, you guessed right again, Bologna! First pasta in Italy was far from a letdown. It was absolutely delicious.

After lunch we stumbled upon the musee civics. It was a poorly marked little palazzo, which we only entered out of curiosity. Once inside we still didn’t know where we were, all the signs were in Italian. But it didn’t matter because the courtyard was absolutely stunning. There were murals and sculptures on every wall. Everywhere you turned you saw more priceless art.

Upstairs we found a different sort of art, the modern kind. They were having an exhibit on

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A few of the illustrations we found

Latino illustrators. I’m not sure why, but I certainly wasn’t complaining. I loved all the little cartoons they had, it was interesting to see the work of modern artists hidden inside the works of artists who have been dead for centuries.

Then I found a section of my favorite type of art, literature. They had dozens of incredibly old manuscripts. Once again, I ‘m not certain what they were, but they looked very old and very pretty.

Bologna seemed to be a little less English friendly than Germany was. In Germany almost every sign had German and English, and possibly more languages. In Bologna, most were only in Italian. There was some English of course, but less then I would have liked. Darn those foreigners speaking foreign! I wanted to read all your signs! I understand this double standard, America has signs exclusively in English, but I can still wish for more English can’t I?

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The unfinished church

Our next stop was the Basilica di Saint Petronio. This was interesting because it’s a basilica that was never finished. Apparently The Bolognians wanted to make it more beautiful than St Peter’s basilica, but when the Vatican heard, they stooped the construction of it. So the outside strangely just stops halfway up. They’re are these gorgeous doors, and then just a brick top half. It’s sort of unsettling to look at.

The inside was gorgeous enough for me. Unfortunately they had a rule that you couldn’t take pictures. Or you could, but you had to pay for that right. I opted to just enjoy the view without getting photographic proof. I actually like the idea of people not being allowed to take too many pictures in the basilica. It gives it a lot more meaning as a religious space I think.

There was a section of the church which was corded off and said “enter only for prayer”. I thought that was one of the nicest things I have yet seen on one of the touristy churches. I did enter and I lit a candle for my grandmother inside. I like the idea that there is a memorial for her in such a beautiful space, but it won’t just be a part of someone’s photo album. It’s between me, God, and my grandma.

Next stop was the Due Torri, the two towers. Now when we were originally making our

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Can you believe that lean?

vacation plans, we ruled out Pisa because we heard that it wasn’t super interesting. Little did we know, the real leaning tower, well the one with the most lean, is in Bologna. And wow was it leaning. It was incredibly unsettling, I’ m pretty sure if you tapped it too hard it would tumble.

Now, there were two towers there, the smaller one was the one which looked like it had lost a fight with a windstorm, the other, the tor Asinelli, is the tallest tower in Bologna. According to legend it was built by a man named Asinelli who wanted to marry a beautiful girl. Her father would not allow their marriage unless he built her tallest tower in Bologna, so, after finding a chest of gold (happens all the time in Italy) Asinelli met the demand and built her a tower. It’s a nice story, but their probably isn’t much truth to it.

After the towers we wandered the streets. Which is not really a hardship in Bologna. Nearly all the streets are lined on each side by these arched tunnel things called porticos. They were beautiful and I couldn’t stop taking pictures of them. I tried to hold myself back but they were just so pretty. I think I have a soft spot for arches.

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One of my many archway pictures

With all our aimless wandering we worked up quite an appetite and decided we deserved some gelato. I had this delicious kind with some sort of cheese and Nutella. Sounds weird, in reality amazing. Italian gelato lives up to the hype.

After gelato we went to the tourist office to see what else there was to see in Bologna. Also to try and find a bathroom. Bathrooms are hard to come by in Europe. They are far from abundant and even if you find one, you’ll Likely have to pay for it.

The tourist office directed us to the library. Where apparently you needed a library card to use the bathroom, luckily for me, the guy sitting outside, upon realizing I didn’t speak Italian, kindly let me in. I will always accept my ignorant American status if it lets me use the bathroom.

Although we came to the library with only one intent, it turned out to be a better stop than we thought. It was incredibly pretty inside. It also happened to be built over old roman ruins, you could look at them through the glass floor, although they were a little hard to spot. They also had a little art exhibit thing where someone had made a fake store out of cardboard. They had lots of funny sayings and ridiculous prices on the “goods” in the store.

We then set off to see the secret canal. In the past Bologna used to use canals like Venice,

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Secret canals are the best kind

but they had fallen out of use and there are few places you can still see them. One such place is through this little window in the wall. The view through it was very pretty, calm water and some greenery hanging from the windows.

We ended the day with more wandering around the city. We saw many more porticos and found more pretty statues on all the walls and doorways.

For dinner I had this enormous pizza. I was expecting a personal pizza and got one which could easily feed two. It was quite good, but I couldn’t manage to finish it unfortunately. And they all say how American portions are too big.

We didn’t really do anything on day two. We got some pizza and gelato for lunch (when in Italy right?) and sat by the due Torri and did some people watching.

We did happen upon a nice flea market thing. They had lots of cool clothes and scarves and I ended up buying a few presents there.

And now I am sitting here writing this out on a train to Rome. It’s taking me awhile because I have to keep stopping to look out the window. We are passing through gorgeous Italian countryside. There are these amazing green hills dotted with little Italian villages. Basically think of any Italian postcard or movie you have ever seen, and that’ s what’s out my window.

Now you’ll be reading this when I am long back in Angers. But right now, I am in Italy something I cannot get over. They say all roads lead to Rome, but right now mine literally does. Bologna was nice, I got a feel of a smaller Italian town before I hit Rome. If you ever have pan extra day in Italy, you won’t regret Bologna.

Toto, We’re Not In France Anymore: Part III, Travel Problems

Alternate Title: The Travel Gods Decided to Flip Us the Bird

I appreciate the need to strike as much as the next guy, but couldn’t you have held off for one more day, Greece? Friday is an excellent day to strike. You could have really stuck it to the man if you had decided to strike Friday. But you didn’t. You left a couple of Americans high and dry in Germany.

After freaking out for a few minutes after discovering our plane to Greece had been canceled, we pulled ourselves together and started to make a plan B. Due to the strike there was no way to get to Greece, so we had to find a new solution.

After a little bit of searching we were able to switch our flight to a flight to Bologna, Italy. We found a hotel and looked up some train tickets for Rome. Unfortunately, the flight we had from Athens to Rome couldn’t be cancelled so, unfortunately, I lost a few euros to the Greecian strike.

So with some actual plans in place, we got up early the next morning and headed for the airport. This is when the gods decided we had not been punished enough and started heaping a few more helpings of confusion onto our plates.

At the hostel we asked for directions to the airport, the ones they gave us didn’t actually seem to be possible. We couldn’t find the train we were supposed to take and had to find our way on a map.

Then when we tried to connect to another train at one station, only to find it didn’t actually stop there. Thankfully, someone was able to point us in the right direction and we only had to go one more stop down.

Due to all this confusion, we ended up getting to the airport later than desired. We had to wait in this awfully long line to get to the check in desk. There, we had to wait even longer to get our boarding passes printed. By the time we got in the security line we had about 15 minutes until our gate was supposed to close.

We watched impatiently as everyone took their time going through security, meanwhile I was having a small heart attack due to anxiety as I watched the numbers on my phone tick by.

We made it through the metal detector grabbed our stuff and tried to run, but then I was asked to stop for a random security check. I had to stop and allow the lady to pretty much just tap my luggage, which although I am grateful it was quick, seems like it in no way stops terrorists  Like, how does lightly brushing over my backpack tell you anything about it?

Thankfully it was quick, and we were able to start our mad dash to the gate. Another couple was also running for the same plane, so we formed a little pack sprinting through the airport. They shouted the gate to us and we followed as best we could.

Now, if you have ever met me, you know at least one thing for certain: Becca ain’t fit. Becca has neither the strength nor the stamina  to run halfway through an airport, because of course we were at one of the farthest gates. Every few minutes we absolutely had to stop to walk and breathe. But the “final call for Bologna” helped a little in giving me a reason to run.

Miracle of miracles, we made it to the gate on time. One of our friends had made it in earlier than us and was waiting at the gate. She was very relieved to see us. I was relieved and also dying. I was gasping and coughing, and pretty much dying. My running buddy had to use her inhaler for the first time in years.

Once finally seated on the plane I had the time to hack up one of my lungs. It was so intense that the guy next to me tried to give me a cough drop. Thanks, bro, but I’m not sick, just horribly unfit.

So once we made it on the plane I thought I was safe. I thought our travel woes were over. Oh, silly Becca, don’t you know how this works yet?

So when we got to Bologna we had to take a bus to the train station and switch to a different bus there. However our directions were super unclear and we didn’t know which bus to take.

Being reasonable, we looked for a map. But there were none. We could only look at the lines separately and try to find our stop. Which could be alright, except they were only posted at the different bus stops and there were about thirty stops in the small area we were in.

Finally, we found the right one, with the help of a nice Italian, and we set off. We made one more change and then settled in for the ride and waited for our stop. And waited and waited and waited. I was worried we had passed it several times. But eventually our stop was called and we tried to get off the bus. Only to have the door close in our faces. One of my friends managed to get off and she looked on in horror as me and my other friend started driving away.

We were able to get off at the next stop and started walking back. Unfortunately, we had to walk basically on the edge of a highway. An Italian woman tried to reassure us in Italian that it wasn’t far. We understood about three of her words but thanked her anyway (smile and nod, works like a charm).

On the walk I commented that this described my day perfectly. Trudging along on the edge of the highway trying to get to my hotel. So far as traveling goes, this has definitely been my hardest day yet, it had better not get any worse than this, or who knows what I’ll do. (As I look at this in hindsight I am cringing because poor past me is expecting travel to go smoothly from then on. Poor past me, I had so many hopes and dreams.)

So here’s what I learned: never trust directions from a hostel/hotel. Arrive ungodly early for flights. And shove people out of the way so you can get off at your bus stop. See, Italy is teaching me stuff already.

 

Toto, We’re Not In France Anymore: Part II, Berlin

Alternate Title: I Am a Jelly Doughnut

Day 1

The first night in Berlin was a little rocky. Upon arrival we had to figure out where the s-bahn was. Then we had to figure out how to get a ticket. First we got confused by the ticket machine, it was being rather difficult. Once we got our tickets we had to figure out how to validate them. Turns out, there is this little unmarked red box that validates them. How hard is it to add a sign for confused Americans? C’mon Berlin get with the program.

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Cool hallway in our hostel

Once we figured everything out and got on the train, it wasn’t too hard. We easily found our hostel and checked in. Our hostel was really cool. The hall outside our room had this awesome mural and inside our walls are decorated with cool travel quotes in multiple languages.

Our plan from the night was to wander and find food. This is a bad plan in Berlin. In Paris it’s easy to stay on track when you’re in the city center. But Berlin doesn’t really have a center. It has a much more modern feel than any other European city I have visited. There isn’t really an “old town” to visit, not that we found at least.

Instead of a pleasant wander, we just got rather lost. We accidentally saw Tiergarten, a big park in the middle of Berlin. There we saw a small statue garden, which had some sort of bizarre statues at it. It made me think sort of Easter lsland-y.

The park is probably what made us get lost. We ended up walking almost the whole length

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Tiergarten statue garden

of the park before we were able to escape which isn’t awful, as it was very pretty, but we had a real issue finding dinner. We eventually found the way back by our hostel and got dinner around there. Then we sat down with a map and actually mapped out a route for our next day, something I would suggest doing in Berlin.

Day 2

So we decided to stop for breakfast at a little coffee shop. While we were there a woman came up and started giving this long speech in German about some charity she was collecting for. My friend Rachel and I stared on in horror and the rapid foreign being thrown at us. My friend Jordan, however laughed along at the jokes and interjected several “ja’s” where it seemed appropriate.

In the end we all gave her a few coins (I called it hush money, as in “please stop talking to me in foreign, hush”). Jordan admitted she had no clue what had just happened. That was the moment we learned that you really don’t need to speak the language of of a foreign country. Just smile and nod. You’ll make it through

First thing we wanted to do in Berlin was to see the Berlin Wall memorial. It ended up

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I loved seeing this written on the Berlin wall. Turn hatred into love.

being about two minutes away from our hostel, which was very nice. The memorial itself was very interesting. I always sort of assumed the wall was just that, one wall. But it was actually two walls with a strip of land in the middle. It made me think of the trenches in World War one, it wasn’t hard to imagine the soldiers staring across the field at each other.

To be honest, my knowledge f the cold war is pretty limited. I’ve studied a lot about other wars, I’m pretty much an expert on WWII, but the Cold war has never really been that interesting to me. It’s very different to go to historical sites which you know little about the to visit those you are already familiar with. I’m not sure what I like better, but Berlin certainly peaked my interest in the cold war.

Next on the agenda was the Brandenburg gate. True to form, despite the map we had marked up, first thing we did was get lost. Berlin is not kind to travelers. Their streets are confusing, their maps difficult and their subway, although well connected, is very difficult to make sense of.

Through some trial and error we eventually found the gate. We followed the sign posted, but I swear all of them kept saying “gate 1 kilometer”, we’d walk another 50 meters

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The Roma and Sinti memorial

and find another sign that said “gate 1 kilometer.”

We finally got in sight of the gate, but before we saw it we stopped to look at the Sinti and
Roma (gypsy) memorial, for all those who were killed in the holocaust, which we just sort of happened upon.  It was one of those really peaceful memorials. A big circular pool of water was surrounded by rocks which had different words on them. I’m not sure what they said, but they were very beautiful.

From there we did head over to the gate, which was cool, perhaps not extraordinarily interesting. After all there is one so long you can look at a gate.

We kept walking down the road and stopping in a few shops. Unfortunately it started to rain and we decided to stop for lunch. We ate outside,  but worry not, we were safe and dry

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That’s a big gate

under an umbrella. This was the meal where we had actual German food, currywurst. which is bratwurst sliced up with sauce and curry powder. It wasn’t bad, but nothing to write home about.

Finding German food in Germany is harder than you think. Fact is, Germany just doesn’t have that many special German dishes. Or if they do we couldn’t find them. Our other meals consisted of Vietnamese food and Mexican. The Mexican was especially awesome because I have been missing tacos while I’ve been in France.

After lunch we stopped by our hostel and got some umbrellas, just in case, and then we headed over to the Jewish museum.

I like that it wasn’t just about the holocaust, it recounted all of Jewish history in Germany. Apparently the anti-semitism in Germany was very strong long before WWII, for a while they weren’t even considered German, just Jew.

The museum started with a sort of art exhibit in remembrance of the Jews who died in the holocaust. Some of the really moving bits were the holocaust tower, the garden of exile, and the memory void.

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The only light in the holocaust tower

The holocaust tower was a small room which went up three stories. It was lit only by a single rectangular window at the top. Inside sound seemed to reverberate off the walls. It was simultaneously loud, and dead silent. It was eerie, I didn’t want to break the strange semi silence. Then when we walked back out, suddenly there was noise and light and people.

The garden of exile was a square plot, the only square in the building actually, filled with tall stone columns in perfect rows. The columns were filled with earth and at the top olive trees were planted. A quote on the wall said how perfect order was the most unsettling thing you could experience. I have to say I agree.

Then there was the memory void. Throughout the museum there were these big empty void areas. In this one, the floor was covered in flat metal faces, most of them screaming, which you could walk across. The noise was deeply unsettling as you heard the faces clink against one another as someone took another step.

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The memory void

One of my friends asked what it represented, but I don’t think there is an answer to that question. It isn’t about explaining the exact meaning, it’s about how you feel. It’s about taking a moment to stop and look and ponder, and just try and comprehend the travesty of what has happened. I can’t say I understood what everything meant, but I do understand that when I was in those places, I couldn’t help but silently reflect on everything that was going on.

Once leaving the holocaust section they had this beautiful tree where you could hang a piece of paper shaped as a pomegranate which you write a wish on. It was interesting to see so many languages and types of wishes. We found a lot that wished for peace and acceptance, and a few which wished for personal gain. It was interesting to see what different people thought they should leave at the museum.

Obviously there was much more to the museum, but I won’t spoil it all for you.

After the Jewish museum, we headed over to the East Side Gallery. It’s an old section of the Berlin Wall which has been covered with murals by artists in the community. It seemed like I was stopping to take a picture every two seconds, each one was so different for the others and they were all absolutely stunning.

I love seeing such a symbol of hate and separation turned into something beautiful. Berlin

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Some East Side art

has a dark history. First the center of Nazi Germany, and then the symbol of the Cold War, it can be hard to see the beauty sometimes. But it’s a city which keeps going. It doesn’t forget the past, it embraces it and turns it into something better. I liked that in Berlin, and also about Germany. They’ve been through a lot, but they keep striving to be better, not just wallowing in the deeds of the past.

After that, we had dinner and headed back to the hostel. At the hostel we found out that our flight to Athens the next day had been cancelled due to a strike in Greece. The story of this conundrum is too long for this post, so it gets it’s own. Suffice to say, I had a very interesting day of travel.

Berlin was nice. It was different than most European cities. It didn’t feel nearly as old as most. Much more of the typical urban vibe I would get in Chicago or New York. It seemed as though every part of the city was covered in graffiti, and it didn’t have the sophisticated edge most European cities seem to have. Regardless, I enjoyed myself, Berlin may not have been my favorite city, but I wouldn’t mind a second trip.

The Jewish museum

 

The East Side Gallery

Other

Toto, We’re Not in France Anymore: Part I, Cologne

Alternate Title: The Real City of Love Locks

We were given two weeks off for spring break, something previously unheard of. In America, I’m lucky to get a week off school. However, I gladly accepted the long break and used it for a grand European adventure. There shall be several parts to this blog post, one for each city we visited. I will be posting them over the next few weeks. So, by the time I leave France, you’ll know all about Spring break. Don’t worry, I’ll also be posting update on things I’m currently doing, so basically, I’ll be blogging all the time.

Step one on our tour was Cologne, Germany. Prior to our planning I had never even heard of Cologne, but my friend wanted to visited her German friend, Barbara, there, so it was added to our itinerary.

We took the bus from Angers to Paris, then from Paris to Cologne. The second half of the trip was interesting, as we took a German bus company so our driver only spoke German. We actually ran into our first language barrier when we were getting onto the bus. Apparently, we needed to check in at the bus terminal, something we hadn’t done. Through gestures and examples, he got the message across and we got into the bus just fine.

On board there was a very nice guy in front of us who translated a few of the bus announcements for us. I really appreciate when people just offer you some help when you don’t ask for it. That’s the way to be a good Samaritan.

Barbara and her dad picked us up from the bus stop and brought us back to their house, where we were staying. On the way there we got to go on the auto bahn ( the road in Germany with no speed limit) it sounds more exciting than it really is, but now I can tell everyone I’ve been on it.

We talked a bit when we got to the house, but then we quite happily went to sleep.

Day 1

In the morning we had some toast and rolls for breakfast (and they had peanut butter,

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The Cathedral from afar

glory be! I have missed peanut butter) and then headed out onto the town.

First, we tried to visit the Cologne Cathedral, pretty much what the city is known for. However there was a service taking place so we were only allowed to see the outside. I appreciate that they block off the church during service, Notre Dame could learn a thing or two from that.

Near the cathedral was this super cool fountain which told the German equivalent to the elves and the shoemaker story. In the German one the elves help all sorts of manufacturers and the wife becomes curious about who is finishing all the work so she leaves raw peas on the steps so she’ll hear the little workers. Unfortunately, after running into the trap, the elves never return. We were all unsure of what the message was meant to be. Don’t waste your peas on elves I guess.

The fountain was way cool though, it showed the wife setting the trap on the stairs and had little elves on the bottom. Probably the coolest fountain I have ever seen.

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I love fountains with stories

We also ran into an excavation site by town hall. Apparently Cologne is built over a lot of Roman ruins and the city keeps finding more as they try to expand the subway and such things. I got to see some of Rome before I even got there.

Next we wandered down to the fischmarkt, one of the main areas in town. It was right up against the river Rhine and was very pretty.

We walked along the river for a bit, getting a little turned around, even with our wonderful tour guide Barbara. Our destination was the chocolate museum, which is strangely across for the mustard museum. Why we need a museum on mustard, I’ll never know. Chocolate I completely understand

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A standard carnival

We didn’t really visit the chocolate museum, instead we had “the best hot chocolate in the world” in the cafe there. This is according to Barbara but I can’t say I disagree. It was very good.

Next we met up with Barbara’s boyfriend Christian and together checked out a carnival that had been set up on the riverside. It was cool to see classic carnival games and rides, many of which I recognized, slightly different and with German titles. It was pretty much the same as an American carnival, but with schnitzel instead of corn dogs.

We went up in the Ferris wheel and got a spectacular view of the city. We were right on the river’s edge and could see the cathedral on one side and all the buildings in the other. Absolutely stunning.

My two travel buddies, Rachel and Jordan, decided to ride the German equivalent of the Matterhorn. Apparently it was much more intense than the American one.

After his the fair we headed to the flower market. Which had more than just flowers, it also had little toys, scarves, clothes, jewelry etc. it was nice, more of the actual Cologne and not as much of the touristy part.

We then had to cross the river to get back into the old town. We took the love lock bridge. Apparently, the love lock movement originally started in Cologne. Something Barbara was adamant we know. I am entrusting you with this knowledge so you too can tell everyone it did not start in Paris.

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Gotta keep that love locked up

The bridge was packed with locks. Some areas were just lined with locks, others were absolutely bursting, people attached chains to the fence so they could add even more. Worry not though, unlike Paris, this bridge can withstand the pressure. The town did some calculations and found the bridge could withstand more locks than it can physically hold. So if you want to lock your love in Europe, Cologne is the place to be.

After the bridge we went to an Irish pub (Christian’s favorite) and had some drinks. I had my first ever beer, something which shocked Christian. He could not believe I had never had any before. I tried the Cologne specialty, Kolsch. I didn’t really like it, but apparently most Germans don’t like it either. But hey, I can say I had my first beer in Germany, seems like a good accomplishment to me.

Then we headed back to Barbara’s for dinner. Her mom made pizza, strangely with corn in it. This is apparently a normal European thing, but I found it strange, not bad. Just different and a little unexpected.

We ended the night by watching a movie (Billy Elliott) and heading to bed.

Day 2

Day two started with another Cathedral attempt. We were once more foiled by actual religious things happening in the church.

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That building is town hall. Much cooler than most town halls

So, we headed to the main shopping street in Cologne and went to town. By went to town I mean browsed of course. We found a cool store with lots of weird trinkets in it. They had spoons shaped like people and weird gadgets for the kitchen and other things. It was very cool inside. We also spent possibly too long playing in the Lego store, but hey, we never claimed to be adults. We stopped in some clothing shops as well and got to try on some German fashion.

For lunch we tried Doner a Turkish kebab thing. It was very good and cheap. Very important for traveling college students: yummy and cheap.

Barbara showed us her apartment in the city. It was cute but very small. Literally one room and a bathroom. But hey, when you live in a city it’s hard to get more than that.

We did a little more shopping then. We found a store which was going out of business and had some very cheap accessories.

We then, finally made it inside the Cathedral. It was definitely worth the right. The inside was stunning. According to legend the three wise men are buried there. Not sure if I believe that, but if it’s true then that is pretty cool. Even without the legend the Cathedral was beautiful.

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The cathedral is pretty outside and inside

After the Cathedral we tried some spaghetti ice cream. Don’t worry, there was no pasta in my ice cream. It’s actually gelato formed to look like spaghetti. The name is a total lie, it is neither ice cream nor spaghetti. It was awesome though. It had this awesome strawberry sauce and whipped cream in the middle. I was a very happy camper.

We then left the city center and headed over to Christian’s apartment to watch movies and hang out. I got to see an episode of some British drama, ‘Peaky Blinders’ and I watched Life of Brian for the first time. Christian was ecstatic that we were able to explain one of the English jokes to him. He says he can sleep peacefully now that he understands the joke. If I accomplish nothing else while studying abroad, at least I was able to finally allow a German to sleep peacefully at night.

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The delicious spaghetti ice cream

We ended the evening just chatting and having a good time before we broke up the party so we could all go to bed at a decent hour.

My time in Cologne was wonderful. It felt much more like a visit with a friend than a visit to a city. Sure I saw Cologne and appreciated its beauty, but more importantly I made some new friends. I got a peak at how German’s live their everyday life, and saw a little of the ‘real’ side of Cologne, not just the touristy bit.

 

I Actually Am Here to Study, I Swear

So this week, I am currently off globetrotting on Spring Break. I should be in Rome right now, hopefully everything is going to plan, and, in Rome, I have better things to do than write blog posts. So, I have prepared this one on advance, so you won’t miss me too much while I’m away.

By this point, you might be sort of curious what I get up to during the week. I’m very sharing with my weekend stories, but, well, fewer things happen during the week. However, if you are curious about my everyday life in France, wait no longer, the post for you has arrived!

Monday

Monday mornings I get up at about 8:30 in order to shower and eat before heading off to school. After breakfast, usually cereal, occasionally with some baguette or a pain au chocolat, I am off to wait for the bus. I usually read during the bus ride, assuming I can sit down of course (not always possible).

My first class, Langue, starts at 10:15 and goes for two hours. I love my Langue teacher, he is incredibly funny and usually sets us off laughing at least twice per period, usually more. He’s also very energetic. He likes to demonstrate with lots of movement. For example, he once picked up a desk, causing everything on it to fall to the ground, in order to show us what a joint was (he used the table leg as the example). He is also quite fond of jumping, running, leaving the classroom, etc. Once he nearly left out the window. In short Stéphan keeps things interesting.

Which is good considering the material isn’t incredibly intriguing. It’s general language course type material, grammer, listening comprehension, lots of reading. We pretty much exclusively use the textbook. This isn’t awful, as I like studying French, but for two hours it can be wearing.

After that I have an hour and a half for lunch, which is set into the schedule, all students must have a lunch break. This is a nice change from American universities where they just sort of let you free to so whatever. I usually spend lunch down in the student foyer chatting with my friends.

After lunch, I have two hours of French history. Although I like the subject, I’m not super fond of the teacher. She’s very nice, but she is not great at teaching foreign students. She is mainly a teacher in the history department in the university, so I think she just doesn’t know how to adapt to foreigners. She only lectures with very view visual aides. She also tends to ramble a bit, which gets confusing when you are trying to remember dates. At the moment, we just finished studying Napoleon and are beginning studying the period between Napoleon and the world wars. I never knew France had so much political unrest in the 1800’s.

French history if thankfully my last class of the day, so afterwards I sometimes head into town to do some shopping, or go back home.

Three nights a week, I have dinner with my host family. We have had a lot of different food, some typically French, some not (example, we had chinese takeout the other night, which was delicious). My host mom is a very good cook and I’ve liked just about everything that’s been put in front of me (even the vegetables). We have interesting conversations over dinner, I get to hear about my host sister’s schooling and learn some of the subtle differences between France and America. After dinner it’s off to bed.

Tuesday

Tuesday starts off a little earlier, I wake up at 7:30 to get to class by 9.

Once again I start off with Langue but this time for just an hour.

After langue I have a two hour break. I usually just sit in the foyer during this time, doing homework or reading. But every now and then I run errands.

At 12:30 instead of eating like most everyone else, I have elected to go sing a little and learn French music. My Langue teacher hosts jam sessions (this is the best word I can think of for them) where students come together to learn some French music. For anyone who knows how bad a singer I am, no worries, most of the people who go aren’t good either. So far, I have known some of the songs, but I have been learning a lot of new ones as well. I really like the artist Calogero, you should look him up, “Portrait” is super pretty and sad.

After chansons it’s time for another two hours of Langue Youpi!

After Langue have an hour of expression Écrit (written expression). This class is not incredibly interesting, but it’s not bad. We pretty much just write all period. A lot of it has been our teacher trying to make us use verbs other than avoir (to have) and etre (to be). I still need to work on that, but I’ve been getting better. It’s nice that one of my good friends is in this class so I always have someone to talk to.

Then I finish the day with an hour of Expression Orale (taking and stuff). In this class we almost exclusively write and perform short scenes based on everyday situations. We’ve done how to order at a restaurant, what to do is you loose luggage at the airport, how to exchange goods, you name it. I don’t mind doing this, but it can get a little wearing constantly doing the same thing. I do have fun with some of my classmates as we write scenes though, we try not to make them too silly.

After class it’s back home, class ends at six, so by that time nearly all the shops are closed. France is not one for late evening shopping.

Wednesday

Wednesday I am once again up at 7:30 for another two hour 9 o clock class. This time it’s Art History and not Langue though. I quite like Art History. Not only is the subject interesting, my teacher is very good. She definitely teaches towards a foreign audience. She speaks clearly and writes everything she says up on the board. She specifically tells us not to take notes while she talks because she’ll write in down after. It’s nice that she can do this without being condescending (my French History teacher occasionally crosses that line). I’m sad that we’ve just finished Impressionism (my favorite art movement) but I think we are closing in on Van Gogh, so I have that to look forward to.

After Art History I go to French history for an hour. I’m all about that history life.

Then lunch break, I’m really going to miss have such a long lunch once I get back to the states, I’m getting used to the luxury.

After lunch I have two hours of Expression Orale.

On Wednesday I usually have at least a few errands to run so I go into the centre-ville for a bit and then take the bus back home.

Thursday

Thursday is the gross day when I have an 8 am class. I awaken at the sad hour of 6:30 (which is even sadder now since the time change, because now it’s dark when I wake up).

I struggle through two hours of Langue in the morning and then I have another long break, this one for three and a half hours. I never really do much during the break. Mostly read, maybe finish some homework. I never go home because it would take me close to forty minutes to get to my house and back, and I just don’t think it’s worth it.

After the break, I have two hours of Expression Écrit. The first hour is spent in a computer lab. This hour is where I have been growing steadily more annoyed with French keyboards. They are very similar to American keyboards, but with a few keys mixed up. All my a’s come out as q’s and my m’s are all commas. This is getting more annoying the more often I mess up. Also learning how to use the @ was a real struggle (it’s control-alt-8, or I think it is anyway).

After Expression Écrit, I have an hour break and then an hour of Art History. From there it’s back home to eat some dinner.

Friday:

Friday is the lovely day where I only have one class which doesn’t start until 10:15. I have to suffer through two hours of Langue then I am free for the weekend.

Friday afternoon I almost always need to run some sort of errand in the centre-ville, but I usually make it back in time for lunch at home. The rest of the afternoon is usually spent catching up on stuff (whether this is work or tv shows who can say?)

Some Friday nights I’ll go out with my friends, either for dinner or drinks. Weirdly, most people in France actually go out on Thursday nights not Fridays, but we rebel sometimes.

So there you have it, a typical week in France. You see now why I don’t write it out every time, that could get mildly boring after a while. Weekends are when exciting things usually happen.

Hopefully, I have been having a very exciting week on my vacation. One I get back you will be getting several blogs about what went down, so look forward to that. I haven’t a clue when that’ll be, probably Monday or Tuesday night. Pretty sure I’ll be too tired to write when we get back Sunday night.

Until the next post, au revoir!